Chapter Five: A Change in Plans

Two years later . . .

The thief collapsed to his knees as a wave of dizziness engulfed him. He wasn't sure if it was due to the adrenaline that pumped through his veins, the strong smell of incense that still hung on his tattered black cloak, or the fact that he had just journeyed over a thousand leagues in the blink of an eye.

After catching his breath, he slowly rose to his feet and looked around warily. He was in a forest, that much was clear, and from the icy breeze that stung his cheek, it was probably up in the mountains somewhere. A quick look up at the full moon that was just visible through the dark foliage overhead told him that it was around midnight. And just ahead, settled in a small forest glade, was a herd of deer lost in slumber.

All according to plan.

The thief allowed himself a brief smirk as he looked down at the trinket in his hands. It was a small pendant, rather plain looking, in the shape of a metal disc attached to a long chain. Its edges were stained with rust and he honestly couldn't imagine why anyone, even the shady-looking old man who'd given it to him, would want to wear it in the first place. However, it wasn't long after receiving the pendant that the thief realised its worth was most definitely not measured by its attractiveness.

Still smiling slightly, he slipped the chain around his neck and, after making sure that the pendant itself was safely concealed by his clothing, the thief crept closer to the deer. They paid no mind to him; this particular job was designed for no one but the most silent, stealthy, and cunning of people, and although this was his first major job, he fitted quite perfectly into each category.

After a brief moment of thought, he chose a large tree that was a few yards away from the glade, but close enough so that he could keep a sharp eye on the area. The thief then scuttled deftly up the trunk, settling himself on a branch somewhere in the middle. His cargo, a single bag that was strapped tightly to his shoulder, banged uncomfortably against his hip, but he ignored it; the contents of this bag, he knew, were worth much more than his life, and putting up with their slightly hindering weight was the least of his responsibilities.

His employer, the one who had given him both the pendant and the job, had been somewhat scarce on the details: collect first prize, transport to forest, watch deer, wait for signal. The thief had accomplished the first three instructions and was now waiting for the signal – whatever that may be. But he was used to working with a minimum of information, and could always improvise if needed.

His time in the tree lasted for about three minutes, though it felt much longer. To amuse himself he watched one of the deer, a small doe with a bad foreleg, twitch in her sleep. No doubt she wouldn't last much longer and be picked off by a bear or wolf in the near future. The thief wondered if she was dreaming about a time when her leg had been whole and she could run just as fast and free as her herd . . .

A sudden explosion ripped through the air. Startled, the thief flung an arm to his face as fierce wind, twigs, and leaves flew over him. The old, somewhat tattered bag which held his prize stirred and knocked against his side. Dimly, he heard the deer bolt and cautiously lowered his arm to peer at the place where they had been lying moments before.

The glade now resembled a crater in the ground, with a few of the trees surrounding it scorched and bare. He winced slightly at the sight of them, glad that he had chosen one a little further back. That, he presumed, was the signal.

He recovered quickly from the shock of the blast and looked around the area. His heart leapt. There, in plain sight, tendrils of mist curling around it, was the other prize. It was different in colour, but otherwise identical to the one in his bag; and it was almost within his reach.

Taking a deep breath, he cautiously lowered himself to the ground. He waited a moment until the crippled doe, hindered because of her leg, ran past his tree in the direction of her herd, before taking a few steps towards the crater.

An arrow suddenly hissed through the air and embedded itself in the wood just centimetres from his head. Bewildered, he ducked down out of reflex and pulled out the gnarled dagger than also hung at his hip. Who could have seen him? Who was out here to see him? He'd thought the place was deserted.

The thief looked around, trying to see his assailant through the darkness. Indistinct voices reached his ears, growing louder by the second, and he immediately tensed up before scurrying back up the tree to a better vantage point.

"What was that?"
"I don't know, but it made me lose that deer!"

"Don't go after it! It's probably dangerous."

The thief blinked and relaxed slightly. Clearly, the arrow had been meant for the doe, not him. However, his prize was still down there and he was stuck up in the tree. Could he perhaps make a dash for it before the people got to it?

"Hey, what's that?"

Too late. The thief watched with increasing dismay as two figures entered the desecrated glade. They were both male, he could tell, and each had a bow in hand. The slightly shorter one's bow was strung, and he had presumably let loose the arrow. He had spotted the prize first and now approached it with mixed feelings of caution and curiosity written across his youthful features. The other lingered back, looking around the area as though expecting the cause of the explosion to jump out from the shadows.

"Hey Murtagh, come look at this," the younger one said, having finally mustered up the courage to touch the prize. The thief watched as his hands moved over its smooth surface before holding it in a firm grip and lifting it off the charred ground. "What do you think it is?"

"Something dangerous, no doubt," his companion replied curtly. However, he looked curious in spite of himself and reluctantly moved closer. When he caught sight of the object in the other boy's hands, however, his eyes widened and he took a step back. "Put it back!" he hissed.

The boy looked up, confused. "What?"

"Seriously Eragon, put it back," Murtagh repeated, looking around once more. "It – looks dangerous."

Yes, that's right, dangerous, the thief thought desperately. Put it back!

Now Eragon looked plain incredulous. "How could it be dangerous? It's just a stone. Maybe we could sell it, or exchange it for meat or something."

Exchange the prize for meat?! The thief couldn't believe he was hearing this. He himself wasn't even close to understanding the treasure's full wealth or purpose, but he knew that, with what he went through to get the other one, it was worth much more than some poor farm boy's winter nourishment.

While the two boys bickered and he attempted to figure out a way around this new hitch in the plan, the thief's foot, which had been resting precariously on a smooth part of the trunk, suddenly slipped. Startled, his hold on the branch faltered and he tipped sideways, causing the bag at his hip to sway dangerously. Suddenly, the worn strap on his shoulder, finally done in by all the pressure it had endured, finally snapped. His heart leapt with panic and he only just had time to grab the bag as it fell. Unfortunately, he'd grabbed the bottom of it, and he watched with a kind of horror as his first prize slipped out of the open flap and fell to the ground.

Both boys stopped their argument and looked up immediately. Murtagh frowned and strung his bow before slowly approaching the tree, Eragon not far behind. The thief had no choice but to stay concealed within the dark foliage and watch as the older boy came closer and closer to the prize. No, no, no, no, no . . . his mind chanted with increasing panic, but he forced himself to stay silent.

Murtagh found the prize first, but didn't touch it. Instead, his head snapped up to look up at the tree, sharp eyes peering through the branches. Thankfully for the thief, it was dark, and he melted easily into the shadows.

"Hey look, it's another one. That one must be yours," Eragon piped up from behind.

His companion shot him a scowl. "It's not mine, just like that one's not yours," he insisted.

The younger boy gave an exasperated sigh. "What are you so scared of?"

Murtagh hesitated, and though his face gave nothing away, the thief could tell there was something he wasn't telling his companion. "Nothing, it's just . . ."

"So let's take them back to the village!"

"They'll slow us down!"

"So? If we carry one each . . ."

"I'm not carrying that thing!" he snapped, though it was clear Eragon wasn't going to give up lightly.

Okay, the thief thought, Time to improvise. He could always kill them – in fact, the temptation to jump on Murtagh from the tree with his dagger was almost irresistible. However, his employer had been quite clear; get the prizes, do it without being seen, with no blood shed. He had already made too many mistakes tonight without disobeying a direct order.

But whet else could he do?

"Look, I just don't think it would be a good idea." Murtagh was starting to sound as desperate as the thief was feeling. Eragon, however, was having none of it.

"Murtagh, you know how scarce food is these days. I mean, none of us have been able to catch a single thing since setting out, and you know that we're two of Carvahall's best huntsmen."

Modest, aren't you?

Murtagh bit his lip and Eragon continued. "Face it, we need money. When the traders get here were can ask them how much these stones would be worth. I reckon it would be quite a lot, don't you?"

"Worth our lives?" Murtagh muttered, but Eragon didn't seem to hear him, instead reciting the names of several traders whom he knew specialised in precious relics.

I don't have to kill them – maybe I could just knock them out? But then they'd see me and that can't happen either . . .

Eragon sighed and looked at his companion appealingly. "Look, why don't we at least take it home and ask what Roran's opinion is. If he thinks we should get rid of them, then I'm outnumbered. Alright?"

Murtagh still looked deeply reluctant, but the thief could see his resistance crumbling, and wondered if he was always this much of a pushover, or just when it came to Eragon.

Finally, he sighed and said, "Fine. But don't ask me for anything else for the rest of the year."

Eragon smiled triumphantly. "Deal."

Murtagh gave one more resentful look at the prize, still lying at the base of the tree, before sighing and bending down to pick it up. He held it for a brief moment, examining it with doubtful eyes, then carefully tucked it into his pack. Eragon did the same, looking satisfied in contrast to his companion's clear unhappiness, then led the way out of the glade. Murtagh took one last glance at the scorched area, before disappearing into the surrounding forest.

Up in the tree, the thief, waited helplessly with burning eyes until they were out of sight, before banging his head soundly on the trunk in self-condemnation.

That did not go well . . .

Okay, I know what you're all thinking. Enough mysteries, we want answers! I promise you they will come in time, please just be patient. This chapter was hard for me to write because I had to be original and stick to the plot at the same time. Please tell me if you think the structure is a little off or the new twist is unbelievable. The plot is really starting to pick up now, and next chapter we will finally get to the village and fill in some of the blanks. Thank you once again for all your supportive reviews.