Chapter no 2 – The Fulsome Feast

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

The inn was a warm, homey place, neat and well tended. Fresh-cut rushes covered the floor, the tables were clean, and the casks, bottles, and mugs behind the polished bar were arranged in

mannered rows. A crackling fire warmed the great room from behind a blackstone hearth free of soot, and by the fire, a goateed man with extravagant, double-belled sleeves was plucking at a lute.

Whatever he sang was hard to hear over the clamor of conversation rising from the packed room. Maddentide was over, and the folk of Ceunon were happy of it.

The innkeep was a short, balding man with a dirty apron and a sweaty forehead who bustled from table to table, delivering drinks and plates of smoked herring. Not, Murtagh noted, smoked bergenhed.

They must have eaten enough of it to last the year, he thought.

He shook a scattering of snow from his cape and moved toward the one open table by the fire. As he sat, the innkeep hurried over and said, “Sigling Orefsson at yer service, Master…”

“Tornac son of Tereth.”

Sigling wiped his hands on his apron. “Honored, t’ be sure. An’ what might I get fer you?”

“Something hot from your kitchen. My stomach is stuck to my spine.” Murtagh wasn’t about to miss an opportunity for a hot meal, not when he didn’t have to cook it for once.

“An’ fer drink?”

“A mug of ale. Not too strong, if you please.” And Murtagh pressed three copper coins into the innkeep’s hand.

Sigling was already moving toward the back room. “Won’t take more ’n two shakes of a lamb’s tail, Master Tornac.”

Master Tornac. Hearing the name said back to him always gave Murtagh pause. He hoped his old fencing instructor wouldn’t have minded him using it, given how tarnished Murtagh’s reputation was at the moment. He only meant to honor Tornac’s memory, same as when he’d given the name to his stallion after Tornac died during their escape from Urû’baen….

Annoyance caused Murtagh’s brows to narrow. He never had found out what happened to the horse when Galbatorix had arranged for him to be ambushed and kidnapped in Tronjheim.

He looked around the room. The dockworkers, fishers, and other inhabitants of Ceunon were a boisterous lot. Many an absent father returned from weeks at ship and sea to celebrate the Maddentide bounty. They seemed friendly enough. Still, Murtagh made sure he’d worked out the shortest path to the front and back entrances.

It never hurt to be prepared.

Sarros was nowhere to be seen, but Murtagh wasn’t concerned. The trader was the one who had decided on the day of their meeting, and Murtagh knew Sarros would sooner cut off his own hand as miss a chance to earn more of Murtagh’s coin.

A pair of laborers—masons, if their leather aprons and thick, mortar-smeared arms were anything to go by—bumped into the chairs on the other side of Murtagh’s table. They pulled the chairs out, and he said, “Sorry, but I’m expecting a friend.” And he smiled in what he hoped was an inoffensive way.

One mason looked like he wanted to argue, while the other seemed to see something he didn’t like in Murtagh’s face. He tugged on his friend’s arm. “Comeon, Herk. Lemme get you a beer a’ the bar.”

“Ah, fine. Aight. Hands off.” But his friend kept tugging on his arm until the other man followed him toward the bar.

Murtagh relaxed slightly. He really didn’t want to get caught in a meaningless brawl.

Then a name leaped out at him from the general hubbub of the common room: “—Eragon—”

Murtagh stiffened and twisted in his seat as he searched for the source of the word. There. The goateed troubadour plucking on his lute. At first the words of his song were hard to make out, but Murtagh watched the man’s lips and concentrated, and by and by, he made sense of them.

And the troubadour sang:


—and so to dread Urû’baen.

Rejoice! Rejoice! The dauntless Dragon Rider flew to fight, To free our land from danger and fright.

Then mighty Eragon faced the king in bloody conquest, In a great and terrible contest.

And with flaming blade and blinding light, He slew that horrid tyrant, that ageless blight, Galbatorix, bane of dragons and Riders alike.


Murtagh’s lip curled, and he felt an urge to throw a boot at the man. Not only were the verses badly composed and badly sung—no bard would have dared sing so off-key at court for fear of being beaten—but they were wrong.

“He would have lost if not for me,” Murtagh muttered, thinking of Eragon. And yet, aside from those who had been present in Galbatorix’s throne room at the end, no one knew and no one cared. He and Thorn had quit the capital following the king’s death, preferring to remove themselves from civilization rather than contend with the hostility of an ignorant public. It had been the right choice. Murtagh still believed that. But it meant they lost the opportunity to defend themselves in the court of popular opinion. And if Eragon or Nasuada or the elves’ queen, Arya, had spoken in defense of him or Thorn, to explain the role they had played in killing Galbatorix and Shruikan, word of it had yet to reach Murtagh. The fact sat badly with him. Perhaps the truth needed more time to spread among the

common folk. Or perhaps Eragon, Nasuada, and Arya were content to let the world think the worst of him, to use him as a convenient scapegoat, a monster in the dark that might focus people’s fears and leave the three of them free to govern as they pleased.

The thought made his stomach twist.

Either way, as far as most folk were concerned, Eragon was the greatest hero who had ever lived, and none could stand before him.

Murtagh snorted softly. Hardly. But there was no fighting a song or story once it became popular. So often the truth bent to what felt right. At least the troubadour hadn’t bothered to describe Eragon’s supposed triumph over Murtagh and Thorn. At that, Murtagh really did think he would have thrown his boot.

“An’ there you go, Master Tornac!” proclaimed Sigling as he slid a plate and mug under his nose. “You need aught else, you shout my name, an’ I’ll be back right quick-like.”

Before Murtagh could thank him, the innkeep rushed off to tend another table.

Murtagh picked up the wrought-iron fork on the side of the plate and started eating. Roast mutton and turnips with half a loaf of black rye bread on the side. Humble fare, but it tasted better than anything he’d cooked in the past three months. And though, as he’d requested, the ale was hardly stronger than water, that was all right too. He wanted his wits about him in Ceunon.

While he ate, he balanced the plate on his knee and leaned back in the chair, stretching out his legs as he would before a campfire.

It felt strange to be around so many other people. He’d gotten used to being alone with Thorn over the past twelvemonth. To the sound of the wind and the calls of the birds. To hunting his food and being hunted. Talking to the watchmen and Sigling—and even the masons—had been like trying to play a badly tuned instrument.

He sopped up the juice from the mutton with a piece of rye bread and popped it in his mouth.

The door to the inn swung open, and a young girl rushed in. Her dark hair was done up nicely in a pair of curled plaits, her dress was embroidered with bright patterns, and she looked as if she’d been crying.

Murtagh watched as the girl moved across the great room, light as feather down. She slipped around the end of the bar, and Sigling said something to her. Standing one next to the other, Murtagh saw a family resemblance. The girl had the innkeep’s mouth and chin.

The girl reappeared around the end of the bar, carrying a plate loaded with bread, cheese, and an apple. She lifted the plate over her head and, with practiced skill, wove between the crowded tables until she arrived in front of the great stone fireplace. Without asking, she plopped herself into the chair across the table from Murtagh.

He opened his mouth and then closed it.

The girl was no older than ten and perhaps as young as six (he had never been good at judging children’s ages).

She tore a piece off the heel of bread on her plate and chewed with determined ferocity. Murtagh watched, curious. It had been years since he’d been around a child, and he found himself unexpectedly fascinated. We all start like this, he thought. So young, so pure. Where did it all go wrong?

The girl looked as if she were about to cry again. She bit into the apple and made a noise of frustration as the stem caught in the gap between her front teeth.

“You seem upset,” Murtagh said in a mild tone.

The girl scowled. She plucked out the stem and flung it into the fire. “It’s all Hjordis’s fault!” She had the same strong northern accent as her father.

Murtagh glanced around. He still didn’t see Sarros, so he decided it was safe to talk a bit. But carefully. Words could be as treacherous as a bear trap.

“Oh?” He put down his fork and turned in his seat to better look at her. “And who is this Hjordis?”

“She’s the daughter of Jarek. He’s the earl’s chief mason,” said the girl, sullen.

Murtagh wondered if the earl was still Lord Tarrant, or if the elves had installed someone else in his place when they captured the city. He’d met Tarrant at court years ago: a tall, self-contained man who rarely spoke more than a few words at a time. The earl had seemed decent enough, but anyone who stayed in Galbatorix’s good graces for years on end had ice in their heart and blood on their hands.

“I see. Does that make her important?”

The girl shook her head. “It makes her think she’s important.” “What did she do to upset you, then?”

“Everything!” The girl took a savage bite out of the apple and chewed hard and quick. Murtagh saw her wince as she bit the inside of her cheek. A film of tears filled her eyes, and she swallowed.

Murtagh sipped of the ale. “Most interesting.” He dabbed a fleck of foam off his mustache. “Well then, is it a tale you feel like telling? Perhaps talking about it will make you feel better.”

The girl looked at him, suspicion in her pale blue eyes. For a moment, Murtagh thought she was going to get up and leave. Then: “Papa wouldn’t want me t’ bother you.”

“I have some time. I’m just waiting for a certain associate of mine who, alas, happens to be habitually late. If you wish to share your tale of woe, then please, consider me your devoted audience.”

As he spoke, Murtagh found himself reverting to the language and phrasing he would have used at court. The formality of it felt safer, and besides, it amused him to talk to the girl as if she were a noble lady.

She bounced her feet off the legs of the chair. “Well…I’d like t’ tell you, but I can’t possibly ’less we’re friends.”

“Is that so? And how do we become friends?” “You have t’ tell me your name! Silly!”

Murtagh smiled. “Of course. How foolish of me. In that case, my name is Tornac.” And he held out his hand.

“Essie Siglingsdaughter.”

Her palm and fingers were startlingly smooth and small against his own as they shook. Murtagh felt the need to be gentle, as if he were touching a

delicate flower.

“Very nice to meet you, Essie. Now then, what seems to be bothering you?”

Essie stared at the partially eaten apple in her hand. She sighed and put it back on the plate. “It’s all Hjordis’s fault.”

“So you said.”

“She’s always being mean t’ me an’ making her friends tease me.” Murtagh assumed a solemn expression. “That’s not good at all.”

The girl shook her head, eyes bright with outrage. “No! I mean… sometimes they tease me anyway, but, um, Hjordis—When she’s there, it gets really bad.”

“Is that what happened today?”

“Yes. Sort of.” She broke off a piece of cheese and nibbled on it, seeming lost in thought. Murtagh waited patiently. He decided that, as with horses, gentleness would go a lot further than force.

Finally, in a low voice, Essie said, “ ’Fore harvest, Hjordis started bein’ nicer to me. I thought—I thought maybe things were going t’ be better. She even invited me t’ her house.” Essie gave him a shy, sideways glance. “It’s right by the castle.”

“Impressive.” He was starting to understand. The richer tradesmen always cozied up to the nobles, like ticks to dogs. Envy was a universal human trait (and the other races weren’t exempt from it either).

Essie nodded. “She gave me one of her ribbons, a yellow one, an’ said that I could come t’ her Maddentide party.”

“And did you?”

Another bob of her head. “It—it was today.” Tears filled her eyes, and she blinked furiously.

Concerned, Murtagh produced a worn kerchief from inside his vest. He might be living like a beast in the wilderness, but he still had some standards. “Here now.”

The girl hesitated. But then the tears spilled down her cheeks, and she grabbed the kerchief and wiped her eyes. “Thank you, mister.”

Murtagh allowed himself another small smile. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been called mister, but you’re very welcome. I take it the party didn’t go well?”

Essie scowled and pushed the kerchief back toward him, though she still seemed to be on the verge of crying. “The party was fine. It was Hjordis. She got mean again, after, and…and”—she took a deep breath, as if searching for the courage to continue—“an’ she said that if I din’t do what she wanted, she would tell her father not t’ use our inn during the solstice celebration.” She peered at Murtagh, as if to check whether he was following. “All the masons come here t’ drink an’—” she hiccupped, “they drink a lot, an’ it means they spend stacks an’ stacks of coppers.”

Her story filled Murtagh with a host of uncomfortable memories of the mistreatment he’d suffered at the hands of the older children while growing up in Galbatorix’s court. Before he’d learned to be careful, before Tornac had taught him how to protect himself.

Serious, he put his plate on the table and leaned toward Essie. “What did she want you to do?”

Essie dropped her gaze and bounced her muddy shoes against the chair. When she spoke again, the words came tripping out in a crowded rush: “She wanted me t’ push Carth into a horse trough.”

“Carth is a friend of yours?”

She nodded, miserable. “He lives on the docks. His father is a fisher.”

Murtagh felt a sudden and intense dislike for Hjordis. He’d known plenty like her at court: horrible, petty people bent on improving their position and making life miserable for everyone beneath them.

“So he wouldn’t get invited to a party like this.”

“No, but Hjordis sent her handmaid t’ bring him t’ the house an’…” Essie stared at him, her expression fierce. “I din’t have no choice! If I hadn’t pushed him, then she would have told her father not t’ come t’ the Fulsome Feast.”

“I understand,” Murtagh said, forcing a soothing tone despite a rising sense of anger and injustice. It was a familiar aggravation. “So you pushed your friend. Were you able to apologize to him?”

“No,” said Essie, and her face crumpled. “I—I ran. But everyone saw. He won’t want t’ be friends with me anymore. No one will. Hjordis just meant t’ trick me, an’ I hate her.” She grabbed the apple and took another quick bite. Her teeth clacked together.

Murtagh started to respond, but Sigling came by on his way to deliver a pair of mugs to a table along the wall. He gave Essie a disapproving look. “My daughter isn’t mak’n a nuisance of herself, is she, Master Tornac? She has a bad habit of pester’n guests when they’re try’n t’ eat.”

“Not at all,” said Murtagh, smiling. “I’ve been on the road for far too long, with nothing but the sun and the moon for company. A bit of conversation is exactly what I need. In fact—” He reached into the pouch under his belt and passed two silver pieces to the innkeep. “Perhaps you can see to it that the tables next to us remain clear. I’m expecting an associate of mine, and we have some, ah, business to discuss.”

The coins disappeared into Sigling’s apron, and he bobbed his head. “Of course, Master Tornac.” He glanced at Essie again, his expression concerned, and then continued on his way.

For her part, the girl seemed somewhat abashed.

“Now then,” said Murtagh, stretching his legs out toward the fire. “You were telling me your tale of woe, Essie Siglingsdaughter. Was that the full accounting?”

“That was it,” she said in a small voice.

He picked up the fork from his plate and began to twirl it between his fingers. The girl watched, entranced. “Things can’t be as bad as you think. I’m sure if you explain to your friend—”

“No,” she said, firm. “He won’t understand. He won’t trust me again.

They’ll hate me fer it.”

A cutting edge formed in Murtagh’s voice. “Then maybe they aren’t really your friends.”

She shook her head, braids swinging. “They are! You don’t understand!” And she brought her fist down on the arm of the chair in an impatient little gesture. “Carth is…He’s really nice. Everyone likes him, an’ now they won’t like me. You wouldn’t know. You’re all big an’…an’ old.”

Murtagh raised his eyebrows. “You might be surprised what I know. So they won’t like you. What are you going to do about it?”

“I’m going to run away,” blurted the girl. The moment she realized what she’d said, she gave him a panicked look. “Don’t tell Papa, please!”

Murtagh took another sip of ale and smoothed his beard while his mind raced. The conversation had gone from amusing to deadly serious. If he said the wrong thing, he could send Essie careening down a path she would regret—and he knew he would regret it if he didn’t try to talk her back onto the straight and narrow.

Careful now, he thought. “And where would you go?”

“South,” said Essie firmly. She’d obviously already considered the question. “Where it’s warm. There’s a caravan leaving tomorrow. The foreman comes here. He’s nice. I can sneak out, an’ then ride with ’em to Gil’ead.”

Murtagh picked at the tines of his fork. “And then?”

The girl sat up straighter. “I want t’ visit the Beor Mountains an’ see the dwarves! They made our windows. Aren’t they pretty?” She pointed.

“They certainly are.”

“Have you ever visited the Beor Mountains?” “I have,” said Murtagh. “Once, long ago.”

Essie looked at him with renewed interest. “Really? Are they as tall as everyone says?”

“So tall the peaks aren’t even visible.”

She leaned back in the chair, tilting her head toward the ceiling as if imagining the sight. “How wonderful.”

A snort escaped him. “If you don’t count being shot at with arrows, then yes…. You do realize, Essie Siglingsdaughter, that running away won’t solve your problems here.”

“Of course not.” Silly, her expression said. “But if I leave, then Hjordis can’t bother me anymore.”

The utter conviction of her tone nearly made Murtagh laugh. He hid his amusement by taking a long drink from his mug, and by the time he

finished, he’d regained his composure. “Or, and this is just a suggestion, you could try to fix the problem instead of running away.”

“It can’t be fixed,” she said, stubborn.

“What about your parents? I’m sure they would miss you terribly. Do you really want to make them suffer like that?”

Essie crossed her arms. “They have my brother and my sister and Olfa.

He’s only two.” She pouted. “They wouldn’t miss me.”

“I very much doubt that,” said Murtagh. “Besides, think what you did with Hjordis. You helped protect the Fulsome Feast. If your parents understood the sacrifice you made, I’m sure they would be very proud.”

“Uh-huh,” said Essie. She didn’t seem convinced. “There wouldn’t have been a problem if it wasn’t fer me. I’m the problem. If I go away, everything will be aight.” And she picked up the apple core and threw it into the fireplace.

A whirl of sparks flew up the chimney, and the sizzle of water boiling into steam sounded above the crackling of the logs.

The girl’s sleeve had ridden up, and on her left wrist, Murtagh saw a twisted scar, red and raised and thick as a rope. His lips pulled back from his teeth, and in an overly casual tone, he said, “What is that?”

“What?” she said. “There, on your arm.”

Essie looked down, and a flush darkened her cheeks and ears. “Nothing,” she mumbled, tugging the cuff down.

“May I?” Murtagh asked as kindly as he could, and held out a hand.

The girl hesitated, but at last she nodded, timid, and let him take her arm.

She turned her head away as he gently pulled back the cuff of her sleeve. The scar crawled up her forearm all the way to her elbow, a long, angry testament to pain. The sight of it put cold fire in Murtagh’s veins, and he felt a sympathetic pang from his own furious mark, on his back.

He lowered Essie’s sleeve. “That…is a very impressive scar. You should be proud of it.”

She looked back at him, confusion lurking in her eyes. “Why? It’s ugly, an’ I hate it.”

A faint smile lifted his lips. “Because a scar means you survived. It means you’re tough and hard to kill. It means you lived. A scar is something to admire.”

“You’re wrong,” said Essie. She pointed at a pot with painted bluebells on the mantel. A long crack ran from the lip of the pot to the base. “It just means you’re broken.”

“Ah,” said Murtagh in a soft voice. “But sometimes, if you work very hard, you can mend a break so that it’s stronger than before.”

The girl crossed her arms, tucking her left hand into her armpit. “Hjordis an’ the others always make fun of me fer it,” she mumbled. “They say my arm is as red as a snapper, an’ that I’ll never get a husband because of it.”

“And what do your parents say?”

Essie made a face. “That it din’t matter. But that’s not true, is it?”

Murtagh inclined his head. “No. I suppose it isn’t. Your parents are doing their best to protect you, though.”

“Well, they can’t,” she said, and huffed.

No, they probably can’t, he thought, his mood darkening even further.

She glanced at him and seemed to shrink in her seat. “Do you have any scars?” she asked, soft, uncertain.

A humorless laugh escaped him. “Oh yes.” He pointed at the small white mark on his chin, a gap in his otherwise full beard. “This one is only a few months old. A friend of mine gave it to me by accident while we were playing around, the big oaf.” The tip of a scale on Thorn’s left foreleg had caught Murtagh’s chin, tearing the skin. It hadn’t been a serious injury, but it had hurt badly and bled worse. Then he said, “What happened to your arm?”

Essie picked at the edge of the table. “It was an accident,” she mumbled. “A pot with hot water fell on my arm.”

Murtagh’s eyes narrowed. “It just fell on you?” The girl nodded.

“Mmm.” Murtagh stared into the fire, at the jumping sparks and throbbing embers. He didn’t believe the girl. Accidents were common enough, but the way she was acting hinted at something worse.

His jaw flexed, teeth clenched. A warning throb sank down the root of his bottom right molar. There were many injustices he was willing to tolerate, but a mother or father hurting their child wasn’t one of them.

He glanced toward the bar. Maybe he needed to have a talk with Sigling, to put the fear of a Dragon Rider in the man.

Essie shifted. “Where are you from?” “A long, long way from here.”

“In the south?” “Yes, in the south.”

She kicked her feet against the chair again. “What’s it like there?”

Murtagh inhaled slowly and tilted his head back so he was looking at the ceiling. The fire in his blood still burned. “It depends where you go. There are hot places and cold places, and places where the wind never stops blowing. Forests seemingly without end. Caves that burrow into the deepest parts of the earth, and plains full of vast herds of red deer.”

“Are there monsters?”

“Of course.” He returned his gaze to her. “There are always monsters. Some of them even look like humans…. I ran away from home myself, you know.”

“You did?”

He nodded. “I was older than you, but yes. I ran, but I didn’t escape what I was running from…. Listen to me, Essie. I know you think leaving will make everything better, but—”

“There you are, Tornac of the Road,” said a sly, slithering voice that Murtagh recognized at once. Sarros.

The trader stepped forward from between the nearby tables. He was thin and stooped, with a patched cloak draped over his shoulders and ragged clothes underneath. Rings glittered on his fingers. He smelled of wet fur, and there was an unsettling, catlike slink to his steps.

Murtagh suppressed a curse. Of all the times for the man to show up…“Sarros. I’ve been waiting for you.”

“The reaches are dangerous these days,” said Sarros. He pulled out the empty chair from the table, shifted it until it was exactly between Essie and Murtagh, and sat facing them both.

The girl edged away in her seat, wary.

Murtagh glanced around the room. He spotted six men who had entered the inn while he wasn’t paying attention. They were rough-looking fellows, but not like the local fishermen; they wore furs and leathers and had cloaks wrapped about them in a way that told Murtagh they were concealing swords strapped to their belts.

Sarros’s guards. Murtagh was annoyed that he had lost track of his surroundings while talking with Essie. He knew better than that. A lapse in focus was a good way to end up dead or in prison.

By the bar, Sigling kept close watch on the newcomers. The innkeep pulled out a leather-wrapped truncheon and laid it next to his washcloth as a silent warning.

Despite Murtagh’s reservations as to Sigling’s character, he approved of his caution. The man was no fool, that was for sure.

His attention returned to Sarros as the trader pointed one long finger at Essie. “We have business to discuss. Send the youngling away.”

No, I don’t think so, decided Murtagh. He hadn’t finished talking with the girl, and in any case, keeping her around might have a civilizing influence on Sarros. The man was uncultured at best and downright offensive at worst.

“I have nothing to hide,” Murtagh said. “She can stay.” He glanced at her. “If you’re interested. You might learn something useful of the world by it.”

Essie shrank back in her chair, but she didn’t leave.

A long hiss sounded between Sarros’s teeth as he shook his head. “Foolish, Wanderer. Do as you wish, then. I’ll not argue, even if you put your foot crosswise.”

Murtagh let his gaze harden. “No, you won’t. Tell me, then, what have you found? It’s been three months, and—”

Sarros waved a hand. “Yes, yes. Three months. I told you; the reaches are dangerous. But I found word of what you seek. Better than word, I found this—” From the leather wallet on his belt, he produced a fist-sized chunk of black something that he thumped down on the table.

Murtagh leaned forward, as did Essie.

The something was a piece of rock, but there was a deep shine to it, as if a smoldering coal were buried in the center. A strong, sulfurous smell clung to the rock, as pungent as a rotting egg.

Essie sniffed and wrinkled her nose.

A coil of tension formed in Murtagh’s chest. He’d hoped he was wrong. He’d hoped the whispers and warnings had meant nothing…. Beware the deeps, and tread not where the ground grows black and brittle and the air smells of brimstone, for in those places evil lurks. So the ancient dragon Umaroth had said to him ere he and Thorn had left on their self-imposed exile.

Murtagh had prayed that Umaroth was mistaken, that there wasn’t some new danger rising in the unsettled regions of the land.

He should have known better than to question the wisdom of a dragon as old as Umaroth.

Without taking his gaze off the rock, he said, “What exactly is that?”

Sarros lifted his shoulders. “Suspicions of shadows are all I have, but you sought the unusual, the out-of-place, and that there doesn’t fit in the normal frame.”

“Were there more, or…”

Sarros nodded. “I am told. A whole field scattered with stones.” The coil tightened in Murtagh’s chest. “Black and burnt?”

“As if seared by fire, but with no sign of flame or smoke.” Essie said, “Where is it from?”

Sarros smiled, and the girl shied back. As with so many of the horse folk from the central plains of Alagaësia, Sarros’s teeth were filed to points.

For Murtagh, the sight was an unpleasant reminder of another, even less pleasant man with similar teeth. Durza.

“Well now,” said Sarros, “that there is the nub of it, youngling. Yes indeed.” Murtagh reached for the rock, and Sarros dropped a hand over the

shiny chunk, caging it behind his fingers. “No,” he said. “Coin first, Wanderer.”

Displeased, Murtagh fished out a small leather pouch from the inner pocket of his cloak. The pouch clinked as he put it on the table.

Sarros’s jagged smile widened. He tugged loose the pouch’s drawstring to reveal a gleam of gold coins inside. Essie sucked in a sharp breath. Murtagh doubted she’d ever seen a whole crown before.

“Half now,” said Murtagh. “And the rest when you tell me where you found that.” He poked the rock with the tip of a finger.

A strange choking sound came from Sarros. Laughter. Then he said, “Oh no, Wanderer. No indeed. I think instead you should give us the rest of your coin, and perhaps then we’ll let you keep your head.”

Across the common room, the fur-clad men slipped hands under their cloaks, and Murtagh saw the hilts of swords, half hidden beneath.

He wasn’t surprised, but he was disappointed. Was Sarros really breaking their deal for nothing more than greed?

How common.

Essie spotted the swords, and her eyes widened. Blast. Before Murtagh could intervene, she leaned forward and was about to say or do something loud when Sarros drew a thin-bladed knife and pressed it against her throat.

“Ah-ah,” he said. “Not a peep from you, youngling, or I’ll open your throat from stem to stern.”

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