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Chapter no 22 – Exile

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

While Thorn flew and the land rolled past below, Murtagh let his mind wander. His natural inclination was to think—to endlessly turn over all that was, had been, and could be—but

he fought the urge. No remembering! Rather, he found solace in existence without contemplation. It was a simple pleasure, perhaps the simplest of all, and yet no less profound.

High above the ground, the air was chill, and his lashes froze together if he blinked slower than normal. Murtagh used a spell to buffer the wind in front of him, to slow the loss of heat from his body. Thorn needed no such protection; his scales were sufficient guard.

From the grasslands northeast of Gil’ead, Thorn flew back across Isenstar Lake and started to follow the Ninor River northwest toward the Spine.

They made good time, but Murtagh worried that events were outpacing them, and he was likewise concerned that Du Vrangr Gata, or even the elves, were hunting him and Thorn. Unless Carabel had abilities as yet unsuspected, it would take some days for his letter to reach Nasuada. Until then, Nasuada, Arya, and Eragon—all of whom had no doubt already received word of the fight at Gil’ead—would assume the worst. Eragon and Arya might even be so alarmed, Murtagh belatedly realized, as to set out in pursuit. He half expected them to contact him, and every time he felt a touch on his mind, he fought the urge to flinch. But always it was Thorn, and the dragon said, You are as twitchy as a mountain cat bitten by too many fleas.

Don’t talk to me about cats.

The land beneath them was beautiful, and Murtagh found himself wishing that they could ignore the concerns of queens and kings and live according to their own devices, just as Thorn had wanted. Whether that meant settling in one place—with magic as his tool, he could raise a hut or a palace, whichever suited his fancy—or searching the skies like an albatross set to wander all its days.

But in his heart, he knew neither option would work. No one truly lives apart. We are all connected. And ignoring their responsibilities, his responsibilities, would only lead to regret.

That evening, they made camp by a stand of poplar near the banks of the river. Murtagh went hunting with a pebble and spell and quickly collected a brace of hares and a large blue-footed duck that was foolish enough to swim past.

Before he started a fire and fixed himself dinner, he and Thorn went to the stand of poplar, and Thorn again attempted to enter among the trees.

In this, he was more successful than before, for the poplar were sparsely grown and Thorn had greater room about his head and sides. But in the end, the same fear caused him to freeze and then retreat, and Murtagh did not count the undertaking as much of an improvement.

The exercise furthered their end-of-day tiredness, and they spoke little through the rest of the evening.

After eating, Murtagh banked the fire and sat with his back against Thorn. For a time, he stared moodily at one of the gold crowns he’d received from Wren. Then he took up the dictionary he’d stolen and read from it while the sun set and clouds of gnats rose swarming from the treetops.

 

 

On the morning of the second day, while Murtagh waited for what remained of the duck to finish heating, he again returned to the compendium. The words it contained represented an incredible opportunity

—potential, in fact—and he found himself constantly thinking of ideas for new spells.

This time, instead of picking up from where he had left off, he flipped through the compendium at random, taking in a word here, a word there.

His gaze landed upon one in particular. “Deyja,” he murmured. He looked at the definition. His eyes widened. “To die. To stop living.”

Thorn snorted. A dangerous word, that.

“Indeed,” said Murtagh softly. He felt rather awed by the word. Such a simple one, and yet so profound. Galbatorix would never have dared teach it to him. In truth, deyja likely wasn’t that useful. Murtagh guessed that most magicians would have a ward that would block its effects. And yet to see it, to know it, felt significant, as if he had surmounted a spire built over a measureless void.

He wondered what the word for life was.

He kept reading, hoping to find it. Instead, he chanced upon the word naina. “To make bright. Light without fire. See also líjothsa.” He turned to the entry for líjothsa and read: “Light as the thing itself. See also naina.”

His brow furrowed as he parsed the difference. Then his thoughts shifted to the light-emitting quartz he’d encountered within the catacombs and also the difficulty he’d had illuminating Isenstar Lake while in the water. Fire was a poor choice for underwater light; it created too many bubbles and too much steam.

Murtagh glanced up. The morning sky was clear and bright, filled with a seemingly endless pool of sunlit radiance. What if…The spell that he used to hide Thorn from observers worked—as best he could tell—by thickening the air underneath the dragon’s body so that it bent the light around him, similar to how a lens of polished glass might.

Perhaps he could modify the spell to gather light from a large area around them and concentrate it on a single spot, to use in place of a lantern or to store for later need.

On a whim, he poured some water into his battered tin plate and then cleared his mind, chose the needed words from the ancient language—the spell was awkward, but he thought it would do what he wanted—and said,

“Vindr thrysta un líjothsa athaerum,” with the intent of focusing the light onto the plate.

BAM!

A flash as bright as the sun exploded in front of him, a crack of thunder echoed across the plain, and a cloud of cinders and superheated steam blasted outward. Murtagh felt the heat against his face as he fell backward, his wards activating.

Thorn let out a startled roar and reared up, spreading his wings. A tongue of red flame flickered in his mouth.

With some dismay, Murtagh saw their campfire blasted to bits: pieces of smoldering embers lay scattered in every direction, and the ground was blackened. Wisps of smoke curled up from patches of dry grass. The pan with his bacon was folded in half, the bacon itself lost somewhere in the dirt.

Cursing, Murtagh ran about and stomped out the cinders before they could start a wildfire.

What did you do? Thorn asked, his wings still slightly raised.

“I’m not sure. It was just light!” Then Murtagh explained what he had been trying to accomplish. He shook his head. “I definitely won’t use that spell again unless it’s at a distance.”

A long distance. “Agreed.”

 

 

They continued to follow the Ninor River until it began to bend more to the west and south than to the north, at which point they broke from the river and struck out across the trackless plains.

Not for the first time, it occurred to Murtagh how empty Alagaësia was. For all the efforts of humans, dwarves, and elves, vast swaths of the land remained unsettled, undeveloped, and uncivilized. Part of him preferred it that way. If all the world were as cramped as Ilirea or Dras-Leona, there would be no place for those who didn’t belong.

In early afternoon, Murtagh composed a stanza that he particularly liked:

Atop the tower a hollow manShell of shadow, void withinBound by words, a villain’s bladeA name of shame, a fear of fateBreak the bond, change the path,

The shell remains, a haunting shade.

By evening, the Spine had faded into sight far ahead of them as a line of purple jags propped against the reddened sky.

Their camp that night felt terribly alone. The land was flat, with few ridges or washes and thus nowhere to hide. Despite the lack of cover, they shared a sense of relief at the absence of copses, caves, or other enclosures. Thorn more so than Murtagh, but they were both glad to have a break, if only for a day, from Thorn’s fear of narrow spaces.

They made their own shelter beneath Thorn’s wing, and Murtagh amused the dragon by singing songs from court, and he even danced a step or two for Thorn’s benefit.

And that was the second day.

 

 

On the third day, the eerie howls of a wolf pack woke them before sunrise. The wolves were loping across the grasslands some miles to the south, and their baying carried with surprising volume and clarity through the still morning air. Even at that distance, Murtagh could see how large the animals were; they must have been twice the size of a mastiff, with tawny coats and long, thick tails.

Shall I answer them? Thorn asked.

“If you want,” said Murtagh with a smile.

Then Thorn raised his head and made a passable imitation of a wolf howl, only far louder, and far more menacing.

The pack yipped with fear, and thereafter ran in silence. Murtagh laughed and patted Thorn.

It is good for them to know they are not the only hunters about, said Thorn, self-satisfied.

Despite an annoying side wind, they arrived at the edge of the plains late that morning, and the land rose into foothills and then the steep heights of the Spine. A dusting of snow extended halfway down the sides of the mountains, and the pinetrees glittered as if strewn with diamonds.

A band of silver water lay athwart their path, and Murtagh knew it for the Anora River, which flowed northward to the Bay of Fundor. He directed Thorn to follow the river upstream, deeper into the mountains.

Thorn did so without question; the dragon was as curious as Murtagh.

The Anora led them to a pinched mountain pass that stood at the mouth of a long, deep-set valley. Atop the mountain to the left of the pass was a ruined watchtower built in the elven style, with no path or road that led to its dark walls, and Murtagh knew it and spoke its name in the ancient language: Ristvak’baen, or Place of Sorrow. He felt both sorrow and revulsion, for it was there, in that tower, that Galbatorix had slain Vrael, leader of the Riders, following the great battle on Vroengard Island. That event, more than any, had marked the Riders’ downfall.

Galbatorix had bragged of the fight more than once. Murtagh could see him still, sprawled across the fur-draped chair in his banquet hall, his harsh, eagle-like features lit by the flames from the long fireplace set within one wall, eyes burning with unsavory delight as he recounted how he had felled Vrael with a kick betwixt the legs.

An urge came over Murtagh, and before he could speak it, Thorn responded, banking leftward and spiraling down to a flat rooftop alongside the ruined tower.

The presence of the rooftop was most convenient, Murtagh thought. Then he felt foolish. The tower had been built by and for Dragon Riders. Of course it would have a place for a dragon to land.

Stone scraped under Thorn’s talons as he settled onto Ristvak’baen. Murtagh hoped the structure was still sound. It had held for over a hundred years; surely it could hold a few minutes more.

He dismounted, and he and Thorn looked up at the crumbling tower. A human-sized archway pierced the outer wall of the building and led to a small courtyard.

Murtagh walked through.

Patches of moss and lichen mottled the stones of the courtyard, while tufts of dead grass poked up between the joins. A stunted juniper grew from a crack in the wall higher up, its trunk a withered twist of creviced wood, and a desolate wind shook the branches. Snow clung to the corners of the yard where shadows shielded it from direct light. A single doorway gaped in the side of the tower, hinges warped, broken, rusted black.

A circle of twelve brass sockets lay embedded within the stones in the center of the yard. The sockets were each the size of a fist and as eyeless and empty as a skull. Waxy verdigris colored them green. What they had once held, Murtagh could not guess.

Behind him, Thorn hesitated and then, with a soft growl, crouched low to the rooftop and stuck his head and neck into the courtyard. His whole body was tense with strain—his lips wrinkled to show teeth—but he didn’t retreat. Murtagh counted that as a small improvement.

He continued to study the yard. No evidence remained of the fight between Galbatorix and Vrael. The place was cold and empty, devoid of all comfort, and the rattle of dry branches reminded him of a rattle of bones.

Thorn scented the air. It is strange to think how much turned upon their meeting here.

Heat poured through Murtagh’s limbs, like a flood of molten wax. His jaw clenched, and his fists also, and tears dripped from his unblinking eyes. The surge of emotion was so sudden, so strong and unexpected, he shouted from surprise. Then he shouted again out of sheer blind rage.

Thorn flinched, but Murtagh didn’t care.

He howled at the empty sky. Howled and screamed until his voice broke and blood slicked the back of his throat. The paving stones bruised his knees as he fell forward and hung his head like a whipped dog.

With one gloved fist, he pounded at the stones of the courtyard. Sharp pains lanced the bone in the heel of his palm, and great hollow booms echoed

through the tower, as if his fist were a mallet made of iron.

A growl tore his throat, and he slapped his palm flat against the stones. “Jierda!”

With a deafening report, cracks spiderwebbed out from his hand and split the paving stones throughout the yard. Ribbons of dust drifted up from the exposed rock faces, and one of the brass sockets fell free of its setting.

Spent, Murtagh collapsed onto the broken stones and buried his face in a fold of his cloak.

The wind clawed at the sides of the tower.

Thorn’s mind was a warm presence against his own, but the dragon said nothing, only watched and waited.

After a long while, Murtagh lifted his head and pushed himself back onto his knees. His cloak pooled around him in ripples of dark wool, and the sharp edges of the cracked stones cut into his shins.

He wiped his eyes with the back of a gloved hand.

“All this,” he said, his voice harsh and stark in the thin air. He coughed. “All this because the Riders didn’t kill Galbatorix when they had the chance. If they had—”

You would not have been born.

“Then maybe someone else would have had a better opportunity at life.” Thorn snarled and leaned forward, as if to crawl into the courtyard, but a tremor racked him, and he sank back on his haunches. Do not say that. Never

say that! Do you not want to be joined with me?

The question cut through Murtagh’s grim introspection like a razor through silk. “Of course I do. That’s not what I meant.”

Then say what you mean. I chose to hatch for you, Murtagh. I do not wish for another.

The dragon’s fierce earnestness sobered Murtagh. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I spoke without thinking. I was feeling bad for myself. It’s an unfortunate habit.”

Very.

“Why did you hatch for me?” In all their time together, Murtagh had never thought to ask.

Thorn blinked. I was tired of waiting to emerge, and I could feel that we were a proper fit. That, and you had none of Galbatorix’s madness.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you better.”

Now you are feeling bad for yourself again. You did as well as anyone could have and better than most.

“Mmh.” Murtagh slowly got to his feet and gave Thorn a rub on his snout.

Thorn hummed and pressed against Murtagh’s hand. We survived. That is what matters.

“I still wish we could fly back through the years and help Vrael.”

Then everyone everywhere would do the same with their own regrets, and the world would be unmade.

“I suppose that’s true.” He eyed the cracked stones with some ruefulness.

He hoped the tower wouldn’t fall. “I’m going to look inside. I’ll be quick.”

Watch for traps. Thorn retracted his head and neck from the yard and turned to look upon the valley.

Murtagh cautiously stepped through the doorway at the base of the tower. A short, dark hall lay before him, the stone floor crusted with dirt and twigs and leaves and withered grass gathered in tangles along the corners.

From there, he made a pass through the interior of the tower—what he could access of it, that was. Fallen stone blocked several of the doorways. The rooms were dry, dead, and deserted. Some of the furniture remained: wooden chairs brittle to the touch, an iron poker leaning against the kitchen fireplace, the rotted frame of a narrow bed.

Down a flight of narrow stairs, on the floor of what he guessed had been a storage room, he found a dented brass goblet decorated with fine tracery that could only have been the work of an elven artisan. The metal was frigid against Murtagh’s gloved fingers as he picked it up. He turned the goblet in his hand, studying it, wondering whom it had belonged to and what things it had seen through the long years.

On an impulse, he kept the goblet as he climbed the narrow staircase back up to the courtyard.

Thorn’s tail whipped from side to side as Murtagh joined him on the flat-topped roof.

“A relic from another age,” Murtagh said as he held up the goblet for Thorn to sniff. “I think I’ll keep it. This cup can be the first treasure of House Murtagh. How does that sound?”

Thorn gave him a dubious look. What about Zar’roc?

“A curse, not a treasure.” Murtagh bounced the goblet in his hand and then went to the saddlebags and unbuckled one.

Perhaps you can forge a new history for the blade, said Thorn.

Murtagh tucked the goblet beneath his bedroll and closed up the saddlebag. “It would take an era and a half to balance out all the misdeeds done with Zar’roc.” He walked back around to face Thorn.

Then I will have to make sure you live a long, long while, said Thorn, a twinkle in his ruby eyes.

“Are you sure? That sounds like a burdensome task.” Thorn huffed, and the twinkle brightened. Very sure.

“Mmh,” said Murtagh, but he was touched. He turned and looked out over the valley. “So this is where they came from.” Palancar Valley: home to Eragon…and their mother. The place where she had returned to give birth to Eragon, far from Morzan and the Empire.

It looks like a good place to hunt.

Some distance from Ristvak’baen, a small town was visible next to the Anora River. Therinsford, Murtagh guessed, if his memories of what Eragon had told him about the valley were accurate.

He climbed back onto Thorn and secured his legs. “Ready.” Hold on!

With a mighty leap, Thorn launched himself into the air. Then he climbed several hundred feet above the mountain peaks, where the air was thin and it was unlikely anyone below would hear the beat of his wings.

Murtagh watched with a fixed gaze as the valley unfolded beneath them. It was as much family history as geography. If events had played out only a little differently, Palancar Valley would have been his home, same as for

Eragon. He wondered what it had been like to grow up in such an isolated place.

It made him wish he could talk to his mother, ask her about her childhood and her reasons for abandoning Palancar Valley to follow Morzan into the wider world. And also why, why, she had chosen to save Eragon from Morzan but not him, her eldest son. Had it been a matter of ability and opportunity or one of preference? The question had tormented him from the moment he’d learned of his relation to Eragon. How could a mother sacrifice one child for another?

How? It was true that Eragon had been in mortal danger. He was not Morzan’s son, and had Morzan discovered the truth…Murtagh shuddered to imagine his wrath. So there was that. Still, Murtagh couldn’t help but wonder if it had been choice rather than necessity that kept his mother from bringing him to Palancar Valley.

What was worse, to see Eragon hailed as the hero of the age made Murtagh fear that she’d been right to choose Eragon, and that there was some irreparable wrongness or inadequacy in himself, some flaw that their mother had perceived in him.

Perhaps it was the scar on his back. He was marked by Morzan’s darkness in a manner that Eragon never had been.

Gently, Thorn said, You do not know her reasons or situation. And regardless, I chose you.

The words softened Murtagh’s mood and dispelled some of his bitterness, though it lingered like a poisonous pool at the back of his mind. He scratched the scales along Thorn’s spine and leaned forward to give the dragon a quick embrace.

Then he sat tall in the saddle and strove to bury his dark contemplations.

Halfway through the valley, Murtagh saw what he was looking for: a burnt husk of a farmhouse standing near the river, perhaps a day’s walk from Therinsford. A chill crept down his back, for he knew he was looking at the house where Eragon had lived and that the Ra’zac had burned after questioning—or rather, torturing—his uncle Garrow.

So much from so little, said Thorn.

Indeed.

Murtagh was surprised the farm was still abandoned. He’d thought that Roran or one of the other villagers from Carvahall would have rebuilt it.

Lifting his gaze, he saw Carvahall itself, nestled between river and foothills at the northern end of Palancar Valley. The village looked different than Murtagh expected. A thick wood palisade surrounded a cluster of thatched cottages, rustic and newly raised amid the sooty outlines of what Murtagh realized must have been the original village, before Galbatorix’s forces had razed it. The thought was an uncomfortable reminder of his and Thorn’s actions in Gil’ead. The western flank of Carvahall butted against the Anora, and a sturdy bridge extended across the rushing water. On the far side, a wide, rutted path led to a tall hill that overlooked the rest of the valley, and upon the crown of the hill were the stone foundations and partially built walls of what appeared to be a small castle.

With his mind, Murtagh drew Thorn’s attention to the unfinished castle. It seems Eragon’s cousin has been busy. He learned the hard way that safety can only be ensured through force of arms.

Roran is your cousin as well.

Mmm. I wonder how similar we really are.

Thorn angled downward slightly. Do you wish to land?

Murtagh nearly said yes. He did want to talk with Roran and meet his family—he had a baby daughter, or so Murtagh had heard—for they were Murtagh’s only remaining relatives, aside from Eragon. But if they did, there would be shouting and pointing of weapons and all sorts of difficult emotions. Even imagining it was exhausting.

You could go by yourself, said Thorn. And Murtagh knew how much it cost the dragon to suggest such a thing after the events of Ceunon and Gil’ead.

No…no, I think not. But thank you. If nothing else, he didn’t want to take the time. Visiting Carvahall would delay them by at least a day, probably more, and Murtagh felt an increasing urgency to find the witch-woman Bachel.

“Someday,” he muttered as Carvahall and the unfinished castle passed under them. Someday he and Roran would have a reckoning. Even though they’d never met, the bonds of blood could not be ignored.

Murtagh took one last look over the full scope of Palancar Valley, doing his best to remember every detail of the place where his mother had grown up, and Eragon too. A lonely pain formed in his heart, and then he turned his back on the vista and held on to Thorn even tighter.

 

 

Palancar Valley was the last large valley they saw. Thereafter, the mountains grew closer together and only allowed for small rifts and gaps between their forested flanks: narrow, deeply shadowed vales where, during the winter months, the sun never touched the bottom.

As they flew, Murtagh had a sense they were leaving behind the last vestiges of civilization. As rough and isolated as Carvahall was, it at least shared some connection with the rest of Nasuada’s realm. Now they were entering lands that belonged to no country or race.

By late afternoon, the Bay of Fundor was visible to their right, butted up against the edge of the Spine. The mountains plunged to the water’s edge, with hardly a buffer of open land, and the air acquired the taste of salt, and the cries of gulls and terns followed them along the jagged range.

Look for a wharf or a jetty. Any sort of building, said Murtagh, even though he knew they were probably still several days away from the village they sought.

Thorn coughed in agreement.

Before long, a harsh wind sprang up from the north, and Thorn’s flight slowed until they were barely moving relative to the ground.

Enough, said Murtagh, and Thorn descended to a small island—no more than a hundred feet across—just off the shore. There they camped, and the wind bore down on them with unrelenting ferocity while flurries of snow obscured the mountains.

By morning, the clouds had vanished.

We should make haste, said Thorn. The weather will not last.

 

 

Whitecapped water to the right, mountains beneath and to the left. A domed expanse of sky ahead. The landscape was beautiful and forbidding in equal measure, and Murtagh felt the loneliness of their position with physical force.

He kept an eye on the bay, but no ships appeared. If anyone were making the trip to visit Bachel, they were steering well away from the bay’s western shore.

That day they saw great numbers of wildlife along the edge of the bay. Vast herds of bugling red elk, the animals far larger than those Murtagh had hunted on the plains by Gil’ead. Giant brown bears that trundled their solitary way through the forest. Packs of shaggy grey wolves. Hawks that screamed, and ravens and crows that cawed, and fish vultures that wheeled above the shallows and occasionally dove for the silvery bergenhed that darted through the leaden water.

Even high in the air, Murtagh felt the need to stay alert. The mountains were stark and savage, and the slightest mistake might cost them their lives, despite all their strength, spells, and experience. It was not lost on him or Thorn that Galbatorix’s first dragon, Jarnunvösk, had died in the frozen reaches of the Spine.

I understand now why the Riders warned Galbatorix against venturing so far, Murtagh said.

He and Jarnunvösk were not alone, were they?

No, two others went with them. Riders both, all of the same age. Galbatorix was their leader. Always he craved power, and always it was his undoing.

A slow beat of Thorn’s wings punctuated their conversation. The dragon said, Did Galbatorix ever tell you why they flew north?

Murtagh snorted. For the daring of it, I believe. To show their mettle, despite their elders’ disapproval.

A sorrowful cast darkened Thorn’s mind. And so they paid the price of their folly.

We all did.

It was Urgals who attacked them upon the ice, was it not?

Murtagh scratched his chin. So he said. But they must have been skilled and mighty Urgals indeed to overcome three dragons and two Riders. In truth, I’ve always wondered about it, but Galbatorix was never inclined to answer questions. He again looked down upon the ridged peaks. For an instant, sympathy flickered within him. How horrible it must have been to travel all this on foot, alone, and after losing his dragon.

It would have driven anyone mad, human or dragon.

Just before noon, they spotted threads of smoke rising from a narrow valley deeper in the mountain range. Thorn diverted to investigate, and they saw a small collection of huts—which looked like the hulls of overturned ships—in a meadow by a stream. Tall, multicolored banners hung outside each hut.

“Is that—” Murtagh started to say. But it wasn’t the Dreamers. Even as he spoke, a figure emerged from one of the huts. An incredibly tall figure with grey skin and horns that curled about his enormous head.

Urgals, said Thorn with a mental growl.

And a Kull at that. No other Urgals grew as tall. Not one of them stood under eight foot, and many were far larger. Murtagh still found it impressive that the dwarves had been able to hold their own against the gigantic creatures during the Battle of Farthen Dûr.

Murtagh watched with fierce interest as Thorn circled the village, trusting his spell of concealment to keep them hidden. He saw what he took to be Urgal women—a first for him—washing clothes in the stream, and half-naked Urgal children—also a first—running about the meadow, shooting at one another with bows and padded arrows. Several males were chopping wood; others were sparring with staves and spears and clubs.

Both Galbatorix and the Varden had allied themselves with the Urgals over the course of the war, but never during Murtagh’s time with either one. Before that, his only interaction with Urgals had come when he’d gone on

patrol with Lord Varis’s men. A band of Urgals had been raiding the holdings on Varis’s estate, and it was thought that a show of force might scare them off. If that failed, their goal was to hunt down and kill the Urgals, and specifically, their chieftain, who was—according to the reports of survivors— violent, ruthless, and given to fits of insanity.

Murtagh had been seventeen and just coming into his strength. He was eager to prove himself and to use the skills Tornac had taught him. (Tornac would have argued against the expedition, but then Tornac had been back in Urû’baen.) So Murtagh convinced Varis to let him accompany his men.

The Urgals had ambushed them by a small stand of firs just outside one of the villages on Varis’s lands. The fight had been short, loud, and confusing. In the midst of it, an Urgal had knocked Murtagh out of his saddle. He barely got back to his feet before the brute was upon him, swinging a heavy chopper—more like a sharpened mace than a sword.

Murtagh’s shield split, and he knew he had only seconds to live. All his training with a sword was little help against the sheer strength and violence of the Urgal’s assault.

But then another Urgal had pulled away the one attacking him, and Murtagh had found himself facing the leader of the band. The chieftain had a crimson banner mounted over his shoulder, and on the banner was stitched a strange black sigil.

The chieftain had smiled a horrible smile; his teeth were sharp and yellow, and his breath stank like that of a carrion eater. Then the rest of the Urgals left their kills and formed a circle around Murtagh and the chieftain, and they’d shouted and bellowed and beaten their chests as the two of them closed with each other.

Murtagh had known what was expected of him. And he tried. But the chieftain wielded a long-handled ax, and Murtagh did not know how to defend against it. The ax was like the worst parts of a spear and a pike combined, and the Urgal quickly gave Murtagh a cut on his left shoulder, a cracked rib, and another cut on his right thigh. He’d fallen then, and he surely would have died if not for Varis.

The earl had ridden up with another, larger group of soldiers. They had driven the Urgals away, killing many, but not, to Murtagh’s regret, the chieftain.

And it had been that same crimson-bannered Urgal who had led the Kull who chased him and Eragon deep into the Beor Mountains….

Murtagh shook himself and brought his attention back to the village below. Ostensibly a treaty had been signed between Urgals, humans, and elves—and indeed, Eragon had even added the Urgals to the pact that joined Riders and dragons (though the thought of an Urgal Rider still gave Murtagh pause). But whether word of the treaty had reached this isolated village was an open question.

How do you think they would react if we showed ourselves? he asked Thorn.

Amusement colored the dragon’s thoughts. They would all want to fight you, to prove themselves.

Probably. Part of Murtagh was tempted. He held no love for the Urgals— he still had nightmares about the chieftain, and about fighting hordes of Urgals during the Battle of Farthen Dûr—but he was curious. If there was one thing the past few years had taught him, it was the importance of knowing and understanding both himself and the world around him. And he didn’t feel as if he had a good understanding of the Urgals. Recognizing his own curiosity surprised him. He really would be willing to sit down and talk with an Urgal, despite the atrocities they’d committed throughout the land. After all, he’d committed his own share of violence.

At the realization, some of the tension eased from his muscles, and he loosened his grip on the front of the saddle. The Urgals were dangerous enough, it was true, but so were he and Thorn. It did not mean they were not worthy of investigation.

A thread of acrid smoke streamed back from Thorn’s nostrils and passed over him. The dragon said, I would roast them with fire and eat them if they attacked us.

Eat an Urgal? Really? I can’t imagine they would taste very good. Besides, they’re not animals.

Thorn snorted and turned back toward the bay. They are meat. Meat is good.

Once again, Murtagh was reminded of the differences between them. He made no attempt to hide his revulsion. Would you eat a human as well?

Indifference was Thorn’s response. If I did not like them. Why would I not? Because it’s wrong. You might as well be a Ra’zac, then!

A sharp hiss came from Thorn. Do not compare me to those foul creatures. I am a dragon, not a carrion picker.

Then don’t act like one. Promise me you won’t eat any humans, elves, or Urgals.

For my sake.

Hmph. Fine.

It was, Murtagh reflected, not without reason the elves had forged the initial bond between themselves and the dragons. He frowned as he thought of all the dragon eggs Eragon had taken to Mount Arngor. Some of them were enchanted that the younglings inside might bond with Riders, but the rest were wild dragons, unbound and free to act as they would. How well would those wild dragons fit into Alagaësia once they were old enough to return?

 

 

As the day progressed, a thick layer of clouds formed, low enough to clip the peaks of the mountains. It forced Thorn to fly closer to the ground than he preferred, lest they should overlook the village of the Dreamers.

Before night fell, they spotted three more Urgal settlements hidden among the folds of the mountains. Murtagh had always thought Urgals lived in caves. So he’d been told growing up. It was strange to learn that they had humanlike towns. How many of them are there? he said.

Enough for the army he raised, said Thorn.

Murtagh nodded. It was true. The horde that had attacked Tronjheim had been the equal of any army in the land. Which meant the Urgals were far more numerous than commonly believed. They’ve done well since the fall of the Riders.

Will we have to drive them out?

Only if they make a nuisance of themselves again. Eragon thinks he can keep them as allies, but…

You don’t agree?

I don’t know. Eragon sometimes has a good feel for such things, but he’s also rather simpleminded when it comes to the realities of war and politics. At least, he used to be.

They landed for the night by a small mountain stream that poured into the Bay of Fundor. As Murtagh made camp, an unfamiliar roar startled him.

He spun around to see a great brown bear standing on its hind legs not twenty feet away. The beast was as tall as a Kull and far thicker and more muscled.

Murtagh’s pulse spiked for a second, and then he mastered himself. The bear was no threat. A single word would be more than sufficient to kill it, but Murtagh didn’t like the idea; he and Thorn were the intruders, not the bear.

Thorn snaked his head around Murtagh and growled in response, making the bear sound puny in comparison.

The animal didn’t seem scared. It roared again, dropped to all fours, and then reared back up, paws and claws extended.

“What’s wrong with you?” Murtagh shouted. “Are you stupid? Don’t you realize you can’t win?”

The bear appeared startled. It snarled at him and then looked at Thorn and let out a long, outraged bellow. On a hunch, Murtagh searched the surrounding area with his mind for cubs or other bears. Nothing.

“I think it just wants to fight.”

The dragon’s eyes glittered. Then we shall fight.

“No, please. Not now,” said Murtagh. “It’s been a long day.”

Thorn huffed, disappointed. Fine. As you want. Then he loosed a long jet of red and orange fire directly over the bear’s head, singeing the fur on the tips of its ears.

The bear yowled, turned, and loped down the shoreline faster than a man could run.

“Thanks,” said Murtagh as he watched the animal go. “I wager it’s never met anything it couldn’t intimidate before.”

Well, now it has, said Thorn, sounding satisfied.

Murtagh glanced at the snowcapped mountains. He hoped no one had heard the commotion. “We should be careful from now on,” he said, returning to the fire he was building. “You never know who might be listening. Especially out here.”

 

 

That night both Murtagh and Thorn had terrible dreams, and their nightmares spilled over from one mind to the other until it was impossible to tell where they originated. Urgals featured in many of the dreams: a great army of them marching through the Spine, with a king at their fore and the heads of their enemies spiked on their spears. And a bloody battle beneath the dark pinetrees, with Urgals bellowing like bears and humans screaming, and Murtagh and Thorn crouched by the upturned roots of a fallen tree, trying to hide. They were crying, crying, crying, and the tears pattered against the dirt along with the drops of black blood….

Sleep provided no rest that night, and when Murtagh and Thorn woke, they were still exhausted. Those were no normal dreams, said Thorn.

No. There’s something strange in the land here…. We can’t be far, I think. Murtagh’s words proved prophetic. In the middle of the afternoon, as

Thorn rounded the flank of a particularly tall peak, a swift-flowing river came into view, pouring out of a cleft in the Spine and feeding into the Bay of Fundor. A blanket of low-hanging clouds roofed the cleft, and the interior was deep and dark and densely wooded. However, the shadows and the trees did nothing to conceal the pall of bluish smoke crowded at the back of the narrow valley.

And as the wind gusted, it carried a whiff of sulfurous stench that made Murtagh’s throat sting and his eyes water.

He straightened in the saddle, feeling a strange thrill. They had arrived.

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