Chapter no 4 – Conclave

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

Fugitives again, thought Murtagh as he ran through Ceunon’s open gatehouse. It seemed like he and Thorn were always having to flee one place or another. Unwanted. That’s what we are.

A horn rang out within the city, and he ducked his head, half expecting a flight of angry arrows to land about him. He heard such horns in his dreams: dread-inducing clarions that heralded the approach of faceless hunters, relentless in their pursuit.

He ran faster.

Past the stables outside the city walls, he swung off the road and into rows of snow-dusted barley, heading east toward where Thorn waited for him.

The night was descending into total blackness. Even once his eyes adjusted to the dark, he could barely see where to put his feet. Nevertheless, he maintained his pace as best he could, determined to put distance between him and Ceunon.

Several molehills caused him to stumble, and he nearly twisted his ankle in a badger hole.

“Son of an Urgal,” he muttered.

At the far end of the fields, he paused to look back. The city gate had been closed, and lamps bobbed along the outer walls as soldiers patrolled the battlements, but he saw no sign that anyone had left Ceunon to give chase.

He started to relax. But only slightly.

As he continued on his way, he risked summoning a small werelight with a whispered “Brisingr.”

The werelight was a drop of bloody flame wavering in the night, just bright enough for him to see the ground. It hung several feet in front of him and held its distance no matter how fast he ran.

Brisingr. Eragon had taught him that word of power, as he had many of the words in the ancient language during their travels together, in the brief period when they had been friends and allies. For all the stresses of that time

—they had been evading the Empire the whole while—it had been one of the most enjoyable chapters of Murtagh’s life. He remembered it with a curious mixture of gratitude, regret, and resentment: a short, shining span of freedom, bracketed by his initial escape from Galbatorix’s tyranny in Urû’baen and his subsequent recapture at the hands of the king’s minions outside of Tronjheim. Following which, Galbatorix had bound him with the ancient language and forced brother to fight brother.

Murtagh found himself clenching his teeth. Brother. It was still strange to think of Eragon as such. Half brother, in truth, for while they shared a mother, Murtagh was the son of Morzan, first and foremost among the Forsworn—the thirteen Dragon Riders who had betrayed their order to aid Galbatorix in his campaign against the Riders over a century ago. I am the traitor son of a traitor, thought Murtagh, and the knowledge burned like acid dripped upon his heart.

Eragon was also the son of a Rider, but in contrast, his father, Brom, had bitterly opposed Galbatorix and all his servants. A fact that had a deeply personal outcome, for it was Brom who had slain Morzan and his dragon when Murtagh was still a young child.

His lip curled. Their family history was as tangled as a briar patch and just as painful to wade through. He wished their mother were still alive that he might question her about it, but she had died shortly after giving birth to Eragon. And while Murtagh knew it was irrational, he could not help but blame Eragon for the loss: one more reason for resentment among so many others.

With an extra-deep breath, Murtagh cleared his lungs and lengthened his strides. It was true that stepping outside the main current of events in Alagaësia had helped calm his mind, but he still felt twisted up inside, him and Thorn both.

It might take years for either of them to unknot, if ever they did.

An owl hooted from a nearby tree, and somewhere in the brush, an animal darted away. Maybe a rabbit. Maybe something worse. A Svartling perhaps. The small, dark-skinned creatures were said to help with household chores if given gifts of bread and milk, but they were also said to treat travelers with cruel and often dangerous tricks.

Whatever the sound, Murtagh didn’t want to meet its author in the middle of a night-bound field.

He slowed as he climbed the hill where they’d landed earlier, weaving between the crags of rock and the thickets of hordebrush.

At the crest, he found Thorn crouched, ready to spring into the air. The dragon’s eyes outshone the werelight, and his scales flashed and flared with renewed brilliance. Great furrows scarred the earth around him: the tufts of grass torn, hordebrush uprooted, rocks split.

Thorn’s tail twitched when he saw Murtagh, and he shivered with an excess of unburnt energy. A snarl wrinkled his muzzle.

Murtagh eyed the furrows but made no comment.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Seriously.” He turned in a circle, arms outstretched. “The blood isn’t mine.”

Thorn sniffed him and growled slightly before settling back on his haunches. His muzzle smoothed, but Murtagh could still feel his fear, frustration, and anger. I should have come to help you.

“It’s all right. Really.” He stroked Thorn’s neck before continuing to the saddlebags, where he removed Zar’roc, unwrapped the crimson sword, and

—with a sense of relief—strapped the weapon to his waist.

“We’d best find somewhere else for the night,” he said, climbing up Thorn’s back to the saddle strapped between the large spikes on the dragon’s shoulders. Once in place, he snuffed the werelight.

Always you stir up the ant-nest cities, said Thorn.

“I know. It’s a bad habit. Let’s go.”

Another growl, and with a great gust of wind and surge of steely muscles, Thorn leaped into the night air, the thud of his wings an invisible hammer blow.

Three more beats carried them into the clouds. The mist was cold against Murtagh’s cheeks, but not unpleasantly so after his run. It tasted of moss and fresh-cut grass and new beginnings.





Thorn flew east for a seemingly endless while. At last, they descended to settle on a flat-topped knoll with a commanding view over the landscape. Dark though it was, Murtagh could just make out the forest of Du Weldenvarden farther to the south—a long black smear that extended across the land, like a great arm pointing back toward Ceunon.

The cold stung his skin as he dropped his cloak and pulled off his bloodstained shirt, trying to avoid touching the spots of gore. “Hvitra,” he murmured as he imposed his will on the garment.

The cloth shimmered slightly, and the blotches of red faded.

Murtagh stroked the linen. It looked clean enough, but he still intended to wash the shirt before he wore it again.

He stored the shirt in a saddlebag and removed his one other garment: a thick woolen top—knitted, not woven—dyed a dark brown with interlaced patterns of red along the wrists and neck. The wool was itchy, but it was his preferred wear for flying, as it was far warmer than the linen.

Eager to cover his skin, he donned the top and again wrapped himself in his cloak.

Since a fire might draw attention, Thorn curled into a tight ball, nose to tail, and Murtagh crawled under his right wing and laid out his bedroll next to the smooth scales of Thorn’s underbelly.

Was it worth it? Thorn asked.

“I think so,” said Murtagh. Opening his mind more than felt safe around strangers, he shared his full memories of Ceunon.

They were not very good, said Thorn, fixing on an image of Sarros’s guards. “No, they weren’t. Lucky for me.”

A faint growl, and the dragon drew his wing tighter around Murtagh. I see now there is a storm set before us.

“But how big, how bad? We still don’t know.” But it exists.


Thorn’s plated eyelid closed and opened with a slight nack. You wish to fly into the storm.

“Maybe not into it, but toward it, yes. What say you?”

The dragon coughed with his peculiar laugh. That we should take the stone to Tronjheim and have the dwarves carve it into something pretty for us.

Murtagh snorted. “With our heads on pikes to watch?”

A faint scent of dragon smoke filled the space around them as a thread of crimson flame flickered in Thorn’s nostrils. No? Then I say we should sleep and speak of it in the morning.

“I suppose you’re right.”

Behind him, Thorn’s belly vibrated with a low hum, and Murtagh crossed his arms and let his chin sink to his chest. Underneath the wing, all was still, and it felt as if he and Thorn were the only two creatures in existence.

Before sleep took him, Murtagh did as was his nightly habit and, in a silent voice, spoke the words in the ancient language that were his true name. Hearing them was never easy; to know your true name was to know your faults as surely as your virtues. Yet he said the name every day so as to be assured that he still understood his own nature and that no one besides Thorn held claim over him. For a true name granted power to those who heard it, and even as a magician might command an object with the proper words, so too might they command a person.

As Murtagh and Thorn had learned to their sorrow and despair during their subjugation in Urû’baen.

Thorn too spoke his true name, a deep singing sound that made Murtagh’s skin feel as if laved with warm water. Then the day’s tensions

ebbed from their limbs, and they fell into close slumber.




Morning brought freezing fog from the ocean and a thick layer of feathered frost. Ice crystals cracked loose as Murtagh crawled out from under Thorn’s wing and squinted toward the pale disk of the rising sun, thin and rose pink above the edge of Du Weldenvarden. Streamers of mist ribboned upward from the treetops, the entire forest steaming with stored warmth from the previous day.

Murtagh shivered and pulled his cloak closer. The morning cold never got any easier.

He checked their surroundings and was pleased to see no sign of search or pursuit.

Confident that they’d escaped detection, he allowed himself the luxury of a small fire, built with scraps of dry hordebrush he foraged from the top and sides of the knoll.

Thorn lit the fire for him, igniting the woody stems with a single, tiny puff of flame from his nostrils.

“Thank you,” said Murtagh, and he meant it. Fiddling with flint and tinder when your fingers were half numb wasn’t fun, and he preferred to avoid using magic for everyday tasks. Magic made its own sort of noise for those with the ears to hear it, and it was impossible to know who might be listening.

Breakfast was flatbread and bacon and two dried apples, with a cup of elderberry tea to warm his insides. Thorn watched as he ate but had no food of his own; the dragon had devoured several deer not three days earlier and wouldn’t need to feed again for the better part of a week.

By the time Murtagh finished, the morning had warmed enough to melt the frost and dissipate the morning haze.

He took out the bird-skull amulet and the coal-like stone and laid them on a scrap of cloth between himself and Thorn.

Thorn sniffed the two objects, and the tip of his tongue flicked out between his teeth. As he scented the stone, the scales along the back of his head and neck flared, like those of a pinecone opening in a fire.

“What?” said Murtagh, leaning forward. “What is it?”

A shiver ran Thorn’s sinuous length, and he cowered in a way that Murtagh had only ever seen him do before Shruikan. The stone smells wrong.

“How so?”

Like…blood and hate and anger.

Murtagh scratched his cheek. His beard was prickling again. “Could it be magic?”

Another flicker of Thorn’s tongue. Maybe. But then it should affect you as well.

“Unless it’s meant only for dragons.” Murtagh picked up the rock, bounced it in his hand. On a whim, he extended his mind toward the piece of stone, thinking perhaps it held some secret spark of consciousness bound within. But he felt nothing. He frowned and returned it to the cloth. “We need to find out where it came from.”

Thorn hissed like a snake. No. You want to find out where it came from. There is a difference. We should destroy the rock or else bury it where none will find it. There is evil here. Leave it, forget it, do not pursue it.

“You know I can’t.”

A growl rumbled in Thorn’s throat, and his scales rippled. You can! Listen to Umaroth. He warned us for good reason.

“And what reason is that?” It matters not!

Thorn released a huff of black smoke and reached with one taloned paw toward the rock and amulet, as if to sweep them aside.

“No!” Murtagh cried, and sprang to his feet so he blocked Thorn’s way. They stared at each other, neither backing down. The air between them seemed to vibrate with the force of the dragon’s glittering glare.

Move aside. “No.”

This hunt will bring nothing but sorrow.

“I don’t believe that.”

Fingerling flames danced along Thorn’s tongue, and the inside of his mouth glowed like a bellowed forge. When has fate ever gone as we wish? Let this go.

“I can’t,” said Murtagh. A familiar grimness descended upon him. “I can’t sleep easy knowing there’s a wolf stalking around in the dark. Something so dangerous Umaroth won’t even give us its name.”

Some secrets are better left buried.

“No! No, no, no. Do you want to wake up one morning to find out that we’ve been outmatched, outmaneuvered, and outsmarted? Not me. Not ever again.” Murtagh stopped, hands clenched, and his nostrils flared as he steadied his breathing. He fixed Thorn with an iron gaze. “Never.”

The dragon released a long, snaking hiss and said, Isn’t what we have enough? All the earth and sky is ours to travel. We sleep when we want, eat as we will. We paid our price, we shed our blood.

“And we’re still not safe!” With a conscious effort, Murtagh lowered his voice, though his words remained as intense as before. “We never will be, but perhaps we can catch our enemies unaware. Umaroth is hiding something from us, and I won’t rest until I know what it is.”

Thorn breathed out a stream of black smoke that enveloped the stone and the bird-skull amulet. Were you to take those to Eragon or Arya—

“This has nothing to do with them!” Murtagh ran a hand through his hair. It was getting long again. “I want answers. And I want to be useful.”

Being yourself is use enough. We do not need to prove ourselves to anyone.

He laughed bitterly. “Maybe if you’re a dragon. But I’ve always had to prove myself, and I always will. There’s no easy path through life when you’re born as Morzan’s son.”

He went to Thorn and put his hands on either side of the dragon’s scaled snout. “Besides, you and I, we are Dragon and Rider. We swore no oaths to the Riders—”

Thorn arched his neck in a proud curve, though he left his head in Murtagh’s hands. And I will swear no more oaths of fealty. No words will bind me, nor shackles or fetters.

“No,” Murtagh agreed. “Nor me. But we owe a debt to those who came before. We wear their mantle, whether we wish it or not, and I find myself reluctant to dishonor their memory by ignoring this.”

Thorn snuffed. No one would know if we chose another path.

“We would know, and that is enough.” He gestured toward the rock and bird-skull amulet. “That there is work for a Rider and Dragon, as it was of old.”

The dragon turned his head then, to better see Murtagh. So shall we fly about fighting evil and righting wrongs wherever we find them? Is that how you wish to spend your days?

Murtagh’s lips quirked. “Not entirely, but perhaps we can do some good here and there while we attend to our own interests.”

As you did with the girl.

“As I did with the girl.” He put a hand on Thorn’s cheek then, and opened his mind as much as he could to the dragon’s inner eye. Look, he said, and let Thorn feel the fullness of his heart.

Finally, Thorn uttered a soft growl and pulled his head away. I understand. “But you don’t agree.”

The last few feet of Thorn’s tail slapped the ground. Once. Twice. Three times. What you want isn’t what I want. A wave of his hot breath rolled over Murtagh. But where you go, I will go.

He nodded, grateful. Their relationship wasn’t as smooth as Eragon and Saphira’s, and Murtagh didn’t think it ever would be. But that was all right. A dull thorn was no thorn at all.

Besides, Murtagh knew that he wasn’t the easiest person to get along with, even for a dragon.

Thorn must have sensed his mood, because a faint hum of amusement came from the dragon, and he curled his neck and tail around Murtagh’s legs.

What then?

Kneeling, Murtagh touched the bird skull. “We need to find someone who can tell us about the witch-woman Bachel, and about this stone.”


He shook his head. “Too far away, and he would just warn us off the stone again.”

Thorn snapped his jaws together, quick and sharp as a steel trap. Would he? I still think you should speak with Umaroth. He is wiser than most.

It was a fair point. Not only was Umaroth old and learned, but he and his dead Rider, Vrael, had been the last leaders of their order. That alone was reason enough to give weight to the dragon’s words. Yet Murtagh remained wary. “I respect Umaroth,” he said. “But I’m not sure if I trust him.”

You think he lies?

“No. I think his goals and aims may not be our own. We don’t know. How long did we speak with him outside Urû’baen? Barely a few minutes, if that.” Murtagh picked a breadcrumb out of his beard. Annoyed, he flicked it at the ground.

So you wish to find the truth of this yourself. “I do.”

Thorn nodded toward the amulet. Then whom shall we seek out instead? “I’m not sure. We need someone here in Alagaësia, someone who is

familiar with the secret doings of the land.”

Thorn’s eyes narrowed to knife-thin slits. What of Yarek?

The back of Murtagh’s neck prickled, and a fist seemed to close around his chest, making it difficult to breathe. Yarek Lackhand, tight-mouthed, hard-eyed, clever as an elf and cruel as a torturer—Murtagh could see him still, standing in the stone hallways of Galbatorix’s citadel, a drably dressed man with an iron cap strapped over the stump of his right wrist. Yarek had been Galbatorix’s spymaster, and from what Murtagh had seen, he’d excelled in the position. It was he who had arranged for the Twins to kidnap Murtagh from the Varden so the king could break him, bend him to his will.

Thorn touched his snout to Murtagh’s elbow.

He patted the dragon. If not for Yarek, he wouldn’t have ended up bonded with Thorn, and Murtagh had to count that as a good thing. However, the spymaster had been the very definition of ruthless. And he kicked dogs, which Murtagh disapproved of. “Even if he’s still alive—”

You know he is.

Murtagh inclined his head. “Probably. But I’m sure he’s disappeared down some hole, and if I start poking around, asking questions, it’ll attract attention.”

Thorn made a deep, coughing sound. “What?”

If not Yarek, why not the female, Ilenna?

“Ilenna—” Murtagh gave Thorn a quizzical look. Of all the folk who had passed through Galbatorix’s court, Ilenna had been one of the more unusual. She was a younger daughter of a merchant family based out of the city of Gil’ead. Her father’s cargo trains had helped supply the king’s army during the war, and the family had made a fortune because of it. Despite her lowborn station, the girl had pursued him most assiduously whenever she was at court, so much so that Murtagh had taken to actively avoiding her. That alone was hardly unique, but what had caught his attention was how particularly well informed she was. As he’d later learned, her family had done more than just shift supplies for Galbatorix. They had also served as gleaners and sifters of information on Yarek’s behalf, and Ilenna no less than her father or brothers.

“There’s no telling if she knows anything about Bachel or the stone.” Thorn coughed again and tapped the ground with the tip of one razor-

sharp claw. She is more likely to than most. And if not, no doubt she would be eager to ask questions on behalf of the great Dragon Rider Murtagh.

He grunted, unamused. “Even if that’s true— No. We’re not going there. We’ll find someone else, somewhere else.”

Who? Where? If you want to track down Bachel and the source of this rock, then Gil’ead is the answer. If not, how long will it be before you catch their trail?

“You never know,” Murtagh mumbled. “It could happen. Maybe one of the tinkers or—”

A puff of acrid smoke blew over him as Thorn snorted.

Murtagh stopped. The dragon was right; he was being ridiculous. Grim, he crossed his arms and stared out over hill and dale toward the horizon.

The weight of unspoken memories hung between them.

“Gil’ead is dangerous.”

More dangerous than Ceunon? More closely guarded than Ilirea?

Murtagh shifted his shoulders, as if he had an itch in the middle of his back. He still wasn’t used to Urû’baen’s new name. Every time he heard it said—Ilirea—he felt as if he’d missed a step on a flight of stairs.

Finally, he answered, with his mind, not his mouth, I don’t want to. There was no dissembling when it came to mental communication, no barriers to understanding. It was the most vulnerable form of connection two beings could share, and he shared it with Thorn.

The dragon hummed a soothing note and lowered his head until it rested on the ground by Murtagh’s feet.

Then leave it, said Thorn. Or hold the course. What is this hunt worth to you? Murtagh let out his breath and uncrossed his arms, forcing himself to stand straight. He put a hand in the middle of Thorn’s forehead. The scales

were hot against his palm.

“All right. We’ll go to Gil’ead and find Ilenna.”




Before they departed the knoll, Murtagh sharpened his dagger on the bit of dwarven whetstone he carried with him. He stropped it on his sword belt and then made a mirror from water poured in a plate and stilled with the word entha.

Peering into the silvery grey surface, he was struck by how gaunt he looked. He hadn’t been eating enough. They were always moving, walking, flying, often in inclement weather. Meals were intermittent at best, and more than once he’d gone a full day without so much as a bite.

Not good, he thought. The thinner he was, the less reserves he had for spells when the need arose. The magicians with the most raw power were always the heaviest.

He pulled the skin on his jaw flat and tight, lifted the dagger, and started to shave.

The dagger wasn’t as sharp as a barber’s razor, but it did the job. Even after the first pass, his face felt colder, and Murtagh half regretted his decision. Still, he persisted, and soon enough, he was finished.

He only cut himself three times, which he counted a success.

Afterward, he studied himself in the makeshift mirror. Without the beard, he appeared younger but also leaner, harsher, like a starveling wolf.

He dashed the water aside with the flat of his hand. You are yourself again, said Thorn.

Murtagh grunted. Maybe he should have waited until after Gil’ead to shave, but he couldn’t bear to have crumbs on his chin. Not to mention the constant itching.

He dried off the plate and tucked it into the saddlebags. Then he bounded up into Thorn’s saddle and strapped down his legs so he wouldn’t fall. “Let’s fly!”

Thorn growled in a fierce, pleased tone and sprang into the sky, wings sweeping overhead.

The world lurched around Murtagh, and he gripped the neck spike in front of him, squinting against the rush of cold wind. For better or worse, they were going to Gil’ead.

You'll Also Like