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Chapter no 27 – Recitations of Faith

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

The sound of bells woke Murtagh, a high, brassy clang that bounced off the mountains and set the crows in the Tower of Flint to cawing.

He blinked, instantly alert, and reached for Zar’roc. The familiar feel of the wire-wrapped hilt comforted him.

Grey light pervaded the bedroom. It seemed well into morning, but because of the high mountains, the sun had yet to rise.

Murtagh searched for Thorn’s mind…and found the dragon already awake in the courtyard below.

They shared a moment of closeness, and Thorn said, You dreamt as I did.

It wasn’t a question, but Murtagh answered all the same. Yes. I…I’ve never had an experience like that before.

He could feel Thorn shifting in place. The visions were like those HE showed us, during the dark time.

Murtagh suppressed a shiver. Of all the many tortures Galbatorix had inflicted upon them, Murtagh had hated those most of all. The king would, at his whim, flood their minds with false images that served to confuse the senses and make it difficult to resist his will.

Yes, he said. But different too. They were more real than real. He sat and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He stared at the wall for a moment, and then rubbed his face in a futile attempt to dispel the memories of the night.

Umaroth was right. This is not a good place, said Thorn. We should not linger any longer than necessary.

Maybe not, but I want to hear what Bachel has to say for herself today. She owes us an explanation. Several explanations.

Murtagh went to the washroom and splashed his face with the last bit of water remaining in the jug. Were the ill humors that suffused Nal Gorgoth enough to explain their dreams? Or was there another force at work? Unlike with Galbatorix’s coercions, Murtagh hadn’t felt any mind touching theirs during the night. The dreams seemed to have arisen unbidden from the deepest burrows of their consciousness.

Thorn snorted. Those were no dreams of mine.

No. Murtagh well knew what Thorn dreamt of: flights and fights and their time spent imprisoned at Urû’baen.

Though it made him nervous to do so, Murtagh used the word kverst to remove the stubble from his face. It fell from his skin as a shedding of black dust. He ran a hand across his chin, satisfied. He did not want to appear anything less than perfectly presentable before Bachel.

Then he dried his face and belted on Zar’roc and tucked Saerlith’s clasp into his belt.

As he started toward the door, a knock sounded, and a woman said, “May I enter, Kingkiller?”

Murtagh bridled at the title. Though the Dreamers seemed to use it as a sign of respect, it sat badly with him. “You may.”

The door swung inward to reveal Alín, the young woman who had attended him and Bachel during the feast. As before, she wore a white robe, unlike the rest of the villagers. A tray with food rested in her hands.

She bowed slightly—which Murtagh found odd; the maids in Urû’baen had always curtsied—and carried the tray to the side table by the bed. “Breakfast, my Lord.”

It gave Murtagh a discomfiting feeling to be addressed as my Lord again. It was his due, of course, but only because of his father’s treachery. Technically, he no longer held claim to any title but that of Rider…and Kingkiller. And traitor.

He feigned a relaxed smile as he strode over to inspect the contents of the tray. Half a loaf of dense rye bread, three kippered bergenhed, and a tankard of watered wine. Standard fare, as such things went, but he didn’t trust the food. The feast last night had been a spontaneous event, and he’d watched as the meal was prepared. However, the breakfast could easily have been tampered with. It wasn’t worth the risk. He still had a bit of cooked hare in his saddlebags, and that would hold him for a time.

“I’m afraid I don’t have much of an appetite,” he said in a mild tone.

The woman seemed uncomfortable in his presence. She stiffened as he approached, and then ducked her head and twisted the tips of the blue ribbon tied around her waist. “Of course, my Lord. I’ll remove the tray.”

When she started to reach for it, he said, “Your name is Alín, yes?” Softly: “Yes.”

He nodded. “Would you be so kind as to guide me back to the courtyard, Alín? I can’t say I remember the way.” A lie, but he wanted the opportunity to question her.

She bowed again and, subdued, said, “Yes, sir. After me, sir.”

With brisk steps, Alín led him out of the room. Murtagh followed, but at a slower pace—slow enough that she was forced to halve her stride.

“Tell me, Alín,” said Murtagh, “for I much desire to know: How long has Bachel ruled in Nal Gorgoth?”

She gave him a quick, shy glance from under her pale lashes. “A very long time, my Lord. Far longer than I have winters.”

Murtagh let his eyebrows rise. If Alín was telling the truth, then Bachel was half elf, as that was the only obvious explanation for why the witch lacked any obvious sign of age. “Would you say she has been a fair ruler, Alín?”

“Of course, Kingkiller,” she answered in a reproachful tone. “Bachel is the Speaker. How could she be anything but just?”

“How indeed? I imagine being able to foretell the future might help

avoid such a misstep. Would you say she is adept at prophecy?”

The woman nodded quickly. “Oh yes, my Lord. It is her duty to guide us, and we are fortunate she has been blessed with such great skill in augury.”

“I see.” Murtagh paused before the panel of stone carvings along the landing. In the morning light, they appeared no less disturbing.

Alín stopped as well. She had no choice.

“You wear white, not grey,” Murtagh observed.

The woman folded her hands in front of her, and her long sleeves covered them. “I am one of the temple chosen. These robes represent our purity. So long as I serve in the temple, at Bachel’s will, no man may touch me on pain of losing the hands he sinned with.” She lifted her gaze to meet his, and Murtagh saw a challenge in her eyes, as if she were daring him to break the prohibition.

“And likewise, you may not touch a man.” “No, my Lord.”

He nodded. Then, more gently, he said, “What is the purpose of Nal Gorgoth, Alín? What is it Bachel seeks to accomplish?”

The moment the words left his mouth, he knew he’d overreached. Alín’s back straightened, and her shoulders squared, and a spark of defiant fire animated her expression. “You could not possibly understand if I told you, outsider. Such understanding can only come from Bachel herself, for she is the—”

“The Speaker. Yes, you said.” Even though it was more than likely fruitless, he decided to press on. “But I wonder, for whom does Bachel speak, Alín? Who is the Dreamer of Dreams?”

The color drained from Alín’s cheeks. “Please, my Lord. You should not ask me such a thing.”

“But I do.”

She shook her head. “I cannot say. I beg you—” “Cannot or will not?”

She shook her head again, all defiance vanished, and turned her back to him. “You do not understand. You cannot. Please, my Lord, this way.”

Thoughtful, Murtagh followed her across the landing—away from the maddening carvings—down the stairs, and through the hallways that led to the courtyard.

When they arrived at the door to the outside, Alín surprised him by stopping with her hand on the frame. In a small voice, she said, “What is it like, Kingkiller?”

“What do you mean?”

She looked back at him, her face lost in the shadows of the unlit hallway. “Out there…beyond. What is the rest of Alagaësia like?”

“What is the farthest you have been from Nal Gorgoth?”

A hint of defensive sorrow colored her voice. “I have never left this valley, Kingkiller.”

It was not an unexpected answer for one of her station, yet Murtagh found it difficult to imagine having such a limited perspective. To be so blinkered in place could only lead to being similarly blinkered in mind.

He thought for a moment on how best to answer. Then: “Alagaësia is far wider and wilder than you can imagine. There are mountains so high their peaks vanish from sight. Vast deserts where dragons used to live. Forests so old no memory remains of their birth. And there are cities too: large and small, and peoples of all sorts. Humans and elves and dwarves and Urgals. Even werecats. And so, so much more.”

A hint of wistfulness might have appeared in Alín’s expression, but it was difficult to tell for sure in the dark hallway. “And what do they dream of, all those people?”

Murtagh watched to see what effect his words had. “Every person dreams their own dreams. Some are frightening or unpleasant. Some are beautiful and hopeful. Some are silly or nonsense. They differ for every person.”

“Even for you?”

“Why would they not?”

“Because,” she said, seeming confused, “you are a Rider.”

He felt equally confounded. “What does being a Rider have to do with the dreams I have?”

Alín frowned. “Surely you must know, my Lord. You are joined with a dragon, and dragons are the blood and bones of the land. They are the

source of everything that was and is and shall be. I thought that, because of your bond with Thorn, that…”

“You thought what?” Murtagh asked gently.

“That you would have the same dreams as we do in Nal Gorgoth.” “Does everyone here dream the same, Alín?”

She turned back to the door. “It is the one thing I cannot bear. The dreadful sameness, night after night. The dreams so rarely change.”

Then she pushed open the door and stepped out before Murtagh could ask another question.

 

 

Thorn gave Murtagh a welcoming nudge as they came together in the courtyard. He scratched Thorn’s snout in response.

Then he became aware that Alín was standing behind him with her hands clasped and her gaze fixed on the flagstones, her whole body stiff as if she were terrified. But when she stole a glance at Thorn, her eyes shone, and he realized that she was overawed by Thorn’s presence.

“Have you ever seen a dragon before?” he asked.

She shook her head, keeping her gaze turned down. “No, my Lord. He is magnificent.”

I like her, said Thorn.

You would. Would you mind if I— You may.

With a small smile, Murtagh said, “If you want, you may come closer.”

Alín gasped and looked up with undisguised joy. “Oh! Yes, please. I mean, thank you, my Lord.” With careful steps, she approached Thorn.

She squeaked as Thorn arched his neck and loomed over her, a puff of smoke jetting out from his nostrils.

Murtagh smirked. You’re as dramatic as a troubadour.

Thorn ignored him and lowered his head until he was at eye level with Alín. She stood very still, but her expression was wide and shining, and the tips of her fingers trembled.

“He won’t hurt you,” Murtagh said.

Alín laughed with febrile energy. “It would not matter if he did. I would be honored. It is not every day you meet a living god.”

Murtagh felt his eyebrows rise. He gave Thorn a look. “Do you hear that? A living god, she says.”

The dragon surprised him then, for Murtagh felt Thorn extend his mind

until it contacted Alín’s, and for a fraction of a second, the three of them were joined. Murtagh had a brief impression of Alín’s inner self: a sense of warmth and wonder and overwhelming radiance.

Then Thorn withdrew the connection, and Alín cried out and fell to her knees.

Murtagh went to her, meaning to help. At the last moment, he remembered not to touch and stopped with his hands hovering on either side of her shoulders. He retreated a step. “Are you all right?”

It was a long moment before she stirred and looked up, tears on her cheeks. “I never thought to be so blessed,” she whispered. She turned back to Thorn and bowed her head. “Thank you. Thank you. A thousand thanks upon you.”

Murtagh wasn’t sure how to respond. He watched as she gathered herself and stood. “Bachel will send for you soon,” she said, her voice as thin and pale as a winter sky. “Be ready to attend her. She does not stand for delay.”

“No, I would imagine not,” said Murtagh.

Alín gave Thorn one last look—her expression suddenly troubled—and then fled into the temple.

Without her, the courtyard seemed cold and empty. Murtagh turned back to Thorn. He frowned. “Why?”

With a scrape of scales against stone, Thorn wound his neck around Murtagh and trapped him in a great coil. It seemed appropriate.

“Because she said you were magnificent?”

Thorn coughed. No. Because she has been told much but seen little. I was like that once. It is good to know the truth of things.

At that, Murtagh’s stance softened. “I suppose you’re right.” Thorn hummed, and Murtagh scratched his snout again. “Well, as long as she didn’t

see anything about last night, there’s no harm done.” And perhaps some good.

“Perhaps.”

Then Thorn uncoiled his neck and Murtagh retrieved the haunch of roasted hare from Thorn’s saddlebags. He ate quickly, not knowing how long it would be until Bachel summoned them.

Voices sounded from within the streets leading off the courtyard: rhythmic chanting that seemed more ceremonial than musical.

Curious, Murtagh wiped his fingers and wandered down the nearest street, Thorn at his back.

He didn’t have to go far before he saw a group of twenty or so Dreamers gathered around an alcove built within the outer wall of a house. In the alcove was a small altar—not dissimilar to the one he’d found last night— with fruits and cuts of meat piled in the center.

Another white-robed Dreamer, a man, stood facing the rest of the villagers, and it was to him the people directed their voices. The chanting was so fast, so practiced, that at first Murtagh couldn’t distinguish one word from the next, but as he listened, he began to pick out repeated phrases, such as “With our hands, so we serve,” “As it is dreamt, so it shall be,” and “Given our earthly reward, praise be.”

Between the repeated phrases, he realized the villagers were describing their dreams from that night: something to do with blood and fire and ancient wrongs. The specifics escaped him, but he caught words here and there, like silver fish flashing through a stream. Some of it reminded him of the visions he and Thorn had shared, but only in part; the rest seemed to vary wildly from what they had seen.

It was clear the villagers were well accustomed to their dreams, as Alín had claimed. The chanting was rote, ritualistic, nearly unconscious, with a trance-inducing quality, as if the drumming of their voices numbed their minds. The villagers’ eyes glazed over as they swayed along with the rhythm of their words.

As he stood watching, he found himself struck by the cohesion of the group. The villagers appeared more like a single, many-faced entity than a

collection of individuals. The cause that bound them—whatever it was— seemed so strong as to erase their differences. The result was intimidating.

Even with Thorn by his side, a hollow sense of envy formed within Murtagh. He missed the moments, rare as they’d been, when he’d felt joined in common purpose with the soldiers of Galbatorix’s army. The camaraderie had brought with it a certain confidence—a fortification of self, even as his definition of self had expanded to include his brothers-in-arms. He had recaptured the sense, all too briefly, while drilling with the guards in Gil’ead. And looking even further back, he had shared a similar feeling during his travels with Eragon.

But those days were long since passed.

Thorn touched his elbow, and Murtagh smiled sadly.

The chanting continued with numerous repetitions of “As it is dreamt, so it shall be,” and the repetitions were so perfectly uniform, so perfectly matched in intonation and mindless recitation, that the sameness of it suddenly seemed repulsive. It felt as if he were watching a group of sleepwalking half-wits who moved without thinking, their blind, unblinking, cataractal eyes fixed upon a vague point in the distance, while their mouths hinged open and closed with synchronized precision. His envy evaporated, like mist before dragonfire, as he realized something else about the Dreamers: they were neither a conspiratorial group nor a political organization, nor even a martial one. In actuality, they were a cult, devoted to their dreams and to their Speaker above all else.

The chanting stopped.

For a moment, silence reigned in the street. Then the temple acolyte said, “Say now what differences you beheld, if any you did.”

And a man with a birthmark as dark as a splash of wine across his nose said, “I saw a flight of dragons, only there was a crimson dragon in the middle. Before, there was none.”

The acolyte nodded wisely. “Bachel’s Ears have heard you. What else?”

A girl—no more than ten, with tresses like spun gold—said, “An obelisk of stone with a black tip and gilded carving. The carving glowed, and I heard a voice speaking words I did not understand.”

The acolyte nodded again. “You will present yourself to Bachel at the morning hearing, and she will speak to you the meaning of your vision.”

“As it is dreamt, so it shall be.”

Murtagh continued to listen while the cultists confessed their dreams. He wondered how many of them spoke the truth and how many were inventing details for a chance to impress their neighbors or please Bachel. But perhaps that was unkind of him. The villagers seemed entirely sincere and convinced of their experiences.

They would be, he thought. He tried to imagine what it was like to grow up in Nal Gorgoth, being constantly questioned about your dreams, and if the dreams were of a like with what he and Thorn had experienced the past night…He shuddered.

Then a woman emerged from within the group. She was of middling age, with hair that hung in tangled skeins, and her face was drawn and dolorous, as if she’d been up the whole night fretting. She wrung her hands, the fingers twisted like roots.

“Hear me!” she cried.

The white-robed acolyte eyed her with something akin to disgust. “Speak and be heard, O Dethra.”

The woman sobbed and shook her head before continuing. “I did not dream as was right and proper. My mind was empty all the night until just before waking. Then an image filled my mind, and I saw the white mountain with—”

The faces of those listening hardened, and Murtagh saw no charity in their expressions.

“Enough!” cried the acolyte. “Do not poison our minds with your false visions. You are unclean, Dethra.”

“I am unclean!” she shouted, tears streaking down her cheeks. “You are unworthy!”

“I am unworthy! Punish me! Let me atone!”

With a thunderous scowl, the acolyte pointed at her. “Dethra! You cannot regain favor in the Eyes of Bachel until you purge this heresy from

your being. Go to the temple and confine yourself to the Azurite Room until such time as Bachel sees fit to bring you to the realm of the Dreamer.”

The woman cried out with terror and collapsed onto the ground, where she shook and gibbered incomprehensibilities.

The white-robed acolyte stormed forward. He grabbed Dethra by the arm and dragged her toward the temple.

The crowd parted before them, men and women alike watching in stony silence. At the front of the group, the golden-haired girl chewed on her thumb, her eyes round and solemn.

In an undertone, Murtagh said to Thorn, “Is that woman most afraid of confinement or atonement?”

Or Bachel?

It was an unsettling thought. With Thorn close behind, Murtagh followed the acolyte back to the temple and watched as the man hauled Dethra into the building.

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