Chapter 1: The Child of Summer
Hi everyone. First of all, thanks for stopping by and taking an interest in my story. Secondly, there’s a few orders of business I’d like to address:
1.) This is an AU, (like...completely). If that’s not your cup of tea, then… I’m sorry?
2.) This is not like the Inheritance Cycle whatsoever. I simply took the characters that Christopher Paolini created and put them into a story that was inspired by the film Tristan and Isolde (2006) and the HBO Series Game of Thrones.
3.) There are no dragons in this story. Unfortunately, the idea of giant flying lizards did not fit into this story arc, as it is not heavily centered on action. It is a love story above all else. Instead of dragons, our main characters are allied with direwolves, (hence the Game of Thrones inspiration)
4.) Murtagh and Eragon are still half brothers, but they share the same father, Brom, not the same mother. Brom is the king of Alagaesia and Morzan is the king of a country that I created.
5.) As to the pieces of poetry that you will periodically see at the beginning of chapters, they are to be credited to the masterful John Donne, from his poem The Good Morrow.
If any of this doesn’t sound appealing to you, then I suggest you back out now. If, however, this does sound like something you could be interested in, then thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you all enjoy it. With all of that being said: let’s get started!
“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!)
Chapter 2: The Child of Winter
Her father was on one of his rampages again. The slightest things set him off these days, and there's nothing she or anyone else could have done to stop him. His rage combined with the effect alcohol had on him only made it that much worse. Raina sat placidly on her bed, the book she'd been perusing lying open and untouched next to her on top of the quilt. She stared blankly at the wall, listening to the sounds of screaming coming from the end of the hall. He was hurting her again...
Many years ago, Morzan had been exiled from Alagaesia as punishment for crimes committed during the clan wars. Each of the eight tribes of Alagaesia had been vying for power, undermining and attacking the other clans. After Brom's father—the leader of the Plains Clan—had died, Brom assumed the command of his father's armies, with Morzan by his side as his second. They were unbeatable, and victory was on the horizon. But things began to change when Emà had come along.
Morzan had always been an unruly child, who'd turned into a hardened man, and he wasn't going to let anything stand in the way of his clan and their journey to victory. He'd suggested that Brom leave the girl behind, but by then it had been too late. She was with child, and Brom had it in his head to marry her. Morzan viewed her death as a blessing to their cause, but his friend had never recovered. Even until this day, Morzan thought the war-battered king of Alagaesia was half-mad with grief over his long lost love.
Towards the end of their campaign, Morzan was growing more adamant about their attacks, insisting that they had to raid the small villages of the other clans to hasten their defeats. But Brom refused, abhorring the idea of slaughtering innocents in the name of unity. Enraged at his friends stupidity, Morzan took a company of soldiers and attacked a small village that was allied with the Mountain Clan. The village was razed to the ground, and no one was spared, not even the children. It had been a bloodbath, but it aided in their defeat of the clan chief. Although they had won that clan's loyalty, Brom could not reconcile with what his friend had done. And so, he sentenced him to exile, on the small island nation of Oran just across the sea to the west. Morzan took his direwolf Emrys, a fearsome, red-coated beast with eyes like emeralds, and sailed across the sea to start a new life in a strange land.
It had been hard for Brom to do it; they had been best friends as boys, after all. But in the end, he hadn't really had a choice. It was either that, or execute him; and that, he could not do. Morzan had accepted his fate outwardly, but within, his heart hardened and turned black as pitch. The betrayal he felt consumed him and ate away at what little soul he had left. In his anger, he mounted a plan to raise a kingdom upon the island of Oran, and build up cities to rival those in Alagaesia. It had taken him ten years, but he'd finally done it. The capital city, Caton, was not as large as Illirea, but over the years it had turned into a bustling port city, thriving off of the fishing trade. Soon, he would have an army to match his city, and then... Well, his plans were still coming together.
But Raina was unaware of any of this. Right now, she was just a scared little girl listening to her father commit atrocities against her mother. Although he'd hit the girl only once before, she was terrified he would come through her bedroom door one day, eyes bloodshot and hazy from the alcohol he consumed day and night. But he never did. It was only by her mother's intervention had he never did it again. She bore the brunt of his abuse, for her daughter's sake.
Finally, the screams died down and her mother fell silent. All was calm in the castle once more. But inside, Raina was screaming out. She wanted nothing more than to escape this place and go somewhere, anywhere else. As long as it was far away, she didn't care. Slowly, the little girl swung her legs over the side of the bed and padded quietly to the window. The cold stone of her bedroom floor sent icy shocks of pain through her bare feet, but she ignored it. Leaning up on her tiptoes, she looked out the window at the grey sky and the grey city and the grey landscape all around her. It certainly was a bleak world to live in, but it was the only one she'd ever known. A black-winged bird soared past her window, and she found herself to be jealous of that bird. What would it be like to simply spread your wings and fly away from all your troubles? Would it make life easier? She had the sneaky suspicion that all of your troubles simply caught up with you in the end.
Suddenly, a terrifyingly loud pounding came from the hallway, the throbbing even and measured. Raina turned and looked over her shoulder at the oaken door. Her hands began to shake where they gripped the windowsill and her tiny knees started knocking together. She knew without a shadow of a doubt what that thumping meant. A scratch came at the door, shaking it in its frame. Something heavy knocked against it, shaking it even more and loosening dust particles all over the floor. Raina whimpered softly and turned away from the window.
'Open the door, child,' a gruff, deep voice spoke in her mind. A tear ran down her cheek, but she remained quiet, staring at the door. She knew that her father's wolf stood on the other side of it. 'Your father wishes to speak with you.'
'I'm not feeling well,' she lied, hurrying over to the side of the bed and kneeling down behind its large frame, as if that would protect her.
'Open the door, now!' A ferocious snarl filled the air as he shoved against the door again. She cried out and covered her ears, willing the beast to go away. The direwolf snarled once more and gnashed his teeth, banging on the door again.
Raina knew it would do no good to hide from her father once he'd sent his wolf out after her. With trembling hands, she crossed the large room and took hold of the handle, pulling the door open slowly. The huge direwolf—Emrys, he was called—stood staring at her with his fierce green eyes. Slather dripped from his wickedly sharp fangs and a low growl was coming from deep within his chest. Raina had always feared the creature, and with good cause. He was larger than any of the horses her father owned, and he had a temper. One time, she'd seen him feasting on an entire sow, tearing its innards out and blood dripping from his jaws. That image alone had struck the fear into her heart.
He looked fearsome now, crouched in the hallway just outside her door, his green eyes glinting savagely. 'Come with me,' he growled, turning slowly in the cramped hall and retreating towards the stairwell, his heavy steps shaking the stones beneath her feet. She ran back to her room and quickly threw a pair of calfskin boots on before sprinting after the wolf. It would not do to keep her father waiting. She didn't know what he was capable of right now.
The stairs wound down to the huge entrance hall of the palace, opening up beneath the main staircase. As the wolf strode across the marble floors of the hall, Raina followed far behind him, terrified he would turn and suddenly snap at her as he was wont to do sometimes. His sharp claws clicked against the smoothly polished floor, and his tail swished back and forth. Raina kept her head down, taking care not to draw any unwanted attention to herself. After living so long under her father's reign of terror, she had learned that it was better to go unnoticed. If you could remain invisible, then you didn't get hit so often.
Emrys took a sharp turn to the left and then disappeared through the huge double doors of the throne room. As the little girl hurried across the empty hall, she hesitated by the open doors, peering cautiously inside to see her father sitting upon his throne with his head resting wearily in his hand. She watched carefully, debating whether to run back to her room or not, but she knew that would only result in pain. After the last time, she never wanted to experience that ever again.
"Raina!" her father suddenly snapped, still staring down at the floor. She jumped in surprise at the sharpness of his voice. "Come in here!" Without any further hesitation, she scurried across the throne room, her boots barely making any noise on the marble floor. Her eyes remained downcast, but she could feel her father's anger seeping through the air. And when she finally reached the base of his throne, she fell to her knees, folding her hands into her lap and bowing her head.
"I'm here, Father," she whispered. Emrys settled on his haunches next to the stone chair, staring at her with cold, hard eyes. The throne was carved in the shape of a wolf, its snarling head rearing up behind the king. Raina had always thought the chair was unsightly, and it only grew uglier every time she looked at it.
"Stop snivelling, child." His voice was as hard as the stone chair he sat upon, and the little girl flinched at the sound of it. "I have something for you. Come here." Raina got to her feet quickly and hurried up the steps of the dais. The king snapped his fingers impatiently and she finally looked up at her father. Morzan had always been a handsome man, but his drink had certainly had an affect on him. His eyes were a flint grey, and his hair was dark, though it was turning gray at his temples. His cheeks were sunken in and dark circles ringed his eyes, as if he hadn't slept in a week. Raina could smell the stink of wine on his breath, and the stench hung about him like a cloud.
"Why do you stare at me, child?" he asked, tilting his head to the side a bit. "Do you fear me?" She remained quiet, but her hands were trembling and tears pricked at her eyes like needles. When she refused to answer, Morzan sighed deeply and then snapped his fingers again. Emrys turned his head to reach behind the ugly throne. She watched with wide eyes as his massive head reappeared, and held gently in his jaws was a squirming pup. It cried and whimpered pitifully as Emrys deposited the pup in the king's lap. The king stroked its flawless, silver fur absently with a rough hand, eyeing his daughter.
Raina's eyes went wide as the pup stared at her with yellow eyes as big as full moons. The pup stilled when their eyes met, tilting its head far to the side as it inspected the small girl. Raina reached out a tentative hand and the pup sniffed it, tickling her skin with its cold, black nose. She let out an involuntarily giggle as the pup began to lick her with its soft, pink tongue. Morzan held out the wolf for her to take, and she scooped it up into her arms, snuggling against the soft fur.
"You are a royal," Morzan said, watching his daughter. "It is only fitting that you have a wolf of your own. Your wolf will become your closest friend, and most trusted advisor. She will protect you from harm, as you will protect her also. It's past time you started lessons with the swordmaster. A child should be well educated in all subjects, even a girl." She stared up at her father in wide-eyed wonder, but found that there were no words in her throat.
All she could manage was a strangled, "Thank you, Father." He waved her away dismissively and she scurried off, clutching the wolf tightly to her chest. As quickly as her feet would carry her, she ran back to the safety of her bedroom and shut the door quickly behind her. Once safely inside her haven, she put the wolf pup down on the floor, letting it sniff around and get acquainted with her new surroundings. Raina watched in breathless fascination as the pup explored, often tripping over her big paws. Then the pup turned back to her, bounding over and yipping softly. Raina giggled when the pup jumped up on her, licking wildly at her face.
"You're so beautiful," she breathed, sitting down on the floor cross-legged and letting the wolf curl up in her lap. Slowly, she stroked the wolf's soft fur as she fell asleep. "I will call you Ùna. Yes, your name shall be Ùna, and you will protect me from my father when you grow big and strong."
True to his word, the king stood watching in the practice yard as Raina learned to hold a sword properly. He feared the girl would not be coordinated enough to handle the rigors of swordplay, but for now, she was doing a fair job.
"Higher, Princess," the master at arms said, tapping her little arm so she would raise it up. For a child of eight, she was small for her age; more like a girl of five or six.
"It's heavy, Master Reymus," the child complained. Morzan sighed heavily from where he leaned against an empty barrell.
"That's the smallest one we have, Your Highness." The master at arms threw his hands up in exasperation as the girl dropped her sword for what seemed like the hundredth time. The tiny blade fell to the ground with thump, sending the dirt flying up into the air. As a black bird squawked overhead, Raina lifted her eyes to the grey sky, watching its frenzied flight. She followed its course until it disappeared behind the tall stone towers of the castle, but continued to stare up at the sky.
"Raina," Morzan called across the yard. At the sound of his voice, Raina snapped her attention towards him and then quickly bent to pick up her blade. Again, Master Reymus heaved an agitated sigh.
"I fear it is no good, Your Majesty," he said, sheathing his own blade. "The child is too distracted. Perhaps we will fare better tomorrow." The king simply raised two fingers to show that he conceded and the arms master strode purposefully back to his workshop. Raina stared at her father in fear, but the king just turned away and slunk back inside his castle, leaving the child alone. She breathed a sigh of relief once he was gone and hurried back inside, darting through the corridors and up the South Tower where her room was located. And she could hardly contain her excitement as she burst through her door.
It had only been a fortnight since her father had given her the wolf pup, but already she had grown tremendously. The direwolves grew quickly, and Ùna was now the size of a full grown dog, though she was only about two months old. Ùna bounded over to the small girl and jumped up on her chest, toppling her over onto the floor and showering her with wet kisses.
"Ùna! Stop it! Let me up!" the little girl laughed, squealing loudly as the wolf pup yelped with happiness. Raina sat up off the cold, stone floor and rubbed the wolf lovingly behind her ear. She couldn't wait for the day that they would be able to communicate with their minds.
As the two youngsters played on the floor, a soft knock came at the door. Raina gasped as her head snapped around to look, but then she realized it couldn't have been her father; he would have just barged in. Before she could say anything, the door creaked open to reveal her mother.
"Raina?" she called softly. "May I come in?"
"Mama!" The little girl leapt up off the floor and ran to her mother, burying her face in her full skirts and latching onto her legs. Queen Bronwyn patted the child gently on the top of her head and then pulled her away. She picked the small girl up and then placed her on the bed that was far too large for her. Raina stared up at her mother, and couldn't stifle her gasp upon seeing the ugly bruise that marred her beautiful face. It was dark purple and blue, and covered the queen's left cheek. And beneath her high collar, Raina could just see the edges of another bruise peeking over the fabric.
"Do not think about it, child," her mother said softly, sitting beside her daughter on the feather bed. "Your father does not know what he does in his rage. It is the wine that makes him this way. And as long as he's hurting me, he is not hurting you. That's all that matters." She smiled sadly, but there was an immense pain her deep blue eyes. Raina could not help the tears that flowed down her face.
"I cannot stand to hear him hurt you, Mama," she whimpered softly, burying her face against her mother's bosom. The queen stroked her daughter's light hair, and thought that her only regret was bringing such an innocent child into this cruel environment.
"I know, darling… I know," she crooned softly. Then the queen began to hum a song from her childhood, one that her mother had taught her as a young girl. It seemed to soothe Raina, so the queen just continued on, cherishing this small moment she could share with her child. Morzan rarely allowed them any time together, so every moment was treasured.
"Don't leave me, Mama," Raina cried, sniffling as her tears became stronger.
"You know that I must." Bronwyn knew that if she did not obey her husband, he would hurt their child, and that she could not bear. "But I will come back for you, yes? No more tears, Raina. You must remain strong." Her wolf bounded up onto the bed and curled next to the little girl, sharing her warmth and comfort. The queen stroked the wolf's fur and silently thanked the gods for sending a protector; one who would watch over her daughter when she was gone. For she knew that her time was running short.
Chapter 3: Changing Tides
...But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den?
Five years later…
Raina sat high upon a white cliff, staring out over the Eastern Sea where she could just glimpse the hazy horizon of a far off land. Her long, corn yellow hair was blowing behind her in a soft breeze. Beside her, Ùna lay in the soft, green grass, her ears perked and swiveling atop her head to listen for anyone approaching. Her silver fur swayed with the breeze, and her bright, yellow eyes scanned the surroundings. Raina's chin rested in her palm, and her eyes were narrowed against the bright sun. It was September now, and the sweltering heat of summer was retreating to be replaced by the crisp chill of autumn. But she didn't mind; autumn was her favorite season. There was something about the dying of the leaves upon the trees that seemed rather hopeful to her. Although they would die, new life would come with the spring. It seemed to her that it was somewhat of a necessity for death to make way for life.
Why are you so melancholy today, Princess? Ùna asked, raising her head to sniff an unfamiliar scent that came with the wind. When she was satisfied it was nothing threatening, she looked back to the young woman and leaned over to lick her elbow. She turned and smiled at the wolf, scratching her behind the ear, much to the young wolf's delight.
I feel a stirring within my soul, Ùna, the princess replied. I can't say what it is, but I feel something is coming. Do you think it's possible to see the future?
It does not seem out of the realm of possibility, the direwolf responded. But if it is a common practice amongst you two-legs, I have never heard of it.
It is not a "common practice", as you say. But there are some—woodswitches and fortune tellers—that claim to know what the future holds. Raina glanced back out over the sea and sighed heavily, shuddering as the chill air filled her throat and lungs. Perhaps I could go to see one; hear what they have to say.
Ùna suddenly bounded to her feet. Why the sudden fascination with the future? Are you worried about something? Raina glanced up at the huge wolf and, for what seemed like the hundredth time that day, marveled at her enormous size. In the five years since they'd become a bonded pair, she'd grown as large as an ox. She did not yet rival her father's direwolf, Emrys, but Raina still felt safer whenever she was around. It was comforting to have her own protector, especially since her father had been drinking more heavily over the past couple years. His rampages were becoming more frequent.
But since the princess had reached womanhood, she'd been moved into a different tower; one that was farther away from where her father's chambers were. Then at least, she didn't have to listen to the screams, either of her mother, or of his latest mistress. Raina had known for a few years now that her father was unfaithful to the queen. It was not hard to guess when the young women padded down the hall on bare feet in only their shifts, with their dresses crumpled against their chests, in the dead of night. When her mother had asked her about it, Raina lied and said she'd never seen the girls. But she lay awake some nights, listening to their cries and whimpers coming from down the corridor. But that was the way of things now, and she could do nothing about it.
No, Ùna, I'm not worried about anything. I'm just… concerned about the future. Sometimes I feel like my life is spinning out of control, and I'm screaming in a crowded room, but no one can hear me. Perhaps if I knew what the future held for me, then I could change it if I wished; make my life what I want it to be, not what anyone else has planned for me.
Ùna yipped lightly and licked the girl's cheek. For a maid of thirteen years, you certainly dwell on dark thoughts. One would think you are much older. You worry me sometimes, Princess.
Raina laughed and hugged the wolf around her thick neck. I do not mean to; I am sorry. I only wish that I could escape this place with my mother, so we might start a new life away from pain and sadness. You will come with us, of course. What do you think about that?
It is a nice dream, she replied sadly, nudging the girl in her shoulder. Raina knew that it was a silly thought, and would probably never come about, but it was nice to dream. Ùna knew that it was impossible as well, but she let the girl dwell on her follies. She was still young, and had a positive view of the world. It would not be long though, before she realized what a truly dark place it could be. She gave her wolf one last hug about the neck, and then turned her gaze back to the sea. What she saw there, gave her cause for alarm.
Ùna, what are those ships doing sailing out to sea? Are they heading to Alagaesia? Raina narrowed her eyes to look at the tallships with their huge sails and long hulls. Tiny men who looked like ants raced across the deck to handle the rigging and prepare the ship for her voyage across the sea. And upon the crisp, white sails was emblazoned a snarling, red direwolf: the sigil of her father's house. Beside her, Ùna's fur bristled and a deep growl emanated from her chest.
I know not why the ships sail to the east, but whatever the reason, it does not bode good tidings, the wolf replied, shaking her shoulders. Come; let us return to the castle. It will be dark soon, and you have dinner with your father tonight. Raina nodded and grabbed two fistfuls of her fur to swing up onto her back. The wolf waited until she was settled and then bounded across the wide coastal plain, and back towards the city of Caton.
Dinner with her father was silent, as usual, and her mother was absent, also as usual. She would be dining in her room tonight, as she did every other night. Raina had long ago given up trying to figure out why her father wished to keep them separate. Whatever his reasoning, it made no sense to the girl. She cut the breast of roast chicken with her knife and brought it daintily to her mouth, chewing slowly and scanning the room with bright, blue eyes. The silence pervaded heavily upon her, but she dare not speak a word in case she angered her father. It didn't seem to matter what she said, the slightest things set him off. To her right, Emrys lay spread out in front of the blazing hearth, his hulking form rising and falling with his even breaths. The autumn nights were growing colder, so the hearths of the castle were lit more regularly. And not far from Raina's seat at her father's left, was Ùna, seemingly peaceful, but ever watchful for danger.
"How are your lessons faring?" the king finally asked through a mouthful of boiled potatoes. Raina kept her head down and her eyes on her plate; she never liked to show her father the fear in her eyes.
"They are going well. Master Reymus says my sword skills are passable, but that I am very talented with the bow," she replied. "He's going to teach me knife fighting next week, and then the art of the spear once I have learned that sufficiently."
"Good," the king replied shortly, spearing another few potatoes on his fork. "Your mother and I have decided that it is high past time that you get a maid closer to your own age, rather than that crone that follows you around now; a girl you can confide in and that can be a companion to you." Raina sucked in her breath quietly at the mention of her mother. Morzan hardly ever mention the queen to his daughter, and when he did, it always caught the girl by surprise. But she remained silent, unsure of how to respond to this. Raina could feel the king's cold gaze resting upon her, but she kept her eyes fixed on the plate in front of her. She would not be baited into looking at him.
"Thank you, Father," she finally whispered, taking a hasty bite of greens. They tasted bitter to her, but she dare not complain.
"Yes, well…" The king paused and inspected his daughter thoughtfully. Since her flowering two years ago, she'd taken on more of the curves and delicate beauty of womanhood, but there was still no doubt that she was a child. Her lessons in warfare had helped with the girl's confidence, but she was still a small thing; delicate; fragile like a doll. Morzan wondered if the girl's mother had looked that way at her age. Raina certainly had her mother's hair and eyes, and there was a fullness to her pink mouth that was reminiscent of Bronwyn. The king thought that she would make a good match for some young suitor one day, whomever he chose for her. She would be desirable to all the wealthy young men in Oran, but for now, she was still but a child. Any thoughts of marriage could wait another few years.
The girl remained quiet, glancing between her plate and her direwolf. Morzan, too, returned his attention back to his meal, content to let the rest of the evening pass in silence. Useless conversation made him uneasy; perhaps Josse could help him relax tonight, after the castle had gone to bed. The scullery maid was quiet, but her form was pleasing to the king. Yes, he would have Josse tonight. And tomorrow, another maid from the laundry. When he'd become king of his own realm, Morzan had never imagined all of the amenities that came with being a ruler, least of all the women. He smirked slightly at the thought and tore at a leg of chicken.
Soon, his plans would come together. As they sat there, his ships were already making their way to the shores of Alagaesia. If his old friend Brom had forgotten who he was, he would certainly remember soon enough.
The new maid was in Raina's chambers the next morning. She looked to be about two years younger than the princess, but she had a solid look about her; well fitted to life as a servant. Dull brown hair framed a plain face. When her young mistress awoke from a dreamless sleep, the maid curtsied and then threw another log onto the hearth. It was a chilly September morning.
"Hello," Raina said, smiling at the girl. The princess stretched her arms over her head to loosen the muscles and then yawned widely.
"Good morning, m'lady," the maid replied. "How did you rest?" It was clear the girl had been trained well in what to say to her mistress, and when to keep her mouth shut.
"Well enough, thank you. Tell me, what is your name?" The maid looked up at the princess warily, unsure if this was a trap. From what she'd heard of royalty, they were tricksters and took delight in the cruelties of punishing servants. Her mother had always told her to say as little as possible to them, to avoid any beatings.
"Bridie, m'lady," the girl finally muttered. "I'm to be your lady's maid."
"Yes, I have heard," the princess replied, smiling kindly at the girl. "I think my father means for you to be a friend, of sorts. He thinks I am a lonely child." Ùna perked up her head from where she lay at the foot of the bed, and Bridie glanced at her nervously. "Do not fear her," Raina continued, "she will not harm you. She's here to protect me, and so, will protect you as well." The girl stared at the direwolf for a moment longer before dipping into another hasty curtsy and scurrying out of the room, mumbling something about fetching breakfast.
The child fears me, Ùna said, watching her go from the room. Though it is my red brother whom she should fear more.
They don't know any better, Ùna. To them, you are just a monstrous beast who can only think of eating them. She will come to trust you in time, as I do. Raina leaned over and petted the wolf's fur gently. But for now, we'll have to wait and see if she is loyal to me, or to my father. I have a feeling he wishes to spy on me.
It would not be difficult to turn the girl against him. Ùna leapt down off the bed and sniffed the floor where the girl had been standing.
Yes, but let us hope it doesn't come to that, Raina replied, leaning her head back against the pillow and gazing out the window. Her room faced the east, where she could see the hazy blue line that was the sea. And as she looked, she wondered what it would be like to sail across those waters and see the land where her father came from. Was it as bleak as this one? What were the people like? Was everyone there as cruel as her father? For now, all she could do was imagine what it would be like. And perhaps she would never see Alagaesia; not if her father had anything to say about it.
"Raise your sword, boy! Throw me back! You're missing prime opportunities here!" Jörmundur voice fell upon Murtagh's ears like a hammer against an anvil. His sword pounded against the little wooden shield lashed to his arm, sending jolts of pain up into his shoulder. If this was what war was like, Murtagh wanted no part of it. He grunted heavily as he lifted the broadsword above his shoulder and brought it down upon his opponent's steel-clad arm. The blunted edge of the blade slid harmlessly off the castle forged steel, and the point of his sword dug into the dirt beneath him. Jörmundur took this opportunity to shove his sword arm into Murtagh's shield, causing him to fall back. But as he stumbled, the young man righted himself and spun in a circular motion, his sword extended out in front of him. As Jörmundur watched the strange act, Murtagh's sword connected with his helm, ringing his ears and sending a pounding through his head. The older man fell to the side, struggling to keep his heavily armored body upright. Before he knew what was happening, Murtagh was attacking in an onslaught of slashes to his shield, pushing the older man into the dirt.
Finally, Jörmundur threw down his weapon and held his arms up. "Yield," he called firmly from beneath his helm. Murtagh stepped away and threw the blunted blade across the practice yard, ripping his own helm off. He tucked it under his arm and then extended a hand to help the older man up out of the dirt, saving some of his dignity. "Now that," Jörmundur claimed, "is how you subdue an opponent. Where did that fury come from, boy?" Murtagh bristled a bit at the misnomer, but he let it slide off his back. He was, after all, a young man of fifteen now and well on his way to becoming one of the most skilled warriors in all of Alagaesia. It wouldn't be much longer until no one called him "boy" anymore.
"I'm not sure," Murtagh replied sheepishly. "I just tapped into something inside me. Or perhaps it was your labeling me boy that did it." He laughed slightly, to let him know there were no hard feelings. Jörmundur clapped him on the back as they walked towards the armory. Although it was autumn, it still grew hot underneath the heavy steel, and both men wished to be free of their constraints after a long morning of practicing. They laughed some more as they replaced the armor on the racks, going over every point of their sparring match.
"You are quick on your feet," Jörmundur said, "but you let your arrogance blind you. Never underestimate your opponent. With me, you have the advantage of having fought me before. But on the battlefield, your enemies are faceless men, with no names or histories. Anything can happen in battle; never forget that." Murtagh nodded as he hung the blunted blade up on its posts, and then glanced over at the open doors of the armory. Thorn stood staring at him with blood red eyes.
Master Jeod is waiting for us in his study, the snow white wolf said, his voice deep and solemn in Murtagh's mind. The dark-haired young man rolled his eyes slightly, having forgotten that he had lessons this afternoon with the Royal scholar.
Very well, he replied gruffly, go on ahead and tell him I must wash before our lesson. I'll be up shortly. The wolf inclined his head and then turned to pad off across the yard. Murtagh shook out his hair, trying to loose it from his face where it had been plastered by his sweat. "I must go," he said to the arms master, "I have a history lesson to get to. We'll spar again tomorrow?"
"Aye, that we will," Jörmundur replied, flipping a dagger end over end to catch it by the point. Murtagh laughed at him merrily and then headed out of the armory towards the castle. Before he could get very far though, another direwolf, this one smaller than his own, blocked his path. He stopped mid-step and sighed at the dark grey wolf, her sapphire blue eyes narrowed menacingly.
Let me pass, Saphira, he said to the wolf. She bared her teeth and snarled.
Eragon wishes to spar with you. He says your defeat of him the other day was a cheat, the wolf replied, her voice full of malice. Murtagh did not care to discuss whatever lies his brother had spun, so he stepped around the wolf where she had planted her feet.
Let Eragon think what he will, but I have other things to attend to today. Tell him to come to the practice yard tomorrow morning, he said, hurrying towards the castle as the large wolf followed him. Perhaps he will get a chance to avenge his wounded pride then. She snapped at his heels, but he paid the wolf no mind. After Saphira had pinned him to the ground when he was twelve, the boys' father put an end to their childish brawling, afraid that one of their wolves would harm the other boy. But Saphira stopped just short of entering the castle and growled at Murtagh's retreating form.
Thorn was waiting for him in his room, lying by the blazing hearth and yawning widely. You stink of horse, the wolf growled.
Wonderful to see you too, old friend, Murtagh replied mirthlessly. Fear not, I'll be clean soon. He headed to the washroom that was adjoined to his chambers. The bath was scalding hot, and it felt good to slough off the dirt and grime from the practice yard. As he ran a soft towel over his medium-length, dark hair and wiped the fog off his looking glass, he took a moment to inspect his face. Fierce, grey eyes stared back at him, and a coarse layer of stubble was growing on his chin. At fifteen years of age, he'd only just had to start shaving a year ago, so the concept was still relatively new. As his eyes traveled over his reflection, he didn't see much of his father there. The king had always told him he looked very much like his mother, but he wished he knew what she'd looked like. With a sigh, he left the washroom to don a fresh set of clothing and then left his chambers, Thorn close on his heels.
The wolf padded behind him on huge, silent feet; if Murtagh had not been able to sense his presence, he might have never known the wolf was there. The pair of them traveled through the wide corridors, sending servants scurrying at the sight of the beast, but Murtagh paid them no mind. The Bastard of Illirea they called him, though never to his face. He wasn't sure what he would do if they ever did call him that in his presence, but just the thought of it unnerved him and made the blood rush to his face. His father swore it didn't matter, but it got under the young man's skin all the same.
Master Jeod's study was located high up in the West Tower, where he could look out over the whole city. Sometimes, Murtagh would find him staring out the window blankly, lost in whatever outlandish thoughts coursed through his mind. Today was no different, as Jeod sat upon the windowseat, gazing up at the sky. Murtagh cleared his throat as Thorn ducked through the door and headed straight to the fireplace.
"Ah!" Master Jeod exclaimed upon finally realizing his pupil was here. "There you are. Come sit down, we have much to discuss today." Murtagh took a seat at the small, round table where a huge book was opened to its middle. He perused the runes on the page, but did not absorb their words. Whatever they said, Master Jeod would soon explain it to him.
"Good afternoon, Master Jeod," he greeted the somewhat eccentric man. His robes were a garish pink, trimmed with gold and silver embroidery, and he wore a pair of rimmed spectacles, which made his eyes look three times their normal size, green orbs staring out of a thin face. Atop his head, Murtagh noticed it did not look like he'd taken care to comb his hair when he got out of bed that morning, though he couldn't recall that Jeod every did look kempt in his appearance.
"I thought we'd go over the history of the tribes today," Jeod said merrily, taking the seat across from the king's bastard. Murtagh inwardly cringed, as he knew their history by heart, but conceded nonetheless. "Very well," Master Jeod continued, "name the eight tribes and their respective leaders."
"The Mountain Tribes are led by Lord Cadoc, who is the queen's father," Murtagh began slowly, biting on the words as he thought of his step-mother. "The Plains Tribes are led by Lord Fadawar, and his niece, the Lady Nasuada. Western Tribes are led by Lady Angela; Southron Tribes are led by Lord Orrin; Northern Tribes are led by Lady Islanzadí and her daughter, Lady Arya. The Eastern Tribes are led by Lord Orik; The Island Tribes of Sharktooth are led by Lady Lorana. And the Forest Tribes are led by Lord Fäolin. How did I do?"
"Excellent!" Master Jeod exclaimed. "But can you name their direwolves and what rank they hold amongst their own people."
"The Alpha Male of the direwolves is Kah'Sheen; his Alpha Female is Vella. They reside in the forest of Du Weldenvarden, and once every two years they send a certain number of pups from their litter to our lands, to become allied with its rulers. Lord Cadoc's wolf is named Birka; Lord Fadawar's wolf is named Nithring, but Lady Nasuada does not have one yet. Lady Angela's wolf is named Solembum; Lady Islanzadí has a wolf named Cuaroc, and Lady Arya's wolf is named Fírnen; Lord Orik… Blast! I never remember his."
"Beroan," Jeod said patiently, prompting his student to continue.
"Yes, Beroan," Murtagh said sullenly, annoyed at this test he was being forced to endure. "Lady Lorana's wolf is Eridor, and Lord Fäolin's wolf is Vanilor." Murtagh slapped his hands against his legs at the conclusion of his recitation. Jeod nodded approvingly and adjusted his glasses upon the bridge of his hawkish nose. "And if you're curious, my wolf's name is Thorn, father's is Athkore, the queen's is Marl, and Eragon's is Saphira. How did I do?"
"Very well done; I can tell you have been studying." Master Jeod smiled knowingly. "But," he continued, "there is one you have missed." Murtagh looked at him in confusion for a moment, before bringing his palm up against his forehead.
"Emrys," he groaned. "He is the wolf that is bonded to King Morzan of Oran. How could I forget? Though you never did ask about him; you only asked for the leaders in Alagaesia." Jeod smirked at his young pupil, and then opened his mouth to speak. But he was suddenly cut off by the door to his study swinging open and banging against the stone wall.
"Pardon the interruption," the messenger said through catching his breath, "but your father has summoned you to his study." This was directed at Murtagh, though he noticed that the older man declined to use his proper title of Captain. No matter, he was not vain enough to think that he automatically earned the respect of the men in his father's household just because he'd been promoted to the City Guard.
"Forgive me, Master Jeod," Murtagh said to his teacher as he stood from the table. "I will return, if time allows." The scholar waved a hand dismissively and Thorn bounded to Murtagh's side as they followed the messenger. He led them across the palace, though Murtagh knew exactly where it was he was going. His father's study was in the North Tower, and when they got there, Murtagh was surprised to see that it was full of generals and advisors, all of them talking amongst themselves.
When the king's bastard entered in his boiled leather armor inlaid with silver and a red cloak clasped about his shoulders, everyone fell silent and turned to face him. For a young man of fifteen, he was quite tall, and looked much older than he was. Perhaps it was the responsibility his father had placed on him, by putting him in the City Guard. But Murtagh had risen to the station, thankful to have something to do that set him apart from just being the king's bastard son.
"Welcome, Murtagh," King Brom said from his place behind the carved oak desk. Athkore stood nobly behind him, dark eyes surveying the scene. His father motioned for him to sit in a small, wooden chair by the hearth. Thorn remained outside of the crowded room, having no place to fit, but Murtagh did not feel uneasy. As long as the queen was not here, he did not think he was under any threat. "I received a raven this morning," the king continued, "from Sharktooth. Their coastal scouts have spotted Orani ships headed towards Teirm; two days out, by the look of it. We haven't suffered any raids in years, so I'm not sure why Morzan would choose to start them up again. But if he has, then we must be prepared. Lady Angela has called for aid to defend her territory. We cannot abandon our allies." He looked to General Thane, a burly man that stood a head above every other man in the room. He led the combined armies of the Broddring Kingdom, and was a fearsome warrior on the battlefield. General Thane nodded slightly, and then the king looked to Admiral Martland Redbeard, the leader over the fleet of warships and galleys.
"Our ships will meet them before they get the chance to land," he affirmed in a rough voice, hairy arms crossed over his burly chest. Murtagh watched as the other men were given their commands, and then filed out of the king's study, until only he was left. Thorn padded into the room as the last man closed the door, and joined Murtagh by the hearth.
"I'm sure you're wondering why I've called you here," King Brom said, looking over at his son.
"I was," Murtagh replied. Brom heaved a sigh and steepled his hands beneath his bearded chin.
"I have made the decision to promote Commander Horst to the cavalry division," the king explained. Murtagh remained silent, unsure what the promotion of his head officer had to do with him. "He'll be leaving the City Guard first thing on the morrow, to move out with the men to the coast. In the wake of his departure, I have decided that you are ready to take his place." The breath caught in Murtagh's throat and the blood rushed to his face.
"No use arguing," the king said dismissively. "It's already been decided. Frederic will remain your second, to advise you until you are ready to assume full command. I have ultimate faith in you, Murtagh. You will do well." Murtagh stood and beat a clenched fist against his chest, bowing his head in deference.
"I will not fail you, Father," he said stoically, pride swelling in his chest.
"I do not doubt that." Brom stood and came over to his son, barely taller than him now. He put his hands upon the young man's shoulders and looked him in the eye. "Let us talk soon, just the two of us. I feel as though it has been a long time since we had any real time together."
"I understand that you are busy, Father. As am I," Murtagh said quietly. "But yes, I would like that very much." Brom nodded and then gave him his leave, returning to his desk to deal with the particulars of defending his kingdom against raiders. Murtagh hurried out of the study, a new happiness blooming inside of him. No matter what the queen said or thought, his father had bestowed him with an enormous responsibility. Thorn followed closely behind him as they returned to Master Jeod, and this time, he devoted himself fully to his recitations, not even caring that this was the thousandth time they'd been over the history of Alagaesia. For the first time in a very long time, Murtagh thought that everything was falling perfectly into place.
Chapter 4: Seeds of Doubt
Murtagh paced restlessly across the practice yard, his sword hanging at his side and trailing across the ground. The other men gathered there were too concerned with fighting one another, but he was watching all of them with a careful eye. As the new commander of the City Guard, Murtagh would be in charge of overseeing the training of his men, and the new recruits. But the training itself would remain up to Frederic, who was by far the more experienced warrior. The burly soldier stood on the other side of the yard, somewhat sour at the thought of being placed under the authority of a green boy, but resigned to his fate. Whatever the king ordered, he would follow without question.
As for the king's bastard, he was feeling a mounting fear growing inside of him. The older men all looked down at him with sneers upon their faces. Most of them were not as willing as Frederic to be placed under Murtagh's authority. But he could not show that fear to any of them; they would take it as a sign of weakness, and pounce upon any opportunity to get him out of the position he'd been placed in. Murtagh steeled himself against their menacing glares. He'd been prepared for some backlash directed at his youth and inexperience, but nothing even close to this blatant hatefulness. Thorn sat in close proximity to the path Murtagh was carving out in the dirt, keeping a close eye on all the activity in watchful silence. Whatever these men may think of Murtagh, Thorn would be there to protect him if any of them decided to act upon their thoughts.
They all hate me, don't they? Murtagh said, slowing down his frenzied pacing.
I believe they are just jealous of you, Thorn replied. Many of them assumed that Frederic would take Commander Horst's place, and that they might be considered for the position of second in command. It does not sit with them lightly that they were passed up for the king's bastard. Murtagh looked over at the huge wolf, his red eyes gleaming wickedly in contrast against his snowy fur.
How do you know all of this?
My people have many secrets, he replied cryptically, though not unkindly. Murtagh just shook his head and smirked at the cheekiness of his bonded partner.
Very well, keep them to yourself then. Murtagh turned his attention back to the men sparring with one another in the yard. They continued on for a little while, but soon broke off from their groups and went on their way. Frederic dismissed the remaining recruits, after giving them a small lecture in how to improve their technique, and then sent them on their way. When they were all finally gone, Frederic walked over to Murtagh, his arms still crossed over his chest.
"The men are wary of you," the large, red-headed man said in a deep voice. "But the new recruits look promising. Anything to say?" Murtagh shook his head slightly.
"No, I don't want to give them any more reason to hate me than they already have," he said quietly, keeping his observations of some of the men's incorrect techniques to himself. "I trust your judgment in this, Frederic. And I thank you for your help." He extended a hand to his second in command, who took it swiftly and shook vigorously.
"I may not agree with the king's decision, but I won't go against it. You're my commander now, and I'll help you in any way that I can." Murtagh thanked him once again before heading out of the yard, Thorn following closely behind him. He had intended to return to his chambers, for some self-study before his lesson this afternoon, but when the fur on Thorn's back stood straight up and a low growl came from his throat, he knew that would not be happening.
Saphira stood at the door back into the castle, her feet planted firmly and blue eyes glinting sharply. Eragon is on his way down, she said, barring their entry back inside. Murtagh sighed heavily and rubbed the back of his hands against his eyes.
Can this not wait? I have things to attend to, he said hastily, trying to mask his frustration but knowing he was doing a poor job of it.
It cannot! the wolf snapped harshly. She trained her eyes on Thorn and growled louder. He wants a rematch.
Fine, Murtagh conceded. But you and Thorn will keep to yourselves. I'll not have a repeat of last month. He was recalling one of their last matches, when the two wolves had gone after each other and brawled in the dirt, yelping and snarling at one another's throats.
Very well. She turned away, and from behind her came Eragon, bounding out into the practice yard with a hungry gleam in his eyes.
"Are you ready to spar with me, bastard?" he called, causing Murtagh to stiffen at his use of the word. It was bad enough coming from everyone else, but from his own flesh and blood, it seemed to drive the knife further in. Murtagh knew it was only because of the poisonous words of his mother that the boy called him that, and, at her prompting, didn't understand how it affected his brother.
"Why could this not have waited, Eragon? I have other things to do than play at sticks with you," Murtagh growled, following him back into the yard. They both wore padded jerkins in place of the heavy armor, and nothing to protect their heads. Murtagh would never intentionally harm the younger boy, but he wasn't so sure he would receive the same treatment in return.
"You cheated the other day, and I want to get back at you." At thirteen, Eragon was already becoming a wilful young man, allowed to do whatever he wanted by his doting mother. And, silently, Murtagh feared it would become his undoing one day. There would come a time when he could no longer hold his tongue, and he'd say something he would come to regret. The queen hated that they had any interaction in the first place; if she knew Murtagh had admonished Eragon, it would not go well for him.
"I did not cheat, Eragon, and you know it."
"Yes, you did!" he cried, grabbing one of the blunted swords from the rack and twirling it about haphazardly. He was good with a blade, but, as yet, still inexperienced. "You attacked me when I wasn't looking, and that isn't fair."
"Do you think an enemy soldier will wait for you to look before he attacks you? That isn't how real battles are fought, Eragon. You must remain quick on your feet and focused on the battle at hand, or else you'll pay with your head."
"Don't lecture me, Murtagh," the younger boy replied in a very childish manner. "Master Jörmundur spends more time with me than he does with you. I know how to fight a battle."
"Fine, have it your way," he said, retrieving his own sword and slicing it through the air in two graceful arcs at his side. They settled into their positions, watching each other carefully. When it came down to mere strength, Murtagh far outmatched his younger brother, but Eragon was quick. Though he was oftentimes not quick enough to keep up with the superior technique of his brother's moves, and had never beaten him yet. Eragon made a lunge at Murtagh's leg, but he quickly swiped it away, jumping backwards and landing with his feet firmly planted in the dirt. Behind the two boys, their direwolves sat a good distance apart, watching with interest.
Eragon made a few more attempts to land a blow, but Murtagh was completely focused on the spar, and his younger brother was terribly predictable. At his young age, there were only a few combinations that he knew well enough to put them into practice, and they were all easily defended against. Murtagh parried blow after blow, but soon grew tired of this game. He pushed against the next blow, sending the smaller boy staggering back into the dirt. Eragon landed on the ground with a thump and a look of indignation upon his face. It was a look that was soon replaced by one of fear when Murtagh rested the dull tip of his blade at the hollow of Eragon's throat.
"Dead," he said simply. "Practice with Jörmundur from now on, and boys your own size, until you can compete with me. There was no cheating involved; I am simply at a higher skill level than you." He reached down a hand and hauled his younger brother to his feet. Half-brother, he had to remind himself. Although they were raised together, the boys had lived their lives apart from one another. The queen kept her darling boy close to her bosom, and Murtagh had learned to fend for himself. And even though he was young, it did not escape Eragon's notice how their father seemed to prefer Murtagh's company over his, sowing little seeds of doubt in his young, impressionable mind; though these thoughts, he kept to himself.
"I shouldn't be sparring with you anyways," Eragon replied sullenly, brushing the dirt off the back of his breeches. "I'm the future king of Alagaesia, and you're just a bastard."
"I also happen to be your brother, Eragon." Murtagh felt the anger rising up in his chest, and he wanted nothing more than to punch Eragon right in the nose. His words seemed to put him in check though, for the look on the boy's face was one of shame. But before he could say anything further, a messenger scurried into the yard, bowing in Eragon's direction.
"My prince," he said in a mousy tone, "the queen wishes to see you." Eragon threw a heated glance in Murtagh's direction before following the small man back into the castle. Saphira bounded across the yard to follow, and once they were gone, Murtagh could feel his anger abating and retreating back inside him. He had been far too close to saying or doing something regretful. Although he loved his brother, and they had been friends as children, the boy could be cruel sometimes. And Murtagh was not sure if Eragon harbored the same brotherly love for him. If he didn't it was because of the queen and her poisoned words, a force that Murtagh could not hope to combat.
With a heavy sigh, he replaced the practice sword on the rack and hurried back inside before any more distractions could come his way. Thorn padded along behind him, frightening the servants with his monstrous size. At least Murtagh would never have to worry about any surprise ambushes, either threatening or not. Thorn could ward off any unwanted visitors, no matter who they were. Well, except the king and queen's wolves perhaps. They were larger than Thorn, though Murtagh knew Athkore would never do anything to hurt him. His father's wolf loved him dearly, he knew. But the queen's… Well, that was a different story. The huge brindled direwolf was certainly a fearsome beast to behold, though he'd heard that the King Across the Sea's was even larger. But no matter, he doubted he'd ever meet that wolf in his lifetime.
The exiled king could send as many ships as he possessed, but they would never land on Alagaesia's shores. Not if his father had anything to say about it; that much Murtagh knew for sure. Their armies could withstand whatever King Morzan threw at them, and he'd be beaten back to his island like a whipped dog. Murtagh was brimming with nervous excitement at the prospect of helping to defend their land. Even though he was only Commander of the City Guard, and the Orani armies would likely never even make it to Illirea, he still held a sense of pride in his duty. His father had given him a great honor and responsibility, and Murtagh would not let him down.
General Thane sat proudly upon the back of his black destrier as they came pounding through the gates of Teirm. It had been a three day ride from Illirea with an arduous trek through the Spine, and they had pushed their mounts to their limits. But General Thane knew there would be no time for rest. In the large square that lay just within the gates stood Lady Angela, a large mass of soldiers filed into their ranks behind her. She wore a full suit of flanged armor, yet her head remained uncovered, allowing her wild, brown curls to flow freely about her face and shoulders. Fierce blue eyes were set into her face, like rare jewels, and General Thane thought that she was a very beautiful woman. Beside her was a snarling, black direwolf, with yellow eyes as big as full moons. Slather dripped from the beast's mouth, and the horses began to grow uneasy as they approached the forces of Teirm.
"Well met, General Thane," Angela called, raising a hand in greeting. The main force of their men remained outside the city walls, but Thane had brought his cavalry with him in a show of the king's might. Although the Western Tribes had been amongst the first to ally with King Brom, it still did well to remind them of his power and protection.
"And to you, Lady Angela," the burly general replied. He pulled his destrier to a stop in front of the ruler of Teirm and crawled down from his back, his heavy armor clanking together noisily. When he righted himself, he was able to see over the heads of every man gathered before him, and most especially the small woman with the huge direwolf. "What news do you have of the Orani ships?" he continued, eyeing the wolf warily. The beast had a feral look about him, and General Thane didn't want to find any of his horses missing in the morning.
"The ships were sighted by our scouting boats about a league from shore," Lady Angela explained, turning away and walking across the square, prompting General Thane to follow her. Behind them, the black wolf, Solembum, padded across the flagstone quietly, the only sound the clicking of his sharp claws. Thane glanced nervously back at the beast, and sped up his pace to keep up with the smaller woman. As they walked, she continued, "The raven that came this morning put their number at three. They're large war galleys, so give or take two-hundred and fifty oarsmen, and then at least another hundred or so above decks per ship."
"So we're looking at a force upwards of a thousand then," Thane replied, deep in thought. "How many men do you have here?"
"Half that many." They entered into a large row house, which Thane could only assume belonged to the lady of the City, and then through the entrance into an ample study, appointed with dark oak and lit with a large lantern hanging from the ceiling. Solembum followed into the study and sat behind his lady where she took up behind a large desk. Thane remained standing as a servant closed the door and the two were left alone.
"We have enough men to match their numbers," Thane said, "but the issue will be if Redbeard can get here in time. Our frigates are coming up from Feinster, and it's a five day sail. We'll need to hold them off until then."
"We have ships, General Thane," Angela replied heatedly. "Though they are not vessels of war, it will give us the chance to at least get close to them. And if they try to land, we'll be ready. The situation is not dire as of yet, but King Brom's help is welcome. We will find places for your men in the barracks."
"Your generosity is surely welcome, Lady Angela. But I would like to sit with you and your advisors, as well as mine, to go over our strategy. How do you plan to combat the raiders out on the water?"
"Many of our soldiers grew up as fisherman, and have a vast knowledge of the waters around here," she said firmly, stroking her wolf's fur. "We can draw them off their ships and into the smaller estuaries and deltas to fight them in smaller numbers. But you are right, General Thane, we must all agree on a comprehensive strategy. I will call a meeting for tomorrow night, yes?" He nodded swiftly before turning to exit, his helm secured under his arm. Out in the square, the forces of Illirea and Teirm were mingling, but Thane's Captains and Commanders stood huddled in their own group. He headed over to them.
"Tell the men to head to the barracks, on the western end of the city," Thane snapped to one of the company Commanders. "There will be no fight tonight, nor possibly the next day. These Orani bastards seem content to bide their time and make us wait."
"Yes, sir," the commander said, saluting and then turning to find his men. The others did the same at Thane's bidding, and then the general himself followed one of Lady Angela's advisors to another of the row houses, near the one that served as Lady Angela's headquarters. Thane's leaders would join him shortly, and then they could get to work on a strategy, in case the Orani attacked before Angela thought they would. As he looked out of an upper window, he couldn't help thinking this would be an extremely long and tiring campaign.
"What have I told you about sparring with that boy?" Queen Selena was not in the best of moods to begin with, and the information about her son fighting with the king's bastard in the practice yard had only served to incense her further.
"Oh, mother," Eragon replied, rolling his eyes slightly as he petted Saphira's soft, grey fur absentmindedly. "He is my brother, who else am I supposed to spar with? I know you don't like him because he's a bastard, but all the other nobleman's sons are so dull. And none of them are any good with a sword."
"It's a matter of propriety, my sweet boy," the queen continued from her high-backed chair. Her brindled wolf, Marl, lay on the floor at her feet, his jade eyes trained on the prince before him. "If you are seen to be cavorting with your father's… mistake, then it could reflect badly upon you. You are to be the future king, and must surround yourself with only those who can be trusted."
"But…" The young boy seemed to be confused, biting down on his lip and looking to his wolf for guidance. "But Murtagh is my brother… He wouldn't betray me, would he?" The queen gave her son a sympathetic look and then beckoned him over to the chair. He crossed the room and then stopped by her side as she put an arm around his shoulder, petting his dark brown hair in a loving manner.
"My dear," she began slowly, her tone soft and comforting, "there are things that you do not yet understand. You are very important, in that you will be king someday. But Murtagh, he is also the king's son. He wants to take your birthright from you, child. Bastards are born of treachery and deceit, and can only do the same throughout their own lives. He wishes to be king; you cannot let him get to close to you. I fear for your safety, Eragon." The queen's words coursed through his mind, planting little seeds of doubt to be sown into greater mistrust later. She watched in silent triumph as the weight of her lies became apparent on the young boy's face. He leaned his head into her shoulder.
"I love you, Mother," Eragon whispered. "Thank you for your wisdom. We can't let Murtagh take my throne."
"No, my dear," the queen seethed, "we cannot."
Chapter 5: Echoes of the Past
As General Thane stood at the window of his study the next morning, awaiting his breakfast, he noticed a black smudge of smoke over the low peak to the south. He narrowed his eyes at the horizon as a servant pushed his way into the room and laid a platter piled high with food on the small table. The servant rose and put his hands behind his back, saying "Is there anything else I can fetch for you, Sir?"
"What's over that mountain?" Thane asked, his eyes still peeled on the smoke that was rising ever higher in the sky.
"A small fishing village," the servant replied tersely. "It's called Midbarrow. Will that be all, Sir?" The general waved his hand dismissively and the servant hurried out of the room to tend to the other occupants of the row house. General Thane turned from the window, and before he could decide what he would do next, a woman burst into the room, her wild, curly hair flying about her head in a frenzy of motion.
"General Thane!" Angela cried. "The raiders came in the night; they attacked a small village to the south of here."
The large, burly man slammed a clenched fist down upon the table, rattling the cups and plates that held his forgotten breakfast. "How did we not see this coming? Where were the scouts!" he demanded hotly, fetching his swordbelt from the back of a chair and buckling it hurriedly about his waist.
"They came in rowboats and stuck close to the shore," Angela explained, "right at sunset. In the glare of the light, they couldn't see them."
"Has a company been sent to fetch the survivors yet?" General Thane was walking briskly around the edge of the table, but the hardness in Lady Angela's voice gave him reason to pause.
"Thane," she said quietly, her voice no more than a whisper, "there were no survivors. They razed the village to the ground… even the children." Cold dread filled the general's heart at her words and he felt the breath catching in his throat.
"Gather the other generals," he said quietly, trying to mask the quavering in his voice. "And fetch a steward. I need to send King Brom a message straight away."
Dark wings, dark words. Brom thought that the phrase had never rung more true than in this instance. When the raven had come, bearing General Thane's message, he could hardly believe the words written in a hasty script upon the parchment. Ten years ago, they'd suffered raids along the coast from the Orani, but they had been petty thefts in comparison to this. Never before had any deaths resulted from the raids, and then they'd just stopped altogether. Brom couldn't understand why now, all of a sudden, Morzan would choose to heighten his aggression.
There's no use in mulling over the why, Athkore said solemnly from her place behind his desk. We have to focus on our response now.
I've summoned the Council; they should be here any moment, Brom replied, placing his head into his hands and heaving a sigh. This saddens my heart, Athkore. I knew Morzan was a bitter man, but I never thought he was capable of the slaughter of innocents…
Before Athkore could respond, the door to his study swung open slowly, revealing Jeod where he stood timidly in the hallway. "Come in, Jeod," Brom called, beckoning him into the room. Jeod scurried across the carpeted floor and took a seat on the other side of the desk. It was not an irregular occurrence for a council meeting to be called, but it was not usually the king himself who did the calling. This was what caused Jeod to be alarmed.
"Where are the others, Your Grace?" he asked, wringing his hands.
"They have been summoned; I expect them any moment." Jeod remained silent, averting his eyes and scouring the room.
"I will discuss it further when the Council arrives," Brom cut him off, not unkindly. The scholarly man bowed his head and stared at his hands where they were folded in his lap. The king could not help thinking that the man had a brilliant mind for strategy, but he wouldn't ever want him at his side in a battle.
They didn't have to wait long before the door came bursting open again, admitting Jörmundur's large frame into the spacious room. Murtagh followed quickly behind him, with Thorn in tow. They took their places in the other chairs and exchanged greetings with Master Jeod. Not long after that, Jeod's wife, Helen, hurried into the room, her long blonde hair swaying behind her ample hips. She was the realms Master of Coin, and Jeod its Head Steward, so they rarely got any time alone together. They exchanged a quick peck on the lips, and she swept into the chair beside him, grasping his hand. It wasn't very often that the entire Council was called to a meeting, so they all had reason to worry. The last to arrive was the queen, sauntering into the study with her huge direwolf close behind. Once she took her seat at the far right end, the king drew in a long breath and steeled himself to impart the dreadful news he had received.
"A raven came from Teirm this morning," he said, dispensing with any formal introduction, "bearing dark news. The Orani raiders attacked a small village to the south of Teirm, razing it to the ground. No one was spared, not even the children." Helen sucked in her breath and tightened her grip on Jeod's hand, turning their knuckles white as bone. "I've called you all here to discuss our next course of action." Brom looked at the five people gathered before him in turn, staring each one of them in the eyes. Helen looked to be the most shocked, but the king's wife was oddly stone-faced, sitting straight-backed in her chair with her hands folded purposefully in her lap.
"The ships that were moored off the coast of Teirm," Jörmundur finally said, breaking the silence, "what's been done with them?"
"They were gone in the morning when the decimated town was discovered," the king explained. "Scouts were sent out after them, but it seems they set course back to Oran."
"Why come all this way to destroy an insignificant fishing village?" Murtagh asked, betraying his youth and inexperience.
"Because it was the last thing we expected. Morzan is toying with us," Jeod said quietly, his gaze staring blankly out the window. "He wants to show that he is not afraid of any threat we present, and that he will not hesitate to kill innocents."
"It isn't the first time he's done it," Brom said darkly, "nor, I fear, the last." He flicked his gaze up at his son, taking in the look of fear his face held. "My hesitation lies in deciding whether to retaliate or not."
"We should go after the bastards, and burn their tiny fleet to cinders," Jörmundur replied hotly, always one to suggest the most violent course of action.
"That will be exactly what they expect us to do," Jeod said. "We would do better to send agents into the city to infiltrate their ranks; attack them from within."
"A long and arduous—not to mention expensive—campaign that will be," Helen cut in. "And what will happen if those agents are discovered? No, we should treat with King Morzan to barter some kind of peace between our lands. If we don't nip this issue in the bud immediately, it will only grow worse as time wears on." Voices clamored against one another, shouting louder to be heard as the king watched on in passive silence. Only Murtagh and the queen remained silent, Murtagh out of fear, and Selena out of watchfulness. The other three continued to bicker while the king tried to silence them. Only when the queen's brindled direwolf, Marl, let out a ferocious snarl did the rest of the Council fall silent. They all stared over at her where she still sat in silence.
Finally, she said, "It is my belief that we should not do anything at all." Her words were met with a different sort of silence, one of shock and disbelief, instead of fear.
"What are you saying, Your Grace?" Jeod asked disbelievingly.
"Exactly what it sounds like, Master Jeod," she snapped. "We should not initiate any recourse, whatsoever. Morzan will expect us to respond in some way or another. He shocked us all with this abominable slaughter of innocent people, so we should shock him in turn. I am of the firm belief that the gods will dole out appropriate punishment in due time. It is not up to us to retaliate, but to the gods." It was a well-known fact that the queen was devoted to her faith, but her idea still caught them all off-guard.
"Your faith is well-noted my dear," the king responded slowly, causing the queen to raise an eyebrow at his use of the pet name, "but I'm not sure that is the best way to respond. If we sit idly by, we run the risk of appearing weak. And that, I cannot abide. Morzan has blatantly attacked us, essentially declaring war against us. We must respond in some way."
"Then what do you suggest, Your Majesty?" Jeod asked timidly. A heavy silence fell over the room as all eyes were trained upon the king.
"I suggest that we run a blockade of their ships to the south; stop all of their trade with Surda," the king said confidently. "If they cannot trade, there is no income to the crown, and the smallfolk will suffer for it as well. While I will never condone the harm of innocents, if enough people are outraged against the crown, it may prompt them to come to some sort of peace treaty. It is the only option I can reasonably conceive that will benefit everyone."
"Why should we try to cater to Morzan and his band of thugs?" the queen demanded. "If you do not wish to let the gods sort it out, the second best option is to attack in kind."
"I must disagree." Brom's voice became quietly determined, and took on a dark air. "You forget that Morzan was once my friend, and I know him better than any of you in this room." Selena sat up a bit straighter, her back going rigid. "And while I know he is not the man he once was, there are some things that do not change. Morzan is a ruthless king—that much I am sure of—but he cannot ignore the voices of the many, at the risk of losing the very throne that he built." Brom shifted his blue gaze over those that were gathered before him, locking eyes with each one in turn. When not one of them offered any more protest, he nodded solemnly.
"What would you have us do now, Your Majesty?" Jörmundur asked plainly, arms crossed over his chest and brow furrowed.
"Send a raven to Teirm, for Redbeard. They will reach the city in a day or so, and the message must be waiting for him. They'll not be happy to turn around, but it cannot be helped." Jörmundur nodded sharply and then stood to leave. He was a coarse man, with few manners, but Brom valued him all the same as the master-at-arms. "Lady Helen?" Brom said quickly, calling the woman to attention and away from chattering with her husband. "I trust you will see to the necessary finances?"
"Of course, Your Majesty," she said, jumping out of her chair and sinking into a deep curtsy. She left quickly after that, Jeod following close behind. The door swung shut with a hollow thud, resounding throughout the large chamber eerily and echoing strangely in Murtagh's ears. He looked at his father, and then at the queen nervously. Thorn shifted at his side, sniffing the air slightly as the queen's direwolf eyed him carefully. Athkore looked to be the only one at ease in this awkward situation.
Finally, the king's voice broke the silence. "Selena," he said firmly, "might I have a moment with my son?" The queen sniffed slightly at being dismissed, but swept her skirts up around her and glided out of the room all the same. Marl padded along behind her, an angry snarl set upon his face. When they were gone, Murtagh sighed in relief, and it did not go unnoticed by the king. He smirked slightly at the boy, but held his tongue.
"How are you adjusting to your new position?" he asked quietly, stroking Athkore's head in a loving manner. The she-wolf leaned up into his hand, the way a dog would, but her eyes stayed fixed on Murtagh.
"It's…" The boy hesitated slightly, weighing his words carefully before continuing. "…an adjustment. But I'm enjoying it." The king nodded.
"Good, that's good…" An awkward silence settled between them as their eyes shifted about the room, looking for something—anything—to talk about.
"Murtagh—" They both halted suddenly as they spoke at the same time, and then chuckled a bit. "Go ahead, son," the king conceded.
"Well," he began slowly, "I was just wondering… Can you tell me more about King Morzan?" Brom chewed at his lower lip—a nervous habit. He had known that questions would one day arise, but he'd dreaded providing the answers all the same.
"What is it you wish to know about him?"
"How did you become friends?" Murtagh asked. Brom looked down at his desk, inspecting the wood grain with feigned interest.
"We knew each other as boys," the king said. "My father was the leader of our clan, and Morzan's father was one of his best warriors. Our village was not very large, so it was a tight knit community. It didn't come as a surprise that we became friends as children, and stayed so as young men. When the Clan Wars began, I didn't think anything could separate us. We would go into battle together, and we would watch one another's backs. There were several occasions when Morzan saved my life, for which I am grateful."
"So what changed?"
"War changes a man, Murtagh. You do not yet know what it means to take another man's life, but you will. And when that day comes, I hope you are ready for it. I wasn't; Morzan thought he was, but the effect was great on him as well. And after his father was killed… It did not take long for the despair and anger to take hold of Morzan's heart.
"My father died not long after his, and I became the clan chief, a position I was woefully unprepared for. But I had my best friend by my side; I thought I was ready… Morzan had other ideas. He thought he knew how to subdue the other clans better than I did, and he thought I was a fool for wanting to marry your mother." Murtagh stiffened at the mention of his mother. He knew little about her, as Brom rarely spoke of her. She'd always seemed like some distant specter; a dream that once existed but had faded into nothingness with the passage of time. Brom remained silent for a moment longer, and then looked up at his son. "I believe you know the rest of that history." The king did not like to recall how he'd exiled a man who'd once been his best friend, but had become unrecognizable from the effects of war.
"He murdered innocent people," Murtagh stated solemnly.
"Yes, he did, which I could not forgive him for. But nor could I take his life. It did not seem fitting to repay death with death; in truth, it never has made sense to me. Death cannot bring healing, Murtagh," the king said firmly, "it only breeds more bitterness and strife. Do not forget that." The young man nodded slightly and then rose from his chair.
"I must return to my studies," he said, "Master Jeod will be waiting for me." He bowed out of respect and then turned quickly. As he reached for the door handle, King Brom called out.
"Murtagh," he said, causing the young man to stop in his tracks and turn to face him. "I want you to know that I am proud of you, and I look forward to seeing the man that you become."
"Thank you, Father," he replied, bowing again. And when the king saw a glimpse of a smile upon his son's face, his heart stopped beating for an instant at the likeness he bore to his mother.
Chapter 6: Drums of War
"My lady?" Bridie's voice cut through Raina's thoughts, startling her away from the window. The rain fell in a light pitter-patter, streaking the dirty glass and leaving it clean in its wake. The princess turned to her handmaid and smiled softly, though her eyes were still sad.
"What is it, Bridie?" she asked quietly, hands folded in front of her. Raina watched with slight amusement as the doubt and hesitation played upon the young girl's face. It had not been so long ago when Bridie had become the princesses' handmaid, and they had grown as close as sisters in that time. But there was still a wall that stood between them sometimes, when Bridie remembered she was just a servant, and Raina was heir to a kingdom. Though they knew that they would never betray one another, they had to choose their words carefully, lest any prying ears should overhear them.
"I'm worried about you, my lady," Bridie whispered, coming closer. Ùna raised her massive head from where she lay before the hearth, ears perked to attention. The two girls heard heavy footsteps in the corridor, treading impatiently on the stone. Neither spoke or even moved; they listened carefully, and when the steps finally passed, each let out the breath they'd been holding. Things were especially tense around the castle as of late, and neither wanted to take the chance of angering the king.
"There's nothing to be worried about," Raina replied, turning back towards the window and taking up a seat in her favorite armchair. Bridie hurried across the room and knelt at her mistresses feet, thankful for the rug that warded off the chill from the stone.
"You've been very distant lately, and I'm worried your father will begin to notice."
"He has no time for me," Raina whispered. "What time he does have is taken up either by my mother, or by the conflict with Alagaesia. I happened to hear one of the stewards the other day, and apparently it isn't going very well."
"How long do you think this blockade will last? It's been close to a year already," the little handmaid asked. She was not skilled in the art of politics, but Raina was doing her best to teach her. They only got their information from the whispered conversations of the other servants and her father's men, so their knowledge was limited, at best.
"I couldn't say," Raina said. "But from what the steward said, there is some unrest amongst the smallfolk. There have been riots at the markets due to the food shortage, and the farmers are getting restless as well. I heard one of my father's guards saying that they want to increase their prices even more."
"That sounds awful," Bridie mused quietly, staring into space for a moment. "By just living in the palace, you wouldn't know anything bad was going on out there."
"No, you wouldn't; it seems as though nothing has changed," Raina agreed. "But everything has. I feel something terrible is coming, Bridie. Though I can't put my finger on it, I feel it's coming soon." Ùna swung her head around to stare at the two girls, and Raina noticed that her large yellow eyes looked immensely sad. Bridie stood slowly and hurried over to the fire, throwing another log onto the flaming heap to ward off the chill. Raina hardly ever left the room for reasons other than the meals she was required to attend, and she preferred it to be kept warm. Their northern island was naturally cold almost the whole year, except for the heart of summer when the warm winds blew from the west and brought their blooms and fruit to their trees. But right now, it was a dreary autumn morning, and soon the snows would come.
"I must attend to my duties, m'lady," Bridie said, dropping into a haphazard curtsy and turning to go.
"Bridie," Raina called, stopping the girl in her tracks, "have you seen my mother lately?" The handmaid's heart dropped to her stomach and nervousness wracked her whole body. Her hands began to tremble and she bit down on her lower lip. She only hoped the princess would not notice.
"No, m'lady, I haven't," she lied. Turning quickly, she hurried out of the room before the princess could ask any more questions, leaving her alone in her silent chambers.
The two-leg does not lie very well, Ùna said softly, sniffing at the air where Bridie had just been.
No, she does not. But I do not blame her for it, the princess replied. She sighed heavily and drew a blanket across her lap. I wish to hear about my mother, but I do not know if I'm prepared to hear the answer.
I could venture out for you, if you wish.
No, Raina said briskly, though not unkindly. My father's wolf has been patrolling the corridors more often lately; probably to make sure I'm not poking about where I'm not wanted. I would not have you encounter him.
Ùna snapped her teeth lightly and let out a huff of air. My red brother is large, but I am quick. He does not frighten me.
He should. I'm afraid that beast is more of a monster than any others of your kind. Raina rested her chin in the palm of her hand, gazing out into the grey morning. There would be no practice in the yard for her today; it was probably already a mire of mud and muck. But thank you for the offer, Ùna, she continued. I'm sure I shall see her soon enough.
I am not so sure, friend-of-my-heart. Ùna rose and padded to Raina's side, nudging under her arm until it was draped across the wolf's neck. Raina scratched behind her large ear, as she knew the wolf loved. Though her friend spoke the truth, it was still difficult for the girl to accept. She couldn't remember the last time she'd really gotten to spend any alone time with her mother, it had been so long. And now, she feared she was running out of time.
Three years later…
Eragon's fist came smashing down upon the heavy oak table, rattling the other lord's goblets and plates. As his chair scraped across the floor and he stormed out of the dining room, King Brom clenched his teeth in embarrassment, almost wishing another lord would at least express some outrage at the boy's impudence, instead of sitting in stoic silence. At the other end of the table, almost hidden behind the roast boar, he would have expected his wife's eyes to bore holes into his skull with their ferocity, but instead, he was met with a cordial smile upon her still-beautiful face.
"My lords," she said calmly, her rich voice ringing throughout the cavernous dining room, "you must excuse my son. He is still young, with a taste for glory upon the battlefield. He does not yet know what the glory truly means. I am sure many of you remember those days, when the thirst for blood ran hot through your veins." She was met with muttered whispers and chuckles from many of the men seated at the table. But the women remained motionless, looking between the others with knowing in their eyes. This was a woman who was losing hold, and they knew it.
"It was more recent for some of us than others," Lord Fäolin chimed in a happy tone, nudging the older man who sat to his right. The older man feigned a smile, but Brom saw when he looked the other way that there was resentment in his hard, blue eyes. He did not know the man's name, but he made a note of remembering his face.
"That it was," the king replied with a smile, raising his goblet and taking a long drink. Some of the others followed suit and continued on with the meal, as though nothing had ever happened to disrupt them. The conversation that caused the young man to storm from the room was quickly forgotten; all those involved agreeing that it could wait until morning. But the king felt the weight of those unspoken words resting heavily on his shoulders.
As those around him turned to their neighbors in idle chit chat, he could not help but reflect on the brief dialogue. Lord Orrin, ever the meddler, had mentioned the ongoing success of the campaign with Oran, though skirmishes had decreased drastically in the last few years. The king agreed readily, hoping not to engage him, but it soon became clear that Orrin was not quite ready to give up.
"So, is the plan just to continue to refuse trade with them, engaging their militants only now and again? Or is there something else in the works that you've called us all here for?" The large table full of lords and ladies and their captains had fallen silent, and all eyes turned to the king. His heart hammered in its cage, but the mask the king had spent years constructing never faltered or cracked.
"I suppose it was not terribly difficult to surmise I'd summoned you all to discuss the war," the king said, his voice unwavering. "But I had hoped to wait until tomorrow morning, so my lords and ladies would be better rested from their long journeys."
Orrin smirked lightly in that way that had always made the king bristle at his impertinence. "At least give us a taste of what we are in for, Your Grace," the Southron lord said impishly.
King Brom looked at the eighteen faces turned toward him, and noticed not one pair of eyes held a friendly expression. Suddenly, he wished Murtagh had been able to attend, so he knew at least one person in the room was his ally in this moment. But the boy was away on the king's business; he'd left himself alone in this.
Heaving a sigh, he spread his large hands over the surface of the table. "It is no secret that the skirmishes along the coast have lessened significantly in the past year," he began, feeling a hum of anticipation settle over the room. "I wish to discuss the joining of our forces to launch an assault on Oran, crippling their military once and for all. All civilians will be welcome to become citizens of any tribe they choose, but King Morzan will spend the rest of his life in a dungeon, where he cannot hurt another living soul." A heavy silence pervaded for a moment, until he looked to Lord Orrin, whose face suddenly broke into the widest grin the king had ever seen.
"Well," the younger man said, his tone sickly sweet, "it's about time." He laughed heartily and slapped his captain roughly on the shoulder. Many others around the table expressed similar sentiments, all except for the Lady Islanzadí and her stoic-faced daughter, Lady Arya.
The voices became indistinguishable as the lords and ladies talked amongst themselves, and King Brom thought he'd placated them. That is, until one voice rang out above the rest.
"And what of your son?" the voice said, turning his ice to blood. Selena sat at the other end of the table, an endearing simper set firmly upon her face and her hand resting atop that of her son. Eragon looked between his parents expectantly, his gaze resting longer on his father.
"My dear," the king said, his voice less sure than it had been before, "I do not think now is the time to discuss such things."
"Yes Father," Eragon said, his voice full of hurt, "what of me?" Every voice had hushed now, and all eyes were trained on the king where he sat virtually unmoving. If he could slap that smile off Selena's face in that moment, he would have done it.
"You are the Crown Prince, Eragon. You will remain here, as is your place."
"While your bastard rides into battle to win all the glory?" The king flinched, his mask faltering only momentarily. All the while, Selena's smile never left her.
"This is neither the time nor the place," the king growled. That was when Eragon had stormed out of the room, leaving an awkward silence in his wake.
The king sighed heavily as the dinner continued on around him, but there was a heaviness settling in his heart. One that he knew he would have to address sooner rather than later.
The castle was silent now, after everyone had retired to their chambers for the night. The king and his wolf walked the empty corridors, as they often did on nights they could not sleep. It was somehow calming, knowing that everyone was safe in their beds.
Was the dinner a success? Athkore asked the king, immediately feeling when he tensed at her side.
No, the old man replied, no it was not. Lord Orrin was as insufferable as usual, and Selena shamed me in front of all of them. Not to mention Eragon storming out of the room and embarrassing me even further.
I heard my younger sister's thoughts, the wolf replied, nudging at his hand as it hung by his side. I wondered why the prince was so angry with you.
He yearns for glory, as most young men of his age do. But he does not understand the price of that glory. I learned the hard way; I do not wish that for him.
Perhaps it would be best if you said this to him yourself? The wise wolf framed it as a suggestion, but Brom knew her far better than that. He gave her a loving rub between the ears as they continued their walk, spiraling further and further up the North Tower. Eragon's chambers were at the very top, and halfway up the king could see the light from the candles were still burning.
I will go alone, he said to Athkore. Do not wait for me. She nudged his hand lovingly once more and then turned to pad down the stairs on silent paws. After taking a long breath to steel himself, the king continued up to the landing, where he stopped momentarily. Eragon was muttering softly to Saphira on the other side, and for a moment, the king wavered in his decision. But he knew if he did not address the situation now, the moment would pass him by. Gingerly, he knocked on the heavy oak door, silencing the mutterings from within.
"Eragon," Brom called through the door. "May I come in? I would speak with you." It was silent for a long moment, but then he heard shuffling and footsteps on the hardwood coming toward him. Slowly, the door swung inward to reveal Eragon staring with a hard look, the anger still evident on his face. Though the boy was only eighteen, he already was taller than his father by at least a hand. And the king had to smile when he noticed the fine, blond layer of fuzz upon his chin, just barely visible in the candlelight.
"Yes, Father?" he asked tersely.
"May I enter?" The king waited patiently, hands clasped behind his back, until the boy's shoulders sank and he stood aside, allowing his father to enter. Brom strode into the room and marveled at the neatness of it. He remembered himself at that age; and though he hadn't lived in a castle such as this one, his quarters were never clean. A small fire blazed brightly in the hearth directly across from him, filling the room with a comforting warmth. On the adjacent wall stood a modestly sized bed, upon which lay his direwolf, sapphire eyes following the king alertly as he moved about the space. To his left was a small sitting area, with a writing desk that held neatly stacked papers, quill, and ink, and two plush looking chairs. Next to the window was an enormous bookcase, filled with volumes of leather-bound books ranging in subjects from anatomy to philosophy to magic.
The king could not count how many times he'd summoned the boy to his own study, but never once had he visited his son within his own sanctuary. Eragon stood with his back leaned up against the door, arms crossed over his chest. Brom finished scanning the room before turning back to him.
"That's quite a collection you have?" he said quietly, gesturing to the shelves. "Where did you get it?"
"Master Jeod," he snipped, every muscle in his body tense. After a few more moments of weighty silence, he said, "Why have you come, Father?"
"I wish only to speak to my son." Eragon snorted slightly at that, looking over to the bed, no doubt conversing with Saphira. The huge wolf let out a heavy sigh and then swung her head back to look at the king. Brom could not help but feel unsettled as the wolf's gaze rested upon him. There was a hardness in her eyes, the like he'd only ever seen in one other wolf.
"Will you sit with me?" Brom asked, striding over to one of the large, wing-backed chairs. Eragon lingered for a moment longer at the door, but then finally conceded, crossing the large space in only a few strides. He sat in the chair opposite his father, and then waited. Brom chewed on his words a moment longer. "I wanted to discuss what happened at dinner tonight," he finally continued.
"If you want me to apologize for storming out, I hate to disappoint you." Brom let the boy's impertinence go unchecked. He knew it had been groomed by Selena for quite some time now.
"No, I do not want that," the old king said. "I had hoped to discuss the plans for the coming battles tomorrow, but Lord Orrin made that impossible. I am just sorry you had to find out that way."
"Then you won't change your mind?" Eragon said angrily, his brow furrowing tightly.
"No, I will not. A king must stand by his decisions." He saw anger flash across his son's face, and what looked like hatred in his eyes. "But this has nothing to do with Murtagh."
"Do not lie to me, Father," Eragon spat. Brom took a deep breath to calm his own rising anger at Eragon's disrespect.
"There is no lie."
"Then why have you always favored him over me? You've always given him responsibilities while I am sheltered here in this prison," Eragon cried, his voice rising with every word. Saphira watched silently from the bed.
"I am going to give you a kingdom one day, Eragon. What greater responsibility is there than that?" The king's words silenced the boy quickly, though there was still anger in his eyes. "I am not under any false pretenses to think your mother harbors any love for Murtagh, and it is better for everyone if he stays away more often than he is here. Do you not agree?" Eragon nodded slightly, but said nothing. "And as much as your mother would like to pit you and Murtagh against one another, she knows it is safer for you here. You are my only heir, and I would not risk your life unnecessarily."
"Yet when I am king, they will think me a coward because I have never wet my blade in battle, as you did."
"Would you rather die upon some blood-soaked field than sit upon the throne one day?" Again, Eragon was silenced. "You do not know what it is to fight in a war, Eragon. There is nothing glorious about it. I do not wish that fate upon either of my sons."
"Then why do you let Murtagh do it?"
"Murtagh chose this life for himself," the king snapped, losing a bit of his patience. "I appointed him captain of the City Guard, but he chose to join the cavalry. I could not stop him, no matter how hard I may have tried. But you…" He stopped and looked at his youngest son for a moment; at how young he still was, though he was considered a man grown now. "You are going to do great things someday, Eragon. But for now, it is more important that you remain alive. There will always be some other conflict where you can prove your skills. But for right now, I implore you, think of your future; think of your mother." At the mention of his mother, Eragon cast his eyes upon the floor, realizing how foolish he'd been.
"I am sorry, Father," he mumbled quietly. "You are right."
"I am not saying 'never'," the king continued, softer this time, "I'm only saying 'not right now'." Eragon nodded solemnly and then looked back up at his father. He made to open his mouth to speak, but was suddenly cut off by a rich, deep voice resounding throughout the room.
Brom! Athkore's voice was urgent, almost desperate. The king had never heard her sound as such before, and never had she projected her voice to more than just him before.
Athkore, what is it? the king replied quickly, rising from the chair.
Messenger. Coming your way, she said in a clipped tone. Not a moment later, a ferocious banging came at the door.
"Your Majesty!" a deep voice shouted as the banging continued. Eragon hurried to open the door and the burly man bustled into the room. He was large, but not muscular; more oafish than anything.
"What is it man? Quickly!"
"A raven just arrived from Narda," he said, laboring heavily to catch his breath. "There's been an attack; it was an ambush, Your Majesty."
As the words came tumbling out of the large man's mouth, the king's stomach dropped into a hollow pit. Two weeks ago, Murtagh's unit had ridden out for Narda. And now the king knew: they'd ridden straight into a trap.
Chapter 7: Terror in the Dark
Warning: There's a bit of graphic material in this chapter, so read at your own discretion.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As night closed in around the camp, the king’s bastard couldn’t help but feel unsettled. Shadows reached out tremulously from the edge of the forest, spindly fingers tugging at the tents and fires. They cast themselves over the men’s faces, marring their features and making the whole scene look like some grotesque masquerade. He couldn’t pinpoint where this feeling was coming from, but Murtagh knew it could only spell trouble. But what was more troubling than the feeling itself, was that he seemed to be the only one aware of it.
The other captains circled around their watchfires, eating a meager meal of onion soup and hard bread and laughing merrily at the others’ jokes. Further away from the captains, the other men sat around their own fires with the same meal and the same jokes. Murtagh found he could not be persuaded to join them. Thorn shifted restlessly by his side, transferring his weight to one paw and then back to the other. Murtagh looked down into the wolf’s crimson eyes and saw the same unrest he felt within himself.
You feel it too. It was not a question. Murtagh already felt the stirrings within his wolf’s mind.
There is darkness in this part of the world, Thorn replied, leaning against Murtagh’s leg. He did not respond to the wolf; merely nodded and continued surveying the camp from his post at the very edge. But then his attention was called away by one of the captains—Captain Tregg—calling him over to the fire. With a soft grumble to himself, he and Thorn made their way over.
“You need to relax a bit, Murtagh,” Tregg said through a mouthful of saturated bread. “The last report put the Orani ten leagues from here. They’ll not have heard of our arrival yet.”
“Somehow, that does not put me at ease,” Murtagh joked, taking a seat on an overturned crate that would have once held rations. Tregg clapped him on the back and laughed jovially, but still the pit in Murtagh’s stomach did not disappear.
“Leave the boy alone,” General Kesson said darkly from the other side of the fire. His brow was furrowed in consternation over his bowl of stew, and Murtagh noted he seemed to be the only other one with their guard still up. “He is right to be wary, as the rest of you should be. These Orani are treacherous bastards—no offense to present company intended.”
“None taken,” Murtagh muttered, though he felt the hair on the back of his neck standing straight up. After all this time, that word still rankled him. Thorn nudged his arm and whimpered softly.
“No man can say when or where they will strike next,” the general continued without missing a step. “They’ve been striking up and down the Mountain Road for months now, never staying in one place for too long. They could have moved anywhere since the last raven came.”
“The scouts have seen no sign of them in a five mile radius,” Tregg interjected, flinging a bit of stew out of his bowl with a wild wave of his arm. “We’ve nothing to fear. At least, not this night.” Kesson merely grunted in response. While Murtagh appreciated Tregg’s confidence, he found he did not share it. Being the youngest of the captains and the king’s bastard on top of that, Murtagh realized early on that his opinions were seldom taken into consideration by the other captains. Only the general ever took him seriously. Perhaps now would be the only chance to give voice to his worries.
“General, I think we should heighten the patrols around the camp tonight,” he stated, causing the other men to fall silent and cease whatever they were doing. Kesson stared at him in surprise. Few of his captains were so bold, and certainly never Murtagh.
“We’ve already got fifty men on patrol tonight,” the general finally said, lowering his bowl to his lap. “What makes you think we need more?”
Murtagh looked into the eyes of the other captains, each of them staring expectantly. Thorn shifted at his side, but remained quiet, as he usually did. “It’s just a feeling,” he finally admitted. “My wolf feels it too.” None of the other men had ever come in contact with a direwolf before Murtagh joined their ranks, let alone had one themselves, so he didn’t expect them to understand. But he also did not expect to be met with derisive sneers and laughter.
“And what does an animal know, boy?” another captain—one Murtagh had never bothered to learn his name—japed cruelly. Thorn raised himself up off his haunches and bared his gleaming white fangs, hackles raised in anger.
“Apparently quite a lot,” Murtagh mumbled. Not surprisingly, the other man fell silent.
“I can appreciate caution,” the general continued, as though the disturbance had never happened, “but until there is evidence that we are in immediate danger, I’ll not wear out my men needlessly.” Kesson’s tone indicated the matter was final, and Murtagh fell silent for the remainder of the evening. The other captains continued on, seemingly carefree, and one by one they retired to their separate tents mingled amongst their men. Murtagh’s tent was on the far south end of the camp, well away from all the others. Unsurprisingly, this did not bother him in the slightest. In fact, he much preferred it that way.
These two-legs are somewhat foolish, Thorn intoned somberly, his voice rich and deep.
Perhaps we are the fools, and there really is nothing to be worried about, Murtagh quipped back playfully, scratching the pure white wolf behind the ear.
My instincts tell me otherwise. Murtagh was trying to be lighthearted, but Thorn was decidedly less so. A foul wind shifts in the West. With it comes death and chaos; I feel it. Murtagh sighed heavily at the wolf’s solemn tone. Sometimes he could be so serious. They continued on into the portion of the camp where his men resided, most of them already retired to their cots. The few who still mingled about their watchfires inclined their heads as Murtagh passed by, but they did not say anything. Few of the men ever did say anything to Murtagh, outside of the standard “Yes, Sir” or “No, Sir”. He figured it had something to do with the fact that his father was the king.
Their tent quickly approached, but the young man and his wolf strolled past it slowly, keeping their eyes trained on the outer edge of the camp. It was quiet, save for the chirping of crickets and hooting of owls. Thorn’s ears swiveled atop his head, taking in all the sounds around them. Nothing seemed out of place.
A young man whom Murtagh was cordial with was on sentry duty that evening, leaning heavily against a silver-tipped spear. He didn’t seem to notice his captain was there until he was right on top of him.
“Evening, Den,” Murtagh said quietly, folding his hands behind his back. The young man straightened up quickly, eyes wide in surprise.
“Captain!” he exclaimed, giving a sloppy salute. “Didn’t realize you was out among us this late at night.”
“It’s not too late. Anything to report?” Thorn kept his red eyes fixed on the tree line, sniffing lightly as a breeze shifted his fur.
“No, Sir,” the young man—Den, he was called—stated quietly, shifting his gaze to the trees as well. “Quiet as a graveyard, it is. I don’t think any of those Orani bastards will be bothering us tonight.” The young man laughed slightly, but Murtagh did not share his certainty. He looked over at the young sentry, who couldn’t have been more than a year his younger, and smiled slightly.
“Keep up the good work, Den.” With that, Murtagh turned and began to walk the perimeter at a slow pace. But it was not leisurely; more calculated than unawares. Thorn padded along quietly at his side, never dropping his guard or taking those blood-red eyes away from the darkness. They continued on around another bend, and then Thorn stopped suddenly, sniffing eagerly at a shifting breeze.
Murtagh, the deep voice rang throughout Murtagh’s head. Get down! The young captain didn’t have time to look before the wolf was pouncing on his back, forcing him to the ground. As his face hit the dirt, the whirring of an arrow shot over them, whistling through the air until it thumped in the dirt. That was when it seemed Hell itself was loosed upon them.
Screams of anger and madness rang out from the dark trees, making it seem as though the Broddring soldiers were surrounded by ghouls and banshees. Murtagh struggled to his feet, quickly unsheathing his hand-and-a-half sword from where it hung at his side. Thorn planted his feet firmly and bared his gleaming white teeth, fur bristled all along his back. All around them, men were scrambling out of their tents in whatever semblance of clothing they happened to have on at the moment, brandishing their weapons frantically. A feeling of dread filled Murtagh’s chest to the brim, but there was nothing to be done. They were surrounded.
Dark shadows emerged from the trees, the silver of their weapons shining in what little moonlight was to be had. Their screams never ceased, but seemed to swell louder as they came closer. Murtagh’s heartbeat pounded in his ears. Somehow, he’d known this would happen. Why had no one believed him!
As they drew closer, Murtagh could see their faces were covered in black paint, so that only the whites of their eyes could be seen, and their clothes were black as well. They had taken every precaution to stay hidden, it seemed… And it had worked. The men were in a frenzy all around him, rallying to their squads and their captains, though still in a daze, be it from sleep or alcohol.
“To me!” Murtagh shouted, positioning his sword to strike. “To me men!” They gathered around him, some with shields, to try and hold against the oncoming wave of Orani. Murtagh had no such protection, but that did not faze him. He’d faced Orani soldiers before and had not been beaten; this time would be no different.
The screaming men drew ever closer, nearly upon them. Watch yourself, Thorn said from his side, growling threateningly and tensing the muscles of his legs so as to pounce. I’ll be right behind you.
Same for you, my friend, Murtagh replied. They were upon them.
The Orani broke upon them like waves upon the rocks, streaming into every crack and crevice, swinging with biting swords and daggers. Men fell all around him, but Murtagh could only focus on the opponent before him. He saw a flash of white dash out next to him, latching onto the throat of a nearby soldier and ripping at the soft flesh he found there. The Orani seemed taken aback at the sight of the monstrous direwolf, but still they came. Murtagh knew Thorn could hold his own.
A black-clad soldier fell to his blade, metal slicing through sinew and bone as easily as if it were butter. The man screamed when his blood began pouring from his chest, pooling on the ground at his feet, but Murtagh did not allow him to suffer long. With another slash of his sword, the dying man’s head disconnected from his body, and the screams were no more. The king’s bastard did not have time to dwell on the gruesome death as another faceless soldier was behind that one. As he tried to look beyond the Orani coming at him, he could not see an end to their adversaries. In the darkness, it was impossible to tell where the men ended and the trees began.
Another soldier fell to his blade easily, and he took a moment to look around. Their line had fallen, and the camp was in disarray. Tents were ablaze, falling to the heedless flames of their once-harmless watchfires. Horses darted through the grappling men, trying to avoid the flames and blades alike, screaming in terror when Thorn appeared before them. The white wolf darted in and out of the fray, tearing at legs with tooth and claw and killing every enemy that crossed his path. Murtagh was glad to have him here. He glimpsed General Kesson cutting down several Orani opponents from atop his chestnut destrier, his broadsword gleaming wickedly in the firelight. At least the command is not in disarray, Murtagh thought to himself.
The other captains shouted for their men to form up, but no one was listening to one another. These were experienced cavalry, but without their horses, they could not get a grasp on the battle raging all around them. The infantry was at least a day’s march away, and they were in the middle of an abandoned forest; any help they could hope for was too far away to be of any use. They were completely alone… They’d ridden straight into an ambush, and they were alone…
Murtagh slashed at a man as he ran towards him, stopping the Orani dead in his tracks. He could feel his strength slowly ebbing away, but he didn’t have time to think about that. Every single one of his men’s lives were at stake. The young captain began retreating further into the camp, taking care to avoid the tents that were up in flames. A group of chargers raced past him, their hooves pounding upon the trodden earth desperately as they tried to flee. And then he saw him…
A giant, brute of a man was barreling towards him at full-speed, a huge greatsword held aloft over his head. The man’s mouth hung open in a wordless scream, his pupils blown with bloodlust as he trained his eyes on Murtagh’s form. He seemed not to see anyone else, as if… as if he’d been looking for Murtagh the entire battle. Fear filled Murtagh’s heart, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it.
Murtagh swung his sword at his side, preparing to counter whatever this man could throw at him. When the giant reached him, Murtagh paled at his enormous size, wondering how he could combat such a foe. But the Orani didn’t give him time to wonder. His greatsword came crashing down like thunder, just barely missing the young captain as he rolled out of the way. The giant did not waste any time, and heaved his sword once more, bringing it down where Murtagh had just been.
Murtagh! Thorn’s frantic voice echoed in his head. He did not have time to respond, only to fight. The greatsword came down again, and this time, Murtagh raised his own sword to block him. Steel met steel in a flash of sparks, sending jarring pains up Murtagh’s arms and into his gritted teeth. This man was extremely strong, and all of his training could not prepare him for this brutal assault.
Thorn! Help me! Murtagh just managed to cry before he had to jump out of the way again. Everything seemed to still in that moment. The terrified scream of a horse entered Murtagh’s ears, shocking his senses. He looked to see his own buckskin courser frantically racing towards him, dark eyes wide with fear. Just beyond the horse, he could see Thorn bounding over bodies to reach him. His courser clipped him in the shoulder as he sped past, knocking the wind out of him as he stumbled backwards. Thorn’s voice was resounding in his head desperately, but he could not understand the words. The only thing he could see was the cold, metallic glint of the giant’s sword, swinging in a wide arc toward him.
White hot pain lanced through his abdomen, spreading throughout his body like a lightning strike. All of his strength left him, seemingly drained in an instant. He fell to his knees, releasing his sword from his grip, and clutched at his stomach. When he pulled his hands away, they were covered in crimson liquid. It took him a moment to realize this was his own blood. Murtagh looked back up at the black-faced giant before him, a wicked grin displaying his crooked, yellow teeth. The Orani raised his sword once more to deliver the killing blow, and Murtagh felt a hollow emptiness inside of him.
So this is how it ends? Thoughts of his life leading up to this point filled his mind. Time seemed to be suspended in a hanging arc, allowing him to see everything as if it were happening in slow motion. He saw his father holding him up when he was a boy, and when he gave him Thorn as a puppy. He saw the squalling, red face of his brother as an infant. He saw Jörmunder, and Horst, and Frederic, and all of the men who had been mentors to him. And, as he felt his life slipping away, his last thought was, Selena will be pleased.
Before the giant could finish him off, white fur clouded Murtagh’s vision. Thorn latched onto the Orani’s arm, forcing blood to come gushing out of the soft flesh. The huge man screamed shrilly, trying to shake the ferocious beast off of him. But Thorn’s grip was tight and unrelenting. He only released the Orani to pounce back up and latch onto his throat, tearing at that tender meat as though it were his last meal. The wolf’s red eyes were filled with wicked hatred and ferocity, leaving no doubt that he meant to kill this huge man who had harmed his friend. It did not take long for him to accomplish his goal. As the huge man’s throat filled with his own blood, he stumbled to the dirt with Thorn still on top of him. Thorn waited until his lifeblood flowed away before releasing the dead man.
The white wolf quickly abandoned him and hurried to his friend-of-heart-and-mind’s side, nudging at him worriedly. Murtagh, he whispered, forcing his muzzle under the young captain’s limp hand where it lay at his side. Murtagh, you must get up. We need to get you somewhere safe. The wolf whimpered softly, nudging harder this time.
Murtagh Bromsson lay unmoving on the blood-soaked ground, staring with lifeless eyes at the starry sky above him. Thorn sniffed at the wound on his abdomen that was slowly leaking out a steady stream of blood, and instantly recoiled, baring his teeth and growling.
The blade was poisoned! Murtagh! He sniffed at the young man’s face, licking him softly upon the cheek. Still, the captain did not move. Thorn began to desperately paw at the ground, yelping and crying in high-pitched tones. All around them, the battle was slowly drawing to a close, with the Broddring soldiers just barely eeking out a victory. The white wolf’s helpless cries drew the attention of General Kesson, and the older man quickly hurried over.
“Murtagh!” he called in a gruff voice, leaping off the back of his horse and landing with a thud in the dirt. He hastened to the young captain’s side and knelt down next to his wolf, placing a calloused hand upon his stubbled cheek. It was cold.
Captain Tregg soon joined him, staring down in shock and awe at the scene before him. “General Kesson,” he called, his sword still brandished in case of any surprise attacks.
“Tregg,” the general said slowly, standing up and taking a few steps back. “Tregg, fetch the steward, if the man survived the battle. Have him send a raven to Illirea.”
“What is it general?” Tregg asked in confusion.
Kesson hesitated, barely believing it himself. “Send a raven to the king. Tell him… tell him his son… is dead.”
I didn't plan on ending here for this chapter, but it got really long. SO, you'll have to wait til the next one to find out what happens. Let me know what you think!
Chapter 8: Hymn for the Lost
The royal party arrived in Narda not two days later, so frantic was the king's desire to get there. When the message had come, bearing the news that his son was dead, he could scarcely believe it. He would need to see with his own eyes, to truly accept what his generals had told him. The queen, for her part, was trying not to let her satisfaction show. She could not have prayed for a better set of circumstances to befall their family. But Eragon... the young prince of Alagaësia spent his waking hours over the last two days in a sort of dream-like state: walking and conscious, but not entirely certain that the things happening around him were truly real.
He sat atop his chestnut charger, Saphira by his side, as she always was. Narda was appearing on the horizon, towers spiraling up into the grey dawn. To his right, his father remained with his eyes forward, his brow knitted into a mask of anger and confusion. They rode at a brisk pace, but the horses were quickly growing tired. He was just glad they'd finally gotten here, and could get to the bottom of the mysterious message.
It had been short and choppy, and the writing was so hurried that some of the words were indiscernible. Ambush near Narda... Orani raiders... son fallen... dead. The words echoed in his mind, like some haunting spectre. How can it be? Murtagh was one of the fiercest fighters he'd ever known. How could he have fallen? And with his direwolf to protect him, at that?
My-white-brother is strong, Saphira said quietly where she padded along beside him.
Then why is his partner dead? Eragon shot back, more forcefully than he'd intended.
Even the mighty direwolves of the Northern Forest are not invincible, she replied. His charger whickered nervously and shied away from the great beast at his side, not that Eragon blamed him. Saphira was larger than the horse now, with wickedly sharp canines longer than his fingers.
We'll soon get to the bottom of it, he grumbled back. Eragon still was not sure how he felt about the whole thing; he hadn't had time to register it before they'd left Ilirea, and now they were only yards away from finding out. The tension was thick over their whole party, seeming to suffocate him with its weight.
When they finally came to the cavalry encampment, haphazardly set up by the sea, the king practically leapt from his horse. At the front of the camp stood the general, helm in hand and a pained expression upon his face.
"My king," he said gravely, bowing his head when Brom approached him.
"Where is he?" the king demanded in a hoarse whisper, his hands balled into fists and shaking at his side. General Kesson clamped his mouth shut into a thin line, and then turned to lead the king into a large, brown tent right behind him. Eragon dismounted his horse, and handed off the reins to a waiting stableboy. His mother was being helped out of her carriage by a handmaiden, and he noticed a certain light in her eyes, though her face remained as impassive as ever. She followed behind him into the tent that his father had just disappeared into.
Inside, the air was thick with smoke and the smell of death. Huge, tallow candles burned on a table across the tent, bathing the room in dim, orange light. And upon a large, rough-hewn table right in the middle of the tent, lay the body of his brother. At the sight of his brother's lifeless body, Eragon's heart began racing in his chest, and his breath became labored. The direwolves had remained outside the tent, but he could feel Saphira's mind pressing against his.
His father stood right next to the table, hands gripping the sides tightly so as to steady himself. Murtagh's body was dressed in his finest clothes, his hands clasping a sprig of hemlock on his chest, and a silver amulet hung around his neck in the traditional death rites of their people. But what struck Eragon the most was the unsettling feeling that his eyes would snap open at any moment, and he would sit straight up on the table to gaze at them, wondering what all of them were doing here. And then Eragon looked at his chest, and saw that there was no breath entering or leaving his body. He really was gone...
"How did this happen?" The tortured sound of his father's voice snapped Eragon out of his daze.
"There was an ambush, sire," the general replied quietly. "The Orani raiders surprised in the dead of night; we were caught unawares. Your son... Captain Murtagh had warned me, that he'd had a bad feeling, but I didn't listen to him... None of us did."
"Do not blame yourselves," the king said. He remained quiet for a long while, just looking at the body of his son. Eragon shifted his weight uncomfortably, debating on whether to stay or go. Then the king spoke once more. "Have you prepared a boat?"
"We've made all the necessary preparations, in advance of your arrival," the general said in a reassuring tone.
"Good," his father replied, and Eragon could hear the catch in his throat. "Then we will send my son to be with the gods this very day. In one hour's time, see that the men are assembled."
"Of course, sire." The general bowed once more, and then Eragon watched as his father turned and strode out of the tent. As the king passed him by, he thought he could just glimpse the glimmer of tears in his eyes, but he could not be sure. With one final look at his brother, he followed his mother out of the tent. When they exited, his father was nowhere to be seen.
"It would be just like him to drag us all the way out here and then leave as soon as we arrive," Selena grumbled quietly to herself, shifting her shawl and pulling it closer in an attempt to banish the chill that hung about them.
Suddenly, Eragon felt the heat rushing to his face. "His son is dead," he practically spat, drawing a shocked look from his mother.
"I am very well aware of that, Eragon," she replied with a hiss.
"Yes," he shot back, "but you seem to have forgotten that he is also my brother." With that, Eragon stalked off towards the shore, aiming to just walk until he could clear his head. For all of the fights they'd had, and all of the things that his mother had told him, Eragon felt a pang in his chest at the realization that his brother was gone. No more would they spar in the yard or study their lessons together. Murtagh would never look at him again in that way which spoke to the kindness he held in his heart for his younger brother. He felt stupid and childish and angry all at once when he thought of how ill he'd treated his brother over the years, at the behest of his mother. And now... Now he could never atone for all the things he'd done.
Eragon! Saphira's voice rang in his head. He heard the crunch of rocks behind him as she ran. And then she was before him, staring him down with those sapphire eyes and blocking his path with her huge form.
What have I done, Saphira? he cried desperately. I have wronged my brother, and now he is gone. It is a slight against the gods!
Stop this at once, Eragon! she barked, snapping her teeth together and letting out a ferocious growl. You did not deal the blow which stole his life. It was an accident, nothing more. He fell to his knees upon the rocks, burying his face in his hands and willing the screaming in his head to go away, until all he could hear was the lapping of the waves against the shore not twenty feet away. He felt Saphira's cold nose press against his hands as she nudged him, and she let out a small whimper.
I have been such a fool, he said. Finally, Eragon removed his hands from his face to see Saphira gazing at him intently. He wrapped his arms around her neck and allowed her to console him, sharing her warmth to ward off the autumn chill.
It is too late for regrets, Eragon. There is nothing to be done. He knew she did not mean to be callous; it was simply a matter of her not understanding the depth of his despair. As a wolf, separated from her family and her pack as a pup, she did not understand what it was to be part of a family. Eragon was her family, and no other. But for Eragon, he could not help thinking the gods would punish him somehow for this, for hating his brother in life and mourning him in death. He could not fully understand it himself, only wallow in the pain that he felt.
As his father had commanded, they were all assembled at the seaside an hour later. There were hundreds of people, most of the men still bloodied and bruised from their confrontation with the Orani. As for the king, he stood stoically with his hands clasped behind his back, staring out over the water to the grey horizon. Eragon stood silently at his side, trying to contain the pain welling inside his chest.
"I want it to be your hand which pulls the arrow," the king suddenly said, quite startling his son.
"What?" Eragon breathed quietly. "Father, I—"
"He was your brother," the king insisted. "I want you to send him on to the halls of my forefathers."
Eragon felt his hands began to shake tremulously, and the sweat break upon his brow. All of the feelings raging about inside his head could not have prepared him for this. It was the tradition of their people to send the bodies of their loved ones out upon the ocean, and set their bodies aflame so as to carry their spirits to the gods. The one who pulled the arrow which would set the blaze was supposed to be someone of great importance to the deceased. Eragon didn't believe he was the proper person to carry out the task, but he did not wish to argue with his father. So, he said very quietly, "Yes, Father," and then spoke no more.
General Kesson emerged from his tent, Murtagh's great, white direwolf close on his heels. Thorn came to a stop next to Eragon and sat on his haunches, staring intently at the boat which contained his brother's body. Then the direwolf looked up at him, and Eragon saw the absolute despair locked in his blood-red eyes.
"You should be the one to pull the arrow," he whispered, "if only you could." In a show of comfort, he placed a hand atop the wolf's head and scratched him lightly. Thorn did not seem to mind, so Eragon continued. Saphira loped to Thorn's side, and then sat next to him in her own way of comforting the other wolf.
As was the way of these things, a dirge was sung for the dead, lamenting of the life lost and heralding him on to the Great Halls of the gods. It was a melancholy tune, and twice Eragon had to flit away a tear from his eyes. When the singer's voice faded away, carried off by the winds that whipped the sea, a bowman approached the Crown Prince and handed off a fine bow made of yew branch and carved with intricate designs. The arrow, with it's cloth head soaked in oil, came next. Eragon held them hesitantly, but made no move to protest. This was his father's wish, and he would carry it out to the best of his ability.
King Brom stood next to the boat, gazing down at the body of his son and whispering a final farewell. Eragon was not close enough to hear the words he spoke, but he could guess well enough. When the king stepped away, five men gathered about the boat and slowly pushed it into the waiting sea. The waves lapped at the hull of the small boat hungrily, as if they were eager to welcome one more soldier to their crushing, black depths.
But this was not just one more soldier... this was his brother.
The boat was slowly carried out to sea, bobbing upon the waves as it went. A footsoldier appeared at Eragon's side, carrying a lit torch which he held out to the prince. Eragon nocked his arrow, and then angled it towards the soldier. It burst into flames when the torch touched it, and then he pulled his arm back so his fingers touched his cheek. The boat was not moving very fast, but he adjusted for the wind that was coming from the north, and then let the arrow fly.
It soared through the air, arcing over the water and then landing in the boat with a heavy thud. Almost instantly, the kindling surrounding the body of his brother went up in flames. Eragon knew it would not be long before his body was gone completely, and the boat would sink to the bottom of the ocean.
Rain lashed down upon them as Raina stood atop the cliffs near her home, with Bridie and Ùna beside her. It was a dreary day, but it could not compare to the storm that was churning in her heart. They had just laid her mother to rest earlier that afternoon, yet she still could not believe that the queen was truly gone.
The physicians said it was a sickness that had taken her, something that had affected her lungs and made it impossible to breath. But Raina knew better than that. It was the constant beatings that had finally killed her, and Raina couldn't help but think that her mother knew this would happen. The queen had taken the brunt of the king's wrath, if only to spare her daughter, and now she'd finally paid for it with her life.
I am here, Ùna said quietly from beside her, if you wish to talk.
What is there to say? Raina replied bitterly. My mother is dead... It should have been me.
Do not say such things, Ùna snapped forcefully. If your mother were still alive, she would not hesitate to do it all over again, if it meant saving you.
Raina hung her head low against her chest, willing the tears that were threatening to emerge to go away. But they would not heed her, not this time. I cannot stand it here any longer, she finally said. We have to get out of here, Ùna.
Where will we go little one? Ùna nudged at her hand and whimpered mournfully.
Perhaps we can find refuge in Alagaësia; it is not so far—
You know the history between your father and their king, Ùna said suddenly. There will be no sanctuary for us in Alagaësia.
Ùna was quiet for a long time, yellow eyes gazing out over the open ocean. From here, you could just barely make out the haze of Alagaësia's shoreline on the horizon. There is nowhere safe from your father, she said somberly. If we tried to leave, he would hunt us to the ends of the earth.
I will die before I let him rule over me, or beat me the way he did my mother.
Let us not talk of such things any longer, Ùna said somberly. Come, I would take a walk along the shore with you. It is good for clearing the head. Raina knew the wolf was just trying to be helpful, but joy would not penetrate her heart. But she followed behind her wolf nonetheless, calling for Bridie to follow her and then tracing her way down the winding path that led to the shore.
It was still raining, though lighter now than it had been during her mother's funeral. The slick rocks crunched beneath her boots, shifting as she placed her weight upon them, though she did not fall. She'd spent enough time on this shore that she knew its every inch by heart. The lapping of the waves against the rocky shore did help to calm her a bit, though it did nothing to quiet the thoughts raging about in her head.
In front of her, Ùna bounded along the shore, running towards the waves and then running away again when they touched her paws. She looked just like a puppy again, but Raina could still not find it within herself to laugh.
"My lady," Bridie said quietly, "we'll need to be gettin' back soon. A storm's comin' from the east, and it's a good quarter hour walk to the castle from here."
"Yes, Bridie, just a few more moments and then we'll return," she said dryly. Ùna was still bounding close to the water, but then she stopped suddenly. From twenty feet away, Raina could hear a deep growl coming from her chest, and saw the hair standing on end all along the ridge of her back.
Don't move, Ùna said firmly.
Ùna, what is it? Raina stopped, as her wolf had said, and grabbed hold of Bridie's arm.
Something is not right. I will see what it is. Raina had not noticed it before, but as she followed the line of her wolf's gaze, she saw a dark heap of some sort, further on down the shore. From this far away, she could not be sure what it was. Ùna loped carefully over to it, keeping herself low to the ground and as quiet as possible. Her snout was raised up in the air as she sniffed, and her ears stood alert for any sudden sound.
"My lady," Bridie began quietly, but Raina quickly shushed her.
Well? Raina asked as Ùna circled around to the other side. The silver wolf suddenly let out a bark, and her posture relaxed a bit.
Raina, come quickly! she urged. The princess did not waste any time, and she sprinted over to where her wolf stood, pulling Bridie along behind her.
When the two girls drew closer, Raina suddenly realized that the dark form was actually the burnt remains of a boat turned on its side. Ùna stood on the opposite side of the boat, and when Raina joined her there, she saw what had given the direwolf cause for alarm. There, in the sand and the rocks, lay a young man.
"Oh! My lady, it's a man!" Bridie shrilled right in her ear.
"Yes, Bridie, I see that." Raina stepped forward carefully, kneeling down to get a better look.
"Don't touch him, my lady!" the young maid cried. "It is foul luck to touch the dead, if you're not a priest."
"Quiet, Bridie," the princess admonished her. As she knelt next to the man, she noticed that his tunic had fallen open, and she could see where there was a wound upon his abdomen, horribly inflamed and leaking clear pus. Ùna, sniff that for me, she instructed. The wolf did as she was asked, and quickly recoiled her head with a sneeze.
Poison, she spat, taking a step further back.
Is it the poison of the spine fish? Can you tell?
I believe so, the wolf replied.
Raina put out a hand to touch the man's cheek, drawing a gasp from her young handmaiden. "Your Highness!" she cried desperately.
"Calm yourself," Raina said forcefully, "he is not dead. Come, we must get him somewhere safe."
The information seemed to surprise the young maid, but she did not question her mistress any further on it. "Should we take him back to the castle, my lady?" Bridie asked nervously, wringing her hands together rapidly.
Raina looked down at the man's attire, and noticed the silver amulet about his neck. "No," she finally replied. "No, this man is from Alagaësia. My father will have him killed on sight if he finds him. Come, help me. I know somewhere we can hide him." Bridie seemed hesitant to come near the stranger, but she did as her mistress asked. The two girls hauled the unconscious man up as far as their strength would allow, and then positioned him on Ùna's shoulders. The wolf walked slowly while Raina kept a hand on the man, so he would not slip off.
For the past three years, Raina had walked along these shores whenever she felt the need to be alone, and so she knew the abandoned fishing house well. It hadn't been used in years, so she knew no one would ever think to go there. In fact, she doubted anyone besides herself even knew it existed. The little one-room hut was built into the side of the cliff, to better control the temperature in the summer and winter, and the doorway seemed to blend into the cliff, concealing it from any passersby.
When the small party arrived at the hut, Raina and Bridie managed to get the man down from Ùna's back, and then into the house. It was not an easy task for the two of them, but they finally managed it. There were some appointments inside the hut, from its last owner, including a straw mattress and some animal skins for keeping warm in the winter. The two girls laid the unconscious man down, and then took a step back, just looking at him for a long moment.
"What do we do, my lady?" Bridie asked quietly.
Raina was breathing steadily, but she could feel her heart pounding. "I'm not sure, Bridie," she whispered. "But what I do know is that we're not going to let him die." Raina knelt beside the bed, peeling back the edge of the man's tunic to inspect the wound on his stomach. It was clearly infected from the poison which had put him into this death-like state, and would need to be cleaned and dressed. He was beginning to develop a fever as well, and that did not bode well for him. She suddenly turned to her handmaid. "Can you stay with him tonight?" she asked quickly.
"What?" the younger girl exclaimed, forgetting her formalities in her surprise. "Me? But, my lady, I—"
"If he develops a fever," the princess explained slowly, "then the poison will surely kill him. I need you to stay here and administer the medicine, every two hours or so, and make sure he's kept warm."
"What about you, my lady?"
"My absence will be noted from the castle," she said, turning back to the man upon the bed. "I'll come back first thing tomorrow morning. Stay here, Bridie, and I'll return shortly with supplies." The younger girl did not have time to argue, only watch as her mistress left the house in a hurry, leaving her alone with the strange man.
Chapter 9: A Different Land
Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be ;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.
His body was on fire.
At least, that's the way it felt. Like someone had taken a wool blanket and wrapped it around him at the height of summer, suffocating all the life from his body. And there was pain, everywhere it seemed. In his head; in his legs; in his stomach. Why was he in so much pain? And why did it feel like he could not move?
Slowly, Murtagh attempted to move his arm, just a fraction of an inch. The most he could manage was a weak wiggling of his fingers before shooting pain lanced up his arm and into his shoulder. When he attempted to move his arm, and failed, Murtagh could suddenly hear the muffled sound of voices. Who was here with him? Allies? Or...
Where was Thorn? The wolf would tell him if he was safe or not. Murtagh spread out his consciousness warily, seeking in weak tendrils the presence of his partner-of-heart-and-mind. But try as he might, his wolf was nowhere to be found. There were others here; he could feel them, and sense their presence. And even... His body stiffened involuntarily when he felt the mind of the other direwolf. It was not Thorn, and it was not one that he recognized.
"My lady..." The voice was a breath of a whisper to Murtagh's ears, and strangely distant. He only caught every few words. "Come quick... waking up..."
In vain he struggled to open his eyes, to catch a glimpse of the strangers. But they would not answer to his will. Suddenly, there was a cooling sensation upon his brow, and he guessed someone had pressed a cold cloth against him. It felt so good, banishing away the heat that enveloped him, if only slightly. Against his better judgment, he let out a slight groan when he tried to move again. The pain was lesser now, but still present.
"Shhh," the holder of the cloth soothed at him. It was a woman's voice, and the sound brought him some small measure of comfort. "Try not to move." The compress moved away from his forehead and dabbed at his cheeks, then at his chest. Where was he? This was not a voice that he recognized, but he was not afraid. If the woman had meant him any harm, he couldn't imagine that he'd be alive right now.
But what had happened to find him in this position? Murtagh wracked his memory to try and recall anything... But nothing would come. There was only blackness, and he could feel himself slipping away again. With one last effort, he finally coaxed his eyelids into raising, just a tiny bit. The place around him was dark, with only the tiniest bit of light coming off a fire in the hearth. Why had they lit a fire? Couldn't they feel how hot it was!
And then he saw them. Crystalline blue eyes staring in concern and worry, framed by little tendrils of blonde hair. His strength soon left him, and his eyes closed once more. But the image of those eyes did not fade, and they followed him into his fevered sleep.
"Is he dead?" Bridie whispered urgently from her place pressed into the corner. Raina knew the maid was superstitious, but she was beginning to border on ridiculous.
"No, Bridie, he is not dead," she replied as calmly as she could. "He's just gone back to sleep. The poison is working its way out of his system. It will take him some time to recover, and even more time to regain his strength after that." Raina brought one of his hands up near her face, to inspect the small incision she'd made horizontally on his wrist. The only way to get the poison out of his body was through the bloodstream, and so she'd made the tiny incision to allow some of the toxic blood to drain. It was a trick she'd learned from the castle healer, but she had perfected the art in her own unique way.
"I don't like this one bit, my lady," the maid continued nervously. "What if we're discovered? Your father will have me executed. And who knows what he'll do to you!"
"Bridie, would you kindly fetch some more kindling for the fire?" Raina asked quietly, trying to conceal her annoyance. To do her job effectively, she needed peace and quiet, something she would not be able to find if her maid was chattering on incessantly. Bridie curtsied shortly by way of response and left the hut without argument. Once she was gone, Raina released a heavy sigh. It felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
Are you certain this is a good idea? Ùna asked softly from her place in front of the fire.
It does not matter if it's a good idea, she replied shortly. He is dying. My conscience would never allow me to just leave him.
I meant using your magic in such close proximity to the castle, the wolf replied pointedly. Raina bit down on her lip at that and returned the young man's arm to laying at his side.
She turned and looked at her wolf, saying, My father's Monitors will not be looking down this way without due cause. As long as no ships attack us from Alagaesia, we should be fine. Ùna sniffed lightly in response, but made no further move to admonish the princess. She was a stubborn little thing, when she set her mind to something.
Raina turned back to the young man, who was once again unconscious. She reached for his arm once more, angling it over a wooden bowl she held in her lap. There was a little blood already present in the bowl from the first time she'd attended the young man. As she held his arm over the bowl, Raina closed her eyes and concentrated on the strange buzzing that always accompanied the use of her magic.
"Skilja du eitrum fra du blödh," she whispered quietly, holding one hand over the incision upon his arm. The old tongue was the only language which could compel her magic, though she wasn't sure why. The woodswitch, Maera, had very limited knowledge of magic, and it was from her that Raina had learned everything she could once her powers had been discovered. They'd first appeared two years ago, when her mother had come to see her shortly after suffering another beating at her father's hands. Raina had been so overcome with emotion, and it was that emotion which fueled her magic to present itself.
From that moment on, she'd had to keep her magic a secret. It was not necessarily forbidden in their kingdom, but it was highly monitored. And she did not need to be under her father's watchful eye, especially now that her mother was gone. As well as, she didn't want to think what her father would make her do if he discovered she could use magic.
Slowly, as her spell had demanded, the poison was drawn from his blood, dropping into the bowl in her lap as a black sludge. It took a few moments until his blood ran clear once more, and then Raina knew that the poison was completely out of his body. She set the bowl down on the floor, and then ran her hand over the incision on his wrist. "Waíse heill," she whispered, and she watched as the skin of his forearm quickly knitted back together, leaving only a small, white scar as any indication there'd ever been a cut. She spoke the same words over the laceration on his stomach, but her magic was dwindling. She didn't have enough strength to heal it completely, but she did the best she could.
It would take more power than she thought she had right now—and more knowledge of the old tongue than she knew—to break his fever, so she would have to let his body do that on its own. With the poison gone from his system, she hoped it would be a quick recovery. Raina stood from her chair and gathered up the bowl that contained the poison, crossing the small hut to throw the offending substance into the fire. The mixture of poison and blood hissed and sizzled where the flames devoured it, until there was no trace it had ever been there.
When she returned to the bedside, she sat back in her chair, just looking at the young man as he lay upon the bed. She wondered who he was to receive a hero's funeral, and why his boat had not burned. There had been a storm that day they'd found him, and the rain was the only thing she could account for sparing him. How he'd managed to survive the perilous journey across the sea from Alagaësia however, she had no idea.
A few more moments passed and he began to stir again, mumbling something incoherent. Raina reached from the pitcher of water she'd brought down from the castle, and poured a bit into a long-handled ladle. She placed a hand at the back of his head, pushing gently so it was angled into more of a sitting position. His eyes fluttered open and closed, darting between looking at her and looking about the room.
"Can you drink?" she asked softly, angling the water near his lips. He did not say anything in response, but he gulped a bit of the water down nonetheless. A bit too much, it seemed, for he began sputtering. Raina laid his head back down and poured the remainder of the water back into the pitcher. He'd be needing food soon, and that would be a bit harder to come by. But for now, he seemed content to just rest.
As it stood right now, the man was not in any position to pose a threat. Raina only hoped that remained the case when he regained consciousness and started to recover his strength.
Murtagh's eyes flew open wildly; his heart was pumping frantically in his chest, so that it was the only sound he could hear. The room was dark, barely lit by the remains of the fire in the hearth. It hadn't been tended in some time, that much he could see. Where was the woman from before? Hadn't there been another one? He couldn't remember, and his head hurt too much for him to think. The only blessing was that the room was not so stifling hot as it had been before.
A loud clattering came from his left, and behind his head so that he could not see what was happening. Then came a soft creaking, as well as a flood of bright light, and he realized it was the sound of a door opening and closing. Someone shuffled into the room and set their things down on a little wooden table, then bustled over to the fire to throw on more kindling and stoke the flames. When the fire blazed again, he could make out a woman's form. A woman with blonde hair...
She turned and saw him staring, and she let out a frightened yelp. "Oh!" she cried, putting a hand to her heart. "You're awake." While she was out of breath, there was a smile on her face, and kindness in her eyes. The door opened once more, and he glimpsed the shadow of a wolf being thrown on the wall. Was it this girl's wolf? Who was she?
"Where am I?" he asked, his voice hoarse from disuse. "Who are you? What happened?"
"Slow down," she said in a soothing tone, coming over and taking up the seat by his bed. "One thing at a time, if you will. You are still very weak." Murtagh had just discovered this himself when he tried to sit up and found it difficult. But he did manage to work himself into a sort of sitting position, where he was half-leaning on the headboard.
There were a hundred questions running through his mind, but he settled on starting with the simplest. "Where am I?" he repeated, more forcefully this time. He found his voice was coming back to him finally.
She hesitated, and it did not escape his notice. Then, very quietly, she said, "You are in Oran, not even a league east of Caton." His heart quickened its pace in fear, and his eyes grew wider involuntarily. If he was in Oran, then Murtagh knew he was in more trouble than he'd first thought. But by the gods, how had he ended up here! "Do not worry," the girl said softly, reaching over and grasping his hand where it lay at his side. "I will not tell anyone you are here." He drew his hand away, unsure of her intentions.
"Then you know I am from Alagaësia?" he questioned. Murtagh did not fail to note how her face fell when he took his hand away, and she sat back in her chair. She nodded slowly, her eyes downcast.
"You had a silver amulet around your neck when I found you," she explained, pointing over to the table where a basket was set.
He could just glimpse the glint of silver in the firelight, and a sprig of herbs next to it. Hemlock, he thought. They thought I was dead? What in the seven hells happened?
"Do you remember what happened at all?" the girl asked. He shifted his gaze back to look at her, taking in her youthful appearance and kind demeanor. If she meant him harm, she was certainly good at concealing it. But what could she hope to gain from deceiving him? Did she know he was the king's son? Was she planning to hold him for some ransom? He thought that she couldn't have been more than a couple years younger than himself. Was she working with someone else?
"No," he replied shortly when he realized his silence had stretched too long. "I don't remember anything. One moment, I was on watch with my division, the next... I'm here."
"You were injured in some kind of fight," she said, indicating his abdomen. He looked down and saw where there was a wound that had been dressed and treated, but it was in the advanced stages of healing. How long had he been like this? "I think that you were mistakenly believed to be dead, and they set you out on the ocean. I found you on the beach, a few hundred yards from here. You were in a boat; it had been burnt." What she described fit perfectly with a traditional hero's funeral, but it still wasn't making any sense. How was he alive if he had been injured and set aflame as she described? And why had his superiors thought him dead in the first place?
Gods above, they must have told his father. The royal party would have made the journey from Ilirea to the shore for his funeral. They all believed him dead... Suddenly, the answer hit him. "I was poisoned, wasn't I?" he asked, looking back at the girl.
"Orani raiders are fond of the poison from the spine fish. They cover their blades with the stuff, so when they strike their opponents down, the healers will think them dead and not tend to their wounds. It takes about a week for the poison to really kill them, but until then, it only gives the appearance of death," she explained quickly. "I have drained your blood of the poison, but it will take you some time to recover your strength. I think you were unconscious for at least three days, if not more."
Everything she was saying was beginning to make sense, which only confused him more. If she meant him harm, why heal him? And why tell him about it? Was she trying to draw him in and gain his confidence? And for what purpose? The more he thought about it, the more the only thing that made sense was that she really had saved him without any ulterior motives. But he needed to know for sure, before he said anything else.
"Why did you save me?" he asked, never taking his eyes off her. It was hard to tell in the dim firelight, but he could swear he saw her blushing.
"I... I couldn't..." she stammered, looking anywhere but at him. "I couldn't just let you die."
"Why not?" he pressed. "Any other Orani would have. Why not you?"
Suddenly, eyes the color of the sky were upon him with a new, hostile edge. "You think us savages?" the girl demanded. "That we would find a dying man and leave him without a second thought? We are not so heartless a people, Sir. And I do not forget where it is we come from. Your quarrel is with our king, not our people."
Murtagh sat in stunned silence at her sudden vehemence, and it quickly gave way to shame. She was right. "I am sorry, m'lady," he said quietly, looking away from her. "I did not mean to give offense." She was quiet for a long while, but when he dared to look at her again she seemed to have calmed down.
"What is your name?" she asked.
He debated for a moment, but eventually found that there was no good reason for him not to give her his real name. She had saved his life; it was the least he could do, until he figured out a better way to repay her. "Murtagh," he replied.
"Murtagh," she repeated quietly, as though she were testing the name on her tongue. "What clan do you hail from?" The girl seemed to know a lot about Alagaësian customs and histories, but she herself had said she did not forget where the Orani people had come from. Still... it was odd to him. He knew so little about the Orani people, because his father didn't like to dwell on what had happened between him and Morzan.
He would answer her question, but this time, Murtagh did not tell the truth. However kind this girl had been to him, he was still in enemy territory. Who knows what would happen if she spoke to the wrong person and let information slip? He couldn't have it known that he was the king's bastard, especially considering the history shared between his father and the Orani king.
"The Western Clans," he answered, hoping she didn't notice the catch in his voice. Suddenly, he heard shuffling by the door, and the girl's attention was drawn away. It must be the wolf that Murtagh still could not see.
"I have to go," she said quickly, raising up out of the chair and hurrying over to the table. She brought him the basket that had been sitting there, and he found it was filled with bread, cheese, and some fruit he did not recognize. "There's water on the floor, here." She pointed just below her. "And there is medicine next to that. If you can stomach it, try to take it once in the morning, once at night. It's afternoon now, so take your first dose in about two hours. I will return when I can."
With that, she was hurrying away from him and towards the door. "Wait!" he called, mustering his energy enough to shout. He heard her stop, and then she shuffled back into his view. "You have not told me your name."
She hesitated for a moment, picking at the hem of her sleeve in a nervous habit. But then she said, "Bronwyn." Before he could say anything further, she was gone again, this time for good. The door to the hut slammed closed, and Murtagh was enveloped by silence once more.
Chapter 10: The Heart of the Matter
Been awhile, hasn't it? Sorry about that. I had some other projects attract my interest. Here's a new chapter for you! Enjoy! :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Eragon sat with his chin in his hand, one knee drawn up to his chest and the other swinging lazily off the window seat where he was currently situated. His mother had asked him to come keep her company this afternoon, but he was starting to regret accepting her invitation. There she sat, working at her needlepoint with a fervor he would never understand. Did she actually enjoy doing it? Or was it just something so ingrained in her from her upbringing that it felt wrong not to embroider in her spare time?
"It's been more than a week, Eragon," she said quietly, never taking her eyes off the fabric in her hands. "Must you continue to mope?"
Every hair on the back of his neck seemed to stand on end. "Must you be so callous, Mother?" he spat, turning his face toward the window. Lately, the very sight of her set him into a state of irritation. "He was my brother, after all."
Something in his tone must have set her off, for she tore her gaze away from her needlepoint and set it in her lap. "Half-brother," she reminded him firmly. "And I'm not being callous; I'm being realistic. Murtagh is gone, and there's nothing any of us can do to bring him back. It does not do to dwell in the past."
"You'd never try to bring him back, even if you could," Eragon muttered under his breath. He had no idea if his mother had actually heard him, but he didn't particularly care if she did.
Ever since he'd seen his brother's dead body and pulled the arrow that would set him aflame, something had changed within Eragon. He no longer found solace in Saphira's company, and he could barely stand to look his father in the eye. A part of him felt like this was his fault; if only he'd been kinder to his brother when they were children, perhaps he wouldn't have felt the need to leave home and serve in the army. The rational portion of his brain told him this was folly. But it hurt all the same.
What was worse, however, was the guilt; guilt that he'd never taken the time to actually treat Murtagh as his brother. They'd grown up together; trained together for a time; laughed and played together when they were boys. Yet Eragon had always made a point to be at Murtagh's throat. To prove that he was worthy of their father's affection. And to satisfy his mother's desire that they did not form a bond of brotherhood.
What he wouldn't give to take it all back. He supposed the old saying had proved to be true: you never appreciate what you have until it's gone.
"Well," his mother continued in a clipped tone, "go and mope somewhere else. You're practically darkening the room, and I can hardly see my sewing as it is." She returned her attention to the wooden hoop and fabric in her lap, pushing the needle through the cloth and pulling it out the other side. Eragon thought he was going to lose his breakfast.
"Apologies, Mother," he said, launching himself out of the window seat, "for being such an inconvenience to you." He stormed out of the room without another word, feeling his mother's eyes on him the entire time.
Selena could practically feel her blood boiling as her son stalked out of her sitting room. What was going on with him? He'd never shown this much care about anything that dealt with his half-brother before. She didn't even think that he'd truly liked the boy. Whatever was happening with Eragon, the queen could tell that it was more than just grief at the loss of his brother. And it irked her to know she'd have to do something about it. For years, the boy had been unfailingly loyal to her. Why had that suddenly changed? She found it hard to believe that the death of that boy had sparked such a change of heart in her only son.
Whatever the case may be, she needed to get to the bottom of it, and quickly. If all went well, her plans would be coming together in the next few months. She couldn't afford to lose her greatest pawn at the very end.
It was well before dawn the next time she came to see him. When the door swung open, he could just barely hear the sounds of the ocean beyond, waves gently lapping at the rocky shore in a never-ending cycle. It was comforting to hear, and even more comforting to know she had come back.
"How are you feeling?" her soft voice chimed through the dimness of the room.
"Like I could sleep for days," he croaked back, adjusting his position on the mattress so he could sit up. She bent over the fire and poked at the logs, shifting them to stoke the fire and filling the room with light and warmth.
"That's better," she muttered, drawing her shawl closer around her shoulders and turning to him. "Do you need anything?" He watched in silent awe as she came to the side of the bed and placed a soft hand on his forehead, presumably trying to gauge his temperature. "Hmm," she mused quietly, "you don't feel quite as warm... I'd say your fever broke sometime in the night."
He nodded silently, not trusting his own voice. Slowly, she took a seat at the very edge of the mattress, watching him carefully.
"You're very quiet," she stated softly.
"I still don't understand," he replied. "Why have you treated me with such kindness?"
She seemed to chew on her answer for a moment, and then gave a wry smile that caused a pang in his chest. "I suppose I'd hope an Alagaësian would do the same for me. Perhaps, if I put a little kindness out into the world, the world will one day pay me back..." She let the thought fade into silence as her eyes drifted away from him, staring aimlessly at the floor. A few moments later, she returned to herself and placed that piercing gaze back upon him. "I think the far more interesting question is, why are you so distrusting of people?"
"Well," he said quietly, "I am in a hostile country." She let out a giggle, which caused him to smile in turn... something he'd not done in a very long time. "But life has not given me any reason to trust people," he continued seriously, causing her laughter to die swiftly.
She seemed to study him for a moment, before saying, "Life has not given me much reason either, but—" at this, she leaned toward him and placed a tentative hand atop his own, "—I know that it is not my fault. It is the fault of the cruel people around me, and I cannot allow that to affect how I treat other people. That's no way to live."
Murtagh found himself at a loss for words. Who was this girl? To find him and take him in without a thought for her own safety, and treat him with such kindness... He had not believed there was such a person in the entire world, and yet here she was. She had saved his life; he was indebted to her with no idea of how to repay her kindness. It was all too much to bear...
Before he could stop it, a flood of emotion rushed him, with no way to escape. A knot formed in his chest, and a strangled sob escaped his throat. The young woman seemed concerned, before she realized he was crying. "There is no way for me to repay you," he said quietly.
"There is no need," she replied, standing and coming closer to the top of the bed. She placed her hand on his stubbled cheek and angled his face towards her. "Besides," she continued with a smile, "saving your life was the easy part. The hard part has yet to come?"
"Hard part?" he asked, wiping at his face.
She gave a small nod, and said, "Yes, the hard part is going to be getting you home."
Sorry it's so short everyone; filler chapter, unfortunately. I've been off from writing for awhile, and I need to ease back into it. Thank you for your patience; I love you all!
Chapter 11: Dangerous Game
With each day that passed, Murtagh found his strength returning, albeit at an indolent pace. Bronwyn was very helpful in that respect; helping him to stand when he found it difficult; spending time with him to distract him from his melancholy. And within a week, he was able to rise from the bed of his own accord. His body felt so weak, but he soon found himself taking short walks outside of his little hut.
The maidservant—he never had caught her name—came daily to replace his linens and bring fresh food and water. When Bronwyn could get away, she would come see him as well. Mostly she came in the evening, as the sun made its descent to the horizon. She never really told him what duties called her away in the daytime, but he held himself back from prying.
In the middle of his second week in his enemies' country, she let him know it would be safe to go down the beach.
"The king has left Caton on business," she explained, putting some dried strips of meat and fruit on a plate and handing it to him. "He'll be in the western countryside for a few weeks, along with a vast majority of his military. It will be safe for you to go down to the beach, if you wish."
Murtagh watched her silently for a moment, trying to feel out if this was a trap. But there was nothing in her tone or manner that suggested he'd be in any danger. Besides, it would have been nothing for her to sell him out weeks ago, when she'd first found him. With every day that passed, he trusted Bronwyn more and more. And he found that he cherished the few moments they had with one another; looked forward to them, actually. In this strange land, away from his family and his wolf, she was a comforting presence that helped soothe the hurt in his heart.
"I would like that very much," he replied, giving her a small smile.
"We'll go after you eat then," she said, picking at her own food upon her plate. They ate in comfortable silence, and when they were finished, Bronwyn offered her arm to steady himself upon. He could walk well enough on his own, as long as he had the tall tree limb he'd found near the entrance to his hut. But dragging himself out of the bed was another story. For the hundredth time, he'd found himself grateful for the presence of the girl who'd saved him.
As they exited the hut, Murtagh looked about warily. As much as he trusted Bronwyn, there was always a chance she'd been followed, or her maid had betrayed them. But as he looked, and saw no sign of another living soul, he felt his shoulders relax and his breathing come a bit easier.
Bronwyn adjusted her pace to match his own as they walked, taking care not to pull ahead but keeping her distance at the same time. Murtagh pretended not to notice. He was not altogether sure himself the depth of his feelings concerning her. There was gratitude, to be sure, and friendliness... He dared not explore any further than that.
As they strolled along the shore, Murtagh felt his chest tightening at the silence between them. He stood everything to gain from her companionship and kindness, but what of her? What could he offer in return? He hated feeling useless, and he'd never felt more so than in the last fortnight. But what could he do? Until he was returned to his full strength, there was not much for him but to lay low in the hut, hoping a stray patrol didn't happen upon him.
Finally, he chanced an attempt at conversation. "What do you tell them," he began, "when you disappear?" He could feel her body tense up, though his eyes remained steadfastly forward.
"That I am gathering herbs," she replied carefully. "I am training to be a healer; they don't suspect anything."
"Your parents approve of your apprenticeship?" he asked, grasping at this small piece of information she'd yielded. Whenever they spoke, she tended to avoid any conversation about herself, or her family.
Silence pervaded again for a long moment, and he chanced a look over at her, only to see tears brimming in her eyes. "My mother is dead," she said quietly, "and my father is occupied with his own trade. He does not pay me any mind." She clamped her mouth in a thin line, her brow furrowed.
"I gather this doesn't bother you," he remarked. At that, she allowed herself a chuckle.
"No, it does not bother me in the slightest. And besides—" she turned her face toward him "—if I was not given the freedom I am allowed, I might never have found you." She offered him a small smile, sending his heart to fluttering.
"Then I am indebted to your father, it would seem." He'd expected at least a laugh or a smile, but was met with a frown. Bronwyn looked back towards the ocean, and heaved a labored sigh.
"I pray you never meet my father," she said quietly, almost that he could not hear her over the crashing of the waves. Murtagh wanted desperately to question her further about her life, but decided to drop the subject of her father and move on to something, hopefully, more neutral.
"Tell me about your wolf," he continued, hoping this subject would be less tense. "In Alagaësia, only the highest ranking nobles and clan leaders are allowed them. Is it the same in Oran?" She looked back over at him and shook her head slightly.
"No," she replied, "they are bought… for a handsome price. My…my grandfather bought mine for me, when I was young. Her name is Ùna."
"That's a beautiful name." Murtagh debated silently of whether to tell her about his own wolf and, by extension, the truth about his parentage. He'd kept his identity secret thus far, for fear of betrayal… but there was something unexplainable about the bond he felt with this woman. To owe her a life debt, and yet conceal something of that magnitude from her… Murtagh couldn't help feeling his father would be ashamed. "Bronwyn," he said quickly, coming to a stop and reaching out to grasp at her sleeve. She stopped as well and looked at him in concern.
"What is it?" she asked. The wind whipped her long hair about her face, and she quickly pushed it aside, drawing her shawl tighter about her shoulders.
"There is something I must tell you." He couldn't be sure, but he thought he might have seen her take a slight step back. "I have not been honest with you, and for that I am ashamed."
He glimpsed her lower lip begin to tremble. "You're frightening me," she said quietly, eyeing him warily.
"You once asked me which of the clans I hail from," he continued on, fighting against the knot tightening in his chest, "and I lied to you, Bronwyn. I was of the belief that you meant me harm, and I needed to protect my identity to protect myself."
"Then you do not belong to the Western Clans." It was not a question, and Murtagh could practically feel her trust slipping away.
"No, I do not," he said with a shake of his head.
"Then to which do you belong?"
Slowly, he drew in a breath and ran his hand through his hair, tugging at it slightly. "I…" He paused here, trying to form the words that threatened to spill from his mouth. "Truth be told, I don't really belong to any of them." She shot him a look of confusion, so he barreled on ahead. "The eight tribes rule themselves independently, but they ultimately answer to one man… my father."
Understanding dawned on her face, and she really did take a step back from him this time, drawing her arms closer to her chest. "Y-you… you are the king's son?" she asked breathlessly.
"Well, bastard son, but yes…" He tried to keep his tone light, but the look on her face made it increasingly difficult. She drew in her breath rapidly, eyes darting to look anywhere but at him.
The longer her silence stretched, the more Murtagh's worry grew. Finally, she said, "Then you are in greater danger here than I'd previously thought." Her eyes found his again. "Our king hates your father with a passion. If you were discovered…" She let the thought fade into silence; neither of them had to give voice to the horrors that would befall him.
"I'm sorry I lied to you," he said, chancing a hobbling step towards her. This time, she did not move away.
But her head fell as she drew further into herself. "Murtagh," she said quietly, "I—" All of a sudden, her head snapped up and she looked beyond him, to the path that led down from the cliffs. Murtagh followed her gaze and saw a beautiful, silver-coated wolf bounding towards them at a blistering pace. So this must be her direwolf…
She strode past him and met the wolf halfway to the cliffs. They conversed for a few moments, and then she turned back to Murtagh, fear apparent on her face. "We must go," she said quickly, grabbing him by the wrist. A light rain began to fall, and the air around them had grown cold.
"What is it?" he asked, limping as quickly as he could in the direction they'd come.
"Soldiers," she said quickly. "Headed this way." At that, he quickened his pace as much as he could. His mind flashed back to his earlier thoughts of betrayal... but he quickly pushed them aside. If Bronwyn meant him harm, she wouldn't be leading him away from danger at this very moment.
By the time they reached the door nestled in the cliff, the rain was falling in a torrent, soaking through his clothes and plastering his hair to his face. Bronwyn hurried him inside and then spoke a few words to her wolf. Presumably at her prompting, the beast turned and headed back to the cliff path.
"I've sent her to throw them off," Bronwyn said quietly, closing the door and lowering the plank that served as a makeshift lock. The two of them drew further into the room, eyes trained on the door. Minutes felt like hours as they stood there in complete silence, afraid to even breathe too loudly for fear of the sound travelling. The air seemed to grow heavy around them, and Murtagh could suddenly hear the faint beating of hooves upon the sand.
Subconsciously, Murtagh looped an arm around Bronwyn's waist, pulling her closer to him on instinct alone. The hoof beats drew closer, sounding more and more to his ears like a death march. He thought his heart was like to beat out of his chest when they stopped and he could hear the movement and sounds of the horses just beyond the door. Bronwyn's hand flew to her face, clamping over her mouth to stifle a gasp, and Murtagh tightened his grip around her waist.
"What's this here?" a gruff, male voice said beyond the door. They listened in taut fear as the sound of boots hitting the sand reached their ears.
"Some old storehouse," another soldier chimed in. "Probably nothing there but rotting food."
Murtagh wished desperately in this moment that he had his sword, or even a bow. But if his father had kept to tradition, Murtagh's sword would be hanging in the king's study over his fire, no use to anyone. Not that it would have mattered; in his current, weakened state, he doubted he'd be able to wield his sword effectively.
His heart stopped when the door rattled, the soldier on the other side pushing against it roughly. "Hmm," he grunted, "somethin' blockin' it."
"Oy, Barst, come away from there! Nothin' to worry about but—" The man's voice was cut off by the screaming of horses and men alike. A vicious snarling filled the area, accompanied by the running of feet.
"Get that beast away from the horses!" someone shouted. The man who'd been at the door retreated quickly at the chaos, and Murtagh felt safe enough to loose the breath he'd been holding. Bronwyn relaxed as well, drawing away from him slightly and keeping her eyes trained on the door.
After a few more moments, the shouting subsided and the patrol party moved on, not even realizing the prize they'd almost stumbled upon. The two hideouts remained silent until they could no longer hear the patrol, and even then, they kept quiet for a few minutes after that. When they were sure they were safe, Murtagh allowed himself to fall against the mattress, trying to calm his nerves and still his racing heart.
"Murtagh, I swear it— "
He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. "We were not discovered," he said quietly, "there is no harm done." Warily, she came up to him and knelt on the floor, placing a tentative hand over his own.
"I was certain, with the king away, you would be safe."
"They must have expanded their perimeter in his absence," Murtagh remarked, recalling his own training as Captain of the City Guard. "It isn't your fault; you didn't know." He chanced a look at her, and found her eyes trained on his own. There was something she wished to say; he could see it hanging on her lips, but stalled there by some unknown hesitation.
A shaky breath escaped her throat. "I have started upon a plan to get you home." It was not what he'd expected her to say, and he felt his heart jump into his throat at the thought of going home. How would he be received? And how would he even get there? As if she had read his thoughts, she said, "I have found a boat, not much larger than the one you arrived in. The journey from here to Alagaësia is short, so it will serve. As soon as I can find a way to bring it down here, I think it would be wise if you left."
For reasons he couldn't quite place, he made no response. Of course he wanted to go home—to return to his father alive and whole—and yet... And yet the sadness in Bronwyn's eyes spoke to the conflict within his own heart.
"Would your absence be noted tonight?" he suddenly blurted. She seemed taken aback, but shook her head all the same.
"No... no, it would not." She hesitated, waiting for him to speak his mind.
"With the patrol, it would not be safe for you to return home," he said, finally grasping her hand where it lay atop his own. "They will likely have recognized your wolf; if you're seen sneaking back into the city at this hour, it might raise suspicion."
She looked away from him, towards the door that was still barred against intruders. He thought she might have been conversing with her wolf, but he couldn't be sure. Finally, she looked back at him.
"You are right," she said quietly. "I'll go back in the morning, when it's safe." Murtagh felt some of the tension leave his body. She stood then, turning away from him and toward the supply basket her maid brought every day. She seemed to busy herself with sorting through the linens, and Murtagh continued to stare after her.
"I'll sleep on the hearthstone," he said quietly, gauging her reaction, "if you are—"
"No," she said quickly, turning back around to face him, "do not even think of it. You are still recovering... I will take the hearthstone." She came over to the mattress and took two of the animal skins, laying them on the hard floor in front of the empty hearth. Then she went back over to the table and took up a small, leather-bound book. "Shall I read to you?" she asked lightly. He didn't trust his own mouth not to release the many thoughts raging in his head, so he only nodded and laid back upon the straw mattress.
Her voice was soft as she began to read the poetry upon the pages, seeming to float in the air and soothe the tension from his shoulders. Every phrase, every inflection she placed on the words, served only to lull him further towards a dark and dreamless sleep. It seemed his soul was relieved at having told her the truth, for he hadn't felt this relaxed in... well, in many years.
A sudden wave of exhaustion swept over him, and his eyelids felt so heavy... Perhaps he might just rest them for a moment. As soon as he closed his eyes, a fog seemed to settle over him. He could still hear Bronwyn's voice, but she sounded muffled—far away, as though she were in another room. Part of him wanted to fight the sleep, if only to talk to Bronwyn a little more, but he was so tired...
Murtagh felt his breath even out, and then a hand was suddenly upon his face. He thought he might have heard a soft voice telling him to sleep—was it Bronwyn? He couldn't be sure... For years, his sleep had been void of any dreams, but as he drifted into the darkness, he found himself dreaming of sky blue eyes.
As soon as her spell had taken effect, Raina jerked her hand away from the man in front of her, stumbling back into the worktable and gripping the edge with shaky arms. She drew ragged breaths into her lungs, fighting for precious oxygen. But the air around her had grown heavy; closed in, as if the walls were like to suffocate her.
"What am I doing?" she whispered to herself, shaking her head quickly. The king's son... my father's sworn enemy... the king's son!
Raina, Ùna's voice cut through her thoughts sharply. You must calm yourself.
What am I going to do? she said desperately, trying to fight against her rising panic. If he is discovered... If I am discovered with him—!
That is not going to happen, Raina. She could hear the wolf snarling through their mental bond. When you return to the castle upon the morrow, we will find a way to bring the boat to the shore. And then we will send this boy home, and be done with it!
Raina's hands were still shaking, but her breath came a little easier to her chest now. I... I do not want him to leave, she whimpered pitifully. Besides Bridie... he's the only real friend I've ever had.
It does not matter, the wolf snapped. I do not say these things to hurt you, Raina. For your own protection, he must return to his home.
Against her will, a tear snaked its way down her cheek. She wiped it away hastily, but more were welling up behind it. I am torn, Ùna.
I know, little one. She sent feelings of comfort down the link, enveloping Raina in a warm calm. Her tears subsided after a time, and her arms ceased their shaking. Slowly, she curled up underneath the animal skins on the hearthstone, watching Murtagh rest peacefully under her spell.
In the morning, she would return to her father's castle, and devise a plan to send Murtagh back to his home. But right now... right now, all she could focus on was the pain in her chest and the aching in her heart.
Chapter 12: I Dream Of Thee
Dark wings, dark words.
The thought rang through King Brom's head the moment his steward told him a raven had arrived from across the sea. With ragged breath, he watched the man cross the room and hold out a rolled piece of parchment. A black, wax seal held the parchment closed, and he could just glimpse the sigil emblazoned upon it; a wolf's head as viewed from the front, positioned in front of a sprawling rowan tree. It was a sigil he knew well, having once belonged to a Great House. But no longer…
Brom nodded to the man absently, eyes trained on the parchment he now held in his hands as the steward made his departure. Shaking fingers traced over the hard wax, curiosity and anxiety waging a vicious battle in his chest. It had been years since he'd last received a raven from his former friend. In those times, they'd still viewed one another as brothers. Now… now, he could not begin to think what message might be contained within the scroll.
Eventually, curiosity won out and he reached across his desk to retrieve a small knife. The silver blade flashed brightly as it broke the seal, like a warning light for what was to come. He set the knife down and began unrolling the thick paper, heartbeat increasing in speed with every second. As the paper unfurled, a pang shot through his chest upon seeing the familiar, hurried script. As boys, he and Morzan would pass each other secret messages when they were in their lessons, their aim to see who might get caught by their tutor. How things had changed between them.
As Brom read, he could practically hear Morzan's sharp voice clear as day, reciting the words.
My old friend,
Many years have passed since our estrangement. It is not my intention to reopen the wounds of the past, but to forge a new future for our two nations. If it is in your heart to broker a peace between us, consider this my official request for a truce. We shall negotiate terms in a neutral location, and on a day of your choosing.
I eagerly await your response.
His sigil marked the bottom of the page in the blackest of ink, and his name looped underneath it. Brom reread the letter several more times, not really believing what he'd seen and interpreted from the words.
Could Morzan truly wish to broker peace? What of the timing of this letter? Less than a month ago, a detachment of his own men had landed upon the shores of Alagaësia and slaughtered Broddring soldiers in cold blood, completely unprovoked. The fact that one of those soldiers had been the king's own son… It sent a chill through the king's blood to even think of it.
White hot anger flashed through him. Years ago, peace had been his goal in regards to Morzan. But in the wake of Murtagh's death, Brom had wanted nothing but retribution; even vengeance, if it could be achieved. But he could not, in good conscience, drag his country into a war that might last years. Though Oran was small, Morzan's followers were many, and they were brutally trained in the art of war. Morzan had certainly seen to that. His greatest worry was that, although Alagaësia could outlast Oran, Oran might just outsmart them.
You called for me? Athkore's voice suddenly cut through his thoughts. Brom looked up to see she'd come in through her usual passage, and was now sitting on her haunches in front of the empty hearth. He must have unconsciously cried out for her in his earlier rage.
A raven, he replied simply, from Oran. Her surprise sent a shockwave down their bond, washing over him. He saw her tail begin to twitch rapidly, and the fur on her hackles raise in alarm.
With a vicious snarl, she uttered, What does the beast-king request of you?
A truce, if you can believe it, he sighed back to her. At that, she straightened up, and her tail ceased its rapid movement. He wishes to meet upon neutral ground and negotiate terms for a peace between our two kingdoms.
I do not trust it, she said plainly, lowering her massive head slightly and causing her cream-colored fur to ripple like a snowfall. His every word is poison. Why seek peace now?
There is no kindness in my heart for him any longer, Brom assured her needlessly. She could sense every inkling of his heart without him uttering a single word. I do not trust this invitation either, my dear friend. But I fear that if we reject it outright, it would be just the excuse he needs to court chaos.
It is likely a trap of some kind, the wolf continued, getting up and pacing in what little space she could. At her age, she'd reached her full size, and was as large as one of the great Forest Bears of the north.
I agree, be it physical or political. But mind you, he warned sharply, I will not let him get away with what happened to my son. By his order or not, Murtagh is dead at the hands of Orani soldiers.
The wolf let out a quiet, high-pitched whimper. Thorn pines for him still, Athkore remarked softly, a note of sadness in her voice. I hear him, in the dead of night, howling upon the city walls.
I have heard him as well, Brom said darkly. He will grieve his partner-of-heart-and-mind until the end of his days, I fear. Is there nothing you can do for him?
Athkore's entire body shook in answer. Is there naught anyone can do for you, great king? To console you in your grief? Brom took her meaning and cast his eyes upon the floor. The aching wound in his heart was still as fresh as the day he'd learnt of his son's fate, prone to tearing open at the barest whisper of Murtagh's name.
Some days, he began quietly, I forget that he isn't here anymore. I feel I can find him in the training yard, or reading with Master Jeod in the library. But then I search for him, and my search is fruitless. I'm reminded then, of how I failed him as a father. First his mother, and now him… A man who cannot protect his own family; what a sorry excuse for a king.
You did not fail him, Athkore snapped, though her eyes remained soft. In a world that treats bastards as vermin, you gave him everything but a title. He was loved, and that is more than many can say.
"And what good did my love do!" Brom cried aloud, suddenly angry. Not with Athkore—never with her—but with himself and his own foolish pride. "I thought I could atone for the atrocities that befell Emà by allowing Murtagh freedom. And it got him killed. I should have protected him! It was foolish to allow him such liberties; it is my fault he is dead!"
Cease this madness! Athkore responded with a sharp yap. You wish to take responsibility for what happened? Very well, I will allow you this small measure: you gave the boy freedom to do what he wished. And yes, that freedom led him to join the cavalry and risk his own neck. But you must give him credit, Brom. He was a man grown, and knew the potential consequences of his decisions. Give him the autonomy of his choice.
Her words settled in him like a stone sinking to the bottom of a lake, the silence left in its wake absolutely deafening. His heart pounded in his ears as he tried to steady his breathing. For as long as he could remember, his temper had been short. But lately, it seemed to be getting worse.
I am sorry, he finally said, my dear friend. I do not mean to unleash my frustrations upon you. These things... I cannot discuss them with Selena, you know this.
She secretly rejoices, Athkore spat derisively. For years, she has been threatened by him. You've seen how she pitted Eragon against him, never allowing them to develop the bond of brotherhood.
You really believe she harbored such vindictiveness within her heart? Even now, after everything, Brom did not want to admit the truth to himself. He'd ignored Selena's petty envy and manipulations for so long; what was the point in harping on them now?
You know why, Athkore cut in quietly, sensing his unuttered thoughts.
Selena could never do such a thing. She... she wouldn't.
You are certain? The wolf's light brown eyes glinted sharply with her meaning, and the fur of her ruff began to bristle.
Brom could feel a dull pounding begin behind his eyes, and his fists clenched involuntarily. Of course the thought had entered his mind, that Selena had been the one to orchestrate Murtagh's death, but he couldn't believe that of her. There had been a time, however long ago, that he had loved her. Perhaps not as deep as the love he'd had for Emà, but love nonetheless. How could the woman he'd once loved—whom he'd believed loved him—betray him in such a way? It was more than he could bear to think about.
I'll not hear this, he scoffed, standing from his desk and turning towards the window. Selena is many things, but a murderer is not one of them. Though he could not see her, he could hear and feel Athkore rise up and pad across the floor. Her hot breath tickled the back of his neck, and her comforting scent filled his senses.
That may be so, her voice echoed ominously, but you must admit that it's exactly what she wanted.
Without another word, the gigantic wolf turned and left the room, the king feeling her absence painfully. Never in his life had he felt as alone as he had over the last month. It felt like everyone and everything he'd ever loved was slipping away from him.
Selena had left him a long time ago, that much he knew for certain. It didn't upset him, her indiscretions. There had been no such relationship between the two of them for years, and he could not begrudge her what she clearly needed. But the further she drifted from him, the more Eragon seemed to despise him for it, as though he was the architect of the boy's misery. Try as he might to develop a relationship with his youngest son, Selena never seemed to retract the claws she'd dug into him.
Only a few weeks ago, they'd seemed to make small strides in mending their relationship. But that was before the raven had arrived from Narda, bearing the news of Murtagh's fate. And now... something in the boy had changed, that much Brom could see. What that change was, however, he was less certain about. It seemed he was spending less time with his mother; Brom only hoped that proved to be in his best interest.
Weeks went by, and the opportunity for Raina to assist Murtagh in getting home never arrived. She certainly tried; gods above, had she done her best. But every time she seemed to get close to success, an obstacle arose to halt what little progress she won for herself.
Although the boat she'd secured for the task wasn't very large, it was still too unwieldy to handle on her own. Bridie was no help, and she couldn't risk pulling anyone else into her subterfuge, so she was left to rely on her magic. But even that could not help her transport a full-sized rowboat without being seen by anyone. Every night, she would move the boat a little at a time, as much as she dared risk before her cowardice took over and she abandoned her quest until the next night.
But all the while, as she labored little by little, night after night, she couldn't ignore what was happening every time she returned to the hut. The way she allowed herself a little more time with him, every day staying later and later into the night. How he seemed to be searching for her every time she arrived, or how he was hesitant to let her go every night. Nearly three months had passed since Murtagh had washed up on the shore, and in that time, she'd become very skilled in slipping in and out of the castle unseen. Bridie covered for her as best she could, but there were times when she'd had to bribe the guards that happened to catch her.
The important thing was that her father never discovered the truth of her whereabouts. Most days, he didn't bother with her at all, too busy with his plotting. There were times—rare times, to be sure—when her presence was required for some event or another, and she'd send Bridie to the storehouse to make her excuses and deliver the daily supplies.
Those were the days when it became more difficult to lie to herself. For those were the days when her heart ached for missing the pleasure of Murtagh's company.
She'd known what was happening for some time now, but that didn't make it any easier to try and stop. What good would it do, falling for him? Raina knew it was folly to become so attached; that it would only bring her heartbreak in the end. But she knew these things were never a matter of logic. And as soon as she could get away, her heart led her down to the beach.
Murtagh had been able to move independently for close to a month now, and in that time his strength had returned. Raina had helped his recovery along, whenever she could get him to sleep and work her abilities on him. When she found herself on the rocky beach that afternoon, he was outside of the hut as well, bare to the waist and sparring against invisible enemies with a long, thin piece of driftwood. He seemed not to notice her until she was practically upon him.
"Bronwyn," he exclaimed with a smile, dropping his makeshift sword and heaving for breath. At his use of the alias she'd given, her own mother's name, Raina bit back the guilt that bubbled in her throat. Another reason she refused to admit the truth of her feelings towards him; how could she proclaim such a thing for a man that she'd lied to from the moment she'd met him? She'd certainly wanted to tell him the truth, for a long while now. But something—an innate sense of self-preservation, she supposed—held her back every time she got close to revealing the truth.
"How are you today?" she asked with a smile, pushing down her confliction until it was nothing but a whisper. She shifted the basket she had draped over her arm, repositioning its weight to be more comfortable. She watched as he walked towards the rocks and retrieved his tunic where it lay draped over a boulder and slipped it over his head.
"Feeling stronger every day," he finally replied, rolling up his sleeves and pushing his collar-length hair out of his face, "but I've lost much of my strength from before... Well, before." Even after these long weeks, Murtagh still could not fully remember what had happened to him that ended with him half-dead in a strange country.
"I am glad to hear it," she replied, strolling purposefully towards the entrance to his makeshift dwelling. He followed behind her, retrieving his driftwood weapon from the sandy ground. They entered the dim room and, after placing the basket of supplies on the table, Raina got to work on starting a fire. It was chilly in the dank space, as it so often was, and she thought the warmth would be most welcome.
Murtagh walked to the washbasin and dampened a cloth, using it to wipe off his sweat-slicked skin. Although there was a chill in the air, he'd worked himself hard this morning. When he'd finished, he perched himself on the edge of his straw bed, quickly catching his breath.
Raina hugged her arms against her chest, willing the chill away. "I estimate it will only take me another week to position the boat so that you might help me," she said softly, having to fight to utter the words. Every day was a struggle, keeping this sickness at bay. For that is surely what love is, is it not? A sickness that spreads and consumes one's entire being.
"A week," he replied quietly. "So soon?" She raised her eyebrows at him, and failed miserably in concealing the small smile that broke across her face. He realized his blunder almost immediately. "W-what I mean to say is—"
"I take your meaning quite clearly, Murtagh," she cut in softly, taking a tentative step towards him. "There is... something I think we should discuss."
Suddenly, he was standing, looming over her with his superior height and broad shoulders. A spark of lightning seemed to pass between them, though neither was touching the other. "From the day I awoke here," Murtagh started quietly, his voice serious, "I have fallen asleep every night dreaming of your face. You saved my life, and you keep saving it still. I will never be able to repay you for that."
She drew in a long breath before replying, "The only payment I need is for my heart to remain intact. You must return to your homeland, Murtagh; that is not up for debate. This place is too dangerous for Alagaësians, especially one such as yourself."
His hand was suddenly resting on her cheek, breathing fire into her body. "Then come with me," he said softly. "Leave this place and return with me to Ilirea."
For a moment, she contemplated the idea. And Murtagh must have seen it in her eyes, for her leaned forward and pressed his lips against hers gently. The shock of it rendered motionless for a moment, but she soon found herself leaning into him, prompting him to kiss her more urgently. Her heart raced at the feel of him; the warmth of his skin under her fingertips; the energy of his life-force saturating her senses. She could have stayed there forever, drowning in his kiss. And it was that thought which scared her, and caused her to pull away.
"Murtagh," she breathed, gasping for air. Her heart felt like it would fly out of her chest. "Please don't do this. It is impossible."
"What is there for you here, Bronwyn? You've told me of your father, how you live in fear of him. Why stay?"
"It..." She hesitated, contemplating just telling him the truth. "I cannot explain it," she finally lied. "But I cannot come with you. Please don't make this harder than it already is."
The desolation upon his face sent a pang through her heart. She wanted desperately to tell him the real reason she could not escape this accursed island, but her fear held her back. When he'd finally admitted the truth of his identity to her, he'd known he had nothing to fear from her. But Raina could not be certain of how Murtagh might react if he learned the truth; not just about her, but about her father too.
There was more to the history between Morzan and Brom than she believed Murtagh knew. In her childhood, she'd grown very skilled in sneaking about and remaining invisible. This ability had granted her knowledge she should not otherwise have possessed. But if Murtagh discovered what she knew... it would not end well for anyone.
"If it is as you say... If it is impossible, then let us make the most of what little time we have left," he said somberly, sitting back upon the bed. Raina's heart dropped into her stomach at that, but she said no more. What she had wished for so long had finally come to pass, yet she felt as empty as she had before Murtagh had come into her life.
Ùna would have called her foolish for such thoughts, but she couldn't seem to help herself. What a sheltered life she had lived, shut away from the outside world. Murtagh had been something new and exciting in the beginning, but had developed into something more. As she thought of the days to come, and envisioned her life without Murtagh in it, she found it difficult to keep her sadness at bay. She knew she would cherish the color he'd brought to her life—even if it had only been for a short time—for many years to come.
Slowly, fighting her better judgment with every step, she walked towards him, hands clasped in front of her waist. He looked up at her expectantly, grey eyes piercing and brow furrowed. Her fur mantle was suddenly stifling with the heat of the fire at her back, and so she slipped it off her shoulders and lay it on the stone floor.
"Whatever lies before us," she said quietly, "let us only live for this moment." Laying one dainty hand on his shoulder and the other on his stubbled cheek, Raina bent over and brushed a tentative kiss over his lips. She had no experience in the ways of such things, but everything about this moment felt natural. Like a piece of her heart that had been missing suddenly appeared, clicking into place to reveal a vast and wondrous landscape.
Murtagh seized her hips with his rough hands, drawing her into his lap and causing the thick wool of her dress to scratch against the bare skin of her thigh. The look of hesitation upon his face concerned her, and she sent him a questioning gaze.
He seemed to swallow a lump in his throat. "I would not dishonor you," he said quietly, his voice hoarse. "I can offer you nothing... nothing but my heart and my word."
She swept a lock of hair from his eyes, her smile full of tenderness. "That is all I would ask of you," she returned, kissing him once more, this time, more insistent than before.
Chapter 13: One Little Room
Nearly a week had passed since the raven from Oran had arrived, and another raven had arrived just that morning to finalize the plans. Brom stared at the open parchment, hands folded in front of his mouth and brow furrowed in concentration. As much as he didn't trust the meeting, he knew he would have to show his face to avoid backlash. The clan leaders were already convening in Kuasta, to prepare for the aftermath of the negotiations. Brom did not know what to expect from the coming weeks, but his heart fell at all the imaginable prospects.
Selena would not be accompanying him on this journey; the only bright spot in this sea of darkness. After his conversation with Athkore, he could not help but look at her differently. How her demeanor seemed to have shifted so drastically; her smiles came easier and far quicker than they ever had, and her affections were bestowed without hesitation. Could what his wolf surmised really be true? Brom did not want to imagine it, and so he kept his distance... more so than usual, in any case.
A knock at his study door snapped him away from his thoughts. "Enter," he called stoically, drawing the parchment towards him and folding it over. His response to Lady Lorana could wait.
The heavy oak door swung inward, revealing Eragon standing in the corridor. It did not escape Brom's notice that his son hesitated slightly before entering the room. In an effort to appear more welcoming, he stood from behind his desk and came around to the sitting area.
"Eragon," he said as lightly as he could manage, "what can I do for you?"
The boy's timidity was palpable, and rather surprising to Brom. He'd never known the youth to be timid about anything, least of all speaking to his father in whatever manner he saw fit. Eragon kept casting his eyes on the carpeted floor, grasping his hands together and then drawing them apart again, over and over. When the king noticed the sheen of sweat upon his brow, he motioned for the both of them to sit. Brom waited patiently for his son to muster his courage, and after a few more moments of nervous silence, the boy spoke up.
"I want to accompany you to Sharktooth Island," he finally blurted out, as though it had taken every ounce of energy he possessed to utter this statement.
Brom, for his part, was less surprised by the request than he was by his son's fear in making it. And he couldn't hide his amused smile at Eragon's impatience. "You need only have waited a few more hours, Eragon," he said with a slight chuckle. "I was going to ask you at supper this evening, but it seems your impatience has beaten me to it. It would please me if you'd accompany the party, and stand as my second."
The shock was plain to see on Eragon's face; his mouth hung open stupidly, but he awoke out of his haze quickly. "You truly mean it?" he asked in haste. Brom nodded in response, and saw the boy's face light up in realization. He could see there were many things Eragon wished to say, but he seemed to simply settle for, "Thank you, Father," and then hurried from the study.
When the door clicked closed behind him, Brom released a pent up breath. That saved him the trouble of suffering Selena's wrath later. He couldn't begin to think how she might react if she found out before the party set out in the morning.
He'd given the matter much thought, but Brom had finally come to the conclusion that Eragon needed to be a part of these proceedings. Ever since Murtagh's death, he'd become more stoic and mature than he had been before. He'd started taking his studies seriously, and seemed more attentive to the matters of state he sat in on, be they trivial or significant. Brom had even given him leisure to start hearing the complaints from the smallfolk a few times. While he'd certainly made a few mistakes, Eragon had treated even the meanest of peasants with the appropriate mixture of compassion and prudence.
In light of all these things, Brom decided it might be beneficial for Eragon to attend the peace negotiations. Even if it came to naught, it would be good for him to experience what it's like to assist in parlays amongst the clan leaders. All appropriate cautions would be taken, to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Mainly that there wouldn't be any wolves present.
The only wolf he was concerned about was Emrys. The beast had always been unpredictable when they were younger men, and Brom could only imagine how much worse he'd gotten in the ensuing years. But Morzan had agreed to the terms, and the location; Brom could only hope he'd remain true to his word.
Though Sharktooth Island was not technically neutral territory, it was as close to middle-ground as they were like to get. In truth, there was no place in the whole of their land that could be considered neutral. Morzan had garrisons stationed on whatever habitable strip of land hadn't already been claimed, and Brom was sure to keep his western shore well-defended.
The parchment upon his desk bore the words of Lady Lorana, Clan Leader for the Island Tribes of Sharktooth and Beirland. She implored the king to bring an additional legion with him, to protect her people in case this meeting was farce. Lady Lorana would be leaving for Kuasta upon the morrow, where she would meet with the seven other clan leaders and their direwolves. There, they would wait for the king and his party to join them after the peace talks. Dependent upon how the negotiations went, they would either have to prepare for a joyous celebration... or war.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Raina had not returned to the castle for three full days. How could she, when the only place she wanted to be was right where she was? In that small, damp fishing hut on the beach... her life had changed forever. Each day brought new wonders; new excitements and adventures. Hours spent curled before the fire, wrapped in furs, talking of everything and nothing and drowning in their desire. A brand new world of opportunities had appeared before her eyes... and not even her soundest judgment could persuade her to leave.
Ùna was certainly persistent, but even her voice could not be heard over the keening joy within her heart. Until now, Raina had never truly known what it was to be happy. And now that she'd found it, there was no desire to relinquish her hold. If her father discovered her absence... damn the consequences. Whatever they would be, it was worth it to spend just a few more moments with him.
On that fourth morning, she found herself waking in the same manner as the preceding days: limbs tangled amongst his and gasping from the stifling heat. Slowly, as gingerly as possible, she disentangled herself and arose, padding quietly to the washbasin. She splashed cool water on her face and neck, instantly feeling the relief. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Murtagh still soundly asleep, back facing the smoldering fire. Her heart lurched in her chest as she gazed at him, and it felt like a great pit had opened in her belly.
Was this what love felt like? Without any prior experience, she couldn't be sure. The only thing she was sure of was that it felt like she couldn't breath at the thought of losing him. Every day she tarried—every hour she tried to make stretch further—that pit opened just a little wider. It felt as though she were falling through it, unable to find purchase and stop her descent. That first day... he had promised nothing but his heart and his word, and she'd gladly grasped at it. That was the first leap, arms flailing and joyful laughter resounding. Each day since, her fall had felt a little more reckless, a little more uncontrolled.
And now she knew it couldn't be stopped.
Raina made her way across the small room to sit upon the mattress, wrapping one of the smaller furs around her exposed body. As quiet and calm settled around her, she watched Murtagh while he slept peacefully. The way a few locks of his dark hair would always fall into his face; the steady rise and fall of his well-defined chest; a slight groan now and then, perhaps at something within his dreams. What she would not give to enter those dreams, to know the most-guarded of his inner thoughts. It was not outside of her power to do so, but she would never invade his mind in such a way. And besides... what right did she have? She could not even bring herself to tell him her true name, and for that she was deeply ashamed.
A few more minutes passed, and finally Murtagh stirred. His eyes opened slowly, storm grey squinting against a slant of sunlight. When they finally focused, and fell upon her, a smile came to his lips.
"How long have you been awake?" he questioned groggily.
She shook her head slightly, giving him a smile in return. "Only a few minutes," she replied, pulling the fur tighter around her shoulders. Though she had given herself to him already, she was still a bit shy in the light of day.
Murtagh pushed up from their pile of furs, naked as his nameday, and stretched his stiff limbs. Raina looked away, feeling the heat come to her cheeks but unable to hide her smile. A new and wondrous world indeed...
She bit down on her lip to try and mask it, but Murtagh was irritatingly perceptive. With a wolfish grin, he stalked across the room to lean over her, placing his hands on either side of her head as she laid back on the mattress. "And what has you smiling so this morning?" he asked innocently, trailing kisses down her neck between words. Raina giggled as his stubble tickled her skin, and raked her fingers through his hair. He continued his quest ever downward, drawing more laughter out of her.
"Do you think it's possible to die from happiness?" she questioned aloud, causing him to stop just above her navel and look up at her. Raina looked down at him as well, seeing the light hit him just so, drawing the lighter tones of his hair out and revealing the dark grey flecks in his eyes. Her heart quickened its pace, and she thought he might be the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.
He smirked at her in response, and then grasped the edges of her fur, folding them back overtop of her. "I've never heard of such a thing," he replied, crawling back up to plant a kiss on her forehead, "but let's not find out just yet." The pace of her heart was grateful when he stood and pulled on a pair of trousers, going over to the washbasin as well. She sat up and retrieved her shift from where it had not moved for the past three days, slipping it on over her head.
She hesitated only slightly before saying, "I must return home today. They will be wondering where I am if am gone much longer." It did not escape her notice how his shoulders bunched slightly and his spine straightened just the tiniest bit. He made quite the show of finishing his washing before turning back to her.
There was no anger in his voice, only worry. "Must you?" he questioned quietly. She only nodded silently in response, not trusting her voice to conceal her confliction. The fog had lifted when she'd awoken this morning, and she knew this had to come to an end. They had made the most of their time, but it was over now.
Tonight, she would bring the boat to the shore and send him on his way before first light. It was the only way to still this sinking feeling within her soul. And it was the only way to keep him safe. Raina would never be able to live with herself is something happened to him. So, even at the expense of her heart, she would do what had to be done. Slowly, she stood and approached him, laying her hands on his bare chest. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer, face drawn in frustration.
"I have never known what it is to be happy," she began quietly, "until I knew you. My heart aches to think of the days to come, and so I will cherish the memories of these last few days. Would that we could stop time..." Gently, he tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, inspecting her face as though committing it to memory.
"Time and the leagues between us will not stop my love for you," he replied solemnly, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. She stayed pressed against him a few more moments before drawing away, pulling on the remainder of her clothing. They shared another kiss by way of goodbye, and then she began the long trek back to the castle.
Ùna was waiting for her at the top of the cliffs. You have been very reckless, young one, she snapped impatiently, baring her fangs. Your absence has been noted, and your father waits for you.
A spike of dread ran through her chest. If her father had noticed she was gone, something must have happened. What is it? she asked timidly.
I do not know, her wolf replied, softer now. She turned slightly to allow Raina to clamber on her back, and then set a brisk pace across the wind-swept plain. A light rain pelted her face as the wolf ran, stinging her cheeks and soaking her hair. When they finally reached the warmth of the outer bailey, Raina found herself somewhat thankful. But the glances of the castle guardsmen ran all warmth right out of her.
Noted indeed, she remarked quietly to her wolf. Ùna simply huffed in response and walked ahead of her, clearing the guards with the ferocity of her gaze. Head bowed low, Raina followed behind her wolf, pulse quickening with every step. She began to imagine every horrible way her father's wrath might manifest itself, and tears welled in her eyes. In that moment, the memory of her mother's screams resounded through her mind. The squelching of the mud under her boots as she trekked across the courtyard only amplified them.
As she entered the keep, it was deathly quiet, reminding her of the tombs of the kings down below. She'd only ever gone to that dark, terrible place once before, when she was very young. As it stood now... the tomb was completely empty. Her father had built it to house himself upon his death, and the future kings of Oran for the next few hundred years. What a shame then, that he'd been so unlucky as to only be given a daughter. The empty stone cellar had smelled of mildew, and a cold draft ripped its way through the open corridors constantly. She was never really sure what her father's intention had been, dragging her down there... but it had terrified her for weeks. In the years that followed, she learned to be terrified of the halls above, rather than the ones below.
The study, Ùna said quietly. I will be right outside the door, little one. If he touches you... I will tear out his throat. This last vow, she sealed with a low snarl.
Raina reached up and scratched the wolf behind her ear. Dear heart, she remarked lovingly, with you sniffing under the lintel, he won't dare think of hurting me. If only she believed the lie... Ùna knew better, as she always did, and licked her softly on the cheek in response.
They traveled up the south tower in silence, willing themselves invisible. For Ùna, it was impossible, but Raina had perfected the art over a lifetime of practice. Every footfall was placed with intention, to soften the sound as much as possible. Each arm remained perfectly still, so as not to draw attention. Her breathing slowed to an almost imperceptible pace. She was as a ghost in her own home...
That thought struck her suddenly there, making her pause on the steps next to one of the granite columns, gripping it tightly to maintain her balance. Her wolf turned, concern in her eyes. What's wrong? she questioned sharply.
Raina drew in a ragged breath and slid her eyes to meet Ùna's gaze. Home... she uttered weakly, it's... The pounding of a fist against wood interrupted her thought, making it flee from her mind. It was a sound she was worryingly familiar with. As quickly as caution would allow, she continued up the stairs as the baritone of her father's voice reverberated off the stone tower. Another sound she had come to know and vehemently avoid. But then it was joined by a sound she did not expect.
A woman's voice floated on the air like a bell, hanging in the rafters and hiding in the eaves, filling empty space with an unnatural warmth. Though she was still at least fifty steps from the study landing, Raina could hear the woman's every word as though she stood before her.
"He will have no choice but to consent," she remarked casually, the lilt of her voice betraying something sinister. "Everything is set in place; you need only trust in the plan we have devised together—"
"The plan you devised by yourself!" her father cut in angrily. "How can you be sure this will be successful?"
"I know the man," the woman replied evenly. Raina could practically picture her, the woman's voice was so expressive. "To achieve peace, he will do this."
"Conjecture, at best," Morzan replied with a scoff. "This plan of yours is likened to suicide! We would be better to forget this meeting and think of something else, something less likely to get me killed."
The woman was quiet for a long while, and the silence left in her wake was deafening, causing Raina to hold her breath for fear of being discovered. And when she finally did speak again, Raina felt as though ice had crept over her heart.
"So this is the mighty King Morzan," she seethed, her voice echoing wildly off the walls, as though there were more of her than just the one. "You shiver here in your island fortress while the world continues on, leaving the past behind and forgetting you ever existed... Pathetic..."
"Watch that forked tongue of yours, viper, lest I separate it from your head." The sound of a dagger striking the desk thickened the atmosphere all around her. A long stretch of silence followed her father's threat... But then the woman laughed—a true, hearty laugh—and some of the tension dissolved from the air.
"There's the Morzan I know," she remarked, what sounded like genuine fondness in her voice. "Tomorrow will change the course of your nation's history, Your Majesty. Make sure you are prepared. The Alagaësian king is not a weak man to be trifled with, make no mistake. And Sharktooth is not neutral territory... He will have legions with him; you will be at a disadvantage."
"And here I was, thinking you were supposed to be helping me," Morzan replied caustically.
"I am helping you," the woman snapped back. "Without me, you never would have thought to offer up our—"
"There is no need to remind me," he said darkly, cutting her off. "Your mind is truly cruel, woman. It's astounding." Raina was even more shocked to hear genuine fondness from her father's mouth. The swishing of fabric filled the air, and then her father muttered something she could not hear. A mighty boom of thunder suddenly shook the castle, making the stones beneath her feet tremble. The thunderclap echoed for a few, tense moments and then...
The world had stilled once more, and the shimmering quality the air had possessed only a moment ago had disappeared. Magic was at work here, Raina could feel it, deep down in her bones. Quickly, she turned back the other way and hurried down the steps, her wolf bounding behind her.
Where are we going? Ùna cried, panting nervously.
To the shore! I must warn Murtagh! Raina replied desperately, her footfalls echoing loudly up the tower as she tried to process all she had overheard. When she reached the bottom, she chanced a look back up to the top, and what she saw there caused her heart to cease its beating.
Her father's eyes seemed to pierce her soul, igniting her with their fury. "Raina!" he bellowed, his voice tearing and cracking. She did not linger to see what would happen next. Before she knew what was happening, her fingers were buried in the fur of Ùna's ruff, and she was hauling herself up onto her back. The wolf sprinted through the hall, snapping ferociously at any that crossed her path. "Stop her!" Morzan's voice echoed down, almost hidden by the sound of his hurried footsteps.
Too late, the guards realized what was happening. It mattered not; even if they had the constitution to stare down a rampaging direwolf, there was nothing they could do to stop her. Ùna cleared the gate before the soldiers could even muster, weaving between the surrounding buildings of the city until she was nothing more than a smudge of white on the horizon.
Chapter 14: The Last Hope
By the time she and Ùna had pushed the boat to the cliff edge, and she'd used her magic to lower it down to the rocky shore, Raina could see the dark smudge of her father's men on the horizon. They would be upon them any minute… she was running out of time, and her strength was flagging. The energy required to lower the dinghy had taken more than she thought it would, and she was laboring to draw breath into her lungs.
Ùna, hold them as best you can. I must get him out of here, Raina said hurriedly, gathering her skirts so that she might run better.
Quickly, little one, the wolf said, her voice full of concern. I will not be able to stop them for long.
Without response, Raina began sprinting down the path leading to the shore. It was steep in places, and she often lost her footing, falling at one point and opening a shallow gash in her leg. As she raced against her pursuers, it felt as though time had slowed to a creeping pace. What normally was a journey of minutes felt like hours, each step sending jarring pain up her thigh.
By the time she reached the shore, her teeth were locked tight against the throbbing pain, but she screamed for him all the same. A moment later and he'd exited the hut, searching wildly for her. When his eyes finally found her, she could see the absolute terror there.
"Bronwyn!" he called to her. It took another few moments, but she finally skidded to a halt in front of him. He placed his hands on her shoulders, brow scrunched in worry.
She was panting heavily now, all of her energy having been spent. In between breaths, she managed to force out, "Soldiers... coming... must hurry..."
Realization made his eyes go wide, and he threw a glance back over his shoulder where the little dinghy was laying on its side. Raina was still unsure how she'd mustered enough strength to lower the boat to the shore without having it shatter. When Murtagh turned back to her, she saw the question in his eyes... but there was no time.
"What's happened?" he asked weakly. She could feel his hands shaking where they gripped her shoulders.
"The king's men," she breathed out, air coming to her lungs a little easier now. "They saw me... followed me here. You must leave now, Murtagh, they will kill you."
"There isn't any time!" she screamed, pushing him away from her. "Come quickly, now is your only chance." Her first thought was to go to the hut. There would be food leftover that he would need for the journey. It was still sitting in her basket on the little worktable, next to a full wineskin and a filet knife she'd scarpered from the kitchen for when they caught fish. Hurriedly, she threw those few items into the basket and made her way back outside.
Murtagh was blocking the door, arms stretched out to keep her from dodging him. "Why are they following you?" he asked sharply, concern in his voice.
"We don't have time for this, Murtagh," she returned hotly. "This is your only chance to escape unscathed. I will not allow you to be taken prisoner and tortured for information."
Ducking under his arm quickly, she ran across the sand to where the dinghy lay near the rocks, Murtagh following closely behind. She tossed the basket of meager supplies into the boat and grasped the end, struggling to push it forward. Murtagh took up station on the left side, hefting the little dinghy forward with his renewed strength. As they dragged the boat closer to the waves, the sound of snarling and horses whinnying filled the air. Men shouted in fear and anger high up on the cliff.
Just a little bit longer, Ùna, Raina spoke down their bond. The wolf did not respond, but she could feel her determination. Already, she had been cut by the soldiers swords, and her strength was beginning to wane. The thought of her wolf being hurt worried Raina more than she could say, and she could only hope the wounds were not too deep.
Finally, the boat touched the saltwater, which lapped at the wooden hull hungrily. Murtagh looked over at her, causing a pang to clench at her heart. What she would give to go back to the beginning and tell him the truth about herself...
"Bronwyn," he muttered quietly, placing a hand on the back of her neck and pulling her towards him. She could see there were words he'd left unspoken.
Before she knew it was there, a tear traced its way down her cheek, quickly followed by another, and another. It had been so long since she'd truly cried—since her mother died—she'd nearly forgotten what it felt like. And in that moment, it hit her with the weight of a thousand stones...
She would never see Murtagh again.
"Please," he begged, his voice cracking slightly on the word, "please come with me. Leave this hell behind."
The words caught in her throat, and her eyes searched his face. It was the only thing her heart wanted, and the one thing she could not have. Her father would ignite a war under the farce of bringing her back to him, she knew it with every ounce of certainty she possessed. Though her love had burned a hole through her heart... she could not allow it to burn the world.
She could not bring herself to tell him no. "The king, he is travelling to Sharktooth Island tomorrow," she said quickly. "I do not know his plan, but it is not what it seems. You must warn your father."
A shadow crossed over his face. "How do you know this?" Murtagh questioned sharply.
Raina bit down on her lip, weighing how much to tell him. "I heard something I should not have," she whispered, trying desperately to hold back more tears. "I'm sorry... I'm so sorry, Murtagh... I wish we had more time."
Suddenly, his attention was drawn away from her, towards the cliffside path. The soldiers were barreling down it as fast as their horses could. Their time had run out.
Hands on either side of her face, he drew her close to him and kissed her deeply as she melted against him. A hundred years could have passed, and still it would not have been enough. But the sound of hoofbeats pounding on the sand was drawing closer, and Murtagh had already pulled away and was clambering into the boat. With a mighty shove, Raina pushed the boat free of the sand; she watched it bob on the gentle waves, feeling as though her heart was being dragged out of her chest.
"I will come back for you!" Murtagh called, slicing the oar through the dark sea. "When at last I am free, I shall come for you!" His words sounded so far away as he was being pushed out to sea, but they struck her heart all the same. Such was the wave of emotion that washed over her, she never even heard the soldier until he was upon her.
Hands grappled at her waist, drawing her backwards away from the water. A scream ripped out of her throat as she was tossed on top of a stallion, the impact knocking the breath out of her body. All she could see was the rush of sand and stones and debris; the only sound, the horse's labored breathing and thundering hooves. Against her will, a sob ripped free of her throat.
"Quiet, wench!" the soldier—a voice she recognized as her father's most ruthless general, Domnhall—snapped at her. "Save that for your father. By the time he's through with you, your screams will leave you raw; you won't speak for a fortnight."
None of it mattered anymore. The horse made its way to the top of the cliff, and as they reached the wide, flat plain, Raina glimpsed a dark blot amidst the waves. Everything had happened so quickly; she couldn't believe he was really gone. Murtagh had left... and taken the only home her heart could recognize with him.
Dark was the morning when their ships launched from Kuasta's harbor. Eragon leaned as far out over the railing as his courage would let him. If he squinted hard enough, he could just make out Saphira's silver fur shining through the darkness as she sat there on the shore, watching the party begin their journey. Though they were less than a quarter league from the shore, Eragon could already feel their bond becoming tenuous.
Her voice came to him in a whisper. Safe journey, my friend, she called out, releasing a mournful howl along with it. He could not see his father's wolf, but he recognized her voice as it joined Saphira's, lower in pitch and then rising to the starry sky above just as Saphira's fell back down. A beautiful, haunting melody which faded into the darkness the further they sailed. As the ship carried on, the lapping of the waves became the only sound he could hear. Soon after the wolves' voices disappeared, the lights of the fishing port were gone as well.
His father joined him at his post against the railing, staring back at the dark horizon. The sun's rays had not yet appeared in the east, and the land was nothing more than a black strip against a deep blue sky.
"I have never been on the sea before," Eragon remarked quietly, finally steadying himself back on deck. The ocean was calm, thankfully. He'd heard tale of men losing their stomachs their first time on a ship, and he quite liked to keep his breakfast where it currently was.
"There's nothing to it," the king replied, bracing his back along the side. "If you can stomach the pitch of your wolf as you ride upon her back, you can stomach the sea."
Eragon stifled a laugh at that; the sea was nothing like a wolf, no matter what his father said. Where the sea was tempestuous and unpredictable, Saphira was always steadfast and resolute. She was the companion of his heart; his truest, dearest friend; the one who knew his soul better than any other. It was weighing on him heavily now, leaving her behind. Since he was a small boy, and she just a pup, they had never been separated. For the first time in all his memory, he had to wonder what she was thinking. It left him feeling hollow inside, as though a portion of his very being was missing.
"It is difficult," his father suddenly said, "the first time you are separated from your wolf. I remember what it was like, though it was long ago. Athkore says she whined constantly, such was her pain."
Eragon swallowed another laugh threatening to bubble. "If you're trying to make me feel better, Father... you're doing a terrible job of it."
The king chuckled at him. "I mean only to tell you that I understand how you feel, and there's no shame in it. The bond we share with the direwolves is unlike anything else in this world. Not even the woodswitches with their familiars experience what we are so privileged to enjoy."
"It's just..." Eragon paused, squinting his eyes against the salt spray. The wind was catching their sails, hastening their trek towards the island. "I can't help feeling guilty, leaving her behind," he finally finished, voice quiet.
"Trust me, Eragon," Brom replied, clapping him on the shoulder, "I wish we didn't have to leave them. But I don't trust Morzan or his wolf; the only way to ensure the beast didn't come was to bar any wolves from being present."
"I know," he huffed in irritation, "you've said as much already. I just feel... on edge without her by my side."
Brom nodded down at his hip. "That's why you have that."
Eragon glanced down at the gleaming pommel of his sword where it rested in its sheath, sapphire stone shining dully in the darkness. It had been a gift for his last nameday, from his mother. While it was certainly sharp, there had always been something about the blade that felt... unbalanced to him. Weighted in all the wrong places, like an amateur smith had simply copied the work of a great master. He never had found out where she'd gotten it from... he supposed it didn't really matter. It was more for decoration than anything else. Now that there would be peace in the land, what good was a sword built for war?
He kept his thoughts to himself and stared back out over the open water. A hint of pink was beginning to show in the east, harkening the day to come. If all went to plan, it would be a day that would change the course of history.
"You mustn't rely entirely upon your wolf, Eragon," Brom said darkly, crossing his arms over his chest. Eragon glanced up at his father, arms braced against the railing. "As you will come to learn... she won't always be there to protect you." He thought of the scars his father bore on his chest, the scars he'd only ever seen once, when he was a small boy. Pink and jagged and puckered, from chest to navel. He never had asked his father where he'd gotten them... or rather, what had given them to him.
"I'll remember that," he muttered in reply.
But it seemed the king was not quite finished. He drew in a ragged breath, and Eragon could practically feel the weight the king bore on his shoulders. "Your brother's wolf could not protect him when he needed it most," he continued, voice firmer now. He turned toward his youngest—and now, only—son, brow set but eyes tender. "I cannot lose you too, Eragon. It would be more than I can bear."
"I am not my brother," he said, harsher than he intended. He saw his father draw back, as though he'd struck him. Quickly, he made to correct himself. "What I mean is... I won't be needlessly placing myself in danger. My honor... my glory... it's in carrying on your legacy, Father. I'm sorry I never saw that before."
These past few weeks had shown him that. All his life, he'd been raised to believe that the throne and the crown were his birthright. While that was true, in a sense, he could see now that it was something he would have to earn all the same. It was not enough to be born a prince; in order to be a good king, he could no longer think only of himself. That kind of thinking had left him feeling guilty in the wake of his brother's death... he never wanted to feel that way ever again.
The shock on his father's face was palpable, but Eragon felt it was the good kind of shock. Suddenly, his father wrapped him in an embrace, one hand on his shoulder blades and the other at the back of his head. "I am glad to hear it," he breathed, chuckling slightly. "These last few weeks... you have made me very proud, Eragon."
He swallowed a lump in his throat, not wanting to let any emotion color his response. For nearly his entire life, his father had seemed cold and distant... but he was beginning to see that was due in part to his mother's influence. It grieved him to think of the years he'd lost, not only with his father, but his brother as well. It was too late for the second... he would not squander any time with the first, not anymore.
But as determined as he was, it was still awkward for him to interact with his father in this way. His mother was not naturally physically affectionate; it seemed that Brom was, if the last few weeks were to be any evidence. Slowly, he patted his father's shoulders and then drew away, clearing his throat.
"Thank you, Father," he replied quietly, leaning back against the ship's rail. "I will endeavor to continue making you proud."
Golden light bathed the rocky outcrop that was Sharktooth Island when the Ilirean party finally came upon it. The morning was still young, and the faction from Oran had not yet arrived. Just as well; Brom had hoped they might land first, so his garrison could clear the island of any would-be attackers. The moment they docked at the small harbor, his men disembarked to every corner and every crevice of the island that they could reach.
The windswept and salt-hardened people of Sharktooth were as welcoming as their custom allowed. Although Brom was rightfully their king, these Islanders tended to keep to the older ways. Of clans waging war against one another, and clan leaders treated like gods amongst men. It was with begrudging respect that they greeted their king now, ceremonial bronze crown resting atop his head. Their reluctance did not faze him; he'd been dealing with Lady Lorana long enough that he was used to it by now.
Their parlay would take place on the far side of the island, where the townsfolk had already been evacuated. In the event that things took a turn for the worse, the island's inhabitants would be waiting in their sloops and catboats, ready to disembark to the mainland. Brom was praying fervently that wouldn't be the case, but it was better to be safe.
General Thane landed heavily on the sand-blasted rock ahead of the king, iron-tipped boots pounding loudly with his girth. A small detachment of his men filed closely behind him, spreading out amongst the Islanders. Sword drawn and brow furrowed, the general scanned the surrounding crowds but found no enemies among them. Reluctantly, or so it seemed to the king, Thane sheathed his sword and nodded over his shoulder at the royal party.
Brom made his way down the gangplank, Eragon following close behind. The few members of the king's personal guard that had accompanied them came next, clad in their jet black armor and midnight hued cloaks. They made a crescent in front of the king, splitting the crowd before them to make way. The king's master-at-arms, Jörmundur, was among the party, having brought a few freeriders and knights along with him. Admiral Redbeard was currently aboard the prize of the Alagaësian navy—a deadly cutter called the Laughing Wench—a small portion of his fleet ready and waiting to attack. Generals Kesson and Bard—of the cavalry and infantry, respectively—were also amongst the shore party.
As one massive, teeming unit, the party began to make their way across the small island, clearing little groves and rocky hills as they went. Anywhere that an assailant might think to hide, they cleared it out quickly and efficiently. Within the hour, they'd reached their appointed meeting place, and knew that none of the Orani had arrived yet. The king could hardly believe it. Could Morzan really meet with him under a banner of truce? No games or tricks?
"And now we wait," Eragon muttered darkly at his side, surveying the land all around them. Rolling hills dotted with groves of ash trees here and there. The sky above was clouded in dark gray, and the smell of salt hung ever-present in the air. When all was quiet, Brom could just barely hear the crashing of waves against the rocky shore, and the cry of the seabirds as they nested there. It was a rustic place, to be sure, but a place the king found he quite liked.
The meeting place they'd agreed upon was called Mira's Hill, so named after the legendary figure in the Islanders history. It was said that Mira wed the son of a rival clan's chieftain—though none could remember now which clan it had been, exactly—upon this very hill, and brought peace to their islands for the next hundred years. She had been a wise and gracious ruler, who'd loved her people and sacrificed her freedom so that they might prosper. It was fitting, then, that Brom had come here to make peace with a man that had taken so much from him.
The standard-bearer stood near to the king, white banner whipping violently in the breeze. It had been many years since Brom had met with a rival under a banner of peace. So much had changed since that day, when he'd met with Lord Cadoc on the plains outside Gil'ead, and agreed to wed his daughter so that the final clan might be brought under the single banner of Alagaësia. He had not known then, but it had truly been one of the great regrets of his life. The only joy that had come from his union with Selena stood next to him now, tall and proud and the picture of his mother.
A dreadful thought struck him then, but the pounding of drums drew his mind back to the present. Every eye was trained to the west, waiting to catch the first glimpse of the Orani party as they crested the hill. As for Brom, his heart was pounding in time to the drum, resounding in his ears and making his blood burn. His breath ripped through him in quick gasps, causing Eragon to look over in alarm.
"Strength, Father," he said quietly, gripping his father's upper arm in a show of support.
Brom only nodded in response. The tip of the white banner had suddenly appeared, bobbing in time with the steps of the soldier that carried it. Not a moment later, the faces of the Orani men crested the hill, and Brom thought his jaw might break with how forcefully he grit his teeth.
Morzan was there, leading the party with a dark and twisted crown upon his head. The sight made Brom want to rage; draw his sword and fight the demon to the death upon this hill of peace. But their white banners forbid such things, no matter how fervently he might wish it. Moments later, the Orani band stopped just a few steps away from the opposing group. A long stretch of silence followed while each man waited for the other to make the first move.
Finally, taking a deep breath, Brom stepped forward, walking slowly to cover the small distance between them. Morzan began walking as well, his party surging slightly behind him. The Alagaësian king could feel his son standing behind his right shoulder, a pillar of strength he was eternally grateful for. When he finally stood face to face with his former friend, Brom felt an unnatural stillness wash over him.
This moment had been almost twenty years in the making; he would not pale in its presence.
"Morzan," he uttered quietly, willing steel into his voice.
"Brom... my old friend," the other king returned, voice as smooth as it ever had been. Though it pained him to admit it, Brom realized that the years had not changed him much. His hair was as long and as dark as before, without a touch of grey to be seen. The line of his jaw was sharp, and his mouth was twisted into a cruel imitation of a smile. Slate grey eyes glinted at him sharply, as though scheming any number of malicious plots.
Seeing Morzan so unchanged... it was a stark reminder of everything that had happened to him. Losing Emà all those years ago, and now losing their son...
He swallowed the lump in his throat. "I would say that it's good to see you, but..."
Morzan smirked wickedly. "Lying was never your strong suit, friend," he replied with a none-too-friendly chuckle. "Let us just say... it has been too long."
Brom did not like this jesting; it put him on edge, and set his nerves to racing. Quickly, he attempted to steer the talks on the correct path. "We have met you here under a banner of peace, King Morzan," Brom began slowly, clenching his fists at his sides, "so let us not talk of the turmoil of the past. I would hear what you have to say, and what you have to offer."
The other king regarded him for a moment, chewing on his thoughts. Morzan may not have changed in two decades, but Brom certainly had. Gone was the cowering boy, always deferring to his older and stronger friend. Brom was a king in his own right, subject to no one but his own conscience.
He saw Morzan's shoulders fall slightly. "Very well," he muttered, shifting his weight between his right and left foot. "As I said in my raven, I wish to sue for peace between our two nations. How many lives have been lost to our squabbling, Brom? Let us set our differences aside for the good of our people."
"Squabbling?" Brom questioned incredulously. "Is that what you call it?" He raised one eyebrow higher than the other, failing in trying to hide his disgust.
The Orani king shrugged a shoulder in a show of contempt. "I have not come here to justify my decisions to you," he growled. "Show me due respect, as a self-built king of a prosperous nation; we both have made mistakes, Brom, you cannot deny that."
"I have never tried to." His voice sounded stronger than he felt. "But answer me this, Morzan... Why now? What do you care for peace?"
Morzan looked away, casting his gaze over the rolling hillsides for a few moments. Brom could see the wheels turning in his mind, though he could not begin to fathom what he might be thinking. The boy he had known was dead; the man who stood before him, he had no desire to know.
But when he spoke again, there was something within him that had changed... cracked, almost. "My wife has died," he said solemnly, an unplaced emotion coloring his voice. "It shames me to admit that it took losing her to open my eyes. I think that I know now, how it felt for you, when E—"
Immediately, Brom felt his entire body stiffen. "You dare to speak her name?" he seethed, deathly quiet.
Morzan closed his mouth soundlessly, eyes narrowing. "I only mean to say that I have known grief," he continued. "That grief has shown me that life is precious, and worth more than any petty grievances I might hold against you."
Every alarm was ringing in Brom's head. He could not believe what he was hearing. It was not below him to place spies with Morzan's castle, and news had reached him of the Orani queen's death... But he had never imagined it would have such a profound effect on the man who'd once scoffed at the idea of a marriage built on love.
Surprising himself, he meant it when he muttered, "I am sorry for your loss."
Morzan nodded almost imperceptibly, but his eyes were still hard. "It is time, Brom," he said quietly, "let us lay the past to rest. Whatever bad blood flows between us, let it be cleansed."
"What are you suggesting?" It was a useless question. Brom knew now what Morzan had in mind to broker a peace between them. He'd known it before the Orani had even arrived.
Morzan's eyes had taken on an almost manic gleam. "Let us join our houses through that most sacred bond," he said, fist held aloft in a dramatic gesture. "Your son... and my daughter. Let our heirs do what we could not, my friend. Their children... and their children's children will rule over two lands that will only know peace. Think of it, Brom. Generations of individuals striving towards a better future."
Lightning had struck him, and Brom found himself unable to move. If he admitted the truth to himself, he'd known this was coming since the raven had first arrived. In truth, it did make sense. Brom only had one heir, and though he'd never discussed it with Eragon—or Selena, at that—he knew the day would come when he would have to broker a marriage for his son. Up until this moment, he'd declined several offers from the clans, all vying for their eligible daughters to win them a crown.
But it had never felt right. After all, Brom would have married for love, if fate had allowed. Why should Eragon not be given the same opportunity? So they'd avoided the subject, and Brom had left his son to his own devices. Yet it didn't seem he'd ever been interested in such matters. There had been serving girls, to be sure—his spies had told him as much—but never any courtships. Brom could never make any sense of it; he supposed Selena had something to do with it, as she always did.
And now, sitting before him, was the solution to... several problems. But how could he ask Eragon to shoulder such a burden? Marriage to a total stranger for the good of the masses... It reeked of unfairness. And after everything that had happened to his family over the last few weeks, he could not ask his son to take on such a responsibility.
Slowly, he looked back up at Morzan, his jaw set and eyes hard. "So we will ask our children to settle our differences for us," he ground out through clenched teeth. "Ask our very blood to commit the ultimate living sacrifice; to forsake all chance of love so that our consciences might be cleared. On my life, Morzan, I could not stoop to such a thing."
"We are kings, Brom," he said darkly, "and that requires sacrifice."
"Sacrifice of ourselves!" Brom roared, his fists tightening. "We make decisions so that our children will not have to sacrifice!"
"That may be the world you live in," the Orani king hissed, "but it is not reality. For thousands of years, the clan leaders sold their daughters like chattel to win favor with more powerful men. I offer my daughter up to you in love, so that she might know a better life! Set aside your pride, Brom. This is the future."
"A better life, you say..." Brom felt a vein begin to protrude on his forehead, and his blood rushed through his body in a mighty, hot wave. "What is a life without love, Morzan? What is a life married to a total stranger, living in a foreign country, separated from the only life she has ever known!"
"Stop this!" a firm voice suddenly rang out, halting both men in their verbal assault against one another.
Brom turned, eyes wide, and found Eragon had stepped forward. His son's eyes were trained solely on the enemy king, a determined set to his jaw. When he looked over at his father, Brom saw the resolve in his eyes. He grasped his son firmly by the shoulder, and whispered heatedly, "No, Eragon, I will not ask you to do this."
"It is my choice, Father," he muttered back, voice full of patience. Brom stiffened at his next words. "He is right... Being a king requires sacrifice... If I am to be a good king, I must learn that now. If the only objection you have is that I would need to sacrifice my own freedom, I would speak my piece now."
Brom was flabbergasted, but he nodded ever-so-slightly. Eragon had shown how his maturity had grown by leaps and bounds... now the king stepped aside and let his son say what he would. The time for him to be a man had arrived.
Eragon turned his attention back to Morzan, taking a slight step forward and squaring his shoulders. "Ever since I was a small boy," he began slowly, "I have heard tale of the strife between you and my father. You come to us now, offering an end to that strife. My fate... my fate as my father's son is to carry on his legacy; I wish for that legacy to be one of peace. Whatever means are necessary, I will gladly carry them out for the good of my people."
His son glanced at him quickly. "I choose this, Father," he said softly, yet with a firmness Brom had seldom seen of him. "Whatever else there might have been... it means nothing when faced with this opportunity. If we squander this chance now, it may never come again."
Brom stared at his son intently, a mixture of pride and terror churning in his chest. Slowly, he slid his gaze back to Morzan. "You see no other way?" he asked pointedly. This was the offer, and Brom feared if they spurned it, there would be only hate and discontent in the wake of their decision.
Morzan nodded and reached out a hand, offering their most ancient symbol of peace and trust. "It ends the day my daughter and your son speak the words before the gods, all of it. I swear this on my forefathers."
Everyone stared at the king of Alagaësia expectantly, breath held in anticipation. This moment, this day... it would change the course of their history. Many of his people had known war for the vast majority of their lives; some of them, it was all they had ever witnessed, having been born amidst the chaos. Here now was his opportunity to end it all; all of the suffering and death, and the turmoil. Faced with all of that... Brom knew what he had to do.
With all the force that custom required, Brom grasped the outstretched forearm of his enemy for nigh on twenty years.
Shouts of acclamation rang out all around them. Men beat against shields with swords and wooden pikes, and the Orani drummers tapped out a quick cadence. Morzan turned to Eragon and clasped him on the shoulder.
"You've made a wise choice, boy. I shall be proud to name you my son," he proclaimed as his chest swelled. Eragon stood a few inches taller than the Orani king, so the effect was somewhat lost. But Eragon thanked him all the same and smiled, as his courtesies had taught him.
Brom released the truce hold, and placed his hand on Eragon's other shoulder, causing his son to look in his direction. "I have never been more proud of you, Eragon," he said quietly, so that the others would not hear. There was more he wished to say, but it could wait until they were secluded from the others.
Morzan stepped closer to them, jostled by the boisterous joviality of his men. "We shall come to the capital in a month's time," he said loudly, a smile upon his face. "This calls for a celebration. Perhaps a tournament and a feast?"
Brom nodded in response, but he felt his face still set in a stone-like mask. The entire royal retinue from Oran would be descending on Ilirea, but the finer details of the arrangement could be hammered out later. For now, Brom wanted nothing more than to leave this place and be alone. His head was swimming with everything that had just happened... but the thought that gave him the most dread was having to tell Selena.
Music was floating on the night air as the hull of his boat touched sand. It was a song he recognized well; a piece the court musicians pulled out whenever there was cause for celebration. He could recognize it because there had not been many occasions over the years for the players to perform it. A song seldom heard, and so well known.
Murtagh could not begin to think why the townsfolk of Narda were playing it now. Perhaps a wedding between two local youths, or the birth of a first child. Whatever the case may have been, it filled his heart with joy to be greeted with such happiness.
The journey across the sea had taken him two days, and the rationing of his food and wine had left him tired. As the waves pushed the small boat further onto the shore, he swung himself out onto the sand. Seawater and foam rushed around his boots, but he cared not. His feet were on the soil of his homeland once more, and a rush of emotion and exhaustion brought him to his knees.
Arms trembling as they supported him, Murtagh felt a sob wrench from his throat. A month ago, he thought he might never see Alagaësia again. Now here he was, returned to the land of his birth, yet yearning for the land of his enemies. It was more than his tired mind could comprehend or begin to deal with. After a few more moments, he sat back on his knees and stared up at the sky, willing his mind to cease its racing.
He began to name the constellations by way of distraction, digging through his memories to the lessons he'd once had with Master Jeod. They were the same constellations he had gazed upon during his time in Oran, yet it felt so far away. A few more moments passed before he found the strength to stand. He turned and retrieved the empty wineskin from the basket, as well as the filet knife. Tucking both into the belt of his trousers, he gave the boat a rough shove to free it from the shore. With any luck, the dinghy would be floating back out to see, well out of sight distance from the shore by the time the sun rose.
He could not yet know what Bronwyn spoke of, when she said the king was plotting something against his father. But until he figured it out, Murtagh was not quite ready for his miraculous return from the dead to become common knowledge yet. He would make his way back to Ilirea—an eight day trip from Narda—and pick up whatever bits and pieces he could along the way. Instinct told him that there was treachery brewing in his father's court, and he would do whatever he had to in order to ferret it out.
His heart ached for what he had left behind, but there was a possibility that his family was in danger. Murtagh needed to get back to them as quickly as possible. And to do that... he'd first need to steal a horse.
Chapter 15: Back From the Dead
Sunlight filtered through the window. Down in the yard, metal clashed against metal as the knights and freeriders practiced their craft. Somewhere, far off, a lark sang a simple tune, gaily flitting from tree to tree. Dull, aching throbbing pounded through her head, centralized on the lower left side of her jaw. The bruise that had formed there was turning a deep, blackish-purple. It had been almost a week since her father had bestowed it on her, yet it was more painful today than it had been the moment his fist had struck her. Ùna had nearly bitten his arm off, and for that, they both had been punished. Raina could hear her even now, whimpering in the dungeons where the king had kept her confined.
But up here in her tower, she was as free to move about as she ever had been. It was the fear that kept her firmly in place, paralyzed out of terror that her father would appear at any moment. There were times where she heard her father's wolf prowling the corridor outside her room, his massive paws falling on the stone floor and shaking her walls. She would sit by her window, holding her breath until she was sure he had gone. If her father meant to intimidate her, it was certainly working. It had gotten to the point where she found it difficult to sleep, so strong was the fear that the king or his wolf would come bursting in at any moment. There were nights when she didn't sleep at all. The days had begun to bleed together; her life had seemed so empty since that awful day on the shore.
Her father hadn't really understood what she'd been doing there, nor who the young man was that had escaped to the wide expanse of the sea. That did not abate his fury though, nor did it stay his hand. Even though he did not understand, it did not seem he cared to. He had beaten her without demanding anything in the way of explanation. Hideous, mottled bruises covered her body now, in every place she could fathom. Her ribs had taken the worst of the beating, and she had already had to heal two of them that had been cracked by his boot. But she was not strong enough to lessen all of her pain, only the worst of it. Seven days on, and her power had been completely spent. In a way, she supposed she was lucky; to have survived over seventeen years without feeling the force of his rage was almost a miracle in itself.
She could understand now, why her mother had finally died under such torture. The pain of existing would have been too much, on top of all the physical pain she had endured. Raina did not know how she did it. She herself was ready to give up after just one beating, and Ùna was not even here to encourage her, as she normally was. The distance that separated them now made their bond weak, and Raina wept for the loss of her company.
But most of all, she wept for the loss of Murtagh. Her heart clenched in her chest every time she thought of him, and brought the tears to her eyes, unbidden. The angry sobs that ripped their way out of her chest only caused her body to ache more than it already did, so she tried her best to keep the tears at bay. But they were unyielding in their assault, and the aching pain eventually gave way to dull numbness. The meals they brought sat untouched, and her throat burned with thirst... yet she would not move from her window-seat. Bridie did not say much to her, at Raina's behest; she never knew when one of her father's spies was lurking around.
On the eighth morning after she had watched Murtagh fade into the horizon, Bridie brought her a small breakfast of bread, beans, and two rashers of bacon. She gave it a small glance, sniffed slightly, and then turned back to look out the window. If she squinted hard enough, she could just make out the blue haze of the sea, and her heart ached at the thought.
"Please, mi'lady," Bridie whispered desperately, pushing the trencher a little closer to her, "ye must eat something. It's been over a week."
"I am not hungry," she replied stoically. Raina did not refuse her meals out of protest; her appetite had fled her, and she could not muster the energy to even try. She knew that it would quickly become a matter of necessity, but that thought did not sway her resolve.
"I'd guessed as much," her maid replied with a distinct amount of cheek. "But ye need to regain yer strength. That bruise on yer face... mi'lady, it's not gettin' any better."
Raina slid her dull gaze towards the younger girl, her voice hollow and devoid of inflection. "A fact which has not escaped my notice," she said acridly. Bridie straightened up and took a step back, clasping her hands at her waist and bowing her head slightly in a show of deference. Raina let a small sigh escape, wincing at the pain in her ribs. "I am sorry, Bridie," she continued quietly, feeling her shoulders fall as some tension left her. "I do not mean to be harsh with you. It's just—"
"Ye don't have to explain, mi'lady," she replied softly. "I'll leave ye now." Before Raina could offer any other paltry excuse, the little maid had scurried from the room and left her in silence once more. The resounding echo of her door falling shut boomed through her chest and rang in her ears, causing her to flinch. She stewed in the quiet, only her heartbeat for company.
A few hours later, a steward came to the door. Raina watched him move into the room absently, feeling a stirring within her chest but unable to force her body or face into any significant movement. The old man crossed the room at a clipped pace, clicking his heels when he stopped in front of her and bowing his head.
"Your Highness," he intoned quietly, "the king requires your presence immediately." Raina felt her blood turn to ice in her veins, and she sat there still as a stone. When the man made no move to speak further, she cleared her throat.
"I shall be there presently," she rasped, feeling her refusal to drink anything in earnest now. The steward inclined his head, clicked his heels once more, and turned to briskly walk out of her room. When he was gone, a great rush of air escaped her lungs, and Raina yelped at the sudden pain in her ribs. Hot tears slid down her cheeks, tracing their way down her chin and neck.
What could he possibly want from her now? Had his bloodlust not been sated? Was she to suffer evermore, as her mother had, at his hands?
Ùna, she cried pitifully, desperately fighting for her voice to be heard through hundreds of feet of solid, ancient stone.
I am here, young one, the whispered reply came after a few, tense moments. Her wolf's voice wobbled through the tenuous connection of their bond.
Raina choked down another sob, trapping it in her lungs and wincing with the pain. I do not know how much of this I can take, she sobbed, clutching at her chest.
Her wolf's voice was tender in her reply. You are strong, Raina. You are a sorceress, and a royal daughter bonded to a mighty direwolf. One such as yourself is not easily broken. Hold fast; the night is long, but the dawn is bright.
I feel so weak... I feel... so alone.
You are not alone, the wolf replied, firmer this time. I will lend you my strength, and my heart. If he tries to hurt you, remember that you are fierce. No man can sever our bond.
Raina found herself nodding slightly out of habit, and wiping away the residue her tears left on her cheeks. Thank you, she said quietly, bracing a hand against the stone wall to help herself to her feet. After so long without food, and minimal amounts of water, Raina found that her legs were weak, and her knees could barely support her slight weight.
Remember, Ùna said, I am with you. A rush of strength washed over Raina, spurring her to take a few steps forward. Her fear, rather than her weakness, made her hesitate at the door. But she knew it would only inflame her father if she kept him waiting, and so she grasped the knob and opened the only defense she had against the outside world.
The interior of the castle was eerily quiet that morning, more so than usual. It left Raina feeling uncomfortable, and she found herself glancing over her shoulder at every turn. Shadows crept in the corners, and it was impossible to distinguish the echo of her footsteps from the sounds of another. Whenever it sounded like someone was walking right behind her, Raina turned to find the hall empty. Where could everyone be?
When she arrived at the throne room, where she knew her father would be waiting, Raina inhaled a deep breath before gliding through the wide doors. Her spine remained straight, and her eyes stayed steadfastly forward, trying to maintain an air of pride and nobility. The façade was a stark contrast to how she felt on the inside. Everything felt as though it had turned to liquid; she was a tepid stream following the course that the earth had dictated for her.
Her father, for his part, looked the same as he always did: scowling and inhumanly cruel. He watched her as she floated across the marble floor, falling into a deep curtsy just before she reached the dais where he sat. If he wanted her to play the part of the simpering princess, then she would oblige for as long as she had to.
"Father," she breathed softly, keeping her eyes downcast at the floor.
The king was quiet for a long moment, seemingly inspecting her. Raina had bound her hair in a twist at the nape of her neck, so the ugly mark that marred her jaw was plain for all to see. This small act of defiance had not escaped the king's notice. He usually took such care not to leave any trace in a spot which might be visible; it seemed his fury had made him abandon any discretion he might once have possessed.
"They tell me you have not been eating," came the cold response.
Raina had to take a moment to compose herself; it was the last thing she'd expected to hear. Since when did her father care if she went hungry or not? And what did that have to do with his reason for summoning her here?
Without lifting her eyes, Raina replied, "I find my appetite to be absent, of late. How may I serve you, Your Majesty?" She needed to shift his attention back on himself, as it so often was. That was the best way to make sure his wrath remained subdued.
Morzan huffed a small laugh, his mouth twisting in a mockery of a smile. He leaned forward upon his throne, elbows resting on his knees as he inspected his daughter. To her credit, Raina maintained her obeisance and did not dare to look up.
"They also tell me you have not attempted to leave your room. Why?" The inquisition came at her quickly, but Raina did not sway. She did not try to divine who "they" might be, only minced her words as carefully as she could.
"What would that serve, Your Majesty?" she questioned innocently, tilting her head ever so slightly.
"Who was the boy on the beach?" At this, her head snapped up and she fixed him with as hard a stare as she could manage. Her jaw clenched painfully, but it was the only way she could manage not to scream at him. "What?" he said incredulously when she made no move to answer. "You think I never noticed that you snuck out of the castle at all hours of the day and night? Did you think you were fooling anyone when you would disappear for days at a time? Why did you conceal him from me? Who is he!" As the onslaught of questions continued, the volume of the king's voice increased to such a level that Raina's ears began to ring. Much to her own shame, she found herself cowering now.
"Stop it!" she screamed, slapping her hands over her ears and squeezing her eyes shut. A strange buzzing filled the hollow space in her chest where her heart used to be. It felt like it did when she used her magic, but... different somehow. As though she might be ripped apart at the seams at any moment, and be born anew amidst the flame and the smoke.
Blessedly, her father had ceased his tirade and was just staring at her in stunned silence. She had never raised her voice to him before, ever. When she chanced a look up at him, she was shocked to find that there was no anger in his eyes. It was a look she could not rightly place, nor did she have any desire to. This meeting had already gone on too long.
"Speak what you will, and then let me be," she sobbed angrily, bracing her hands on the floor. A few tendrils of golden hair fell into her eyes, but she did not possess the strength to even swat them away.
The king pressed his mouth into a thin line and drew his brows together. "You will eat the meals that are provided," he seethed, sounding for all the world like a serpent poised to strike. "I need you healthy and glowing. We'll be taking a journey in two weeks' time."
Raina could feel the question written on her face. "What journey?" she asked weakly, her voice no more than a breath of wind.
"To Alagaësia," Morzan replied simply. "You are to wed the king's son and heir, and unite our two countries under a banner of peace."
His words fell like a hammer upon the anvil of her heart, rendering her motionless. Breath would not come to her lungs; words would not come to her lips; thoughts would not enter her mind. She blinked a few times to clear the fog, wondering if she'd heard him correctly. The king's son and heir... That could only be Prince Eragon... Murtagh's half-brother.
Raina thought she was going to be sick.
"I-I'm... to... to what?" she stammered out stupidly.
"Prince Eragon has so graciously agreed to take you for his bride," Morzan explained, slower this time, and confirming what she'd already surmised. "You should see this as an honor. Considering you have so clearly lost yours, count your blessings. You could do far worse."
"An honor," she repeated. It was not a question. "An honor to be sold like a pig for the slaughter? Like chattel at auction?!" Her fury rose up from deep within her, sudden and swift and unrelenting. Her palms grew slick with sweat, and her hands began to tremble.
"A woman has no rights in regards to her marriage," Morzan said, aiming to demean her. "I am not asking your permission. You will do as I say."
Before she knew it, Raina was on her feet, and her fists lay clenched at her sides. Slowly, she stepped towards the dais, feeling more fearsome than she was certain she looked. "Do you have so little regard for me, Father?" she spat derisively. "That you would sell me to your enemies like... like some common whore?!"
Her father stood from his throne quickly, gripping the ends of the armrests with terrifying force. "You slip through the shadows to fritter yourself away to a stranger; to treat you like a tavern slut would be more than you deserve!"
The words didn't sting as much as the slap did. It landed right on the bruise along her jaw, sending shockwaves of pain through her skull and spine. The metallic tang of blood filled her mouth as she grit her teeth against the agony in her jaw. The blow knocked her backwards so that she lay sprawled across the polished white floors, dripping crimson from her mouth to mar the snow-like surface. Her elbows ached painfully from the force of the impact. Raina spat a glob of blood onto the floor, wiping at her face with her sleeve. When she turned back to face her father, white hot fury painted her face.
"Yes, Father," she hissed, slowly pushing herself up off the floor, "try to beat me into submission as you did my mother. Torture and terrify me because it's the only thing you know how to do. You broke her, but you will not break me! I will not obey you in this!"
The king of Oran was standing over her in an instant, so fast she didn't even see. His calloused hand wrapped around her throat, gripping painfully and cutting off her air. She grappled at his fingers, trying to prise them away. But his grip was like iron, crushing and intense. A deep and all-consuming panic took hold of her senses. Her feet kicked out, aiming to catch him in the shin, but she was still too weak from days of fasting. The longer he held her there, pinned to the floor, the more her lungs began to burn.
"You do not have any choice in the matter," he growled, eyes flaming with what she could only assume was hatred. But her vision was going black at the edges, and it was hard to tell. A high keening, like a woman's mournful wail, was the only sound she could hear now. Finally, after a few more, agonizing moments, he released her.
A rush of air cascaded into her lungs, and she found herself gasping to swallow as much as she could. Her throat constricted painfully, and already she could feel the bruises forming on her neck from where his fingers had gripped her tight. Against her will, she found herself coughing and doubled over from the pain of doing so. And as her breathing slowly returned to normal, she could hear Ùna's voice screaming for her.
"The bargain is struck," Morzan continued, standing upright and straightening his black surcoat. "We sail for Alagaësia in a fortnight, whether you are willing or not. Prepare yourself, and cooperate. I need you looking pretty, so if you do not obey... the punishment will fall on your wolf to bear. Is that understood?"
Raina shot him a hateful glare but did not respond. She had already shamed herself by allowing tears to fall in front of him, she would not fall so low as to bend to his will. But for Ùna's sake, she would go along with this farce. As soon as a moment presented itself, she would find a way out of this arrangement. Her heart ached at the thought of what she faced. Betrothed to the brother of the man she loved, not knowing if that man was alive and well. It felt as though all the gods were playing a terrible, cruel joke on her. She need only decide whether she would fold under the unfairness of it all, or rise to meet the challenge head on.
Twelve days had passed before Murtagh stumbled upon the road to Ilirea. He'd left his stolen mount back in Teirm, thinking it too risky. In truth, he hadn't been expecting it for at least another few days. His experience with traveling the Alagaësian countryside on foot was limited, and he had expected the distance from Woadark Lake and the road that connected Gil'ead to the capital to be much larger than it had been. But as soon as he stepped foot on that road, it felt like a thread within his heart began to thrum, as though someone had plucked a harp string. He could feel home was near, and his soul began to sing at the thought.
He traveled on through the night, stopping only to relieve himself and fill his wineskin from whatever freshwater stream he might happen upon. In the middle of the night, his path did not cross with another living soul. It was right in the midst of Harvest, so he did not expect to see anyone travelling the roads yet. The farmers would be too busy reaping what they had sown in the spring, preparing to take it all to market in the next few weeks. What little information he'd picked up in the towns told him that there was to be a tourney in a fortnight, in the capital. The traders and artisans were busy making and gathering their wares to flock to the capital. Anyone that could make the journey would be there.
Murtagh wondered what had possessed his father to host a tourney. Aside from the enormous cost of such an affair, Murtagh knew his father detested the crowds and fanfare that a tourney required. At his heart, King Brom was a solitary man. If he was organizing an event that would bring hundreds upon thousands of travelers to the capital city, Murtagh knew that something important had happened. But he could not begin to imagine the magnitude of what that something was.
By the time he crossed the lowest reaches of the Ramr River, the sun was painting the clouds a bright pink and vivid orange. Exhaustion swept over him, but the thought of being so close to home spurred him onward. If he stopped now, he might never make it there. The road began to crest over a knoll and Murtagh caught a glimpse of the King's Tower, a soaring edifice of granite and marble, and the tallest structure in the whole of the city. A flash of sunlight flared against the polished surface, like a shining beacon guiding him back.
The wheat fields that surrounded the city were at their tallest, ripe for reaping. He remembered how he used to explore the fields as a child, hiding amongst the stalks and waiting to see how long it would take his father to find him. How the years had shaped and changed him... But not just the years; it was more than that now. A part of him felt that he really had died upon the sea, purified and tempered by the flames that had miraculously burned around him and left him untouched. Yet it was the love of a woman that had refined him to become the man he was now.
For years, Ilirea had felt like his own personal prison; a place meant to confine and torture him. Now he gazed upon it with new eyes, seeing the abundance of opportunities that lay before him. Of course he wanted to return to his father, and he hoped beyond anything that Thorn would be there waiting for him. Not a day had gone by that he had not ached for the company of his wolf. But at the heart of his yearning, he desired above all else to find a way to repair the rift between Alagaësia and Oran. If he could accomplish that, then it would be a simple matter of freeing Bronwyn of whatever shackles kept her bound to her homeland.
As he drew closer, and the land began to flatten out, Murtagh suddenly saw a great host laid out before him. Thousands of tents were positioned all along the city walls, grouped together by their banners. At first glance, he picked out three of the clan sigils on cloth pennants, their long tails whipping in the slight wind that blew in from the east. By the sheer number of men milling about the camp in the early morning hours, he had to assume that each of the clans was present, bringing with them a few hundred of their strongest warriors. Murtagh supposed they had gathered in anticipation of the tourney. But what was great enough to bring all the clans together? By his reckoning, such a thing hadn't happened in nearly a decade.
When he was half a league from the city gates, a familiar pull began tugging at the deepest part of him. The tips of his fingers began to tingle with numbness, and Murtagh could feel the hairs on the back on his neck standing straight up.
Thorn! he called out with his mind, grasping at the faint tendrils of their bond. Thorn, I'm here! The tingling became stronger, and he could feel a wispy presence at the other end of the connection. His pulse began to race from excitement, and he suddenly found himself running, kicking up a cloud of dust. The distance between him and the gate shrank to almost nothing.
He was nearly upon the raised portcullis before a guard on the battlements caught sight of him. The man shouted a wordless cry, but Murtagh was already past the wall and barreling down the nearest street. A great ruckus of several hundred men rousing at the first sign of danger rose up behind him, but he paid them no mind. There was no time to stop now. At the top of the hill, the citadel rose up above the city; he was nearly there.
The city gates were unguarded from sunrise to dusk, but the citadel... that would be another matter entirely. It was never undefended, and Murtagh had no way of knowing if the man at the gate would recognize him. He supposed he would just have to take his chances. As he slowed his frenzied pace to a brisk walk, the soldier on post noticed his approach. When he realized Murtagh had no intention of stopping, the man stepped forward, his lance held slightly forward.
"Oy, you there!" he called, extending his arm out in front of them. "Stop! I said stop!"
Murtagh swallowed a groan and eventually came to a halt, angling himself away from the man. "Let me pass," he said forcefully, trying to see around the man into the stone courtyard beyond. "I have urgent business with the king."
"What business is that?" the soldier questioned.
"Tell him... " Murtagh hesitated for a split second, took a deep breath, and mustered his courage. "Tell him his son wishes to see him."
The solider looked him up and down, iron helm slipping down on his forehead. When his scrutinizing gaze fell back on his face, Murtagh matched him with steel of his own. He had not traveled leagues across land and sea to be stopped at the gate.
"You're not the prince," the soldier stated plainly, tightening his grip on his lance.
Murtagh tried to restrain his sigh, but failed in the attempt. "His other son," he drawled slowly.
"The Bastard of Ilirea is dead," the soldier snapped. "What rock have you been living under?" Murtagh tried not to laugh at the irony of the question.
"As you can see for yourself," he began simply, "I am very much alive. Fetch the king; he will verify the truth of my words."
"I'm not sure if you've noticed, but there's a whole host of clansmen currently barracking outside the city. His Majesty has more important matters to occupy his time. Now be gone with you! I won't have rabble hanging at the gates!" The soldier turned to go back to his post, and Murtagh saw his opportunity to slip past the guard. But the man was too quick, and grabbed him by the collar of his tunic.
"Just let me pass!" Murtagh cried out, struggling against the man's surprising strength. "I need to see the king!"
"What's going on here!" a voice suddenly boomed from within the courtyard. Murtagh stilled in his struggle at the familiar tone; it was a voice he'd heard nearly every day in his youth. Even now, that voice set him into a loose semblance of a fighting stance. Jörmundur appeared from behind one of the stone columns that supported the gate arch, face as stern as ever. The guard straightened up and gave a flimsy salute; even he knew the king's Master-At-Arms was not a man to be trifled with.
"Sir," Murtagh said plainly, setting his resolve. The burly man had been looking at the guard incredulously, but when Murtagh spoke, he went still and slack-jawed.
"Gods above and below," he cursed quietly, placing the index and middle finger of his right hand in the middle of his forehead, a ritual of protection. The guard, for his part, stared between the two other men in utter confusion. After a few minutes of stunned silence, Jörmundur regained his composure and found his voice. "Y-you... you died... I saw you dead!"
Murtagh was suddenly overcome with unease. He swallowed a lump in his throat before nodding slightly. "I don't... remember what happened. But, as you can see, I am not dead. Please, Jörmundur, take me to my father."
"How can this be?" he muttered, confusion plain on his face. "You died... we attended your funeral... I watched you burn."
"Please," Murtagh repeated softly, but still firm. There was no time for this!
Slowly, he held forward his hand, trying to show that he was not some specter come to haunt them. Jörmundur hesitated slightly before reaching out and touching his outstretched hand. When it seemed he was satisfied that he wasn't suffering some kind of hallucination, the Master-At-Arms released a pent up breath. He suddenly pulled the younger man into a rough embrace, clapping him on the back. "Thanks be to Bera," he exclaimed. "She has delivered you from death and returned you home!"
Murtagh returned the embrace in earnest before drawing away. "I must speak with my father right away, Jörmundur. Where is he?"
Jörmundur rubbed absently at the back of his neck. "Much has changed in your absence, boy. The clans have gathered; they'll be meeting in the Great Hall to break their fast any moment now."
Whatever Jörmundur meant, Murtagh knew he would soon find out. But right now... right now, he needed to see his father. He nodded sharply at the older man and then stalked past the utterly dumbfounded guard. Jörmundur followed close behind him as they entered the citadel, covering his flank. Those who paid them any mind usually were so shocked at the sudden reappearance of a dead man that they ceased whatever activity they'd been in the midst of. A few tried to approach him, but Jörmundur was adept at redirecting them.
As they moved further into the citadel, the force of the bond grew ever stronger, but Thorn had yet to respond to his exclamations. Murtagh guessed he might still be sleeping, but the wolf would awaken soon. After he'd seen his father, he would seek out his companion, a reunion he'd imagined a thousand times over these past weeks.
Within a few minutes, they stood before the shut oak doors of the Great Hall. He could hear many voices murmuring on the other side, along with the clank of utensils against plates and goblets being placed down on the table. Murtagh drew in a deep breath as Jörmundur clapped him on the shoulder in reassurance. This nervousness was strange to him, but Murtagh quickly stamped it out. His father would be elated to see him... wouldn't he?
The time for trepidation was over. Murtagh placed a hand on either of the doors and pushed them open simultaneously. As the doors swung inward, their iron hinges squealed in protest at the sudden push. The sound rang into the rafters of the hall, and every eye was drawn to the entrance. Voices fell silent, and all movement ceased in anticipation of who this visitor might be. The only sound Murtagh could hear was the pounding of his own blood in his ears.
Most of the people gathered round the table, he had never met before. They stared at him in equal parts disgust and wonderment; he didn't imagine he looked—or smelled, for that matter—too appealing. After almost two weeks travelling through the wilderness, he was certain he looked like some bedraggled urchin, come to beg the king's favor.
A glass shattered against the floor at the same moment a chair scraped across it. Only a few of the people at the table stayed staring at Murtagh. The rest turned their attention on the queen where she now stood next to the head seat. But Selena... her fiery gaze was trained solely on the ghost before her.
"Demon," she rasped in terror, gaining her more than a few confused looks. Murtagh noticed her hands were trembling, the first time he could ever recall having seen such a thing.
When a smaller door at the other end of the hall swung open, almost every pair of eyes shifted to the form that now strolled towards the packed table, attention focused on a rolled parchment he held in his hands. Murtagh saw that the only gaze that remained on him belonged to a young woman whose skin resembled polished ebony, and whose eyes seeped with warmth. He stared at her for a split second before his father spoke.
"Are we all prepared for today's—?"
"Brom," Selena snapped viciously, drawing her husband's gaze away from his parchment and up to her face. When he saw the utter terror in her eyes, his entire demeanor changed.
"What is it?" he asked darkly. "What's happened?"
"Father?" Murtagh croaked weakly, feeling as though his legs were about to give way beneath him. Finally, the king looked his way, brow knitted together in consternation. His parchment floated to the floor, completely forgotten. Opposite from his mother, Eragon slowly stood from his chair as well, mouth hanging slightly agape.
"What is the meaning of this?" a dark-haired man Murtagh did not recognize spoke up. But the king paid him no mind.
Slowly, he began to walk the long length of the table, coming towards Murtagh where he still stood in the doorway. He could not find the strength to move, so he just continued to watch his father walk towards him. It seemed he could not breathe, nor speak. When his father finally reached him, he stopped just close enough to reach out and touch him.
A hand touched his face, then his shoulder and down his arm. All the while, he watched as every fathomable emotion flashed across his father's face. Confusion, fear, utter disbelief... and then, finally, joy. Tears brimmed in his eyes, but a smile made its way to his lips.
"How can this be?" he questioned in a breathy whisper. "What cruel trick is this?"
Murtagh finally found his voice, fighting through the layers of pain and relief. "It is no trick," he explained calmly. "I am here... I am alive."
"No," the king refuted, shaking his head sadly, "I saw you. I placed my hand upon your chest and felt your heart had stilled. We set you upon the sea... your body burned... This is not possible."
Slowly, Murtagh reached into the pocket of his breeches and drew out the token he'd kept there, the only thing he knew would convince his father that he was real. The silver amulet shone brightly in the morning sunlight, reflecting upon the king's face. He gazed down at the amulet in wonder, timidly reaching for it and stroking the raised seal of the royal house that decorated the face.
"I was spared from the flames," Murtagh continued, looking down at the amulet as well. "It was poison... a poison whose effects mimic death." A dark shadow fell across his father's face, and when he looked back up at Murtagh, he could see the self-condemnation written in his eyes.
"Alive... the whole time... " A tortured sob escaped the king's throat, the force of it bringing him to his knees. Murtagh dropped to the floor as well, wrapping his arms around his father's shoulders and fighting back his own tears. He did not blame his father. How could he? There was no way they could have known...
"It's alright," he said soothingly. "It's alright... I'm here now..."
Behind them, Jörmundur cleared his throat and spoke in a low voice. "Your Majesty," he began quietly, "I think it might be best to postpone today's proceedings. The boy needs a hot meal and an even hotter bath. There will be time..."
Brom nodded and then wobbled to his feet, drawing Murtagh up with him. Selena had not torn her gaze away from them the entire time, that same look of horror plastered upon her face. The two men began to walk past the table, back towards the smaller door from whence the king had come.
As they passed by, a striking woman with pin-straight, raven-black hair shot out of her seat. "Your Majesty," she said sharply, green eyes glinting, "I implore you to explain the meaning of this."
Brom stopped and stared at her dimly. "Lady Islanzadí... There will be time for explanations. I apologize, to each of you, for this interruption. We will reconvene at supper." That did not seem to satisfy the woman, but the king didn't seem to care all that much. He continued his trek across the hall, and Murtagh remained quiet.
Eragon stalked towards them, an unreadable expression on his face. Murtagh shot him a glance, but said nothing, and Eragon only followed behind them through the door to the antechamber. The clicking of heels against stone told Murtagh that Selena would be following them as well, much to his dismay. His time across the sea had not softened his heart towards his step-mother in any way. He made a point of ignoring her and followed beside his father as they made their way to his study, mentally preparing himself for the conversation that was to come.
Chapter 16: Shifting Winds
It was an eerie feeling, trekking through the castle corridors as everyone stared at him in abject horror. Several of the servants that passed them by, after catching sight of him, made the traditional sign of protection—two fingers raised to their lips, and then brushed across the forehead—before scurrying off. He couldn't imagine how confusing this was for them. In his mind, he'd only been away from home for a few months; albeit he was mortally wounded and stranded in an enemy country. But to everyone here, who had seen him grow from a boy into a young man, he'd apparently met a grisly fate at the end of an Orani blade.
For the first time in his life, he felt like a stranger in the place he'd once called home. In a way, he supposed this wasn't truly his home anymore. He'd left his heart in a fishing hut on the shore, back in Oran. Memories flashed before his eyes as he walked, causing him to stagger slightly under the force of the emotion they carried. His father placed a tentative, steadying hand on his arm, still a little unsure if what he saw was truly real. Murtagh looked at him and offered a reassuring nod, continuing on down the hall as if nothing had happened.
After a short, silent walk, the four of them entered the king's study one-by-one. Murtagh looked quickly around the spacious room, taking a small bit of comfort in the fact that it was not much changed. Many a day he had spent here, conversing with his father and learning about military tactics and strategies. As the king's bastard, he'd never be expected to rule; but he could certainly learn to lead armies. And as it turned out, he'd had quite a knack for it. Unfortunately for him, he'd not yet been ready, and his superiors had not listened to him.
In his days travelling through the wilderness, the haze that had surrounded his memories of that night had begun to lift. He remembered the encampment in the mountains, and he remembered that he'd felt uneasy about their position that night. He'd even remembered portions of the battle after the Orani had revealed themselves... But the exact circumstances of how he'd received his poisoned wound were still a mystery to him. In truth, Murtagh supposed it didn't really matter; none of it did. He was alive, and he'd returned to his family.
Much as he had guessed, Murtagh's sword had been mounted over the fireplace in his father's study. He stood before it now, gazing up at the memorial in morbid fascination. Behind him, the others stood in silence, waiting and watching as he gazed at his own weapon. A part of himself told him to reach up and take the sword down... But there would be time for that later. Right now, there were questions that needed answering.
Slowly, Murtagh turned away from the empty hearth and gazed in turn at the three sets of eyes trained on him. His father seemed unable to contain his joy; Eragon, for his part, was maintaining a mask of consternation; Selena, however, had clearly been a poor student in concealing her emotions. Her eyes blazed with fury, even as her hands worked furiously at the red silk sash about her waist. Brom motioned for him to sit, and so he moved across the room and took up one of the leather chairs. Eragon was the next to sit, quickly followed by his parents.
A few moments of awkward silence passed, until Murtagh drew in a deep breath and said, "Where to begin?" It was meant to be lighthearted, but he could see that it fell flat.
Finally, it was Eragon that spoke. "Your wound..." he muttered carefully. "It was... poisoned?"
Murtagh nodded by way of confirmation. "The poison of the spine fish," he clarified. "It's a paralytic; slows the heart to an imperceptible rate to mimic death. A favorite of the Orani raiders, I'm told."
"By whom?" Brom questioned. "How is it you were saved from this poison?"
Heaving a sigh, Murtagh stared down at his dirty hands where they fiddled in his lap. There was so much he needed to tell, but some of it, he did not want to. Yet after everything he'd gone through, it seemed dishonorable to lie to his father.
"I do not remember the wound that was dealt me," he began slowly, looking up at each of them, "and I cannot remember anything between then and the day that I awoke to find myself in Oran. As best I can tell, the day you set me upon the sea, there was a rainstorm. It doused the flames, and the winds carried me across the waters. Though the poison still affected me, I was found by... by a young woman. She took pity on me, and nursed me back to health."
"You've been in Oran this entire time?" Eragon asked, utterly stunned.
"How did you survive?" the king said, leaning forward in his seat.
"The girl," Murtagh answered. "She concealed me from the king's men, and brought me food to eat. When the time came that she could conceal me no longer, she was able to steal a boat and that's how I came to return."
"Incredible," Brom muttered.
"Who was this girl?" Selena said darkly, blue eyes narrowing at him.
Something in her tone gave him reason to pause for a moment. It shouldn't matter who she was, should it? He looked back and forth between Selena and his father, trying to gauge how best to proceed. Finally, he said, "She's an Orani girl, training to be a healer. Contrary to what we all might think... not all of the Orani are bad people." On this last statement, he could not help the bite that entered his voice.
"No one ever said they were, son," Brom cut in gently.
"What is her name?" Selena demanded sharply. Eragon and Brom both shot her a questioning gaze, but neither of them said anything.
Without any support, Murtagh had no choice but to answer her, though he still could not fathom why it mattered to Selena. "Her name is Bronwyn," he said quietly, gazing at her suspiciously. As his father looked away from her, a look as though she'd just seen a spectre passed over Selena's face. But if Murtagh had the desire to question her further, the opportunity passed him by.
"There's something I think you should know, Murtagh," Brom continued, seemingly trying to ignore his wife's strange behavior.
"Does it have anything to do with why all the Clan leaders are gathered?" Murtagh shifted in his seat, suddenly becoming anxious.
Brom nodded, eyes flicking over to Eragon quickly and then back to Murtagh. "And it has to do with Oran."
Murtagh's heart began to beat faster, thinking of the last time he'd been on that foreign land. He could almost see her face now, so full of fear and worry for him. Dwelling on all the sacrifices she'd made for him—she likely would have been killed if they'd been discovered, and for all he knew, she had been—he could never forget that. His gut told him she was alive, but in trouble; whatever the cost, the burning in his heart told him he had to help her.
"Father, I wish to discuss the issues with Oran," he suddenly blurted out. Brom seemed taken aback, as did Eragon. But Selena just continued to stare at him unflinchingly, as she always did. "It is my heartfelt belief that peace is possible with them. The things I witnessed while I was there... the people are suffering. There is hardly any food to eat, and Morzan rules over them cruelly. It does not seem right, that we isolate ourselves while there are innocent people in anguish—"
"Murtagh," Brom cut in, not unkindly. "There is no need to sermonize. Your brother and I share your belief." He looked between his two sons, a certain fondness in his gaze.
Stunned into silence, Murtagh could only stare back until he found his voice once more. "Wh-what... what do you mean?"
"A little over a week ago," Eragon explained, "we met with the Orani king upon Sharktooth Island. Morzan has sued for peace, and so peace has been achieved. There will be no more blockade, and there will be no more raids... The war is over."
Peace? Murtagh thought to himself. He hadn't dreamed it possible. That his father would set aside his pride and come to terms with the man who had so wronged him... It was almost unimaginable. "But how?" he questioned, feeling his brow furrow tightly.
Brom looked at his youngest son, even as he spoke to Murtagh. "Your brother has consented to wed the king's daughter, Princess of Oran. Their union will bring peace to our two nations."
Involuntarily, Murtagh's mouth dropped open and hung agape in shock. Until today, he had not even been aware that the king had a daughter, let alone one of an age to marry. He looked to his brother, who only stared back at him impassively. "M-marriage?" he stammered. "You're getting married?"
"Your congratulations are overwhelming," Eragon replied dryly, but with a small smirk. "Yes, the princess and all the rest of the royal snobs will arrive in a fortnight. There's to be a glorious tournament and feast... hence, the Clan leaders."
Dread filled his chest as he recalled Bronwyn's warning. I do not know his plan, but it is not what it seems. You must warn your father... I heard something I should not have... He could not know what she meant by this when she first spoke it, but the picture was becoming a little clearer now. This offer of peace through marriage... it stank of treachery.
Murtagh's gaze found Selena's, her icy blue eyes cutting through him like a knife. For years, he'd spent his life avoiding her and her insidious meddling... But no more. Her reaction upon seeing him alive; the obnoxious interest in the girl who had saved his life; her uncharacteristic impassivity about a matter that dealt with her precious son... Whatever the king of Oran was planning, Murtagh was willing to bet that Selena had something to do with it.
He would need to discuss this with his father, but not while she lurked about. It could wait a few more days, until he got him alone. So for now, he stood from his chair and allowed a wide, beaming smile to come to his face. He walked over to his brother, who likewise stood up, and wrapped him in an embrace.
"My little brother," he joked, "finally become a man. I am happy for you, Eragon, truly. This is a monumental step towards a better future for our two countries. You will be hailed as the hero who made it all possible."
"Well," Brom interjected lightly, "I did have a little input."
Eragon bellowed out a laugh. "You were staunchly against the idea, Father. Don't lie to a man so recently back from the dead; fairly certain that's some type of sin."
Brom returned his son's laughter and came over to stand by them. He placed a hand on each of their shoulders, looking back and forth between the two. "I never thought to see this ever again," he whispered, choking back the tears Murtagh could see gathering in his eyes. "It is truly a miracle."
"We're happy to have you back," Eragon added, clapping him on the shoulder. Murtagh could feel Selena's gaze still trained on him, and couldn't help thinking that not everyone was happy to see him. "Come with me," his brother continued, "there's someone who'll be wanting to see you."
"After that," Brom added, "get yourself cleaned up and rested. We'll talk more later."
Murtagh nodded his assent and followed his brother from the study, feeling Selena's eyes follow him the entire way. When they were out in the corridor, and the door closed behind them, Murtagh felt he could breathe a bit easier. The atmosphere in that room had been stifling. And once more, he could feel that buzzing in his chest, the one he had not felt for so long, and had sorely missed.
Thorn, where are you? he called out with his mind. It seemed there was a slight tug on the bond, but he could not be sure if that was his own excitement. Eragon walked ahead of him through the corridors, weaving around servants as he went. They made their way down into the yard, and crossed it quickly. Murtagh kept his head bowed, trying to conceal his face from the men who were most likely to recognize him. There would be time enough for reunions later.
They passed the stables and the forge, and walked down through the armory to enter the kennels. The closer they got, the more insistent the tugging in his chest became. Eragon stopped at the gate and turned to his brother. "Ever since you... Well, he's been down here, all alone."
Murtagh looked past him through the gate, wincing against the sharp sound of the dogs' yelping. And there, at the very end of the row, curled into a ball and fast asleep, was his wolf.
"Thorn!" he suddenly shouted, unable to contain his excitement any longer. If the voice of his heart was not enough to rouse him, then his own voice would have to do instead. At his cry, Thorn's huge head shot up, his ears perked forward and red eyes opened wide.
Murtagh broke into a run, forgetting his exhaustion for the briefest moment. Thorn bounded to his feet and vaulted towards him, tackling him swiftly and rolling overtop, whimpering all the while.
Murtagh! his voice finally came, desperate and exhausted and overjoyed, all at the same time. You're alive!
He buried his face in the wolf's fur, embracing his neck tightly. Oh, I have missed you, Murtagh said, unable to help the tears that flowed down his face. Since he'd been gone, he'd felt so empty inside; it was like nothing he'd ever experienced before. To go so long with another soul bonded to your own, and then to suddenly be without it... it felt as if he really had died, in a way.
How is this possible? he asked as he licked at Murtagh's face furiously. I felt the bond snap; you were dead!
Murtagh laughed as he pushed his wolf's head away to cease his licking. I cannot explain it anymore than you can, my friend. But why did you not answer me upon my return? I could feel you, but it was like you could not hear me.
Indeed, I could not. He nudged Murtagh roughly with his snout, nearly knocking him over. Until you entered the kennels, I had not even caught your scent. Though you are very dirty...
Murtagh laughed and rubbed his wolf between the ears, pressing his forehead against Thorn's muzzle. Friend-of-my-heart, he said softly, I promise I'll never leave you again.
You do not have a choice, little one. Of that, I can promise you. Thorn gave him one last, gigantic lick on the face for good measure before jumping around him and yapping gleefully. In the presence of their natural alpha, the hounds had quietened down, for which Murtagh was thankful. Thorn's own whimpering was loud enough as it was.
"It is good to see him so restored," Eragon said from where he still stood by the gate. "He was never the same after you were gone."
"Nor was I, now that I think on it," Murtagh replied, watching Thorn circle him playfully. "While I knew happiness... it was not quite the same without him near."
"Knew happiness?" Eragon said with a chuckle. He leaned against the stone post, arms crossed over his chest. "You were stranded in a foreign country, surrounded by your enemies. What was there to be happy about?" Thorn rubbed up against Murtagh's side, and he patted him lightly on the neck. Without saying a word, he gave his brother a knowing look. "Oh," Eragon said lightly with a wry smirk, pushing away from the post, "so I see your savior healed you in more ways than one."
Murtagh huffed out a laugh and looked down at the dirt floor, willing the warmth in his face to disappear. "You could say that," he muttered. Thorn gave a sort of growl-bark as he suddenly understood, and Eragon only laughed at him.
"Now I understand why you wished to talk to Father about Oran..."
Murtagh looked back at his brother, jaw set and mouth pressed into a thin line. "She was more than just a small comfort, Eragon," he explained, a little more defensively than was probably necessary. "Bronwyn risked much to help me; she saved my life and it got her captured. It is a debt I will never be able to repay, but I must try." A pang of guilt shot through his chest as he remembered seeing her taken by the soldiers, completely helpless to stop them.
His brother looked at him carefully, without judgement. It was not a look Murtagh was used to seeing from him, and he wondered if Eragon had changed in his absence. Finally, he said, "You really love this girl, don't you?"
Thorn whimpered pitifully and sent him questioning feelings. This was something new for the both of them, and a foreign feeling for a wolf. Murtagh rubbed at his ear lovingly. "It doesn't seem possible," he said quietly. "To love someone when you hardly know them... Yet when I think of her, trapped in that place... She told me her father beat her mother to death, and I know she didn't tell me everything of the things she suffered. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try. It pains me to think I might never see her again."
Eragon was silent for a long while, seeming to be wrestling with himself. But when he did finally speak again, Murtagh was shocked at the man who stood before him. Gone was the boy he'd once known; a future king stood in his place.
"I cannot pretend to understand how you feel," he began slowly, "but I see that you are convicted. After the ceremony, I will arrange safe passage for you back to Oran. You must bring your woman back here; I'd like to thank her myself for taking such good care of you."
Murtagh took a few steps towards his brother. "You truly mean it?"
Eragon nodded seriously, and Murtagh could not help the emotion that washed over him. He closed the distance between them and wrapped his younger brother in a tight embrace. "Thank you, Brother."
Gently, Eragon clapped Murtagh on the shoulder and pulled away. "Think of it as my way of making amends," he said with a laugh, trying to lighten the serious mood. Murtagh made to question him, but Eragon intercepted before he could. "Let us not pretend that we have ever been close, Murtagh. I have never been kind to you, and for that I can never apologize enough. I'm ashamed it took me believing you dead to realize it, but I will do what I can with the gift I've been given. If you'll consent... I'd like to ask you to be my Second."
If he hadn't already been shocked more than once that day, Murtagh was afraid he might have fallen over. It was the absolute last thing he'd expected to come out of his brother's mouth. As the King's Second, the man that held the position was the most powerful person in the kingdom below the king. It was an honor to be asked, as much as it was a great responsibility. His father's Second was Master Jeod, and Murtagh had seen how people admired and respected him for it... the thought of that being a possibility for him, after the life he'd led up until this point...
It was overwhelming. He pulled his younger brother in for another tight embrace, unsure whether he wanted to laugh or shout for joy. "You do me a great honor," he said as he stepped back. "I will accept."
This seemed to please Eragon, for his face broke into a wide smile. "Excellent," he exclaimed, "it's settled then. After the tourney and the wedding, we'll discuss this more. For now... we're all just happy to have you back, Murtagh, truly. I did not realize..." Eragon suddenly stopped, seemingly unsure of how to explain himself.
But Murtagh had a keen intuition, and he understood the look on his brother's face. "What's done is done," he said solemnly, placing a clenched fist over his chest in a sign of respect. "You are my brother, Eragon, and I would never harbor any ill will against you for the actions of another. The future is bright, and we will face it together."
Chapter 17: Journies of Fate
Raina had never truly understood how vast the sea was until that moment. With her arms braced against the railing and her blonde hair whipping about her face wildly, there seemed to be nothing but an endless expanse of dark blue and grey before her eyes. Clouds rolled overhead from the east, bringing with them the threat of a storm. What an ironic end that would be; to perish upon the sea before her treachery was discovered.
You are too morbid for one so young, Ùna said softly, nudging against her shoulder. The wolf swayed slightly on her paws, balancing against the roll of the waves.
It's what I deserve, Raina replied humorlessly.
Enough of that, the wolf snapped, clicking her teeth. There's nothing to be done about it now. The truth will soon be revealed, and we must suffer the consequences.
Raina worried at her bottom lip nervously, tucking a few pieces of hair behind her ear. I am not ready. How can I face him? From the moment we met, everything I told him was a lie. Now I'm to wed his brother in some mummer's farce of a peace treaty, when he thinks me little more than a peasant. A tear traced its way down her cheek and dripped off her chin to splash upon the railing. She wasn't sure if she'd had any tears left after the last few weeks, but it seemed there were yet a few to spare.
Ùna was quiet for a while, her presence enough of a comfort that Raina did not feel as though she would break down at any moment. But when she did finally speak again, her voice was somber. The wolf had always been reserved, ever since she was a pup, but Raina could not remember a time where she'd been so absent of hope.
You lied to Murtagh, she began slowly, a man whom you claim to love; a man who claims to love you. I do not presume to judge you for your decisions, even if I disapprove of them. Only time will tell... but when the truth is known, you can only trust that his love will be strong enough to forgive you of your wrongdoings.
I cannot know if it is, Raina replied, hanging her head low against her chest. We had such little time together. But when I think of facing him again... my shame is almost more than I can bear.
Yet bear it you must. I will be with you, to lean on... If I could take this burden from you, you know that I would, little one.
Yes, I know. She straightened up and placed her hand on the wolf's neck, rubbing at her fur absently. My decisions have brought terrible consequences... now I must face them.
"My lady," a small voice said from behind her. Raina turned to look upon her maid, who'd been acting distant as of late. She offered Bridie what she hoped was a warm smile, but felt that it never reached her eyes.
"What is it, Bridie?" she asked softly. The girl was as fragile as a leaf, and always looked ready to scurry at the first sign of confrontation. Yet besides Ùna, she was Raina's sole companion; a source of comfort through familiarity that she couldn't imagine living without. Ever since she'd snapped at her, Raina had taken great care to be kinder to the girl.
"His Majesty requires your presence in the Captain's cabin," she replied. "He says we'll be makin' land within the hour, and he wishes to discuss a few items of.. p-pr... protocol... my lady."
Protocol... Raina thought sullenly. What could that mean?
He'll want to make sure you'll hold your tongue in front of the prince, no doubt, Ùna scoffed. And to make sure we put on a good show for the Alagaësians.
Raina hummed in response and then pushed away from the railing, thanking Bridie and then walking past her towards the interior cabin. The vessel was not very large, and didn't have any cabins belowdecks, but the Captain had his own space, secluded from the rest of the deck. She'd found it too dark and stuffy for her liking, and had spent the majority of their journey amongst the salt air and the sky.
When she stepped through the small door, she saw her father sitting at the Captain's desk, hands steepled beneath his chin. They were alone in the close, dank space, causing her a small degree of discomfort. The last time she'd been alone with her father, it had not ended well. He looked up at her arrival, but made no show of pretending to be happy to see her. There was no one here to witness his farce anyways.
She said nothing as he stared at her impassively, only stood stock still with her hands clasped at her waist. Since the last time she'd seen him, that day in his throne room, Raina had taken great care to avoid her father. She knew it would not be long before that task became impossible, but she was thankful for it now. He did not see how she had cried from the pain in her jaw, or the wounds to her pride. Nor did he see how she flinched at the slightest sound, and shied away from the servants; all except Bridie. The bruises had faded now, nearly imperceptible. But she could still feel the sting of his hand, as though it had been only yesterday. She didn't think she'd ever forget that feeling.
"We will be arriving in Teirm soon," her father finally said, his voice strangely even. "I want to be certain that we are clear on a few matters—"
"What would you have me do, Father?" she suddenly interrupted, unwilling to listen to any more of his lies. The conversation she'd overheard between the king and that strange woman, and the day Murtagh had left, were forever branded into her memory. Whatever plot her father was brewing, Raina knew she was a pawn in the game. Until she could divine what exactly his plot was, it was safer to play the willing and subservient daughter. So she would do what he asked of her, go along with his scheming, until the opportunity for escape presented itself.
Morzan seemed a bit taken aback at her interjection, but he did not lose his temper. Instead, he tilted his head and seemed to inspect her closely before he spoke again. She did not wither under his gaze, as she might have only a few short weeks ago.
"I am pleased to see you have accepted your lot," he finally said, quiet and grave. "The journey from Teirm to Ilirea will take roughly three days. In that time, you are not to speak to any from the Alagaësian escort party. Am I understood?" Raina nodded her head sternly, clamping her mouth shut. "Upon our arrival in Ilirea," he continued, "you will be secluded until the day of the tournament. There will be no fraternization with the prince, or anyone else, before the wedding. I'll not suffer anyone insinuating that you are not still a maiden and ruining any chance of a union."
"I understand," she said softly, though her voice remained hard. "I would never wish to bring you dishonor, Father." Raina could not help the bite that entered her voice on this last word, but if the king noticed it, he did not respond.
"The wedding will take place shortly after the tournament, but you are not to be seen spending an inordinate amount of time with the prince. There are customs to be upheld... You must listen to the queen, she will instruct you in how to behave."
"The queen..." Raina replied dully. She had heard more than a few rumors about the cold, calculating Queen Selena of Alagaësia. The thought of spending any time with her was not necessarily attractive, but she knew she didn't have much choice in the matter. Besides, perhaps she could convince the queen to help her; it was entirely possible all the rumors she'd heard were false, but only time would tell. She stared at her father a moment more before saying, "If there's nothing else, I'll take my leave of you."
He waved his hand dismissively and she turned to stride out the door, all the while feeling his eyes burning into her back. Ùna was sitting patiently on her haunches just outside the door, always on alert for any danger. Ever since they'd left Oran behind, Ùna had not left her side. The wolf strode silently next to her now, yellow eyes keenly watching the crewmembers and soldiers that were milling about the deck.
What did I tell you? she simpered quietly. You are to play the delicate princess, while he plots in secret.
Yes, well... Raina let the thought trail into silence. She looked back over her shoulder, towards the west and the sinking afternoon sun. The Orani coastline had disappeared hours ago; she would likely never see her home again... Yet the thought did not bring her any melancholy. If anything, she was glad to be rid of the place she'd called home her entire life. A new life was waiting for her in the east, and even if she was not fully in control of her circumstances at the moment, Raina was determined not to let it remain that way.
We're going to be alright, Ùna, she said softly, rubbing behind the wolf's ear. I don't know how, and I don't know when, but I can feel it. It has been a very long time since I have felt this way...
And what way is that?
Raina allowed a small smile to grace her lips before she turned her face towards the east. As though by some spell-tainted wind, the clouds had rolled back, swept to the north, and she could see the Alagaësian coast clearly now. Blue-tinted mountains rose high up into the sky, stretching as far north and as far south as she could see. There were no mountains in Oran, though she had heard tell of the Spine and the mighty Beor's in the south. But the sight before her now was nothing she could ever have imagined... A new life, indeed...
She smiled fully before finally replying. Unafraid, Ùna. It's as though I can feel my mother's courage; she has lent it to me now, when I need it most. A feeling of warmth encompassed her then, and she could not be sure if it was Ùna sending her comfort, or if somehow, someway, her mother was speaking to her from beyond the grave. But whatever the case, her smile did not waver.
"You'll not be participating in the tourney, then?" Jörmundur asked with a slight frown.
Murtagh shook his head in response, tightening the straps of his bracers and then pulling on a pair of leather gloves. He'd been back in Ilirea for close to a month now, and while not everything was feeling fully back to normal, he could at least find some comfort in his sparring matches with Jörmundur. Before his brush with death, they'd practiced together every chance they had, though that hadn't been very often after he'd joined the Calvary. Now that he would be studying under Master Jeod to become Eragon's Second, there was no need for him to go back out in the field. Not with the war coming to an end, anyhow.
"I don't feel up to it, if I'm being honest," he finally said, grabbing a sparring sword off the rack and swinging it at his side a few times. "Everything still seems... off somehow."
Jörmundur inspected him for a moment. "I can't begin to imagine what you've been through, boy, but a bit of healthy competition might do you some good. It would certainly do the people some good to see you back to your old self."
I'll never be my 'old self' again, Murtagh thought darkly, drawing a slight chuckle from Thorn where he was currently congregating in the quadrangle with the other wolves. The other Clan leaders' direwolves were organizing a hunt for after the feast, and Saphira had invited him along to be part of the planning.
The love of a woman, Thorn teased in his deep, musical voice. You two-legs are certainly a mystery sometimes.
Murtagh bid him be quiet as Jörmundur continued speaking, heedless that Murtagh's attention had even been drawn away. "Besides, some of the younger lads could do with being knocked down a few pegs. There an uppity bunch, truly. You've been gone so long—even before you... well, you know..."
"Yes, I am aware," he replied with a small smirk.
"They have no idea what it means to face a truly skilled opponent that's their own age," he continued on, tying the laces of his leather jerkin tightly and tugging on them for good measure. "And you were always skilled beyond your years... Besides, your father wants to put forward a strong front in front of the Orani. If an Alagaësian doesn't win the tourney, I'm not sure we'll be able to stand his ire afterwards."
Murtagh chuckled slightly at that, for he knew it was the truth. During these few short weeks, his father had been running himself ragged with the preparations. The event in and of itself was monumental, simply because of the weight it held for their future. But to host such a large number of people was a logistical nightmare. He was just glad that Master Jeod was primarily responsible for planning the affair, and not himself. If there was anything that Murtagh was not looking forward to about being Eragon's Second, it was that: party planning.
But perhaps Jörmundur was right; maybe it would do him some good to compete. For practically his entire life, he'd secluded himself from the people around him, because it's what was expected of him as the king's bastard. But now... now he was going to be the second-most powerful man in the kingdom one day. He would have no choice but to stand before the people, bare to their scrutiny. To prove himself capable now, before they had chance to doubt him... It might just be a good idea.
"It's still a week away; there's time to change your mind," he pressed a bit further.
"I will think on what you have said," he finally conceded, pulling his round shield onto his arm. This seemed to please the older man, for he smiled widely and clapped him on the shoulder before walking out of the armory and into the practice yard. There was still a bit of doubt pooling in his gut, but Murtagh smiled as he followed him, all the same.
Ilirea was nothing like Raina imagined it would be. She'd always thought the citadel would be a dark, gloomy sort of place, and the city around it would be dilapidated and neglected. There was no earthly reason why she should have thought this, but it was the image her mind had conjured when she was a child, and it had always stuck. Gazing at it now, head stuck unceremoniously out the carriage window, her wildest dreams could never have envisioned such a marvel.
Soaring towers of glass and polished stone reached into the sky, sparkling against the light of the dying sun. A towering wall of dark stone encircled the city, set with streaming banners of grey and white—the king's colors—and guarded by men in red cloaks and shining armor. She could just glimpse the rooftops of the homes and buildings beyond the wall, but up above them all, nestled into the high hill behind it, was the Citadel.
It was easily three times the size of her father's castle, if not more, but she could see where he'd drawn the inspiration for designing his own stronghold. The Citadel of Ilirea, however, was vastly superior to Morzan's castle. It's towers and battlements offered vantage points of the entire city, and the hill protecting it's rear meant that it would be practically impregnable against attack. They were still about a mile away from the main gates, so it was hard to see any of the architectural details, but Raina imagined there were gargoyles and sculptures littered about the place. She imagined a vast library, filled to the brim with books; magnificent halls with tall windows and even taller ceilings; perhaps even a sprawling garden where she might find some solace from her father's constant company. The hope she'd felt upon first seeing Alagaësia seemed to swell even further.
I have never seen such beauty before, Ùna said wistfully from where she trekked next to the carriage, silver fur rippling with her movement. Her long legs allowed her to keep pace with the horses without tiring as quickly as they did.
Nor I, to be sure, Raina replied, pulling herself back into the carriage and bouncing against the seat as they hit a bump in the road.
But did you notice the great host gathered before the gates?
Those must be the Clans, she answered, remembering her studies. Of course, the king will have called them in preparation of the... wedding. Her heart fell slightly as this admission. She didn't like to dwell on the thought of what was to come, only on how she might avoid it.
Ùna whimpered slightly. Stay strong, little one, she implored, coming a little closer to the carriage and causing the horses to whinny nervously. We will find our way through this.
Raina sent her feelings of gratitude and agreement, but said nothing more. Her earlier hope had vanished under the shadow of what waited for her beyond those gates. Murtagh was in this city, likely somewhere in the Citadel. And very soon, she would have to face him, stripped of her lies. A shiver ran its way down her spine, and her hands began to tremble slightly. She would need her mother's courage now more than ever.
As they drew closer to the gates, her father seated atop his black charger at the front of their retinue, Raina decided now was as good a time as any to her veil beneath her circlet. Being only a princess, she did not yet wear a crown, but her father had provided her with a simple circlet of gold to mark her status as royalty. The thing was terribly uncomfortable—a bit too tight to sit comfortably—but it did allow her to secure a veil to her face without fear that it might be torn away by some rogue wind.
She had insisted upon wearing it, much to her father's disapproval, if only to conceal her deception a little bit longer. If she was to face Murtagh as her true self, she wished to do it in private, and not upon her first arrival in Ilirea in front of a hundred strangers. She'd framed it as a way for her to avoid the prince being tempted in any way, which her father had begrudgingly accepted.
The veil was a soft pink in color, to complement the browns and creams in her dress, and tightly knit enough that she could still see but her face would be mostly unrecognizable. If Murtagh were to happen to get close enough, he would almost certainly be able to recognize her, so she'd have to be careful to keep her distance.
The carriage wheels clacked noisily as dirt gave way to cobblestone, and when Raina glanced out the window, she was shocked to see a line of people watching them pass. Some stared in obvious anger, arms crossed over their chests or hands planted firmly on their hips. Yet others seemed mildly hopeful at the sight of the Orani arriving under a banner of peace. As the clansmen peered into her carriage, she was especially grateful to have the veil; it would not do for them to see the fear in her eyes.
I smell other wolves, Ùna said sharply, eyes surveying the scene before them.
All the royal family are bonded to direwolves, Raina reminded her, and the Clan leaders are all bonded as well. There will likely be many other wolves here for you to meet; perhaps even befriend.
Ùna scoffed at that. Not likely, she replied. Your father's wolf... he is looked at as a traitor by the others. My mother used to say as much to me and my littermates when we were only pups. Your father will never have told you this, but there was a small rebellion when he demanded that you be given a direwolf pup. The Alpha did not want me to become tainted by Emrys' influence, but his mate, Vella, she convinced him to send me as an offering of peace. Perhaps she thought the humans might follow suit at the same time, but as you two-legs are wont to do, you are woefully slow.
I never knew that, Raina said softly.
Aye, as I said, your father never wanted anyone to know he practically had to beg for me to be sent.
I wonder why he even went to the trouble. Something about Ùna's story made her feel slightly uncomfortable, but she couldn't say why.
The wolf gave the mental equivalent of a shrug. Whatever the case, she continued, sticking her nose slightly through the window of the carriage, I am thankful every day that Kah'Sheen's mate is wiser than he. It grieves me to think what your life might have been like if I had not been there with you.
I am thankful for that as well. She placed her hand on Ùna's snout and rubbed at it lovingly before the wolf pulled away. Her yellow eyes turned forward as the massive gates of Ilirea rose up before them. Raina could just barely see them from the angle of the carriage, but she could tell they were imposing, and certainly impressive. Our lives are about to changed forever, she said quietly.
Yes, they are, little one. Are you ready?
Raina could not be sure; all she was sure of, was that her heart might beat right out of her chest at any moment. The carriage passed under the battlements and through the gates, and the entourage continued up the street towards the Citadel at the top of the hill. Time seemed to slow as the carriage wobbled on the uneven streets, pulling her forward into a new life and a new destiny.
I am not sure, she finally answered her wolf, who was walking slowly beside her. But we will face it together, as we always have.
Aye, little one, the wolf replied lovingly, that we will.
Chapter 18: Planes of the Heart
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
Murtagh had elected not to join his family and the other courtesans down in the quadrangle; there was no need to introduce the Orani to all of their personal drama just yet. There'd certainly be time for it later, and he was not feeling especially inclined towards practicing his niceties today. But the wide window where he'd situated himself offered an unobstructed vantage into the courtyard. He could see his father and brother waiting patiently at the front of the herd, Selena standing rigidly behind them. Jörmundur stood close nearby, as did a few of the king's personal guards. The other nobles and Clan leaders were all grouped together behind them, talking amongst themselves quietly and causing the air to buzz with anticipation.
None of the wolves were present, which surprised him slightly. Thorn's absence, he understood—he was as much an outsider as his bonded partner was—but the other wolves should have been there alongside the Clan leaders. Athkore, at least, he would have thought to be standing by the king's side. Perhaps they did not want to appear as if they were aiming to intimidate the Orani.
Not that they could have... at that moment, a gigantic beast of a direwolf strode through the gates to the citadel, head swinging from side to side as he surveyed everyone gathered there. Some of the nobles who did not have wolves of their own drew back slightly at the sight of such a monstrous creature. Of all the wolves who called Ilirea home, Athkore and Marl were the largest, though the latter did outpace the former in just the slightest. But this brute that was bonded to the king of Oran put them all to shame.
He stood at least seven feet at the shoulder, with a head the size of a boulder and canines longer than most knives. His black-and-grey-brindled coat rippled overtop powerful muscles, the hackles on his neck and spine standing erect. Emerald-colored eyes fixated on the king and his son, boring into them as if they were prey. Murtagh sat forward slightly, watching the wolf carefully as the rest of the party entered the wide open space.
King Morzan was nothing like Murtagh had expected. Instead of the gnarled, gruesome old man he'd always envisioned, a handsome man, not much older than his father, sat before him upon a beautiful warhorse the color of midnight. It was odd, knowing all the atrocious things he'd done, to see someone so... normal attached to his reputation. The crown upon his head seemed to mock all of them; Brom was not the only one to have known Morzan in what seemed like a lifetime ago. And it was not a matter of secret how some of the other Clan leaders felt about this truce.
A heavy carriage pulled by a team of brown horses came lumbering after him and his guard, stopping in front of the Alagaësian royal party. King Morzan dismounted his charge and Murtagh saw his father step forward, a hard look up on his face. They exchanged a few words that Murtagh couldn't make out before the door to the carriage opened. A young woman in drab clothing and a brown, homespun cloak stepped out first. The hood was pulled up to ward against the chill in the morning air, and she turned back towards the carriage to help her lady down.
In truth, Murtagh was only sitting here to catch a glimpse of the princess. He was now invested in his brother's happiness, in a way he never had been before, and was curious about his goodsister-to-be. But his curiosity was left unsatisfied when he saw the veil covering her face. Perhaps this was some traditional modesty, but the effect was quite deflating. She stepped towards the royal party slowly, hands clasped demurely at her waist. Murtagh released a pent up breath and hopped down from the window seat.
Whatever he'd been hoping to see, there was no chance of it now.
Raina's hands were trembling violently where she clasped them together. The courtyard was eerily silent, save for the whinnying of the horses and the heavy breathing of her father's wolf. They were all staring at them... staring at her. At least, that's what it felt like. Her father was speaking to the Alagaësian king, a man of equal height with him but with considerably more gray hair. But his eyes were kind and his smile was not cruel. He inclined his head when he caught sight of her by way of greeting; more than she had ever expected.
Have courage, Raina, Ùna said from behind the carriage. Under the shadow of her father's wolf, Raina thought it might be better for Ùna to keep her distance. It wasn't that she looked particularly threatening, but she didn't want any of the Alagaësians to get the wrong impression. This was a mission of peace... nothing more.
Raina's gaze shifted to the young man standing next to King Brom, and found herself struck still. He was not at all how she had imagined him, and it was clear to her that neither of the king's sons favored him strongly. Where Murtagh was broad and muscular, with dark hair and piercing eyes, Prince Eragon was slim and lean. Dark eyes complemented his light brown hair and tan skin, and Raina noticed a smattering of freckles across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. He had a very boyish appearance to him, but his smile was kind, like his father's.
Her gaze found the queen next, and she had to suppress the shudder that threatened to overtake her. Selena seemed an altogether severe-looking woman, with the same full lips and aquiline nose she'd given her son. But where the prince's gaze seemed warm and trustworthy, the queen practically radiated cold. Eyes an eerily similar shade to her own bored through to her soul, it seemed. For what seemed the hundredth time today, Raina was eternally grateful for her veil.
But as her gaze scanned the rest of the crowd, the one face she was longing to see more than any other was noticeably absent. Murtagh was not here...
I do not see him, Ùna, Raina said frantically, trying to contain the trembling in her hands. What if something happened to him? What if he did not make it back!
Peace, little one, Ùna replied calmly. We will find out the truth of it soon. It is possible he is still recovering from his experiences, and does not wish to be present. Or the fact that he is the king's bastard bars him from attending royal functions...
No, Murtagh's father loves him... I'm sure he would be welcome here.
Then we shall have to wait and see what information unfolds, the wolf replied, snorting slightly.
Raina knew her anxiety was getting the better of her, but she couldn't help it. The thought of something happening to Murtagh... it made her sick to her stomach. And the fact that so many people were currently staring at her didn't help matters any. Raina felt like the prize pig at the market, shivering under the gazes of the farmers thinking of how best to slaughter her.
Her father's hand was suddenly gripped around her upper arm, and she thought she might faint from her instincts screaming at her to run. "This is my daughter," King Morzan said to King Brom, "Raina." Once her father released her arm, Raina sank into a deep curtsy, but did not utter a word. Her fear had paralyzed her voice, it seemed.
"Well met," the king said to her, inclining his head once more. He turned to his son and placed a hand on his shoulder. "This is my son, Eragon, the Crown Prince of Alagaësia."
Morzan gave Eragon an appraising look. "You have your mother's look about you," he stated plainly, looking past Eragon to where the queen stood slightly behind him. "Selena... it's good to see you again."
A sharpness flashed in her eyes. "Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth," the queen practically hissed, narrowing her eyes at the Orani king. Raina sucked in her breath quietly at the queen's insolence, and worried that her father's anger would be awakened.
But he only laughed and looked back at Brom. "Some things never do change," he remarked, uncharacteristically nostalgic.
King Brom's stony expression never faltered. "Yet other things are completely unrecognizable," he replied darkly. An awkward silence fell over them, the air thick with tension.
Eragon chuckled slightly to try and ease the strain. "Welcome to our home, Your Majesty," he said, bowing ever so slightly at the waist. "We are honored to have you."
Morzan looked back at the young man, as did Raina. With a small amount of discomfort, she had to admit that his graciousness was... admirable. "Well, you certainly didn't learn your manners from your father. We are honored to be here."
Brom turned to look somewhere behind him. "Master Jeod," he called out. A small man in green robes scuttled forward, adjusting the eyeglasses he wore. "Morzan... you'll remember Jeod. He's my Chief Steward, and will see that you are settled. I trust you'll be joining us for supper?"
Morzan nodded. "Aye, we'll be there..." He seemed to scan the crowd of Alagaësians, his eyes never landing on whatever it was they searched for. "Where's your bastard?" he questioned after another moment, fixing his gaze back on Brom.
Raina noticed how the Alagaësian king stiffened at the question; she only hoped no one could see how she'd perked up as well. Her heart began to race in her chest, so loud she was sure someone would hear. King Brom clenched his jaw slightly, and his gaze hardened even further.
"Murtagh has not been feeling well," he finally answered. "He is resting at the moment. I'm sure we will see him later this evening." Raina did her best to contain her joy, but tears came to her eyes nonetheless.
He's alive. Her heart wanted to sing the news, but she restrained herself. It was enough to know that he was alive, and seemingly unharmed. Her father grunted in response and looked back at her, but said nothing.
"If you'll follow me," the king's steward said, gesturing towards the citadel, "I'll show you to your quarters." The Orani king strode forward and Raina followed quickly behind. Bridie was right behind her as well. The crowd parted to let them pass, though their eyes continued to bear down on the foreigners.
I will come find you later, Raina said to her wolf. Keep an eye on Emrys; see if he gets up to anything at my father's bidding.
I will do my best, little one, Ùna replied, yipping softly and trekking off across the quadrangle. She would join the other wolves for the afternoon and settle in before dinner. Raina just hoped there wouldn't be any trouble when she wasn't there to assist. Not that she was much of a threat against a pack of direwolves, but still...
The Citadel was much as she had imagined it would be up close. Sculptures and gargoyles and intricate carvings adorned the stone façade, and polished stone columns shone in the light of the sun. She tried not to stare too much as they entered the fortress, but it was difficult when faced with such beauty. The interior of the castle was just as intricate and imposing as the exterior. Hallways seemed to stem in every direction, and a massive staircase led to the upper levels where the living quarters were located. Master Jeod led them to the West Wing, explaining various histories of the tapestries and relics littered throughout the corridors, tucked into little alcoves.
Raina wished for nothing more than to listen to Master Jeod all day, but their pace was brisk, and there'd be plenty of time for that later. After all... this was to become her home, was it not? The thought made her heart sink. Nothing about this place had been what she'd expected; not it's people, nor it's landscape. This country was beautiful, and it's people were not at all how she'd imagined. And as for the prince... Well, that remained to be seen.
"I don't think I can do this, Bridie." Raina stood staring out the window of her bedroom, which looked down into a sprawling garden. She'd been elated to find that there was a garden where she could escape to take a walk. But that elation had quickly been overshadowed by the sense of impending doom that was currently hanging over her.
"I know it's difficult, mi'lady," the maid said quietly, laying out her dinner dress on the massive, four-poster bed. "But I don't see any way round it. Perhaps you could feign a sickness? Or..."
"My father would see right through it," she replied, turning away from the window. "I cannot risk his anger, not right now." Almost as if in response, her jaw twinged in pain. The bruise was gone now, but it's memory still haunted her every thought.
Bridie looked at her sadly for a moment. "I wish I had some advice to offer ya, mi'lady," she said softly, "but there's naught I can think of. We are well and truly stuck now." Raina gave her a sad sort of smile. "I'll leave ya to do yer washing. Call me when yer ready to dress."
The princess nodded at her maid and watched as the younger girl scuttled off to the antechamber that would serve as her living quarters for the time-being. Raina supposed this was all temporary, until after the wedding. At that point, she'd be expected to take up quarters with her... husband. Raina swallowed the lump in her throat and then turned towards the washroom, where a heated bath already awaited her.
She didn't even make it two steps before a knock came at the door. Her body fell still, though her heart was beating wildly. She couldn't think who might be coming to see her, besides her father, and that thought brought her no comfort. When she could finally speak, she called out, "Come in!" Raina only hoped her voice did not betray her fear.
The door swung open silently, and the queen of Alagaësia came sauntering into her room.
"Your Majesty," Raina said breathlessly, quickly sinking into a curtsy. She kept her eyes trained on the floor, but she could feel the queen's gaze fixed on her.
"My, my, my..." she purred quietly, coming to walk around the Orani princess. Raina remained still as the queen circled her, trying not to shake as much as she could. When the queen came to stop right in front of her, she placed two fingers under her chin and angled her head upwards, forcing Raina to look her in the eye.
"Such beauty," the queen said, inspecting her face. "I can see why your father felt the need to keep such a pearl covered in the presence of such... barbarians. Your mother must have been truly stunning."
Raina had to fight past the catch in her throat to respond. "Yes, Your Majesty, she was."
"Gods rest her soul." The queen moved her hand away and smiled softly. "Sit with me for a moment?" she asked. Raina knew she could not refuse, so she nodded her assent and moved over to the plush chairs that sat before her hearth. The queen sat first and then Raina followed suit, gripping the arms of her chair tightly.
"What can I do for you, Your Majesty?" she asked quietly.
"I trust your journey was smooth?" Raina nodded in response, not really understanding. Did the queen really come just to engage in small talk? "Excellent," she continued, folding her hands in her lap. The luxurious, crimson fabric of her gown draped beautifully over the edge of the chair, pooling at the queen's feet like a molten river of blood. Selena caught her ogling. "Do you like it?"
Raina looked back at the queen's face. "It's beautiful," she admitted, admiring the way the sleeves opened up around the queen's wrists and trailed down to the floor.
"Some of the finest craftsman in Alagaësia hail from right here in Ilirea. And the royal tailor is by far the most talented man on the continent. I'll have him visit you tomorrow, to make a dress for the tournament." Selena smiled broadly, but it reeked of effort.
"I wouldn't want to be a bother," Raina replied, trying to contain her revulsion. Though she could not yet determine the queen's ulterior motive, she knew it was there, lurking just under the surface of her carefully crafted exterior.
"It's no bother. Surely, as a royal in your own right, and the future queen of this great nation, you must present yourself to the masses accordingly." Selena picked at the hem of her sleeve with an air of disinterest. "And besides," she continued in that same, simpering way, "the tailor will be working with you closely over the next few weeks anyways. Best to get acquainted quickly."
"Working with me?" the younger girl questioned innocently.
A smile like ice spread over the queen's face, and a wicked gleam entered her eye. "Of course, child," she said softly, sitting forward in her chair ever-so-slightly, "for your wedding gown."
That one phrase struck a chord of dread through Raina's heart. A sudden panic overwhelmed her, and she wished very much that Ùna was there for her to hold onto. Everything was happening too quickly; all of it was becoming real, and it felt like she was careening down a cliffside, desperately searching for a handhold but only finding smooth stone to hurry her towards her doom.
"Wedding gown," she said softly; numbly. "Of course, how silly of me."
"The wedding shall be a splendid affair," the queen continued, seemingly heedless. "Flowers and silks and piles of food. And your gown will be the most splendid thing of all. No expense shall be spared, I can assure you of that. It's been quite some time since the last royal wedding—" she smirked in a very self-satisfied manner "—and the people will be expecting an even shinier spectacle, due to the magnitude of such a union. You will be a goddess on your wedding day, and all the people shall fall at your feet. Does that not sound marvelous?"
Raina found herself unable to form a coherent response, so she simply smiled and nodded faintly. The queen tilted her head as she watched her, searching for something in her face that Raina could not even begin to fathom.
"You are very quiet for one so young," the queen remarked, touching her chin lightly with her fingers. "Are you frightened by me?"
"No, Your Majesty," she replied. "I have been told all my life that I am very quiet. A byproduct of my environment..." She let that statement fade into silence. In King Morzan's castle in Oran, it had always been safer to remain silent, for fear of drawing unwanted attention. Over the years, she'd become especially adept at remaining invisible. Perhaps those skills would serve her well here in Alagaësia, but she could not be sure yet.
The only thing she was sure of was that she did not like the way the queen was staring at her.
"Mmm," she hummed softly to herself. "I see... Well then, I shall leave you to your dressing. I look forward to seeing you at dinner."
Raina nodded and raised up out of her seat as the queen stood to leave. She bowed her head as Selena swept past her, icy eyes focused forward and half-smirk put into place. Raina imagined this was the look she most often wore; confident, yet slightly detached from those around her. Superior, regal... and terrifyingly intimidating.
At the door, the queen halted and turned back to her, one perfectly groomed eyebrow arched slightly above the other. "Oh, and Raina?" she questioned, none too innocently.
"Yes, Your Majesty?" Raina looked up at her, willing as much steel into her gaze as she could muster. Covered by the shadow of this woman made it difficult to stand tall, but she had to try her best.
"Forsake the veil this evening," she replied, her voice hard. "I want my son to be able to see the burden he's so willingly accepted... And I suspect he shall be quite pleased with his inspection." She smiled broadly one last time before slipping into the hallway, only the sound of her skirts trailing over stone to indicate she'd ever been there.
Chapter 19: The Veil Is Torn
A chill wind seemed to guide her way through the corridors, pushing at her back, urging her onward towards the Great Hall. The moment she'd both dreamt of and dreaded for weeks now was swift approaching, hurtling towards her like some great, fiery comet. Inescapable; cataclysmic; an engulfing inferno that would decimate everything in its wake. Raina felt helpless to avoid it. One step to the left or the right, and she would escape certain doom. But she was rooted to the path she currently found herself on, unable to avoid the firestorm that was coming.
Her less-than-convincing excuses for missing dinner had fallen on deaf ears. As she'd expected, her father had not believed her. He seemed of a mind with the queen; intent for the young prince to view his prize in all its glory. But she had to at least try, though it likely would have done little good in the end. There would always be more dinners, and feasts, and tournaments, and gatherings...
She could not avoid him forever. All of her lies were tied like a noose around her neck, pulled tighter and tighter with every step down the hall she took. Una was sending her feelings of comfort from their quarters, but it did little to quell the roiling mess that was currently her stomach. How she would be able to eat anything, Raina did not know. Her legs trembled painfully beneath layers of linen petticoats and her blue silk-and-lace skirts, but she was already walking as slowly as she dared. The king of Oran was already pulling ahead of her, heedless to the anxiety swirling in her heart.
Darkness pressed at the edges of her vision, until it seemed the only thing she could see was the back of her father's head, bobbing with his steps and glinting from the crown he wore upon his brow. In an attempt to calm her racing heart, she focused on that crown, memorizing the twisting lines of bronze and iron. The crown was of a lesser quality than the Alagaesian king's, but then, they did not have access to as fine a material as they had here in Ilirea. Little by little, her vision began to clear and her breathing returned to a somewhat normal pace.
Unfortunately, it was a moment too late; the towering doors to the Great Hall loomed before them and her trembling was born anew. She could hear the murmur of a great many voices beyond the solid wood doors, and wondered at just how many people were going to be present for this meal. Through those doors, her life would change forever. Murtagh would see her for the snake she truly was, and whatever innocent love they'd shared on Oran would be lost. The foundation of their relationship had been forged on a bed of lies and deceit... How could he forgive her? Did she even deserve to be forgiven?
Morzan looked over his shoulder back at her. "Do not speak unless spoken to," he said quietly, though there was no kindness in his voice. "You will sit next to the prince, and I expect you to remember your rearing; none of your snide remarks or spite. Am I understood?"
Raina felt as though another person spoke from her body as she said, "Yes, Father... I understand." He gave her a sidelong look at this quiet compliance, but said nothing more. The doors groaned and complained as they swung into the massive room, and his attention was drawn forward once again.
The hearths had been lit for warmth, but Raina thought she might suffocate under the stifling heat. It was already difficult to breathe, smothered under the weight of what was to come, and the flames did little to help her. Not to mention the dozens of lit candles upon the table, so that they might see their meal. If her earlier thoughts of an unstoppable inferno hurtling towards her were any indication, she might very well be incinerated in this very room.
It seemed most, if not all, of the Clan leaders were present in the hall. They and their captains were spread out amongst the long tables that ran the length of the room, talking jovially with one another as they ate and drank. It took naught but a moment for their laughter to die on their lips. A hundred eyes were on them in an instant, and a thick silence fell over the hall, deafening in its magnitude.
A chair scraped against the stone floor, and Raina looked to the opposite end of the hall to the High Table. King Brom was on his feet, gazing at them with a hard look. Suddenly, the man to his right was standing as well, eyes locked on Raina with a smile upon his face.
"Welcome," Eragon called out to them. "Please, join us." He gestured for them to make their way to the High Table, which Morzan did without pause. Raina had to force her feet to move to follow behind him, clenching her teeth painfully.
As they walked, she scanned the faces of the men and women around them, searching for the one she wished most--and, as it turned out, the least--to see in the world. But as they continued further on, those piercing, grey eyes never found her. Her heart fell in her chest.
Murtagh was not here.
They reached the High Table and the rising murmur of voices resumed, everyone seemingly satisfied with their inspection of the foreigners. Her father and his Captain, Morholt, ascended the dais and took their places. The king of Oran took the empty seat at King Brom's left, bumping elbows with the nervous-looking steward who had escorted them earlier. At the queen's beckoning hand, Raina walked behind her father and the king and took the empty seat to the queen's left... Which put her directly beside her soon-to-be husband.
Prince Eragon was gaping up at her with a look she could only interpret as shock. His mouth hung slightly agape, eyes opened wide as he took in her appearance. Now that her veil was not obstructing her view, she could see that the freckles she'd noticed before were much more pronounced, and his brown eyes had a hint of gold to them. She offered him a beatific smile, as was her duty, but said nothing as she took her seat.
"My lady," he mumbled, taking up her hand and planting a chaste kiss there. "It's ah--How lovely to... Well, what I mean to say is..." He was bumbling now, and she could tell he knew it.
In an effort to salvage his pride, she interjected. "It is nice to meet you... officially as well, Your Highness," she said softly. In spite of what she might feel, Raina was finding it difficult to be cool towards this man. There was something about him that seemed inherently approachable. And besides... his company was much more agreeable when compared to the queen's.
His face broke into a wide smile as he chuckled, looking down at the table momentarily. "I apologize," he said, looking back up at her. "I'm not usually this nervous. But after this morning I thought... Well..."
"You thought?" she prompted him.
He chuckled again, mouth twisting up into a smirk. "Your, um... veil... Well, I hate to say this, but... it certainly does give the impression that you have the pox, my lady." He laughed all the way through the admission, giving him a very boyish appearance.
A laugh of her own bubbled up in her throat, which escaped without warning. "The pox?" she asked incredulously. "Well, I certainly didn't think of that before." She looked away from him, back out towards the hall, with just the slightest pang in her chest when she realized he'd made her smile. It was a jarring thought, and her laughter died immediately. Sadness gripped her heart once more, fiercer than before. "I trust," she continued quietly, keeping her eyes downcast, "that I have not disappointed you then, Your Highness."
"Not at all." There was something in the way he said it that made her wary of looking him in the eye. But she stole a glance nevertheless, and found a look there she had hoped not to see. Her attention was quickly drawn away by a servant stealing past them, laying down plates of food as she went. Another servant came quickly behind her with the serving spoons, dishing out potatoes and carrots and pearl onions onto each plate at the High Table. After he was gone, another young girl came with the skewer and dished out the roast boar they would be dining on.
After the High Table had been served, the others took their cue and began feasting as well. They served themselves off of giant trenchers, the men seeming to do battle with their forks, poised like little swords, for the choicest cuts of meat. It was all in jest, however, which Raina found out as their laughter lifted into the rafters. Such joy; they all seemed so carefree. It was an amazing sight to behold, one which she was achingly unfamiliar with.
"I do hope you find our choice of meal acceptable." This time, it was the queen who spoke.
Raina glanced to her right and gave Selena a passing smile. She had not yet touched her plate, and she realized she could not afford to appear weak in front of this woman. Any weakness would be seized upon. "I have not seen a meal this fine in all my years, Your Majesty," she replied with a slight tilt of her head. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught her father leaning slightly past the Alagaesian king to see her. Whatever he'd been wanting to see, she would not give him the satisfaction of meeting his gaze.
"Are there no boars in Oran?" the prince jested. But Raina gave him a level look, and his smile faltered.
"Not so many as you have here, Your Highness," she replied. "Our forests are not so vast, nor as lush as the ones here in Alagaesia. Game is hard to come by most years, especially when the winters have been harsh. We mostly rely on the sea for our sustenance."
"Apologies, my lady," he said quickly. "I, uh... I did not think."
She could forgive him his ignorance, but Raina couldn't help feeling the queen had dug at her intentionally. "I took no offense, Your Highness--"
"Please," he cut her off, placing his hand atop hers gingerly, "there is no need for titles. We are to be married..." She stiffened at that, and she saw the realization flash in his dark eyes. After a moment's hesitation, he continued. "You would do me a great honor by simply calling me by my name."
A wave of embarrassment washed over her and crept up her face. To call a man she barely knew by his given name... It was a thing she'd only ever done once, and had no intention of doing again. "Forgive me, my lord," she said solemnly, bowing her head slightly. "But I hope you can understand that I am... hesitant to become so familiar so quickly."
Eragon sat back slightly, sitting straight against his chair. "Of course," he said, "I apologize. I did not..." He stalled suddenly, looking past her. Every hair on the back of Raina's neck was standing on end, tingling with energy, and she felt her eyes go wide. It was amazing; after all this time apart, she could still sense him... "Brother!" Eragon called out with a wide smile, sending a spike of ice through Raina's veins. "Come and meet my betrothed!"
The prince stood, extending his arm out and beckoning towards where she knew Murtagh was standing, having stolen into the Great Hall through some side door, hidden from view. How could she have been so naïve, to think that she would be granted any more delay? Fear immobilized her; she found herself unable to move. Footsteps pounded, climbing the dais and strolling towards her, like a death knell. No more lies; no more hiding. It was all going to come to an end, here and now.
Eragon was holding out his hand to her, inviting her to stand alongside him; the picture of unity. Raina felt her heart cleave in two as she took his hand, gripping it tightly to steady herself. Her legs were shaking violently, almost to the point of being incapable of bearing her weight.
"Murtagh," the prince said, "may I introduce to you Princess Raina of Oran... my future wife."
Time seemed to still and the noise all around them fell away as Raina turned to face him, tears already brimming in her eyes. She could no longer feel the prince at her side, nor see anything else around her. All she saw was the man she loved, standing only a pace away, as she had dreamt every day since he'd left. She longed for nothing more than to run to him, wrap her arms around his neck and feel him press against her. But she was paralyzed, held captive by his gaze.
It took only a moment for him to realize what was happening. The genial smile he'd been wearing slowly disappeared with his recognition, replaced quickly by consternation. A look of horror came into his grey eyes, which bounced quickly back and forth between her and Eragon. "Your wife," he mumbled, choking on the word. Her heart was pounding so quickly, she thought she might faint. All of her fear and anxiety leading up to this moment exploded in a debilitating wash of numbness. She could not move; she could not think; she could not even breathe. His gaze finally rested on her, still dazed but with a new, unfamiliar edge of anger to it.
Eragon coughed slightly, glaring at him pointedly. "Murtagh," he ground out through clenched teeth.
"Of course," he replied numbly, taking a step forward. He took her hand, sending shockwaves through her body. But his touch was not kind... a feeling she had never known, and never wished to know again. "Forgive me, Your Highness, for being so boorish. I was not expecting to meet you so soon..." He kissed her hand and then dropped it unceremoniously. She watched as his jaw clenched and his gaze shifted to his brother. "I would speak with you afterward, if you have a moment."
The prince nodded firmly and then turned back to Raina, guiding her back to her seat. A rush of air came back to her lungs, causing her to stumble and fall slightly into her chair. Eragon leaned over her worryingly. "Are you alright?" he questioned. She nodded quickly, not trusting her voice to answer.
Heavy steps retreated from the High Table, pounding against the wooden dais quickly. Raina cast a look over her shoulder, choking down the sob that was threatening to break free at any moment. But she didn't not have the luxury of allowing her gaze to linger; the queen was watching her out of the corner of her eye, and Murtagh did not look back as he stormed from the hall.
"You'll have to excuse my brother," Eragon explained, heedless to the silent exchange that had just happened right in front of him. "He has recently suffered an ordeal, and is still recovering." Raina nodded slightly and offered him a smile, despite it feeling like her soul was breaking into a thousand tiny pieces.
"Would you excuse me for a moment?" she asked, standing before he could answer.
"Of course," he said, looking up at her. She thanked him and hurried off the dais, following that little tendril of energy out into the hall and down a long corridor. Her only hope was that the queen did not have any spies posted nearby, for what she was about to do would surely incriminate her, and shatter the fragile peace they had already achieved.
She lied to me! Murtagh felt his anger gripping him like the bloodlust of battle; completely uncontrollable and all-consuming. The air in the garden was cool and clear, yet his body felt like it was on fire. His vision was clouded, as though a veil had been drawn over his eyes. But he soon realized it was merely the blur of tears brimming, hot and angry.
Murtagh, Thorn's deep voice intoned, echoing with the soothing calm he was trying to project. Peace, I beg of you. We do not know--
I know damn well that she lied to me! If she was not even truthful about her name, I cannot trust any of the words that came out of her mouth. His steps carried him down the gravel path of the garden, sending rocks flying under the ferocity of his gait. A branch of a yew bush that hung out into the path fell victim to his anger as he swatted it away, breaking the stem and sending it flying. I can't even trust...
Thorn waited a moment, until he was sure Murtagh would not respond. You doubt the sincerity of her feelings for you? the wolf questioned, his voice clear. Murtagh knew his wolf was down in the kennels at that moment, but the strength of his ferocity heightened the power of their connection, so it felt as though he was standing right next to him.
The path took a sudden twist to the left, heading into a small orchard of cherry blossom and magnolia trees. Murtagh slowed as he approached the row of saplings, the newest in his father's collection. The moonlight cast upon their leaves and spilling over onto the path created a scene of serenity; one which helped to soothe his ire.
He released a heavy breath. How can I not? he replied, fighting against the ache in his chest. Everything I thought I knew... it was all a lie. She--
The snap of a twig and the crunch of gravel caused him to turn quickly around, unsheathed dagger in hand and poised to kill. But his hand fell quickly when he saw who it was that had approached him.
"You should not be here," he remarked, an unfamiliar acidity in his voice. The moonlight caressed through her light hair, ringing her head in a halo. She looked for all the world like an angel... But Murtagh knew this angel had a forked tongue, adept at seduction.
"Murtagh, please," she begged, taking another few steps towards him. "Allow me to explain." He saw her hands shaking, though he could not be sure if it be from the chill or her obvious emotion.
"Why should I?" The bite in his voice caused her to flinch, and he felt a momentary twitch of shame. But it passed quickly as his anger rose once more. "You lied to me," he continued on, fighting against the clenching of his jaw. "Why should I listen to anything you say?" A tear traced its way down her cheek, but he ignored it. The darkest part of him hoped she was feeling even a fraction of the pain he was experiencing in that moment.
"I do not expect you to understand, but--”"
"You told me your name was Bronwyn." Against his will, the grief that was the foundation of his anger crept into his voice. "You told me you were training to be a healer," he continued, fists clenching at his sides. "I trusted you with the truth about myself, against my better judgment, and this is how you repay me?"
"I was afraid," she admitted desperately. "Our fathers were sworn enemies, and I could not know how you might react if you knew..." Her mouth clamped shut as her voice cracked against a sob. After taking a moment to regain her composure, she pressed on. "I hate my father, Murtagh. You must believe that. If I'd meant to betray you, there was ample opportunity to do so. But I didn't... I didn't because I love you."
"Love?" he spat derisively, anger inflamed once more. "Love is not lying to someone about who you are, Raina... Love is trust and honesty. You are an ignorant child, and I'll not listen to anymore of your willful callowness."
"Please, don't do this," she said, crying in earnest now.
"It is done." Murtagh could feel his heart hardening against her. The fervor he'd felt before--to see her again and deliver her from her situation--was gone, soured into enmity. Her appeals and explanations had not swayed him. "You are set to marry my brother... there is nothing more to discuss. Whatever happened in Oran was a dream. And although it was a pleasant one... it is farce nonetheless."
Raina wiped at her tears hastily, a scowl marring her face. "I never lied to you about what I felt, Murtagh; what I still feel."
He doubted for just the slightest moment, and imagined himself running towards her, taking her up in his arms and kissing her as though not a day had passed. But that would never happen again. Even if he could find it in himself to forgive her, she was promised to Eragon, his brother and future king. How could he contemplate such a betrayal?
Murtagh took a step back, stiffening into a formal bow. "My lady," he murmured quietly, drawing himself back up. "I hope you made a convincing excuse; your betrothed will be missing you. Though, as I'm sure my own experience has shown, the lie will have been expertly crafted. Good evening."
With the shocked look upon her face branded into his memory, he turned and continued on down the path through the orchard as he had before, straight-backed and never once stealing a glance behind him.