Chapter no 23 – The Village

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

On still wings, Thorn soared into the cleft. The soft ceiling of clouds muffled the air, and the silence only heighted Murtagh’s anticipation as he leaned forward in the saddle, peering over

Thorn’s neck to see what lay ahead.

The mountains formed blue-white walls to either side, broken by cliffs of bare grey granite that protruded from the ranks of snowbound trees. Below, the river flowed swift and narrow along its course, the water so clear Murtagh could count the rounded rocks beneath its rippling surface.

As they neared the back of the valley, the smell of rotten eggs grew stronger, and to Murtagh’s surprise, the air seemed to grow warmer as well, as if winter had yet to lay its frozen fingers upon the northern reaches.

Beneath the scrim of smoke draped over the foothills piled before them, he saw a collection of closely built stone structures. They were dark grey with domed roofs, unlike the style of construction elsewhere in Alagaësia. Some were houses, he thought, but there were other buildings as well: a narrow tower that would not have been out of place in Urû’baen and, set into the base of the near hill, what looked to be a palace or temple with a large open courtyard and a tiered roof.

Figures were visible in the streets, but distance and smoke obscured them.

The land surrounding the village was charred black like the surface of a burnt log, cracked and brittle, with tendrils of smoke rising from hollow

pockets where the surface of the ground had collapsed. The few trees that stood upon the scorched earth had died, their branches bare and grey, and the bark had sloughed off the trunks in great sheets.

Wariness dampened Murtagh’s anticipation. For all their powers, they were alone, he and Thorn. Not so different from Galbatorix and Jarnunvösk. If things went badly, they could expect no reinforcements. Lord Varis wouldn’t ride to their rescue, Tornac wouldn’t parry a blow meant for his neck, and Eragon and Arya were too far away to reach them in time.

A short growl rumbled Thorn’s sides between his knees. Galbatorix and Jarnunvösk were brash and foolish. We will not repeat their mistakes.

“Let’s hope not. Turn around for now. I’d rather not rush into anything.” Thorn banked and—without a flap of wing or sweep of tail that might have betrayed their presence—glided back toward the mouth of the cleft.

There was a beaten path along the river, and Murtagh thought he saw weirs and nets set in the crystalline water.

By unspoken agreement, Thorn settled along the side of a hill one mountain over from the cleft, where a sharp-edged ridge hid them from the narrow valley.

Murtagh loosened the straps around his legs and slid to the ground. He stretched his arms and looked across the Bay of Fundor before turning back to Thorn. “What do you think?”

The scales along Thorn’s neck prickled. No village has the means to build such shells.

“The houses? I agree. Not without a great deal of help. That or they used magic.” He scratched his chin; his shave should be good for another day. Without a dagger or camp knife, he’d been forced to use a spell to remove his stubble, which made him more nervous than did a good, honest blade.

Thorn crept closer and placed his head by Murtagh’s shoulder. How long do you think you will be gone?

“I won’t be gone at all.” Murtagh smiled. “This time, I think we should do things differently. This time, the situation calls for some thunder and lightning.”

Thorn’s long red tongue snaked out of his mouth and licked his chops in a wolfish way. That seems most agreeable to me.

“I thought it might.”

Do you mean to kill Bachel?

“I mean to talk with her. If we have to fight, we fight, but—” Murtagh’s brows drew together as he frowned. “We need to find out what she and the Dreamers are about. Whatever their goal, they’re pursuing it with serious intent.”

And you want to scent out how many of them are in Nasuada’s realm.

“That too, although I doubt Bachel will tell us. At least, not willingly.” He scratched Thorn atop his snout. “Either way, we have to be careful.”

Our wards should protect us from her wordless magic, same as any other.

He gave the dragon a grim look. “Maybe. It’s hard to say. If things go badly, it might be best to flee.”

Flee or fight, I shall be ready. “Then let us be at it.”

Murtagh walked along Thorn’s glittering length to where the saddlebags hung. He opened them and removed in order: Zar’roc, his arming cap and helmet, his greaves and vambraces, his iron-rimmed kite shield—from which he’d scraped the Empire’s emblem—his padded undershirt, and his breastplate. When not marching into open battle, he preferred to wear a mail shirt for the mobility it provided, but it wasn’t mobility nor even protection he was after. It was intimidation.

So, for the first time since Galbatorix had died and the Empire had fallen, Murtagh decided to substitute spectacle for subterfuge.

As he donned the armor, its familiar weight settled onto his frame with cold, forbidding constraint. Piece by piece, he assembled himself—or rather, a version of himself he had hoped to abandon: Murtagh son of Morzan. Murtagh, the dread servant of Galbatorix.

Murtagh the betrayer.

There was a circlet of gold about the helm, reminiscent of a minor crown. Galbatorix’s idea of humor. He’d introduced Murtagh as his right-hand man in the Empire. A new Rider, descended of the Forsworn, sworn

to the king and devoted to his cause. Before the crowds, Galbatorix had treated Murtagh as all but his son, but in private chambers, where the truth could not hide, Murtagh had been nothing more than a slave.

He placed the helm upon his head and then walked to a marshy pond lined with cattails and studied his reflection. He resembled a princeling sent to war. With the added harshness his visage had acquired during the past year, he found himself thinking he would not want to fight himself.

He nodded. “That’ll do.” Then he eyed Thorn. “A pity we don’t have armor for you.”

Thorn sniffed. I need none. Besides, it would have to be made anew every half year.

It was true. Like all dragons, Thorn would continue to grow his entire life. The rate of growth slowed in proportion to overall mass, but it never entirely stopped. Some of the ancient dragons, such as the wild dragon Belgabad, had been truly enormous.

Murtagh belted on Zar’roc and then closed the saddlebags and climbed back onto Thorn. “Letta,” he said, and ended the spell that concealed Thorn in the air. “All right. Let’s go meet this witch Bachel.”

A rumble of agreement came from Thorn. Then the dragon lifted his wings high, like crimson sails turned to the wind, and drove them down. Murtagh clutched the spike in front of him as Thorn sprang skyward, and cold air rushed past with a promise of brimstone.



Land in front, Murtagh said to Thorn as they flew into the cleft. Make sure you have plenty of room. If it does come to a fight, I don’t want you to get pinned or cornered.

For a moment, Thorn’s fierce enthusiasm dimmed. You need not worry. I will not allow there to be a repeat of Gil’ead.

I know. Murtagh patted the dragon’s neck. But let’s not chance it all the same.

Down swept Thorn from the roof of clouds, eddies of mist whirling from the tips of his batlike wings. He circled the village—his form now fully visible to those below, and shouts and screams echoed among the buildings, and bells began to clang with urgent alarm—and then down again he swept and pierced the veil of smoke.

Murtagh’s eyes smarted, and an acrid taste formed in the back of his mouth.

With a threatening roar, Thorn settled on the blasted earth in front of the village. The crusted dirt cracked under his feet, and he sank inches into the ashy soil. The sight reminded Murtagh of the Burning Plains, though on cursory examination, the valley floor seemed to contain no peat or coal that might fuel an ongoing fire.

Bells continued to sound, and Murtagh saw grey-robed men and women running through the streets as they sought cover in the nearby buildings. Not that it would provide much protection against a dragon.

Murtagh drew Zar’roc then, and held it over his head. The bloody blade flashed in the dull winter light, a fitting match to Thorn’s scales.

Raising his voice as if he were addressing an assembly of troops, he shouted, “Hear me! My name is Murtagh, and I have come to speak with the witch Bachel! Come forth, Bachel, that we may have words!”

The bells ceased tolling, and an eerie silence fell over valley and village. In it, Murtagh became aware of a faint hissing from the vents discharging vapor near Thorn’s feet.

One by one, a number of robed individuals—men and women alike— emerged from the buildings and gathered along the main road. They were a disparate collection: some were of pale northern stock, others were as brown as Surdans, and a few possessed the same deep black skin as Nasuada. They peered at Murtagh from under their hoods, their expressions angry and concerned, but not as fearful as he’d expected.

You would think they’d be more scared of a dragon and Rider, he said to Thorn.

The dragon licked his teeth. I can correct that mistake. Murtagh hid a smile. Later, perhaps.

“Bachel!” he shouted. “Come forth, Bachel!”

The knot of people parted as a tall, goateed man stepped forward and, with a cold gaze, inspected Murtagh and Thorn. Two streaks of white banded his beard, and he had a pronounced widow’s peak, while his shaved cheeks were sunken and pitted from pox. Murtagh found it impossible to place the man’s ancestry. His brow was heavy, his cheekbones protruded, and he had a fierce, unfinished look, as if he were an earlier form of human. Unlike the others, his robe had stripes of purple sewn around the cuffs.

To Murtagh’s surprise, the man bowed in a formal manner and said, “Welcome, Dragon. Welcome, Rider.” His accent reminded Murtagh more of an Urgal’s speech than any human tongue. “Come. This way. Bachel awaits.” And then the rawboned man turned and walked back into the village, heading up the main road. As if at an unseen signal, the rest of the group dispersed among the buildings.

“Blast it,” Murtagh muttered. He was no lapdog to be summoned at Bachel’s convenience, and yet he and Thorn were the intruders here. Or, if he were being charitable, they were the guests. To expect Bachel to come out to meet them might be unreasonable, depending on the customs of her people.

And he wasn’t prepared to be unreasonable. Not yet.

Still, he hated to enter the village. It would be the perfect place for an ambush, if the Dreamers were so inclined. There was also the matter of Thorn: the buildings looked uncomfortably close for him.

I will be all right, said Thorn. Do not worry about meHow can I not? Maybe I should go alone.

Thorn growled. No! I would rather bite off my own tail. We stay togetherAre you sure? Absolutely sure?


Fine. But if you need to leave, we leave, no matter what. Don’t wait until it’s too


I promise, said Thorn, and hummed his appreciation.

Murtagh tapped Zar’roc’s blade against his thigh as he studied the village

a moment more. Let the witch play her little games. It mattered not, and he

refused to wait outside her doors, like a supplicant peasant seeking a favor. Now she might see them enter her domain, proud and unafraid. “After him, then.”

Thorn pressed his wings close against his sides and started forward. His claws clacked loudly against the mossy flagstones that paved the road as they entered the village.

As Murtagh had feared, there was little space for them between the buildings, and Thorn grew tense beneath him. Murtagh could feel his apprehension as if it were his own. Still, for the time, the dragon kept himself under control.

Murtagh had never seen buildings such as the ones in the village. The stonework was dwarven in quality, but with an elven grace, and there were strange runes—neither dwarven nor elven—cut into the frames and lintels of the arched doorways. Sculptures of dragon-like beasts adorned the cornices, and their frozen snarls gave Murtagh an uneasy sense of being watched, as if the entire village were a living creature crouched close to the earth, waiting for its prey.

The most unusual feature of the village was the raised patterns covering walls, set into mosaics, and painted onto shutters—swirling, branching, crystalline patterns that seemed to repeat themselves as they diminished: variations on a common theme. The patterns were dangerously fascinating; Murtagh felt as if he could stare into them for the rest of his life and still find new things to see. They contained an obsessive, seemingly impossible amount of detail, and the longer Murtagh looked, the more his vision swirled and swayed. The decorations reminded him of the involuted depths of an Eldunarí…or of shapes that appeared only in the deepest of dreams.

With an effort, he focused elsewhere.

The curious craftsmanship of the village disturbed him. To find such accomplished, well-formed creations in such an isolated place didn’t make sense. There ought to be a long lineage of like works elsewhere, but there wasn’t. Not in Alagaësia, at least, and if the tradition came from across the ocean, well, that was hardly more explicable.

Murtagh shifted in his seat, feeling as if the ground had tilted beneath them. There was a deeper mystery here than he had anticipated.

Careful now, he said.

A sense of terse acknowledgment came from Thorn.

The goateed man was waiting for them halfway through the village. Seeing them, he turned and continued walking at a steady pace, long arms swinging, oversized hands nearly at his knees. Each step, he put his whole foot flat on the flagstones—a firm, unwavering stamp, heel and toes landing as one—and then pushed off in a similar fashion. Stamp, lift. Stamp, lift.

The street ascended at a steep incline toward the far side of the village. As they went, Murtagh kept a close watch on the rooflines, the alleys, the corners: anywhere that foes might be waiting. But no one showed their face, and he didn’t want to risk opening his mind to search the area. That was a good way to invite a mental attack.

The more Murtagh saw of the settlement, the more he gathered an impression of extreme age. The sculptures were weathered, the steps hollowed; walls bowed from centuries of weight, and more than a few structures had collapsed on themselves and remained as crumbling, lichen-covered ruins.

I do not like this place, said Thorn.

No. Murtagh reset his grip on sword and shield. Maybe he should have contacted Eragon before entering the village. There were many secrets in the world, and some of them were older than even the Riders. Nasuada has to be told of this, he thought.

The man led them into a modest square in front of the temple-like building. A fountain stood in the center of the yard, but it was dry and full of dust and overgrown with moss, and the fluted finial atop had cracked and split sideways, leaving a chisel tip of stone pointing toward the dismal sky.

The temple—for so Murtagh had decided it was—had a two-tiered roof, with the topmost roof a ribbed dome the same as the other buildings in the village. A double row of columns guarded the shadowed entrance, while a line of dragon sculptures loomed outward from between the slitted windows. And wrapped around the columns and pedestals and the scaled statues were

the same crystalline patterns seen elsewhere: a membrane of eroded veins, rotten and raveled and pocked by time.

Even new, the temple would have possessed a grim and disagreeable presence. In its current state of decay, the building’s gloom-ridden bulk was all the more daunting; it projected an ancient and enduring strength— ironhard, obdurate, and devoid of forgiveness.

The goateed man stopped and took up position beside one of the pillars that framed the recessed entrance. He clasped his heavy hands in front of himself.

A horn sounded within the temple, a long, wavering note with a haunting quality, and the sound echoed with dire effect off the walls of the buildings and the flanks of the mountains. The nape of Murtagh’s neck prickled, and he lifted Zar’roc to the ready. Remember who you are, he told himself.

Footsteps approached from inside the temple: tromping boots marching in matching time. From the shadowed entrance, a double line of fourteen armored men emerged, shields and spears held upright. Their helmets and breastplates were dented and tarnished and of an unfamiliar design. But the blades of their spears were sharp and free of rust, and they wore arming swords at their waists.

The formation parted in half, and the warriors arranged themselves on either side of the entrance. They displayed admirable discipline, moving with an alert precision that told Murtagh they weren’t just ceremonial guards but warriors with actual fighting experience.

Behind them came another fourteen figures: these white-robed, with hoods pulled low over their faces so nothing could be seen of their features. Men and women alike, and each held a metal frame set with rods of iron from which hung open-mouthed bells. They shook the frames with every step, and the tongues of the bells wagged in a discordant chorus.

There was an air of ancient ritual about the procession, as if such a thing had been done for a thousand years or more.

The bell-shakers went to stand behind the warriors, where they continued their jarring cadence.

Last of all appeared four men in black armor that gleamed like lacquer. And on their shoulders, they carried a covered litter draped with diaphanous white veils.

Through the veils, a figure was partially visible.

Without word or signal, the four litter-bearers stopped upon the edge of the square and stood in place. They stared straight ahead, unblinking and seemingly unaffected by the sight of Thorn.

The bell-shakers ceased shaking.

With a whisper of sliding fabric, the veils parted.

A woman rose to stand upon the litter. She, like everything about the village, was singular. Her hair was black and shiny as obsidian and arranged in an elaborate edifice upon her head, the coils pinned and piled into a bewildering pattern. Bands of carved ivory stood stark against the amber hue of her forearms, and she wore a dress made of knotted straps. The knots traced the shapes of unfamiliar runes, long lines of them, as if she were armored with palings of words. A small dagger hung from a gilded girdle about her waist.

She was tall—taller than most men—with strong limbs, an angular face, and a dark red mouth that sat askew upon her face. Her almond-shaped eyes were rimmed with soot, which gave them the bruised look of the fruit of the blackthorn. She appeared neither young nor old; there was an agelessness to her features that made it impossible to determine her years.

So striking was the woman, Murtagh’s first thought upon seeing her was: An elf! But then he looked more closely and realized that, no, her features weren’t quite elven. However, neither were they entirely human. A deep disquiet stirred within him.

Then the woman smiled at Thorn and him with such warmth, it took Murtagh aback. “Welcome to Nal Gorgoth, O Exalted Dragon,” she said. Her voice was low and melodic, and it thrummed with the power of conviction. “And welcome to you as well, Rider. I have been waiting for you, my son.”

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