Chapter no 9 – Fish Tales

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

Murtagh ran until the burning in his lungs forced him to slow to a quick walk. Then he ran again, then walked, then ran. In like fashion, he hurried back to the hollow where Thorn was waiting.

Always you stir people up, like a hill of ants. Thorn was crouched, tense and ready to take off from within the ring of willows and poplars.

“I know,” said Murtagh, leaning over with his hands on his knees. “It seems to be a bad habit.”

Will the elves find us here?

“I don’t know,” he said, straightening. “But I don’t think it’s safe to stay.” He went to the waterskin he’d left hanging on a branch by his bedding, unstoppered it, and drank his fill. The water was warm and somewhat stale, but it was a welcome treat after a day of thirst.

Thorn watched, unblinking. Let me see the scale.

Murtagh wiped his mouth. He tossed the empty skin onto his blankets, fetched his gloves, and then carefully removed the gleaming scale from his purse.

With an excited hum, Thorn crept forward until his nose nearly touched the topaz plate. The dragon’s hot breath created droplets of moisture on the scale, and they reflected its inner light in a dazzling display.

The stubbed end of Thorn’s tail slapped the ground. A crow rose cawing from the top of a poplar.

Murtagh studied the puckered white scar that marked where Glaedr had bitten off the last three feet of Thorn’s tail. His tail was a normal length now

—Galbatorix had seen to that—but the healing had been a forced, imperfect thing. What had been lost could not be replaced, so instead the king had set spells on Thorn to stretch the bones and muscles left to him. It had taken Thorn weeks to relearn how to balance himself in flight.

Thorn let out a long breath. Glaedr was a worthy foe. “Yes, he was,” said Murtagh.

He died as every dragon should: fighting on wing, in the sky. “He’s not entirely dead.”

Thorn blinked. But he can no longer fly. He cannot move. He can only think. I would sooner crash myself into the side of a mountain than live like that.

“I know,” said Murtagh, soft. They had been fortunate Galbatorix hadn’t forced Thorn to disgorge his Eldunarí. Young as he was, Thorn would have ended up with a severe mismatch between the size of his mind and the size of his body.

After Murtagh wrapped the scale in cloth and carefully stowed it in a saddlebag, Thorn said, What now?

Murtagh checked the sky. The stars were fully out, and the horns of a crescent moon were peeking over the horizon. Perfect. Just dark enough to help conceal them from watching eyes, but not so dark they couldn’t see their work.

“Now,” he said, rolling up his blankets, “we go fishing.”



Murtagh let out a sound of frustration and slumped back in Thorn’s saddle.

An hour of flying around and across Isenstar Lake had proved fruitless. The lake was huge, and they had no idea where to look for Muckmaw. Moreover, it was impossible to see anything useful in the dark water, even with the help of the crescent moon, and Thorn didn’t dare fly too close to the surface, lest night fishermen spot them. Murtagh had used his mind to search for creatures in the water, but from high above and at speed, it was

easy to overlook the cold thoughts of a fish. Especially if it were sleeping. In any case, he didn’t know what Muckmaw’s consciousness felt like.

They landed upon several sections of isolated shore and he dangled Glaedr’s scale in the still waters, hoping it would attract the fish’s attention, as Carabel had claimed. But the waters remained smooth and untroubled, and the hoots of sleepy loons echoing across Isenstar were the only sign of animal life.

Frustrated, they took to the air again.

This isn’t going to work, said Murtagh, using his mind so the sound of his voice wouldn’t carry over the moonlit water. We could spend days patrolling Isenstar and have nothing to show for it but flies in our teeth and elves on our tail.

Thorn gave an irritated shake of his head. It is a good night for hunting, but only if we know where to hunt.

Exactly…. Murtagh glanced back toward Gil’ead. A scattered constellation of lanterns and torches lit the city, forming a warm welcome in the darkness. If he were a fisherman, he thought the sight would have been comforting indeed. He tapped Thorn on the shoulder. Turn around. I have an idea.

Why do I have a feeling in my belly that your idea will be dangerous?

Because you can read my mind, that’s why. And it won’t be that dangerous. Not if I’m clever.

Try not to be too clever. Clever fails more often than simpleMmh.

At Murtagh’s direction, Thorn landed behind a small hill half a mile from the northeastern side of Gil’ead. Hopefully the elves wouldn’t be looking there. Surrounding the hill was a dense patchwork of cultivated fields: clover, wheat, and close-planted rows of various root vegetables.

Murtagh slid to the ground and took a moment to study the land. There was a farmhouse to the north, closer than he would have liked. “You’ll have to be careful. There could be dogs.”

I know how to hide, said Thorn, sounding vaguely offended.

He smiled. “Yes, you do. But listen, if I’m not back in a few hours, leave.

Don’t wait for dawn. Farmers rise early, and if they see you—”

They’ll cause no more trouble than we’ve faced before. Thorn huffed, and white smoke billowed up from his muzzle.

“Let’s avoid it all the same.”

Squatting, Murtagh dug a handful of moist dirt out from under the grass and rubbed it into his hands and onto his face. He hated the feel of the grime, but it would help age him and make him look more like a commoner.

He had a sudden, intense sense of familiarity, as if he’d already lived this moment. In a way he had, he supposed. Before entering Gil’ead to help rescue Eragon, he’d done exactly the same.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Thorn cocked his head. And what help is it knowing that?

“Not sure. Maybe we’ll learn to recognize the patterns, and we can avoid making the same mistakes twice.” He stood. “I’ll be back soon.”

And he set out at a steady trot, again heading toward Gil’ead. Behind him, Thorn let out a concerned growl.



This time, Murtagh didn’t enter the city through a main road. Instead, he made his way to the lake and continued along the water until he arrived at Gil’ead’s outer docks. From there it was a simple matter to walk out on the strand, climb a muck-encrusted dock, and slip past a watchman preoccupied with his pipe.

The docks had a very different smell from those at Ceunon. Isenstar was a freshwater lake, and the absence of salt resulted in a cleaner, fresher scent. Even the odor of fish was more mild, inoffensive.

Murtagh skulked along the lakeside buildings—past sorting houses and storage barns and dry goods stores—searching for what he knew had to exist. But all of the taverns and common houses he found were already shuttered for the night, and dogs, not drunks, ambled across the packed dirt of the street, sniffing and snapping at one another in a desultory manner.

The patter of light footsteps passed behind him.

He turned fast, only to see the same two ragged urchins who had accosted him outside Gil’ead’s fortress. They held up their dirty hands, their faces pale and wide-eyed beneath their poorly cropped hair. “Please, master, sir,” they said in a pleading tone.

Murtagh frowned, his senses alert for an ambush. “What are you doing about at this time of night?”

The two glanced at each other with bright, impish expressions. They were brothers, he thought, only a year or two apart. The taller one said, “Oh, nothing much, sir. Just trying to find food.”

The shorter one piped up: “That’s right, sir. Food for our poor mum, that is.”

The brothers exchanged delighted glances again. Then, from both of them: “Please, master, sir.”

Trouble, that’s what you are, Murtagh thought. He eyed the length of dark street. A watchman appeared between a pair of buildings some distance away; the man’s lantern cast a key of yellow light across the street before he walked on and a corner cut off the glow.

Murtagh looked back at the two incorrigibles. He fished out a pair of coppers. The boys reached for them, and he lifted the coppers over their heads. “Ah-ah. Not so fast. Tell me first, are there any taverns still open at this ghastly hour?”

The boys bobbed their heads. “Oh yes! Several.” “And where might I find the nearest?”

“Right down thataways, sir!” said the shorter one without the slightest hesitation, and he pointed along the lakeside buildings. “Right past th’ stables and to the left. The Rusty Anchor. You can’t miss it.”

Murtagh dropped the coins, and the boys caught them out of the air, fast as birds. “My thanks. Now off to bed with the both of you, and don’t let me catch you out here again.”

“Yessir! Thank you, sir!” they said, bowing and laughing. And then they ran off into the dark city, the shorter leading the taller.

Murtagh shook his head and continued in the direction they’d indicated.

The way was farther than he expected. He had nearly lost faith in the boys’ instructions when he spotted a battered old tavern with light in the windows at the western end of Gil’ead, where the buildings were low and shabby. True to its name, the Rusty Anchor had a ship’s anchor hung over the front door, along with a sign featuring a pair of beer mugs clinking together.

“The more things change…” Out of habit, Murtagh touched his belt to check on the position of his dagger. But, of course, it wasn’t there, only the empty sheath.

He scowled. He was running a risk going to a place like this unarmed. It was the sort of disreputable establishment where strangers often woke up the next day with a lump on their head and a purse empty of coin. If they were lucky enough to wake up at all. More than once, he’d heard about the sons of nobles who had gone out drinking in such establishments and ended up robbed, bruised, or worse.

Of course, now he was the sort of person that others needed to be afraid of. He couldn’t lie to himself: the thought wasn’t entirely unpleasant. After the past few years, Murtagh would settle for inspiring fear if it would keep him and Thorn safe.

He took a moment to set his mind and assume the needed persona.

Then he moved forward with a rough stride and entered the tavern.

Unlike the Fulsome Feast in Ceunon, the Rusty Anchor was a dark, grim place that smelled of smoke, sweat, stale urine, and despair. The floor was a mess of muddy boards, and there were only a few bottles and cups on the shelf behind the bar. The barkeep himself sat in a corner, next to a cask of tapped beer, head against the wall, snoring loud enough to wake a dragon (and Murtagh knew exactly how loud that was).

The patrons of the establishment were a mix of fishermen, laborers, and several men who Murtagh guessed were either swords for hire or—if they didn’t get hired—footpads looking for their next object of prey.

He could feel them watching him as he made his way across the room. The barkeep woke the instant he placed coppers on the scarred wood counter.

“Beer,” said Murtagh. “Cheapest you’ve got.”

“Cheap is all we ’ave got,” said the barkeep, slowly getting to his feet. He had a pregnant paunch that stretched his apron as tight as a drum. He made the coppers disappear in his pudgy hands and gave Murtagh half a copper in return. Then he grabbed a mug that looked none too clean and filled it from the cask.

Murtagh eyed the beer. It was totally flat. He decided not to press the point and carried the mug to a table by the small stone hearth. The fire was almost dead, barely more than a bed of despondent coals.

As Murtagh settled into a chair, one of the hired swords—a short, bird-chested man with a nervous tic in his left eye—cleared his throat and said, “Yuh come in w’ one of th’ caravans?”

Murtagh nodded. “Straight from Ilirea. We got in two hours before dark, but it took this long to shift everything out of the wagons.”

A man with a dwarflike beard and a scar through his left eyebrow spoke up: “What news of the road?”

The beer had all the flavor of thinned barley water. Murtagh grimaced and put it back down. “The road is fine. Dusty, that’s for sure. We made do without anyone waylaying us, so I reckon the queen’s men are doing a good job of keeping order.”

The bird-chested man and his bearded companion exchanged a glance that seemed somewhat conspiratorial. Bird-chest said, “Were yuh working as protection for this said caravan?”

Murtagh nodded. “Didn’t even have to draw my sword none. Can’t complain with that.”

“Always a good day’s work when you don’t have to work,” said the bearded man.

“There’s a truth worth drinking to.” Murtagh raised his mug and took a quaff. Then he looked over at the fishermen in their cabled sweaters and woolen caps, which they kept on even indoors. “I heard tell there’s good fishing in Isenstar Lake.”

“Passable good,” said the near fisherman, keeping his gaze on his mug.

“One of the men I stood watch with wouldn’t shut his gob about it. Kept going on and on about the summer pike. That and the eels. Always the eels.”

“The eels is fine enough eating,” the fisherman allowed. “Long as you ain’t overcook ’em.”

Murtagh nodded, as if this confirmed what he’d heard. “Seeing as that’s the case, I might try my luck with a hook and line while I’m here. I used to be a dab hand at fishing.” He lifted his mug again and then shook his head and put it down. “Only…It’s a silly thing, and I’m dead sure this watchmate of mine was tozing me, but, well, he kept talking about how it was right dangerous to drop a line hereabouts. On account of some fish called Muckmaw. Said it was the biggest, meanest fish in the whole lake. I figured he was talking out his ear an’ it were all stuff and nonsense. Right has to be, no?”

The fishermen tensed, and one of them made a motion to ward off the evil eye and leaned over and spat on the floor. The spittle was dark green from a plug of cardus weed tucked in his cheek. “Blasted thing.”

Murtagh raised an eyebrow. “So there’s something to it, then?” “Maybe,” said the near man, surly.

“That sounds like a story worth telling.”

No one volunteered. The fishermen stared with sullen gazes at the fireplace, while bird-chest and dwarf-beard smirked at each other at the lack of response. The man who had spat pushed back his chair. “Horvath. Merrik. I’ll be off. Anra will be a-waiting.”

Murtagh raised a hand. “Barkeep. A round for everyone. My coin.”

The barkeep forced his eyes open and blinked, bleary. He nodded and shuffled off toward the cask.

After a moment’s hesitation, the fisherman settled back in his chair. “Suppose she can wait a mug longer,” he muttered.

They sat in silence while the barkeep filled the mugs and made his rounds to the tables. As Murtagh handed over the last of his coppers, bird-chest raised his mug in an appreciative gesture.

“Thanks, stranger,” said one of the fishermen. He had a scar on his forearm that reminded Murtagh of Essie. “Mighty kind of you.”

“Oreth son of Brock,” said Murtagh. He figured it wise to start using a name other than Tornac around Gil’ead.

The cardus chewer scratched the red stubble on his chin. “Muckmaw, eh? If you really want to know the truth of th’ matter, you’d best be talk’n to old Haugin, but he’s long since asleep if ’n I know aught about him.”

“He’ll sleep th’ whole winter through,” said the scarred fisherman. “Ain’t that right,” said cardus-chewer, nodding. “Can’t rightly blame

him, though. He’s got three and seventy winters. A man’s due some sleep after that long working.”

Murtagh took another sip of the flat beer. “And what would he tell me about Muckmaw?” he asked, trying to hurry them along.

Cardus-chewer and his companions exchanged significant looks. “Well now, it’s a curious thing. Might be you think I’m whistling in the wind if I say the truth, but y’ asked, and since you paid the beer, you’ll get the tale, if ’n you pardon the expression.”

Murtagh smiled. “Of course.”

“So. You have t’ understand what Muckmaw is afore I start.” “Do tell.”

The scarred fisherman burst out: “He’s a right mean old bastard, is what he is. You see this mark on my arm? There is where he bit me four summers ago. Bastard. I’d like as to gut him and smoke him up for dinner one of these days.”

“We all would,” said cardus-chewer. The hired swords were listening intently now, eyes gleaming in the dull red light of the coals. “You see, Oreth, th’ blasted fish is near as long as one of our sailboats. A good ten paces from tip to butt, I’d reckon, and ’bout three paces ’cross the beam.”

Murtagh felt a frown forming between his brows as he listened. What didn’t Carabel tell me? “That’s…a big fish.” Even if they were exaggerating, Muckmaw was clearly enormous.

Cardus-chewer snorted. “You could say that. The blasted thing is nearabouts a small whale. It’s a sturgeon, see, or someth’n like a sturgeon.

Armored plates th’ size of a buckler on its sides, razor spines along its back, big old barbels coming off its mouth. The mouth is what gave ’im his name. Muckmaw. He trawls th’ bottom of th’ lake, scooping up everything, feeding off it. Whenever he comes up, he has silt an’ mud streaming from his mouth, like smoke from a charcoal burner. He’s been lurking about Isenstar for the past sixty years. And it’s true, he’s mean. He fouls our lines and cuts our nets whenever he has th’ chance. We’ve seen him scoop up herons, cave in the sides of boats…. Not last year he knocked poor old Brennock right out of his skiff an’ thrashed him near to death with his tail.”

“Muckmaw’s tail, not Brennock’s,” the scarred fisherman clarified.

A bark of laughter escaped cardus-chewer. “Yah. Brennock wouldn’t know what to do with a tail even if he had one.”

Murtagh’s frown deepened. “Come now. You’re yanking my cap, aren’t you? You can’t expect me to believe—”

“Every word of it’s honest truth, swear on me ma’s grave,” said cardus-chewer.

As he spoke, Murtagh saw a pair of boys slip into the Rusty Anchor from the scullery: the two urchins from earlier. The brothers took up on the hearth and sat together, bent in close conversation. Here in the tavern, Murtagh noticed an undeniable resemblance to the bird-chested man. He snorted. I should have figured as much. He wondered what sort of arrangement the brothers and father had with the barkeep.

Putting it from his mind, he said, “Well…if that’s really how things stand, why hasn’t anyone caught or killed Muckmaw by now?”

Cardus-chewer leaned forward with his elbows on the table, eyes strangely bright. “The tale’s in the answering, so listen closelike, and don’t be doubting a word of it. Those sixty years ago, Haugin was ’bout ten summers old. As he tells it, he an’ two other boys were out fishing from th’ shore, couple miles north a’ here. It were him, Sharg Troutnose, and Nolf the Short. Both Sharg and Nolf are buried now, but they told th’ same story while they were ’round and kicking.”

He adjusted the plug of cardus in his cheek and downed a mouthful of beer. “Anyways—”

The third fisherman—a thin, gaunt-faced man who had been silent until then—said, “Tell him about the—”

“Aight. I’m getting to it!” said cardus-chewer, visibly annoyed. He rolled his shoulders, taking an extra moment before resuming. The gaunt-faced man glared. “Anyways, th’ boys were fishing, and they’d caught a couple of trout, couple of sturgeon, and they’d put ’em out on th’ shore. Only, instead of giving ’em a rap on the head to stop ’em from thrashing, they decided they’d sit and watch and see how long it took ’em to stop wiggling about and which one lasted longest. It weren’t right, but, well, you know how boys can be.”

Murtagh did. He stared into the depths of his beer.

“So there they are, sitting and watching th’ fish gasp on th’ rocks, and a man walks up from behind ’em. No horse, no ox, just walks on out of the wilds. Haugin says he were a strange-looking man. His hair were red, not red like my whiskers but proper red, like a cut ruby. An’ his teeth were sharp and pointed like cat teeth.”

A cold prickle crawled up the back of Murtagh’s neck as he listened. Durza. What had the spirit-possessed mage been doing in Gil’ead all those years ago? Carrying out some miserable, blood-soaked mission for Galbatorix, no doubt—or at least, so Murtagh assumed. Much of Durza’s history remained a mystery to him. Galbatorix had kept the existence of the Shade a secret from his court, and Murtagh had only learned of Durza during his travels with Eragon. Later, after the Twins had dragged him back to the capital and Thorn had hatched, Galbatorix had told Murtagh a few details about Durza’s service, but only a few.

In retrospect, Murtagh was astounded by his own ignorance. And by the stupidity of his overconfidence. He had truly believed he could defeat Durza in Gil’ead, without magic and without the enhanced strength and speed that came with being a Dragon Rider. Idiocy. Durza would have killed me before he realized who I was…. At least I managed to put an arrow between his eyes. Although even that hadn’t been enough to kill the Shade. Only a blade through the heart could do that, as Eragon had later proved in Tronjheim.

Cardus-chewer was still talking: “Soon as they see him, th’ kids jumped up, tried to go after th’ fish. They knew what they were doing weren’t right, you see. But the man tells them t’ hold, an’ he asks ’em what they’re about. So they lay it out, all shamefaced like. And Haugin says the man smiled then, and he sat down by ’em with his hand on th’ hilt of his sword and asks ’em to watch and wait, ’cause he’s curious too. Only it weren’t a real ask, if ’n you follow, but more of an order. Leastways, that’s how Haugin tells it. So they sit, an’ they wait, and th’ fish go on gasping an’ flopping until they’ve had their last mortal breath. All but one of ’em.”

“Let me guess,” said Murtagh. “A sturgeon.”

By the hearth, the brothers laughed as they played a game of jacks with colored pebbles.

“Or something as like a sturgeon,” said cardus-chewer. He nodded sagely. “An’ here’s where it goes strange. The man, he picks up th’ fish, and he says words over it, only not in any tongue as makes sense. Old Haugin, he swears on his mam’s grave, swears, that he could feel the words in his bones, an’ Sharg and Nolf always accounted the same.”

“Magic,” said the scarred fisherman.

“Aye, magic. So the red-haired devil says his piece, and then he tosses the fish back in th’ lake, and he tells Haugin an’ Sharg an’ Nolf, he tells ’em that since they were wanting to know which fish was the strongest, it were only fair to reward th’ survivor. An’ he tells ’em that since they were such naughty, naughty boys, they’d have the fish afflicting ’em and tormenting ’em for th’ rest of their days. Then he walked off into th’ brush, an’ from that day since, th’ fish has been a terror to us all.”

The scarred fisherman poked cardus-chewer in the shoulder. “Tell him the rest.”

“I’m a-gettin’ to it! A tale has to be done proper…. Anyways, Muckmaw grows into his fearsome self, and once folks round here took notice, we tried t’ kill him, Oreth. Oh, we tried. But ’tweren’t no good. Hooks won’t set in his mouth, y’see, an’ spears just a-skate off th’ side of his armored plates, an’ arrows—”

“Arrows bounce right off him,” said the scarred fisherman.

Cardus-chewer scowled at him for a second. “Aye. An’ the blasted fish is too smart t’ catch in nets or weirs. Before th’ war, Lord Ulreth set a bounty on Muckmaw. Two whole gold coins. An’ our current lord, Lord Relgin, increased th’ bounty to four gold coins, if ’n you can believe it. Four! That an’ you get a chance to join the guards if ’n you’re so inclined.” Cardus-chewer shook his head. “Won’t do no good, though. Muckmaw is a curse on our lake, a punishment for mistreating th’ fish, and that’s th’ truth of it.”

Murtagh silently swore at Carabel for not telling him the full story. Catching and killing Muckmaw was going to be far more involved than he’d first thought.

“Why haven’t you found a spellcaster to kill the fish for you?” he asked. The scarred fisherman snorted. “What? Them of th’ Du Vrangr Gata?

They’ve no time for our concerns. An’ Frithva, th’ hedge-witch down th’ way, wouldn’t be much help. Y’ need a wart taken off or a compress for a boil, she’ll fix you up just fine. But an enchanted fish set on murdering you? No, sir. For that y’ need an elf or a Rider.”

“An’ they’re all busy elsewhere,” said cardus-chewer sadly.

“Be glad of it,” replied his friend. “Their kind only cause rack and ruin.” Cardus-chewer shrugged and drained the last of his beer. “An’ now y’ know th’ truth about Muckmaw. Believe what y’ want, Oreth, but we’ll swear to every word.” He pushed back his chair and stood. “Now I’d best be

off. Anra’s waiting for me, and she’ll not be pleased I tarried so late.”

Murtagh raised a hand in a casual, careless gesture. “My thanks for the story. I’ll admit, it seems unlikely, but I’ve heard stranger things on the road. If a man wanted to avoid getting eaten by Muckmaw, where ought he not go fishing?”

The scarred fisherman snorted. “As if. Th’ whole lake is his hunting ground. Wher’er you go, y’ have to watch, lest he chomp you.”

Cardus-chewer said, “That’s not quite th’ whole of it, and you know it, Horvath. There’s a marshy area just west of here, along th’ shore, nearwise where th’ elves cleared out th’ last of Galbatorix’s soldiers. It goes from cattails to water weeds, an’ there are rocks large enough for Muckmaw t’

lurk beneath. Most times he’s somewhere in the vicinity during mornings an’ evenings.”

“Much obliged,” said Murtagh.

The fisherman nodded. “You’re still a young man. Wouldn’t want t’ see ol’ Rove measuring for your coffin ’cause you tangled with Muckmaw, if ’n you take my meaning.”

And with that, he left.



Murtagh stayed to finish his mug of beer. It would have been odd if he hadn’t. While he sat and drank and thought about what he’d heard, bird-chest and his bearded friend bent together in close conversation. Then the hired swords slipped out of their chairs and quietly departed the tavern, keeping behind him the whole time.

He pretended not to notice. And he hoped his suspicions were misplaced.

By the fire, the two boys were beginning to appear sleepy, though they were still laughing and playing. The taller had won the last three games of jacks, and the shorter was arguing the fairness of his pebble snatching.

Murtagh put down his mug and went to the fireplace. The boys gave him a furtive look and then pretended to ignore him. He held out his hands, as if to warm them, and then checked to see if the barkeep had fallen back asleep.

The man slumped limp against the cask, his head lolled to one side on a boneless neck.

Good. As Murtagh turned to leave, he used his cloak as cover to pilfer a length of split pine from the woodbox next to the fireplace. With the pine hidden against his side, he left the tavern.

The night air was a fresh respite after the stuffy interior. He stood a moment and enjoyed a view of the stars while he cleared his lungs.

He kept a firm grip on the hidden piece of wood as he started down the dark docks. Carefully, ever so carefully, he allowed his mind to open and

spread out, feeling for the touch of other people’s thoughts.

He noticed the two men just as they charged: one coming at him from the front, and the other out of an alley to his right. Bird-chest and his bearded friend, clubs in hand.

Murtagh hitched his step, throwing off the timing of his stride, ducked sideways, and drove his shoulder into the chest and stomach of the bearded man. The footpad’s breath left him with a whoof as Murtagh knocked him against the wall of the near building, a dry goods store with shuttered display windows.

Without waiting to see what happened to the man, Murtagh spun around and, with the length of pine, knocked aside bird-chest’s club and struck him on the collarbone.

The thin man collapsed with a gurgle and a clatter of jarred teeth.

The bearded man was still moving; he’d gotten onto his hands and knees and was struggling to stand.

A quick forward step, and Murtagh rapped him near the back of his skull. A rabbit blow, but not hard enough to kill.

“Ahh!” cried the bearded man, and he curled up, covering the back of his neck and head with his hands.

Murtagh paused for a moment to check for more enemies. Finding none, he looked back at the two unfortunate would-be thieves.

His teeth drew back in a snarl, his blood molten in his veins. He strode back to bird-chest and kicked him in the side. And again. And again. A shout of rage and frustration burst forth from him as he swung his leg.

One or more ribs cracked against his shin.

He knelt and grabbed the man by the hair. Bird-chest’s eyes rolled, and red bubbles popped at the corners of his mouth. His lips moved in a mute attempt to plead for mercy.

“Be a better father,” Murtagh growled. “Or next time, I’ll beat you worse than this, you worthless sack of filth.”

The man groaned as Murtagh dropped his head.

A purse on bird-chest’s belt caught his eye. He grabbed it, as well as the man’s dagger. It wasn’t a particularly nice dagger, but the blade appeared

sound enough, so Murtagh transferred the weapon into his empty sheath. “Da!”

The cry sent a chill through Murtagh. He looked up to see the two urchins standing by the door of the tavern, anger and fright on their dirty faces.

“Get away from him!” the smaller one shouted, and threw a handful of pebbles. Several bounced off Murtagh’s shoulders.

He stood. “Your father needs your help. See to him.” Then he hurried away.

Halfway up the docks, with the tavern well out of sight, Murtagh’s gut clenched and his heart seemed to flutter. He half stumbled before his stomach relaxed and his pulse resumed its usual pace. He swore.

He almost wished he’d killed the man. The children might have been better off because of it. Or maybe not. It was impossible to know. All he could be certain of was that he hated the man and his brutish stupidity.

He quickly made his way out of the city and hurried back across the dark land toward where Thorn was waiting. Once he was no longer concerned about any watching minds, he reached out to Thorn and told him what he’d learned.

Thorn’s first comment was, Can you go anywhere without getting into a fight?

Doesn’t seem like it. It wasn’t my fault, thoughIs it ever?

Sometimes. Anyway, we’d best find Muckmaw, and then I can go open the door that’s always closed. If anyone of note is listening to the rumors and gossip around the city, they might realize something is amiss and start looking for us.

What about the fish?

Murtagh hopped a slat fence as he continued across a field toward Thorn’s hiding place. I can break the wards Durza placed on Muckmaw. That won’t be a problem. For that matter, I’m sure you could bite right through its protective spells. The idea seemed to please Thorn. We just have to find the fish.

Then let’s go find it!

As soon as I get there. I’m not— Before he could finish, Murtagh felt a surge of motion and excitement from Thorn as the dragon took flight. No, wait!

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