“I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not wean'd till then?”
Murtagh had always been a quiet child. No matter how hard he tried, his father could never get the boy to string more than a few sentences together at a time. He was an avid reader, but the child always seemed to prefer the company of books over that of people. This didn’t surprise Brom though; the boy’s mother had been the same way. She used to wile away her days in the Surdan sun, nestled under the shade of a broadleaf tree. That was the way he had met her: Emà. The dappled sunlight streaming through the gaps in the leaves had cast little shadows on her lovely face. She had laughed when she’d caught him staring.
‘Are you lost, sir?’ she had asked, her lilting voice sounding like a song to his ears. Her vibrant grey eyes were alight with vitality and joy.
‘No, I am not,’ he’d replied, catching her infectious laugh. ‘I am simply captivated by your beauty.’ She had laughed at that too, her full mouth parted and spread wide in a jubilant smile. Dark waves of hair fell softly about her slim shoulders, a braided wreath of wildflowers adorning her hair. And the way that she spoke, as if she found the goodness and the light in all people… How could he not love her? He was going to marry her, after all was said and done. Until my dying day, I shall always love you…
“Where is your head this morning, my love?” Selena’s voice cut through his reverie, snapping him harshly back to reality. Brom blinked back the wetness that had suddenly come to his eyes and looked up at his wife. “Did you hear anything I just said?”
“In the clouds, apparently,” he muttered. “I’m sorry, my dear. It seems my thoughts have run away with me today.” She smiled at him across the long table, quickly turning her attention back to the plate of fruit that lay before her.
“Jeod has called a council meeting,” she continued, slicing a piece of melon delicately with her knife. “He wants to discuss the recent turnover of men amongst the City Guard. Something about treason… I’m not sure, but it all sounds very droll to me.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll be there,” the king replied absentmindedly. “I know he’s been afraid of this for a while. I’ll go, if only to assuage his fears.”
“Probably for the best.” Selena’s eyes were downcast, but they were ever watchful, stealing furtive glances at her husband. It hadn’t escaped her notice that he’d been increasingly abstracted as of late. Anytime she’d tried to engage him in conversation she’d have to drag him away from his thoughts. But just what exactly those thoughts were, she was never fully certain, though she surely had her ideas…
They continued their breakfast in their parlor, silently focusing on themselves. This was quickly becoming their routine, and Selena was growing tired of it. When she’d been betrothed to the future king of Alagaesia as a young woman--a desperate grab for power by her father--she’d envisioned a life full of splendor and jewels and rich fabrics. And while all of those things had indeed come to pass, there was an emptiness between them. She’d tried to infiltrate that space--that ever-lengthening space--but Brom always drew away from her. It had taken Selena years to understand what was keeping him from opening up to her, but the answer had made itself clear eventually...
A messenger hurried into the room, head bowed and eyes downcast. He stopped for a moment at the edge of the table, trying to catch his labored breathing. “What is it?” the king intoned dryly.
“Your Majesty,” the white-haired man wheezed, a hand pressed against his stomach, “it’s your son.” The queen’s piercing blue eyes flashed upwards, though anyone looking from a distance never would have known that she’d suddenly become highly aware of the unassuming old man. Selena stroked the dull edge of her cutting knife with one long finger, watching closely.
“Which one?” she asked innocently, full lips set firmly into her most practiced simper.
The messenger’s gaze flicked nervously between the king and queen, his mouth quivering in hesitation. Selena eyed him carefully and waited patiently for the answer she knew was to come. “It’s Murtagh, Your Grace,” he finally replied with a bow of his head.
Brom suddenly whipped his head up from looking at his plate, his full attention on the messenger now. “What’s happened?” he breathed, eyes wide in fearful anticipation.
“He is missing, Your Majesty.”
Brom stood quickly, pushing up from the table and causing his chair to topple over onto the floor. “Why am I only now hearing of this?” he boomed, his voice suddenly full of anger. The queen remained sitting there impassively, hawkish eyes ever vigilant.
“We only just learned of it, Your Majesty. The steward was waiting for him to begin his tutoring for the day, and… well, he never showed up.” The frightened messenger was now shaking like a leaf from head to toe, no doubt recalling the tales he’d heard of the king’s wrath.
“Find Jeod,” the king replied, making his way toward the door. “Tell him to send a garrison out to find the boy. I want him brought home, now!”
The old man bowed once more, his hands trembling, and retreated out the door from whence he came, scurrying like a frightened mouse. The king’s footsteps could be heard echoing against the stone walls of the corridor, sounding like crashes of thunder in his haste. Somewhere, a door slammed heavily on its hinges and the footsteps ceased, swallowed up by the immensity of the castle. All the while, the queen sat at her breakfast table, taking tiny bites of fruit and porridge. The queen reached for her crystal goblet and raised it to her lips, taking a small sip of the watered apple wine and wrapping her hand around the thin stem. She chewed on a strawberry purposefully, staring out the large window that looked out over the city of Illirea. Yes… the answer had made itself quite clear…
A warm breeze was blowing across the open meadow, bending the soft blades of grass to its gentle force. Murtagh pushed a lock of hair out of his eyes and continued studying the page beneath him. It was a history book, of the pacts and alliances between clan chieftains of the Silver Age, and it hadn’t been easy sneaking the large tome out of the city under his cloak. He was only a young boy after all, and easily recognizable as the king’s bastard at that. The hood of the cloak had served to hide his face from the guards at the city gates, but it had been slow going. The young boy looked up at the walls of the shining city that was his home, though it had never really felt like it. He was treated well, but everyone always looked down on him, and not just because he was a child.
That word always hung over his head, like a dark cloud. He hadn’t known what it meant for a while, but the steward that was in charge of his education had explained it to him once.
“You are aware that you are a bastard,” he had said dryly, flipping through the dusty pages of an ancient book on warfare. “But you do not know what it means.”
“No, master,” the child replied. “Father says not to listen to those people, but…”
“It is difficult,” the steward cut in. “I know how it feels to be looked down upon for what you are, not who you are.” The old man looked at him with kind, brown eyes. His white beard reached down to his waist, as fluffy as a white cloud. “As it stands, a bastard is one who is born to a mother and father that are not joined in wedlock. Your father, the king, was betrothed to a woman from Surda, a nobleman’s daughter. But you were born before they were married. If they had been joined in wedlock, you might have been made legitimate, but your mother died shortly after you were born. And so, you are a bastard, Murtagh. But do not think that makes you any less of a person than anyone else. Do you understand?”
“Yes, master,” Murtagh replied, hanging his head somberly. He’d known that his mother was killed by soldiers from Oran, but it still hurt to hear about her, the woman he’d never known. His father had married Selena soon after that, and his brother had been born, the future king of Alagaesia. It was a title he would never know.
He thought of her then, his mother, as he sat in that meadow. He knew she’d loved to read, and he couldn’t help but think he’d picked up that particular trait from her. She had been beautiful, which he knew from the small painting he kept tucked in his tunic pocket. It was the only image he had of her, and he guarded it fiercely. His father didn’t know he had it, and the queen certainly didn’t know either. Murtagh didn’t know what the queen would do if she ever found out…
Murtagh looked up at the city again, marveling at the clean, white stones of the walls. Illirea was huge, a thriving metropolis, and it would take the guards hours to find him. He could only hope his father wouldn’t figure him out. Even though he knew his father cared about him, he could be overprotective. And living in the same castle as the queen was never easy. He never knew what he did to make the queen despise him, but she glared at him with hateful scorn every time he was in her presence. Those piercing blue eyes of hers, and the cold grey eyes of her direwolf, were always scrutinizing his face, searching for some hidden evil within it. Whatever she was searching for though, she never seemed to find it.
It wouldn’t be long now before his father’s wolf picked up his scent and they found him. The female direwolf, Athkore, had always been kind to him, and if he was lucky she would keep his location secret from his father for a little while longer. But, as fate would have it, he was not lucky. It seemed he’d been cursed since the day he was born. The huge, cream-colored direwolf appeared on the horizon, flying towards him at an alarming rate. Her white fur shifted in the breeze, and it looked like her skin was rippling, like the surface of a lake after someone threw a rock into it. Athkore came upon him and skidded to a halt, pink tongue hanging out of her mouth as she panted in the heat of the summer day.
‘Little one,’ she said through their mental contact, ‘your father is searching for you. Why have you run?’
‘I didn't run, Athkore,’ he said, standing up and coming over to the gigantic wolf. He was tall for a boy of ten, but the wolf stood at least two heads taller than him. ‘I just needed to get away for a while. The castle is so… stifling sometimes. It’s nice to come out here, don’t you think?’
‘Yes, little one, I agree. But next time, let your father know before you run off,’ she scolded softly. Athkore leaned her head down and licked him with her soft tongue, right on the cheek, and he laughed as he wiped the slobber off of himself, scratching her behind her huge ears. She suddenly perked her head up, staring back in the direction of the city, her nostrils flaring as she picked up a scent on the air. ‘He’s coming, little one.’ She stared back at him with her soft, brown eyes and gave him another tiny lick on the cheek before taking off towards the city. Murtagh saw then that his father was galloping toward him astride his black charger, pushing the horse to go faster. It wasn't long before the direwolf met him and then turned to run alongside the horse.
Murtagh hung his head in shame upon seeing the look of utter fury upon his father’s face. He’d seen his father angry before, but never like this. Flames seemed to be leaping from his eyes and steam coming from his ears. The boy stared up at him innocently, clutching the leather-bound book to his chest tightly. Brom leapt from the horse’s back and landed nimbly on the ground.
“Hello, Father,” Murtagh said meekly, avoiding eye contact at all costs. The king took long strides toward his son, finally kneeling in front of him and taking the boy by the chin, forcing him to look into his eyes.
“Murtagh,” he whispered, the name seeming strained on his lips. The king’s striking blue eyes searched his face, aching at how much the child looked like his mother. “What are you doing, boy?”
He looked up at his father then, flinching slightly at his hard stare. “I… I just wanted to come out here to read.” Brom let out a short breath of a laugh and hung his head, rubbing his eyes with a rough and calloused hand.
“You wanted to read,” he echoed back, shaking his head. But there was a smile playing on his lips, and even the boy could not help but notice this. Athkore sat silently behind the king, watching the scene unfold before her. “Hasn’t anyone told you it’s dangerous to wander off by yourself?” Brom asked, placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Murtagh shook his head vehemently, dark hair flopping about wildly. “Mmm, is that so? Well it is dangerous. You must be more careful, Murtagh.”
“I’m ten years old, Papa. I’m grown up now,” the little boy replied heatedly, a look of fierce determination fixed on his face. The king smirked slightly, holding back the laugh he wished to release.
“Yes, you are nearly a man grown at ten. But even grown men need a little help protecting themselves sometimes,” he said, squeezing his son’s shoulder. “Why must you come out here by yourself? Why not play with your brother?” They boy’s eyes went wide at that, and he shook his head again, harder this time.
“No, Papa. The queen wouldn’t like that…” He let the thought trail off, but the king knew; he had known for some time. It took everything within him not to lose his temper again. It would do no good for the boy to see there was tension between his father and his wife.
“You must try, Murtagh. He is your brother; you two are bound by the bonds of brotherhood, and those are not easily broken,” the king said, pulling the boy to his chest in a tight hug, book and all. “I wish that the gods had granted me a brother. But alas, they were not so kind. Cherish your brother, Murtagh. You will find that he will be the greatest of your friends. Understand?” Murtagh nodded slightly, not really understanding what his father was saying, but absorbing his words nonetheless. “Now then, we need to get you back to the castle. I have something to give you.”
Brom picked up the slight framed boy easily, and placed him on the direwolf’s back between her shoulder blades. The king mounted his own horse and pulled on its reins, turning back toward the city. “I have something to give you,” he said to his son. “Follow me.” The boy gripped the white fur of the wolf beneath him and held on as she took off at a blistering speed. Athkore was just as large as the warhorse his father rode, but her legs were longer and more powerful, her strides twice as long as the stallion’s. The boy and the wolf quickly pulled ahead of the king, the looming city growing larger as they drew closer. Murtagh let out a whoop of joy at feeling the wind tearing at his hair and clothes; feeling the wolf’s powerful muscles rippling and moving beneath him. It was exhilarating.
The guards posted at the gates stared in slack-jawed wonderment as the huge wolf thundered past them, gigantic paws slapping against the cobbled streets with resounding thwacks! Murtagh gripped her fur tighter as she weaved in and out of carts and passersby, twisting and turning down the side streets of Illirea. The main streets were set into a wheel-and-spoke pattern, but the side streets took a more errant path, seemingly having no rhyme or reason to them. A woman screamed in terror at the sudden sight of a direwolf bearing down upon her, and she quickly jumped out of the way. Athkore vaulted over a cart with a push from her powerful legs and they left the woman behind, staring after them in awe. It was only the nobles that were allowed to enter into a union with a direwolf, so the commonfolk always stopped and stared whenever they were out and about, as they were not accustomed to the sight.
The wolf rounded one last corner and the imposing citadel came into Murtagh’s view, looming up over them and blocking out the afternoon sun. Guards walked atop the battlements and surveyed all that went on below. When one of them spotted the white direwolf, they recognized her immediately and heralded the king’s return. Shouts could be heard floating over the heavy, warm air, and the bell in the tower rang out above everything else. The king reined in his destrier beside his son, waiting for the horse to regain its breath after their frenzied ride.
‘You should not run like that with the boy upon your back, Athkore,’ the king said to his wolf. She swung her giant head towards him and squinted her dark brown eyes.
‘I had it under control,’ she replied pointedly. ‘He would not have fallen on my watch.’ The king trusted the wolf more than anyone else, but he took especial care with his son. After losing the boy’s mother… Well, he wasn’t going to be taking anymore unnecessary risks.
They trotted through the gates of the citadel, the stallion’s hooves echoing wildly off the smooth stones with a steady clip-clop-clip-clop. A stablehand rushed to the king’s side and took the reins from him, holding the horse steady as it bucked its head. Brom bounced off of the horse, landing on the hard stone of the courtyard with a thud. He was not an old man, but neither was he as young as he used to be, and the fatigue of waging wars and ruling a kingdom was starting to take its toll on him. He went over to the wolf and lifted Murtagh off of her back, setting him down and ruffling the boy’s dark hair a bit.
“Come now,” the king said. “I’ve got something I want to show you.” Murtagh followed in frenzied excitement; he could hardly contain himself.
“What is it Papa?” he asked hopefully.
“You will see.” The child wasn’t too disappointed at this. His father had always delivered before, no matter what. They walked to the edge of the courtyard, past the stone staircase that led to the main doors of the citadel, and around the side towards the tourney field. Murtagh had only seen one tournament, as his father hadn’t allowed him to go until the year before. He had thought how marvelous the knights were on their horses and wolves, dueling with each other to win fame and glory. In his dreams, he liked to imagine he was one of those knights, bringing honor to his family. But that was just a dream.
They strode past the tourney field, Athkore following close behind and keeping an eye on things. Past the field was the stables, and it was here that they were headed. Murtagh felt his heartbeat quicken in his chest. Perhaps he’d be getting a horse, like he’d talked about for a few years now. His father had always said that he wasn’t big enough for a horse yet, though. Maybe now he was. The king nodded in greeting to the groom that stood by the door to the stable, brushing down a silver mare with a hard-bristled brush. The groom bowed deeply in response, and, once they had passed, went back to his duties. Near the back of the stable, Murtagh saw the stablemaster with a large chestnut stallion, combing out its red-hued mane. The stablemaster was a large, barrel-chested man with arms the size of tree trunks and every last inch of him covered in hair, or so it seemed to Murtagh. He was always lumbering about near the smithy, yelling about this thing or that thing in his booming voice. But now, amidst his environment and the horses he so clearly loved, he seemed as quiet and demure as a church mouse. Murtagh stared up in wonderment at him as the king made his greetings.
“Well met, Dormnad. Have you gotten what I asked?” The stablemaster nodded firmly, his mouth set into a thin line.
“Aye,” he replied gruffly, pulling at the waist of his trousers. “The beast is back there.” He jerked a thumb towards the very last stall on the right side of the stable. The door to the stall was closed and padlocked, which seemed strange to Murtagh.
‘When did they start locking up horses?’ he thought to himself, staring with piqued interest at the stall.
‘They don’t,’ Athkore responded quickly, padding quietly past him and settling on her haunches in front of the stall. Brom placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder, gently leading him to the padlocked door. The stablemaster went first, producing a bronze key from his leather apron and fitting the key into the lock. It sprang open with a sharp click! and dropped to the floor. The burly man slid the door open on its track and then stepped aside for the king.
“Come on,” the king said softly, guiding his son into the hay-filled stall. The boy expected to see a horse there, but what he found took him by surprise even more. There, nestled in the warm hay and sleeping soundly, was a direwolf pup. Its fur was white as snow; perfectly free of blemishes. Its ears twitched restlessly at their arrival, but it took Athkore going over and nibbling on its ear for it to open its eyes. The wolf’s eyes were blood red, staring out at Murtagh unblinkingly. He stared back in breathless awe, completely transfixed by the beauty before him. Could this really be for him? Was his father really giving him the great honor of entering a union with a direwolf?
The boy stared up at his father, who only nodded slightly, a small smile playing on his lips. Murtagh could not help the gasp that escaped from his mouth. It was true…
Slowly, he walked toward the direwolf where it still lay on the ground, curled into a ball. It watched him carefully, and he reached out a hand towards it in an offering of peace. The wolf extended its neck to sniff at the boy’s fingers, licking them slightly. Murtagh laughed at the way the wolf’s tongue tickled his skin and the warm sensation that accompanied it.
‘Hello,’ he said tentatively, reaching out with his mind to touch the pup’s consciousness. He knew that the wolf was still too young to talk with him, but it sent him feelings of happiness and trust, overwhelming him with a sense of joy. This was really happening. His father had given him a direwolf of his very own. Perhaps now, he could begin to feel like he truly belonged.
High up in her tower, the queen gazed down into the courtyard of the citadel and watched as her husband returned with the boy: Murtagh. It made her seeth to see that boy atop her husband’s direwolf, but she knew this would not be the last time she would see him that way.
The queen had argued bitterly with her husband about giving the boy a direwolf pup, but Brom had won out in the end; he always did. If he wanted the boy to have a direwolf, there was not a force in this world that would stop him.
‘Then why not give our son a wolf too,’ she had argued, fists clenched at her sides. ‘He is the future king, after all.’
‘Eragon will get his wolf in time,’ the king replied calmly. ‘He is still just a boy.’
‘Your son is still just a boy,’ she shot back. The look the king had given her signified that their conversation was over, and he would say no more about it. She peered out the window as they disappeared from the courtyard, headed towards the stables where she knew the beast awaited that bastard boy. Yes… everything was becoming quite clear indeed....
Thanks for reading everyone! Please review and let me know what you think! P.S. (There are supposed to be obvious parallels and people acting OOC [AU, remember?] so… Don’t think that I’m trying to pull the wool over your eyes, haha!)