Chapter no 28 – The Court of Crows

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

There you are, Rider,” said Grieve with heavy disapproval as he strode with a hurried pace toward Murtagh and Thorn. He made a bow so slight, it was more of a nod. “Dragon Thorn.

Bachel will grant you audience now. The both of you.”

Murtagh gestured at the temple. “Do you mean for us to go in there?” “Of course. Bachel awaits you in her presence chamber.”

Murtagh raised his eyebrows. “Alas, Goodman Grieve, I’m sorry to inform you that the doors of your temple are far too small for Thorn to pass through. Unless you mean for him to break them apart.”

The flicker of irritation that crossed Grieve’s face was satisfying. “I do not,” he said stiffly. “Dragon Thorn, an atrium exists behind that will suffice if you will fly to it. Thence you may access the presence chamber.”

Murtagh hesitated, glancing at Thorn. Do you want to chance it?

The dragon growled and, to both Murtagh and Grieve, said, I will go so far as the atrium, but no farther. If Bachel wishes to speak with me, then she may come to me.

Grieve’s scowl deepened. “You risk offending the Speaker, Dragon Thorn.”

Thorn sniffed. So be it. With a sweep of his wings, the dragon jumped into the air. His body blotted out the sky for a moment, and then he was above the temple, and there he hung, like a great crimson bat, before folding his wings and dropping out of sight behind the peak of the building.

In a mild tone, Murtagh said, “I’m afraid that no one can tell a dragon what to do, not even a Rider.”

A grunt from Grieve, and he turned and walked with his lurching stride toward the temple’s shadowed entrance.

Alert and curious, Murtagh followed, hand on hilt.

Deep between the faceted pillars, a pair of blackened oak doors stood open. The wood was chiseled with runes and inlaid with threads of gold that traced the same branching pattern carved into the face of the temple. The air within was noticeably warmer and thick with the smell of brimstone. Murtagh felt moisture collecting on his skin, tiny droplets of sulfurous dew.

They moved through a short passage lit by oil lamps. Then the way opened upon the atrium. It was large and square, with four raised pools— overgrown with reeds and floating moss—at the corners, while in the center stood a giant sculpture, nearly as tall as the surrounding roofline. The statue was made of black stone, and it was all angles and shards and misjoined edges, but when taken as a whole, there was a shape amid the chaos. He felt as if he ought to recognize it, but the truth eluded him, like a name or a face that he couldn’t place.

Thorn had landed next to the statue and was looking at it as if he meant to knock it over with a swipe of his tail.

“What is that?” Murtagh asked.

Grieve continued trudging on and didn’t turn to look. “A depiction of dream.”

Unease made Murtagh pull his cloak tighter. What do you think? he asked Thorn.

An abomination.

It’s a nightmare, that’s for sure.

As Murtagh continued after Grieve, Thorn said, If they are so foolish as to attack you, I shall rip apart the building from top to bottom.

Murtagh smiled, comforted. Good.

On the other side of the atrium, another passage doglegged to the south. It ended at a tall lancet doorway large enough for Thorn to pass through.

Ironbound doors of dark oak stood open, and past them, a great space echoed.

The chamber seemed part throne room and part inner sanctum. In its center sat a brazier of hammered copper, ten feet across and laden with a bed of smoldering coals. From it, smoke and incense—rich with the scent of sage, pine, and cedar—thickened the air, although they could not obscure the underlying taint of brimstone, which seemed stronger, more concentrated there within the temple. Beneath the brazier, a heavy cast-iron pipe joined the bottom of the metal pan to the floor.

An open-roofed pavilion, made of angled stone, ringed the brazier. From the pavilion uprights, sculpted dragon heads extended over the coals, like gargoyles on the cathedral in Dras-Leona.

The ceiling was lost in shadow. The floor glinted with pearlescent chips of a vast multicolored mosaic that swirled in ways Murtagh’s eyes found difficult to follow. Blood-red banners hung from the walls, their edges tattered, the fabric mildewed and moth-eaten.

Opposite the entrance, on the other side of the brazier and pavilion, was a long double arcade with stone chairs set between the carved columns, empty save for dust and memories. The arcade ended at a wide altar of ashen stone, behind which ascended several steps to a high-backed stone chair, cold and grey and carved with arcane patterns.

And reclining upon that unforgiving throne was Bachel in all her stark, imperious glory. A single shaft of light illuminated her from above—the beam filtered through some cleverly hidden window—and it rimmed her as if with holy radiance. Unlike before, she wore an elaborate headpiece of jade and leather that was black and polished to an oily sheen. Her dress was red and, again, sewn from strips of knotted straps. Rubies and emeralds glinted from the rings on her thumbs.

She was sipping from a cup of carved quartz, her eyes liquid amber in the glow from the brazier.

In every aspect, she presented an imposing figure, and a deep disquiet formed within Murtagh. It felt as if he were approaching a source of secret power; he could nearly taste the energy emanating from Bachel, as if she

were the physical embodiment of some enormous force. Even Galbatorix, he thought, would have hesitated before the witch.

Three acolytes were arrayed before Bachel and the altar, kneeling on the mosaic, hoods drawn over their faces, hands pressed together in prayer. A single grey-robed villager—a dwarf seemingly of middle age—stood in their midst, and he said, “…twelve upon twelve, and the black swan burst into fire over the field of battle, and—”

Bachel lifted a finger, stopping him. “You have had another vision of victory, Genvek.”

The dwarf tugged on his braided beard. “There is yet more, Speaker.

After the swan, I saw—”

“You may tell me of it later, my child,” Bachel said as Grieve arrived at the altar, with Murtagh trailing behind.

The witch, Murtagh noticed, seemed none the worse for wear after her indulgence at the feast. Bachel smiled, and her teeth shone translucent as polished cowrie shells in the pale light from above. “This court has a guest that needs attending. Begone for the nonce.”

Genvek the dwarf appeared put out, but he tugged on his beard again, bowed, and departed with a black glare directed toward Murtagh.

“Come now, Kingkiller,” said Bachel, her voice proud and strong. “Approach that I may see you more clearly.”

Murtagh obliged. He stepped between the acolytes and stood before them, though he hated to have anyone at his back.

Bachel’s smile widened as she studied him. Then she gestured at the temple in a most elegant manner, the gems on her fingers tracing constellations through the air. “Welcome to the Court of Crows, Murtagh Morzansson. It has been over half a century since last a Rider stood here.”

And was that Saerlith or another of the Forsworn? Or Galbatorix himself?

Murtagh wondered.

Before he could reply to Bachel, she said, “And welcome to thee as well, Dragon Thorn.”

Murtagh turned to see that Thorn had stuck his head into the entrance of the presence chamber. The dragon did not dare more than that, but

Murtagh was still grateful to have him near.

Feeling somewhat more confident, he said, “I must admit, I see no crows, Lady.”

The witch laughed, and her husky voice echoed off the shadowed ceiling. “Look closer, Kingkiller. There is much you do not see.”

Murtagh hated being told that he didn’t understand something. And he especially hated when it was true.

Forcing an expression of polite blandness, he turned his gaze upward while also extending outward with his consciousness. Scores of tiny minds immediately appeared above him, as rings of candles set about a ritual space. Crows. A whole flock of them perched along the underside of the ceiling, on cornices and carvings and beams of stone. Now that he knew what to listen for, he could hear the noises as they clucked and muttered and moved about on their tapping claws. And yet none of them cawed, and he saw no droppings on the mosaic below.

He raised an eyebrow. “The floor is very clean.”

Bachel’s smile grew mysterious. “The crows are my kin. I speak to them, and they answer. I command them, and they obey, as do all of my children.” Then she raised a hand and said, “Come,” and he heard magic in the word: a compulsion that nearly caused him to step forward before he mastered himself.

With a soft gale of flapping wings, the crows descended in a black cloud and settled upon the back and arms of Bachel’s throne and on the dais surrounding her. As one, the dire flock fixed their ghostly eyes upon Murtagh—white irises stark and staring in the chamber’s gloom.

Bachel chuckled and clucked fondly at the birds. One of them hopped close to her, and she scratched it on the head and under the beak while the bird closed its eyes in apparent bliss.

“You see, Kingkiller,” she said, “Speaker I am, but also am I the Queen of Crows.”

There was an unreality to the image of her sitting regnant amid the murmuring multitude, a specter-like quality that made Murtagh feel as if the world had shifted sideways and he was no longer in a place where the

familiar rules of nature held sway, but rather an older, wilder sort of reasoning.

He heard Thorn release a low hiss at the front of the chamber.

Murtagh made a small bow. “The extent of your power is truly impressive, Lady Bachel. It seems even the common crow recognizes your authority.”

“Crows are far from common,” said Bachel. She cooed at the bird she was scratching. “Did you know, my son, that the Urgals believe crows carry the souls of the dead to their afterlife?”

“I did not.”

She nodded. “The sight of the crow fills an Urgal with immense dread, but an Urgal will also go to great lengths to help a crow in need or to avoid hurting one, for they think that if they anger the crows, the birds will refuse to carry them to the fields of their ancestors once they die.”

“And what do you believe, my Lady?”

Bachel lifted an eyebrow. Then she said, “Go,” and her voice rang with power. The birds took off in a flurry into the shadows above. “I believe that crows are hungry and they have no scruples as to how they sate their appetite, which is why you will always find them gathered on the field of battle to feast on the fallen.”

Murtagh’s lip curled with revulsion. “A grim reckoning and an unpleasant habit, my Lady.”

The witch sipped from her cup, unconcerned. “You cannot fault them for their nature.”

“Neither do I have to praise them for it.”

Bachel inclined her head. “That is true.” Then her eyes narrowed, and the amber in them darkened. “Tell me, my child, did you rest well last night?”

“Well enough.”

Her gaze further sharpened. “And did you and Thorn dream? You must have. All creatures in this vale dream, even crows.”

She asks most eagerly, said Thorn.

That she does. Murtagh toyed with the ruby set in Zar’roc’s pommel as he considered. He didn’t want to tell Bachel anything too personal, but he was curious how she would interpret their visions. Whatever she said could reveal more about the Dreamers than he would reveal about himself.

So he told her, leaving out but one detail: Nasuada’s appearance in his dream. That was too personal, and Murtagh had no intention of dissecting its meaning with a stranger.

“And what of you, Thorn?” asked Bachel. “What saw you?” Thorn growled softly. I saw much the same.

Then the witch tilted her face to catch the beam of light that broke upon

her brow, and she let out a long sigh. “Ah, such beautiful visions, Kingkiller. I can feel their promise, like the warm touch of dawn’s first rays.”

“I would hardly call them beautiful.”

She lowered her gaze to him. “That is because your sight is blinkered, my son, limited by your senses and the confines of your mind. As is true of all of us, even you, Thorn.”

“But you can see the truth?” Murtagh asked, not hiding his disbelief.

A shake of her head swayed her headpiece. “No. I do not claim such wisdom. I am merely a conduit for understanding. An interpreter, if you will.”

“Then interpret.”

The corners of Bachel’s mouth curved. “Very well, Kingkiller. I shall.” She closed her eyes, and the acolytes bowed in rhythmic fashion and began to chant in an unfamiliar tongue, and Grieve lowered his head until only his widow’s peak showed. Sparks flared in the brazier as Bachel uttered several low words in the strange language, words that lingered in the air longer than was right. For a moment, the chamber seemed to dim as if a shadow pressed in on them from without.

A chill crept into the heated air.

Murtagh held his place, but all the hair on his body stood on end. He felt as if he were in an open field during a heavy thunderstorm while lightning threatened. How very theatric, he commented to Thorn. Nevertheless, he couldn’t deny the effect the ceremony had on him.

When Bachel spoke, her voice had an eerie, hollow timbre: “Behold…as it was, so it shall be. See you now the center of all things, the king on his throne, the snake in his lair. See you now past sorrows—injustices unrevenged—and future triumphs. The cleansing sword, the son freed of his father. See you this now, and know it to be true. As it is dreamt, so it shall be.”

Icy dread coiled within Murtagh’s core, and his whole body tensed at the word father, the response as instinctual as pain.

Bachel slumped slightly. Then she opened her eyes and, in a tired

manner, gestured at the acolytes. They ceased bowing and chanting, and the chamber again fell silent.

Murtagh fought to remain impassive, though his muscles were as taut as so many weighted cables.

The witch straightened upon her throne. “There now, Kingkiller. I have said my piece.”

“The Speaker has spoken,” Grieve murmured.

“And yet,” said Murtagh, “I understand no more than when you started.”

Bachel replied: “That is because I have yet to explain the explanation. Be not so bound by convention, my fair princeling. You must learn to see with more than your mortal vision.”

Murtagh’s frown deepened. “What is it you want, Bachel? Why have you seeded your servants throughout Alagaësia? To what end? And why is it you say Thorn and I are to be the saviors of the land? How? And from what?”

“Do you recognize the shape of this sanctum, my child?” Bachel asked, indicating the chamber about them.

Caught off-guard, Murtagh fumbled his reply. “No. I don’t.”

“You should. It has a sister beneath Urû’baen: the Hall of the Soothsayer.

I believe you are well familiar with it.”

For a moment, Murtagh grew weak, and he nearly sat. He trembled slightly.

He glanced around. The witch was right. If he ignored the arcade and the pillars and the open pavilion, the general layout of the space was similar,

if not identical, to the Hall of the Soothsayer. And the ashen altar, that hateful slab of stone, was no different from the one where Galbatorix had kept Nasuada chained….

Bachel leaned forward, hawklike. “The sacred vapors that emanate from the ground here likewise once emanated from the rocks and stones beneath Urû’baen. Then too a Speaker dwelt in that hall and breathed of them and dispensed the wisdom of dream to those wise enough to consult her.”

Had Galbatorix known the truth about the Soothsayer? He had claimed ignorance regarding her origin, but if there was one thing Murtagh had learned over the years, it was that the king lied, and he lied well.

Perhaps Bachel also lies, said Thorn.

With some difficulty, Murtagh found his voice. “You claim the same mantle as the Soothsayer?”

“We are of the same lineage, in beliefs and observance, if not blood.”

Murtagh glanced back at Thorn, feeling lost. Everything he had heard of the Soothsayer of old had spoken of her uncanny foresight, and there were more than a few stories of people who had ignored her advice—or sought to contravene it—to their inevitable sorrow.

Murtagh had never been able to bring himself to believe that the future was set. Like Thorn, he hated the idea that some impersonal force dictated the shape of his life. The very concept sapped all motive and responsibility from his choices. And yet…if Bachel were an oracle in truth, then he needed to know what she predicted for him and Thorn, if only that they might take a stand against it.

The witch seemed to read his thoughts, though he felt no touch upon his mind. “I will say this to start, my son: it was Fate that brought you here. You could no more have resisted the urge to find Nal Gorgoth—and me within it—than a moth may resist the lure of a nighttime flame. The threads of destiny may be plucked by those who know how. Plucked, and severed. Nal Gorgoth and places like it have endured for longer than you can imagine. No dragon or Rider or elf or any other creature in all the history of the land has ever succeeded in clearing our redoubts or snuffing our faith.”

“Not even Galbatorix?” said Murtagh in a flat tone.

Bachel’s smile widened, showing more teeth than was normal for a human. “Not even the dread dragonkiller himself, Rider. He tried, once, and soon realized the magnitude of his mistake.”

Fear and frustration broke Murtagh’s control. “Who are you?” he cried, allowing some of his power to enter his voice. He could use words to control and command just as easily as Bachel—and he had a dragon backing him to boot.

His voice resounded off the walls of the chamber, and Grieve and the white-robed acolytes stiffened. “Speaker!” said Grieve, the word coming from between clenched teeth.

Bachel seemed unaffected. She waved a hand at Grieve. “Peace, my child. You are as nervous as a spring rabbit. Our guest means us no harm.” The muscles along Grieve’s jaw bunched, yet he held his peace.

Murtagh was not about to do the same. “But my patience grows thin. You promised me answers, Bachel, but so far, all I have are more questions.”

Her nails tapped against the arm of her throne. “Do you doubt my word?”

“No, my Lady, only the timing of its fulfillment.”

She eyed him with a hooded gaze, her headpiece and shoulders haloed with pale radiance from above. “Walk among us for a day and a night, you and Thorn both. See what we are and how we live, ere you seek to pass judgment on us. Dream once more in Nal Gorgoth, and let your mind wander wide and deep.”

She was being evasive. That much was obvious, but at the same time, the offer was tempting. So much about Bachel and the Dreamers was difficult to explain, and Murtagh felt it was desperately important to have a better idea of what they were and what they wanted. Especially if Bachel had the same powers of prophecy as the Soothsayer. They had to learn more. For himself. For Thorn. And for Nasuada.

What say you? he asked Thorn. One day more is no great price.

Lifting his chin, Murtagh said, “If we do, will you forgo your riddles for plainer speech?”

The witch made a gracious gesture with her hand, as if inviting him to bow. “If you do, and you strive to see but truly, then yes, Kingkiller, I will explain my prophecy and more besides. I will lay bare the threads of fate, and you will understand both the role you have played and the role you shall yet play. A great storm is coming, Kingkiller, one that shall shake the very foundations of Alagaësia, and we must all choose where to cast our lots.”

“A storm has already ravaged the land. Another might destroy it.”

Fire replaced the honey in Bachel’s eyes. “Then destroyed it shall be, and a new and better world will rise from the ashes!” Fast as flowing quicksilver, her expression softened. “But not today, Kingkiller.” She stood then and descended from the throne, and the acolytes parted before her. “Come now. If you are to stay with us, Kingkiller, I have arranged a most amusing diversion.”

Wary, Murtagh said, “And what would that be, my Lady?”

She swept past him, the train of her dress trailing across the floor. “The sport of kings, my fair princeling. A boar hunt!”

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