Galbatorix's lips curled with pleasure. His Rider was kneeling before him, submitting to his will. He had seen much of Murtagh's will over the past weeks, and the young man's distaste for orders only made him rise in his king's opinion. And still Murtagh bowed before him, waiting for his command.
"I have trained you well, Murtagh."
His Rider said nothing.
"You are as strong as your father Morzan. And I have more lessons to teach you that will make you stronger still. Perform this task, and I will take you into my confidence. Fail, and punishment will be sure."
"Yes, my lord."
"The Varden and the dwarves gather for battle. They expect a Rider. I intend to give them one." Galbatorix's eyes were hard on Murtagh's impassive face. "You will be announced by the captains' horns and by drums. Do not let yourself be seen before then. Do not participate in the battle in any way until the time when I have commanded you."
"I would do nothing to endanger Thorn," said Murtagh's steely voice.
Galbatorix smiled indulgently. "Ah, yes, your dragon. As large as the blue one now, no doubt, and just as strong. He's a fine match for you. You've grown as quickly as your brother, Murtagh, and you have the advantage of age and experience. I look forward to hearing of your victory."
Murtagh knew he was dismissed. He wheeled on his heel and stalked out of the hall, his boots echoing on the stone floor and sounding to his ears like the drums that would herald his approach in battle. He had been outfitted as Galbatorix's Rider, encased in steel armor and given his familiar hand-and-a-half sword. He took his helmet from the armory and went out into the courtyard where a similarly armored Thorn was waiting. Now easily the size of Eragon's dragon, its scales glittered in the moonlight as though they were wet. To Murtagh, they looked like they were covered in blood, and he felt like he was marching to his doom.
Stop! cried a voice in his head. Eragon is a friend, your brother!
Eragon is nothing to me, he argued with himself.
You have waited for this, you have wanted this. He's your blood!
I will spill his, Murtagh countered. But still the voice kept on. Pride, honor, respect, it argued, were at risk. Take Galbatorix as master and lose all!
"But I have lost all!" he growled, buckling his sword to Thorn's saddle.
You have doubts? Thorn's voice entered his swirling thoughts.
"I've weighed my choices and I've made my decision. I don't know anymore, but soon I will."
Then we fly for battle?
Murtagh nodded grimly, climbing into the saddle and gripping tightly as Thorn rose into the air with a roar. His dragon was prime for battle, ready and eager for it. He was fully trained, his subconscious already rifling through strategies for war, defensive and offensive movements, and the best way to both rally and goad the troops under his command.
But still the voice kept on, his conscience making a last stand before it was cut down in pitiable silence. And for the moment, he ignored it. Now, things were different. Now, things had changed. Now, he was where he had been before, before when he was trapped by Galbatorix. He had had his time of relief, his escape as a time of training and rest before he had to return and make his decisions, face his fears or succumb to them. He knew he was succumbing and was trying to defend what he was becoming from what he had been and still wanted to be. But things had changed. He needed to know. His mind needed to be filled, it could not be his peaceful sanctuary anymore because it had been invaded and tempted with ultimate knowledge. It was peaceful no longer; it was no more his refuge. He had Thorn, a dragon trained for war, as his refuge and single friend. His choice had not begun as his own, but he had not had the strength to turn back from the path Galbatorix had forcefully set him on.
He did not have the strength now. That was why he rode his dragon, girded for war, against a young man who was his brother and greatest friend under the command of a madman he had once sworn never to serve. The hopeless irony of it made tears slide down the gilded breastplate. The great red dragon tilted its head as it flew and it shuddered with the force of its Rider's pain. But it had chosen too, under the same uneven circumstances as its Rider.
So they both would take their battles into war.
A/N: Yes, you all thought I was dead. -smirk- Sorry this chapter is so short, but at least it's something, right? I can't write anything else for this until I have Eldest in front of me and I can do it according to the book's timeline, so don't expect an update until December. By then I'll be on break.