PART II: GIL’EAD: Chapter no 6 – Hostile Territory

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

Thorn’s wings knocked loose a flurry of leaves as he descended amid willows and poplars into the secluded hollow. The clearing was barely big enough for him, and Murtagh could already feel his


As the leaves settled, Thorn glanced around at the confined space. He growled, and a brace of ravens sprang cawing from within the poplars.

“It’s all right,” said Murtagh in a soothing tone. “We have to hide, and this is a good place for it. If anything happens, you can take off.”

Thorn rolled his eyes but held his position.

After unstrapping his legs, Murtagh slid to the ground. It felt strange to be back in the hollow, as if it were a place from a half-remembered dream.

He shook himself and searched the area with his mind. To his relief, the only living creatures he felt were mice and rabbits, two weasels, and a small herd of deer grazing on a nearby hill.

Satisfied, he said, “It’s safe.”

The day was already near an end, so they made camp and soon enough were fast asleep.



Does Lord Relgin know you well enough to recognize you?

Murtagh looked up from his bowl. A fire was too risky so close to Gil’ead, which meant breakfast of cold porridge and jerky.

Thorn was watching from the center of the clearing. He refused to crawl under the edge of the canopy, where Murtagh had placed his bedroll.

“He knows of me, but I don’t think we’ve met. In any case, I shouldn’t cross paths with him.”

And if you do?

“I’ll lie, and if lies aren’t enough, I’ll run.” Thorn blinked.

A sparrow darted past over the clearing, chasing morning insects. Murtagh scooped the last of the porridge into his mouth. “Either way,

I’ll be back by sundown. If not—” The soft soil squished between Thorn’s claws as he kneaded the ground. “If not,” Murtagh repeated with gentle emphasis, “I’ll let you know.”

Will you take Zar’roc with you this time?

Murtagh looked at the sword propped against the log he was sitting on. He wanted to. Entering Gil’ead unarmed wasn’t an appealing prospect. “It’ll attract too much attention. I’ll bring my dagger instead.”

Thorn uttered a hiss of disapproval. Always this problem. You should get another sword, one that you can carry wherever you go.

“That’s not a bad idea,” said Murtagh, wiping his mouth. “I’d have to enchant it, though, so it didn’t break.”

Then do so, insisted Thorn.

Murtagh eyed him. “All right. Gil’ead has a large weapons market. Or it did. I’ll see what I can find there.”

Good. Thorn dug his claws deeper into the ground.

“But in the meantime…” Murtagh hopped to his feet and walked among the trees until he found a poplar sapling—as thick as his wrist—that had died from lack of light, shadowed by the branches of the full-grown trees. He pried the sapling loose from the loam and carried it back to camp.

There, he stripped it of bark and cut it so it was a head taller than himself. “Done,” he said, hefting the staff. “Not the best wood, but it’ll do for now.”

You can fight with this? Thorn asked.

“Better, I can walk with it,” said Murtagh, and he leaned on the staff as if he had a bad knee. “If anyone looks, they’ll see my leg, not my face.”

Thorn sniffed the staff. Dull stick-claw is improvement on no dull stick-claw, I suppose. Still, try not to kick up a hive of hornets as you did at Ceunon.

“That wasn’t on purpose.”

It never is. Perhaps Ilenna can keep you from getting into trouble, hmm?

Murtagh raised an eyebrow. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you wanted her to catch me.”

Thorn’s mouth spread in an approximation of a smile. Maybe you should let her. It might ease the fire in your belly.

Murtagh snorted. “You know what that leads to. Children.” Hatchlings are not a bad thing.

He eyed Thorn, serious. “They are if you can’t give them the care they need. I wouldn’t inflict that on any child of mine. I’d sooner die.”



From the hollow, Murtagh trotted east and north until he intercepted the main road leading up to Gil’ead. There were soldiers marching along the way, and farmers driving wagons and livestock, and shuttered carriages, and a merchant caravan laden with southern goods.

Murtagh slipped onto the road and fell in behind the caravan, making no attempt to avoid the cloud of dust kicked up by the line of mules. He pulled his hood over his face, lowered his head, and adopted a limping step.

As he walked, he practiced his lies. Yes, he was Tornac son of Tereth, come from Ilirea to purchase swords and spears and shields for his master’s men. His master? One Burdock Marrisson, who had served honorably as captain in Nasuada’s army and been awarded a minor title as reward. No, he didn’t have any letters of recommendation. Why should he? Yes, he had a letter of credit to make his purchases. His horse? Stabled at the Cattail Inn, south of Gil’ead.

And so forth and so on. The story wouldn’t stand close inspection, but Murtagh hoped it would be enough to avoid trouble if trouble came


In the fields alongside the road, he saw traces of the battle for Gil’ead, ghosts of past bloodshed. There along a hedgerow was where the Empire’s cavalry had massed, and even now a circle of ground was bare where horses had trampled the dirt until it was hard as fired brick. Half a ruined wagon lay rotting along the lip of a nearby ditch, the wood burnt black by spellfire. Farther to the east was where the elves had broken through the army’s defensive lines and begun to drive them away from Gil’ead.

Murtagh forced himself to stop looking, but he couldn’t stop remembering. It must have been terrifying, he thought. To be stuck on foot, with dragons fighting overhead, and ranks of elves descending upon your position…He could hardly imagine a worse situation.

As he drew closer to Gil’ead, he noticed an odd thing. Half a mile ahead of him, there was a narrow side path that ran west some distance to a large oak tree on a hilly crest. At least a third of the travelers turned aside from the road and walked to the oak, which they looked at for a long time before doing an about-face and returning to the road.

Murtagh couldn’t make sense of it. There were no stands beside the oak.

No merchants or tinkers plying their trade. It was just…a tree.

He stopped next to the road and waited until an oxen-pulled wagon came up alongside him. The man holding the reins was rawboned, sun-darkened, and had a stalk of green grass hanging from the corner of his mouth. Next to him sat a pair of boys who couldn’t have been older than ten or twelve.

“Pardon me, neighbor,” said Murtagh, putting on a northern accent. “What might be happening over at that there tree?”

The farmer glanced at him sideways and twitched the stalk between his lips. “Tha’s where the dragon’s buried.”

A knot formed in Murtagh’s stomach. “A dragon?”

“Ayuh. An’ an elf too, if ’n you believe it.” The two boys peered curiously around the farmer at Murtagh, and the oxen lowed. “Th’ elves burned th’ dragon’s body, an’ grew that tree over th’ ashes.”

Then the wagon rolled past, leaving Murtagh standing alone.

With heavy steps, he resumed walking. He didn’t look at the tree again, and he tried not to think about it. But when he reached the intersection, where the path diverged from the road, he muttered, “I’m sorry.”

He could still see Glaedr’s battered body falling from on high, a burning meteor plummeting toward the bloody mire that footed the world, wings fluttering like wind-torn flags.

Thorn’s mind touched his, and the dragon said, Their fate was not our fault. Murtagh tensed as he recalled the feeling of Galbatorix entering and seizing control of his mind. The king had used him to kill Oromis, and Thorn to kill Glaedr, although Glaedr still lived on in his Eldunarí. No, but

Galbatorix wouldn’t have succeeded without us. Not then. Not there.

A sense of reluctant agreement came from Thorn. I would have liked to have known Glaedr as a friend, not a foe.

And I Oromis. It’s possible we might still have a chance with Glaedr, if ever he allows it.

The memories of dragons run as long and deep as the roots of the mountains. He will not forgive us for killing his Rider.

I suppose not. Murtagh sighed. He couldn’t help but resent Eragon and Saphira for having the chance to study under Oromis and Glaedr. If only we’d had the same opportunities, what could we have become? A useless line of thought, and he knew it, but the sentiment weighed on him all the same.

We have become strong, said Thorn. No one has survived what we have.

Which was true. But despite what Murtagh had told Essie, he believed that some wounds, some scars, were too great to overcome and did nothing to make a person stronger. Quite the opposite. A truly severe injury only left you weakened, imperfect, and there was no fixing most of it.

He kept the feeling to himself. He didn’t want Thorn to ever believe that he viewed the dragon as irrevocably damaged. If anything, Murtagh thought the dragon had a better chance of becoming whole than he did. By the standards of both humans and dragons, Thorn was hardly more than a hatchling, despite how Galbatorix had accelerated his physical growth. He was young, and like magic, youth meant potential. But it would take time for Thorn to heal. Years and years, if not the entire span of their existence.

The pattern of our lives is set so early, he thought. If ever he did have children—and the thought filled him with the deepest trepidation—he knew he would do everything within his power to ensure that their first few years were full of love and joy. If nothing else, then, the children would have those first bright memories to sustain them during the darkness. What better gift from a parent?

Soft as a shadow came words that he felt almost more than heard: “… beautiful boy. What a strong boy. You make me so proud.” His mother’s voice, half remembered, as she’d spoken to him in the hall of Morzan’s castle.

Murtagh’s steps faltered. He leaned on his staff for real then, and stared at the net of cracks in the bare dirt as he waited for the surge of emotion to pass. Was it grief, anger, longing for what he never had?…He couldn’t tell.

Setting aside his feelings, he continued forward. It was all he could do.



Gil’ead didn’t have a proper city wall, as did Ceunon and Dras-Leona—in the event of an attack, the commoners were expected to shelter inside the central fortress—but there was still a gatehouse along the main road.

The guards, Murtagh was relieved to see, were just keeping a general watch and made no effort to inspect those who entered.

He lowered his head and hurried past, trying to blend in with the caravan he’d followed.

The city proper was a loud, boisterous place, earthy and muscular. The smell of manure was strong in the air, and people shouted across the streets and from the balconies of their houses. There were minstrels by the squares and tinkers in the streets, and dozens of buildings were being raised across the city, which surprised Murtagh; they’d have to hurry to get the roofs on before winter descended in earnest.

He saw even more evidence of the war. The buildings along the main thoroughfare were scorched on their beams, and broken-off shafts of embedded arrows stuck out from the walls, like thorns on a rosebush. A rowdy band of dwarves was arguing with a stablemaster near the city

entrance as they tried to agree on terms for housing the dwarves’ ponies. Close to the center of Gil’ead, Murtagh saw a pair of elves—one male, one female, both with ink-black hair—standing inside the gate of an ostentatious stone-walled house, talking in the front garden while purple-edged butterflies fluttered about their heads and shoulders.

Murtagh suppressed a snort. How like them. We’re all true to our own natures, I suppose.

He made sure to keep well away from the stone house.

After the quiet of the past four days, the smells and sounds of the city were overwhelming. Murtagh fought the urge to plug his ears—and nose— and he found himself flinching at unexpected noises.

You’re turning into a wild animal, he thought. Skittish and untamed. He wasn’t sure if it was a bad thing.

He made his way to the main market, which indeed had many weapons on display. He gave them a pass for the time being, as he felt that a sword would attract more attention than his staff, and wandered among the other stalls, inspecting the wares. A few discreet questions about the origins of a soft woolen scarf and a cask of southern wine and a set of carved necklaces were enough for him to learn that Ilenna’s family still plied their trade. Further inquiry with a seller of cloth revealed that, as he suspected, Ilenna was most often to be found at Lord Relgin’s court, advising the earl on her father’s behalf.

Satisfied with his findings, Murtagh stopped at a small tent decked with wicker cages containing doves, pigeons, and songbirds of various sorts. The owner was a gruff, mustachioed man who more resembled a military quartermaster than a merchant.

After some brief haggling, Murtagh bought the brightest, sweetest-sounding finch. With a cloth over the cage to keep the bird silent, he hurried through the busy streets to the fortress entrance.

The main gates were open, the cross-barred portcullis raised high, but Murtagh didn’t head toward them. The guards standing on either side of the gates would inspect anyone who tried to walk straight in.

That had never been his plan. Instead, he positioned himself behind the corner of a nearby house, where the guards couldn’t see him but he could watch everyone who entered and exited the fortress. Murtagh knew his time was limited. Someone was sure to notice if he kept loitering there, but he didn’t think he would need to wait very long.

He was right.

Not half an hour after he settled into place, a red-haired page with tasseled sleeves hurried out the front gate and rushed off in the direction of the market. Murtagh perked up. Perfect.

He slipped through an alleyway stinking of night soil and placed himself by the side of the street where he guessed the page would return.

A tug on his cloak caused him to start. He looked down to see a pair of dirty faces staring up at him, urchins barely half his height, dressed in rags that had seen more years than their owners.

“Please, master, sir,” they said in unison, and held out cupped hands.

Murtagh couldn’t tell if the children were male or female. He decided it didn’t matter. He also decided it didn’t matter if they were making a fool of him, if they had a house with family and food and a warm hearth.

“Here. Go buy something to eat,” he said, fishing two coppers out of his purse.

They laughed and bobbed their heads. “Thank you, sir! Red, red, red, an’ dragon get’cha!” Then, quick as rats, they scurried down the alley and disappeared among the buildings.

Murtagh checked his belt. His purse was still where it should be, which he counted a victory. He smiled. Whatever happened with Ilenna, he’d done some good that day.

His smile faded as he spotted the page heading back along the street. The youth was dawdling along, eating a hand pie, enjoying the sun, and watching the ladies on the street. Not so eager to return to your master or mistress, eh?

As the youth passed the alley mouth, Murtagh swept aside his cloak and, in a voice from the past, said, “Boy! Hold there. I would speak with you.”

The page froze, and Murtagh could see panic in his eyes as the youth tried to figure out whether he was in trouble and, if so, how much.

“Y-y-yes, sir?” The page bowed slightly, and then looked askance at Murtagh’s travel-stained clothes. A line of gravy ran from the page’s half-eaten pie and down his hand.

Hesitation would lose the day. Assuming a haughty air, Murtagh beckoned him closer. “Come here, boy. You are a page of Lord Relgin’s court, yes? I have need of a courier to deliver a message of mine.”

The youth glanced back at the fortress and shifted on his feet, as if to turn and run. “My master—”

“Speak not to me of your master! This is of the highest importance.” Murtagh tapped the side of his nose. “The highest importance.” The page’s expression sharpened into interest. Intrigue always had that effect. “You know the goodwoman Ilenna who attends Lord Relgin’s court?”

“I know of Ilenna, sir.”

Murtagh gestured as if that were of no matter. “And you no doubt might command her attention, by reason of your position, yes?”

The youth puffed out his chest slightly. “Why yes, sir. I suppose I might.”

“Excellent.” Murtagh held out a square of folded parchment sealed with a blob of melted tallow. “Then I charge you to convey this message to the estimable Ilenna, and with it my urgent desire to have words with her at the soonest convenience. Along with my request, I offer this gift to Ilenna, as a sign of my deep respect.” He motioned to the cage by his feet.

The page eyed the cage and parchment. “If I do find her, sir—”

“Then return with alacrity, boy, and let me know her response. This is a matter of urgency.” The page hesitantly accepted the parchment, and Murtagh said, as if he’d forgotten until that very moment, “Oh yes, and for your troubles.” He handed over a tarnished coin. “A silver now, and a crown when you return.”

The page’s face brightened. “Sir, yes sir!”

A crown was more than the youth likely saw in a year. An expensive bribe, but worth it, although the cost left Murtagh’s purse sadly depleted.

If this keeps up, I might have to seek gainful employment, he thought, sardonic. Perhaps as a mercenary or a chirurgeon.

As the youth scooped up the cage, the finch inside warbled with sleepy protest. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, sir.”

Murtagh nodded, again wrapping himself in his cloak. “I shall wait until such time as I hear Ilenna’s response. Now go! And swift fate guide you.”

The page turned and trotted toward the castle, holding the cage in one hand and his half-eaten pie in the other.

Murtagh shook his head as he watched the youth depart. Pages had formed an essential, if inefficient, means of communication in Galbatorix’s court. Not only that, they usually knew more of what was going on than even the spymaster himself. He just hoped that the promise of gold would keep the youth focused on his task.

While he waited, Murtagh passed the time by watching the people of Gil’ead. There were soldiers in shirts of rusted mail, with spears resting at a jaunty angle on their shoulders. Officers trotting past on well-groomed horses with braided manes. Merchants with plumed hats and clothes made of rich fabrics. Nobles—or would-be nobles drawn from the upper ranks of the Varden—attempting to avoid splattering mud on their finery, often with a line of trailing servants carrying bundles of purchases. Many of the more important personages made use of covered chairs carried by porters who trotted through the streets at a brisk pace, conveying the impression that whoever was inside had the most urgent business.

In reality, Murtagh knew the porters couldn’t maintain such a pace, and most of the trips were of the most mundane variety. But as always, appearances had to be upheld.

He glanced at the muddy hem of his cloak. As much as he liked order and cleanliness, he didn’t miss the never-ending drive to present a perfect image to the world. Now that he’d had time away from court, that pressure seemed a form of temporary insanity.

At the end of the street, opposite the fortress, he could see into the main square. Lively music sounded among the buildings, and through a crowd of shifting bodies, he caught glimpses of a harvest dance: men and women circling each other, arms interlinked, feet lifting high to the rapid beat.

Murtagh found himself tapping his own foot. Dancing had been the one thing he’d enjoyed at court, although everything surrounding the dances— the politics and machinations and general villainy—had been miserable. But the dances themselves, ah, those had been a special pleasure. He’d mastered even the most complicated sequence of steps, and it had served him in good stead in his swordplay. Footwork was everything in dance and war, whether on an individual level or on the level of armies and nations. The right move at the right moment was the difference between victory and defeat, and the right move wasn’t always the expected one.

A face across the street caught Murtagh’s attention. A flash of pale cheek, the line of a jaw, the distinctive silhouette of a nose…Murtagh stiffened as he eyed the profile of a youngish man walking amid a knot of five guards.

It can’t be. Lyreth? The oldest son of Lord Thaven, who had served as commander of Galbatorix’s navy? Lyreth was four years older than Murtagh. He’d always been larger and stronger while growing up and hadn’t been shy about using that to his advantage.

Now that Murtagh thought about it, he hadn’t seen Lyreth in Urû’baen during his last stay in the capital. Thaven’s son had been smart enough to avoid appearing at court while Murtagh was there as a Rider.

What’s he doing here now? Lyreth turned his head to look at something on the other side of the street, and Murtagh sank farther back into the alley. Lyreth, of all people, would have no difficulty recognizing him. I shouldn’t have shaved.

But no reaction altered Lyreth’s expression, and he continued on his way at the same brisk pace.

Murtagh let out his breath and retreated to the corner of the building. Lyreth probably had even more cause to avoid being recognized in public. All of the noble families who had served under Galbatorix—families who had accumulated enormous wealth and power during his century-long tenure on the throne—had lost their positions, and many of them had been executed or exiled. But loyalties ran deep, and wealth bought protection. As with Yarek, Murtagh knew that some not-inconsiderable number of Galbatorix’s followers were living in gilded secrecy.

He didn’t envy Nasuada having to deal with their undermining influence.



Murtagh wasn’t sure how long he stood on the street corner, watching. By the sun, he guessed it was near an hour. He felt a faint tingle in the center of his right palm—as if his hand had fallen partially asleep—and he scratched it without thinking.

He froze. His right palm was where his gedwëy ignasia lay: the silvery, scar-like blotch that marked where he’d first touched Thorn as a hatchling. And it often itched or tingled when there was danger nearby.

The feeling wasn’t infallible, but it had saved his skin more than once.

Again alert, he glanced around. There. Soldiers slipping out of the fortress entrance and gathering by the corner of a house. He’d been too distracted; he’d missed the first few.

And with the soldiers…a man in a black, purple-trimmed robe, hood thrown back to reveal a head of hair so pale it was nearly white. On the breast of his robe was embroidered a golden symbol, a heraldic standard: in the top half, a crown with rays spreading from the points. A fess, then, dividing the standard in half, and below it, a cockatrice statant, with an iron band around each scaled ankle.

Murtagh knew it well. The coat of arms of Du Vrangr Gata, the guild of magicians who served Nasuada, and who enforced her laws prohibiting unauthorized and unaffiliated magic throughout not just her realm but also the southern kingdom of Surda. Every human spellcaster was required to join the guild, or else submit to drugs and spells that would prevent them from using magic without permission.

Murtagh had yet to agree to either provision, and he never would. Which meant the blond-haired man was a threat. Given the opportunity,

he would seek to chain Murtagh in one manner or another, and even a weak magician could prove to be a formidable opponent in one-on-one combat, for fights between magicians were rarely resolved with spells alone. Mental

prowess mattered, and if you could gain control of your foe’s mind, they would be at your mercy, no matter their skill, strength, or wards.

“Curse you,” he muttered, meaning the page. It wasn’t the betrayal itself that bothered him—Murtagh was well acquainted with betrayal—it was the inconsistency. Pages weren’t supposed to rat out those who came to them in confidence! How could a court function otherwise?

A feather-light touch brushed Murtagh’s mind.

He recoiled, retreating deep within himself and armoring his mind with a wall of iron determination. “You shall not have me,” he muttered again and again, using the words to focus his thoughts. The emptier his mind, the less there would be for the magician to find.

The robed man frowned and said something to the soldiers. He pointed down the street.

Murtagh moved. Time to leave before the soldiers cornered him.

He’d just reached the other end of the alley when a thickset man in a sleeveless jerkin stepped in front of him. The man’s bare arms were as heavily muscled as a smith’s, and he carried a cudgel in one hand.

Murtagh nearly struck the stranger, but the man backed off, arms spread wide, and in a low, gruff voice said, “Are you Tornac?”

“Who asks?” He had made no mention of Tornac to the page, although he had used the name on the note for Ilenna. Was the man her servant? If not…

A flicker of annoyance crossed the man’s face. “The werecat Carabel has sent me. She requests the company of this Tornac.”

A werecat! Alarm and curiosity coursed through Murtagh. He glanced back. The magician and soldiers were nearly to the mouth of the alleyway. He had to decide. “That’s me,” he said, curt.

“This way, then. Right quicklike, if you please.”

The bare-armed man hurried up the side street, and Murtagh followed close behind, carrying his staff sideways in his hand. There was no reason for subterfuge now.

For a few minutes, the only sounds were their breath and the soft pad of their boots on the ground.

Murtagh’s mind whirled with puzzlement. How had Carabel ended up with his note? Of all the creatures in Alagaësia, werecats were the most secretive. Always they kept apart from others, although in the final press of the war, they had joined forces with the Varden against Galbatorix. But on the whole, they weren’t partisan as the other races were.

Since the fall of the Empire, Murtagh had heard tell that a werecat sat on a velvet cushion next to Nasuada’s throne. And likewise in King Orrin’s court in Surda, and in the courts of all the great cities. Murtagh assumed Carabel served in a similar fashion at Gil’ead. But what did she want with him?

She can’t know who I really am, he thought. Unless, of course, she was a confederate of Ilenna’s. He supposed he would find out soon enough.

Murtagh felt another faint touch against his mind, but it was so soft as to be nearly imperceptible, and it slid past without stopping.

Not so skilled, are you? he thought. But he didn’t allow himself to relax.

Not yet.

The man led him to a narrow house built close to the fortress, through the house’s gated yard, and down a flight of mossy stairs set against the fortress’s outer wall. At the bottom was a well situated within an alcove adorned with carved flowers. Murtagh was entirely unsurprised when the man pushed on a petal and a small stone door swung open.

A breath of cold air washed over them.

Most castles had bolt-holes or the like. Escape routes for the nobles who lived within. Such things compromised the fortifications, but when needed, nothing else would suffice.

“After you, sir,” said the man, holding the door open. A low, dark tunnel ran under the fortress, its far end hidden in shadow. “Carabel awaits.”

“And what does she wish with me?”

“Wouldn’t be my place t’ say. You’ll have to ask her yourself.”

Murtagh hesitated. Once he entered the fortress, it would be far, far harder to leave, even with all of his magical prowess. It was a risk. A big one. How likely was it that he was walking into a trap?

The man shifted with impatience.

Murtagh wished he could tell Thorn what was happening, but he didn’t dare expose his consciousness for the equivalent of a mental shout.

He spared a glance for the open sky and wondered when he would see it again. Then he gathered his cloak close and ducked inside.

The door shut behind them with a soft thud, and the sound echoed the length of the tunnel.

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