Author's note: I am not a fan of the Inheritance trilogy/cycle/abominable thing. I wrote this largely because the protagonist of "Eragon," "Eldest" and "Brisingr" is an immature idiot. There are several characters in the story who are a lot more interesting than he is, and it's a pity that they don't get more page time. Regardless, of course, I own none of this stuff, and I'm just doing this for entertainment.

--

"Go on, son of Morzan. Touch the eggs. Talk to them. See if one will hatch for you."

"What makes you think one will?" asked Murtagh, trying to summon up some confidence. His voice cracked, betraying his fear.

Galbatorix said only, "Oh, I think one of them will. I have known many Riders, and you have the right qualities. Let us see."

Trembling, Murtagh approached the eggs. He was not sure which he was more afraid of: that an egg would hatch, or that it wouldn't.

The decision was not his to make, though.

He touched the green egg first, pressing both hands flat on its shell. It felt cool, not much different from any ordinary stone. He put an ear to it, listening for signs of life within. He could detect nothing. Cautiously, he rolled the egg over, but as soon as he let go of it, it stopped moving. It might as well have been a rock.

He shifted his attentions to the other egg, the red one. Somehow, he thought that if either was to hatch for him, it would be that one, but he had saved it for last.

As he touched the red egg, he could feel something moving inside it. And it was warm, warmer than the green one. Forgetting the king watching him, he dropped to his knees and pressed his ear to the scarlet shell. There was no doubt about it: the red dragonling was alive in there!

It bumped against the inside of its shell, weakly at first. Then again, stronger. Murtagh fancied he could hear a tiny voice peeping, though that must be his imagination. There was no air inside the egg, after all. Or not much.

As he watched in wonder, the egg began to rock slightly. He wanted to reach out and break it open himself, to save the hatchling the trouble, but Galbatorix had warned him of dire penalties if he should do so. The young dragon had to fight its own way into the world.

He could tell, even before the shell parted wide enough for him to see anything, that the red dragonling knew him, and wanted to be his. He felt flickers of its thoughts as it reached out to him, questing. I'm here, little one, he thought at it. Keep fighting. Don't give up. I'm right outside your shell, waiting to welcome you.

Many minutes passed. It might have been hours. Murtagh sat and watched his dragon struggle to hatch. Galbatorix moved little, except to finger the hilt of his sword now and then, or stroke his mustache. The crack grew wider. A tiny fragment of red shell came loose and dropped away.

Then, with a crackling noise, the hairline split lengthened by several inches. Murtagh instinctively reached out to touch the egg, but Galbatorix called, "Hands off! Remember," and he drew his hand away, burning with shame and anger. He hated that the king insisted on invading what should be a private moment between him and his dragon. More than that, at the back of his mind was the awful knowledge that the beautiful young life birthing itself before his eyes was only going to be doomed to a life of slavery.

Murtagh forced his thoughts about his captivity below the surface of his mind, not wanting to discourage the dragonling. Let it have at least these few moments of free choice. Let it delight in its first gulp of air. If it could only have that much, maybe that would be enough to keep the two of them going.

The crack became longer still, and began to widen. Murtagh held his breath. To keep himself from shouting, he began to count his own heartbeats silently.

The egg gave one last crackle, and the broken shell parted in two. Out crawled an awkward, sticky dragon hatchling. It was crimson red.

It was a tired, ungainly baby, but it was beautiful! The delicate wings, the perfect little claws, the bright, glittering eyes ... Murtagh had never seen anything so wonderful in his life. And it was all the more marvelous for the hours he had waited to see it.

He reached out to remove a piece of shell from the dragon's wing. He allowed himself to rest a hand on its side for just a moment. The creature was so tiny and fragile. He could feel its ribs rise and fall with its breath.

Then a hot, burning sensation in his palm made him cry out! He pulled his hand away and stared at it, as a glowing, silvery mark appeared there. It looked just like the mark on Galbatorix's hand ... and on Eragon's. At the same moment, he felt the rush of a warm presence connecting with his mind. The dragon had bonded to him.

"Excellent," said Galbatorix, from the shadows. "Congratulations, Dragon Rider."

I'm here, said the red dragonling to Murtagh, staring into his wide eyes. You are mine now, and I am yours. We are together! Partners forever. We are complete.

Despite himself, Murtagh felt a surge of exultant pride. It was as if he had shared in the dragonling's struggle to break free from its egg, and so shared in the triumph when it finally emerged. And what an accomplishment it had been! He stroked the dragon, wiping away the bits of egg fluid, as the dragon started to lick itself clean.

"What is its name?" asked Galbatorix. "I must know your dragon's name."

My dragon, thought Murtagh. At least Galbatorix could not take this one thing away from him. He might own both Murtagh and the dragon, but he did not own their bond. Though the little red hatchling might serve Galbatorix, it would only be because Murtagh himself was forced to serve.

The dragon was ruby red, and in the dim torchlight, its scales shone like a jewel. Murtagh was reminded of Zar'roc, his father's crimson sword. He hoped Eragon was making good use of it, for it was a very fine blade. Though it had an unfortunate name: a name of pain, chosen by Morzan, who delighted in pain.

Thorn, said the hatchling, unexpectedly. That is my name. I am Thorn.

It had sensed Murtagh's thoughts, and the newborn creature was impressionable. It thought that sharp things were what its own life was going to be like. A part of Murtagh was unhappy that his dragon had chosen a name of hurt.

But another part of him, bitter and angry at the unfair hand fate had dealt him, decided yes: the name was very appropriate. The dragon was born into the service of Galbatorix, and its life would be turned to inflict pain on others. Like Murtagh himself, the dragon was destined to be a weapon. Murtagh and Thorn would be agents of destruction, as they were born to be. They could not escape their wyrd. Galbatorix would see to that.

"Thorn," he whispered, hoping Galbatorix would not be able to hear. But of course, the king heard. And he remembered.

--

Several hours later, Murtagh was prodded awake, none too gently. He opened his eyes to see the butt end of a spear in his face. Thorn was curled up against his stomach, snoozing.

"Get up," growled a soldier. Murtagh did so, feeling dread slough away the peace of sleep. Disturbed by his movement, Thorn woke as well, and keened his unhappiness at losing the warm body that had sheltered him. Murtagh picked him up and cradled him against his chest.

"Where are we going now?" he asked, although he knew it was pointless to inquire. They would tell him anything Galbatorix felt he needed to know, and no more. Wherever they were going would soon become self-evident. Murtagh thought he could guess, and he soon found out his guess was right.

The soldiers led him straight to the throne room. Murtagh knew the king was going to make him swear allegiance, and Thorn too. There was no way out. Unless, perhaps, the king only demanded that Murtagh swear ... perhaps he might decide that Thorn did not need to ...

Murtagh had hoped, in fact, that they would leave him and Thorn alone for a little while, maybe a few weeks, to let Thorn grow a bit before he got broken in. But apparently Galbatorix was not so patient. He wanted his new dragon and Rider to start their work right away. It was probably Eragon's fault: if he hadn't been out there making trouble, Galbatorix would not be in such a hurry to train his own new Rider.

They entered the grand hall, with the high ceiling that seemed alive with darkness. The light of the torches barely touched the roof, and it danced with eerie shadows. Galbatorix was seated on his throne, dressed in rich black furs, and a gold crown set with glittering gems was on his head.

The guards took their hands off Murtagh and stood away. Murtagh watched the king, holding his dragon. At last, Galbatorix spoke.

"Put that dragon down on the floor," he said, his voice echoing coldly in the enormous stone room. "Let it learn to walk by itself. You shall not coddle it. I will not allow you to make your dragon a weakling."

I'm not weak! said Thorn, in a voice only Murtagh could hear. I was only born yesterday. I can't help it if I'm small. I'll grow.

"All he needs is a little time," began Murtagh, but the king cut him off.

"He can have time to himself after he has done his work. Those who do not work deserve no rest. Now, do as I say, and put him down."

Reluctantly, Murtagh lowered the young dragon to the marble floor. Thorn tried to cling to him, snagging his claws in Murtagh's shirt. Murtagh disengaged himself and set Thorn at his feet, hating what the king was forcing him to do.

Thorn huddled against his legs at first, but he soon picked up Murtagh's determination not to be cowed. The little dragon sat, with as much dignity as possible, and curled his tail neatly around his feet as he faced the king. His head, though he held it up proudly, did not even reach as high as the tops of Murtagh's boots.

Galbatorix mellowed slightly at the young dragon's show of spirit. "Better," he said. "Now, you shall both kneel to me, and swear your allegiance. You will repeat the words I give you in the ancient language. And you well know, Murtagh, that you cannot break an oath in that tongue. Thorn, you must understand this too."

What does he mean? asked Thorn, slightly apprehensive. What is this 'ancient language' he speaks of? And why must we swear to obey him in it?

The ancient language is the language of magic, replied Murtagh, without moving. It is as he said: once we swear our obedience to him, using the words he gives us, we cannot disobey his orders even if we wanted to.

That seems unfair, said Thorn. At least, you think it is unjust. I sense it.

"Kneel!" roared Galbatorix suddenly, interrupting the thought-conversation between dragon and Rider. Both Thorn and Murtagh flinched.

"I do not have all day to wait for you two. You will not sleep tonight until you have accomplished a number of tasks, and this is only the first – so I suggest you get moving."

"No," said Murtagh, tensing himself for a fight. He thought of Eragon, and Thorn picked up his thoughts. "I will never swear allegiance to you. Not in this language, nor in any other."

Galbatorix did not even have to gesture at the soldiers. They knew their duty. Four of them advanced to force Murtagh down. He turned his back on the king to fight them, readying himself for battle, even though they were armed and he was not.

Murtagh, said Thorn. You are frightened. You are frightening me. I am scared. What is going on? Will these men hurt you?

Don't worry, answered Murtagh. They may try to hurt me, but I'm not going to let them. Even as he thought it, he knew that he was lying. This fight was futile; he was in the heart of Galbatorix's fortress and surrounded by countless enemies, with no ally but the tiny dragonling beside him. There was not even the meanest hope of escape. But he would not be able to live with himself if he did not at least try. He eyed the two nearest soldiers, wondering how best to get a weapon away from one of them.

Suddenly a child's scream startled him. He whirled around to see two more soldiers holding Thorn between them, twisting his wings, while another pointed a spear at the little dragon. Thorn cried, and the fear-pain of his thoughts was far worse than the shrill sound in Murtagh's ears.

Murtagh! My Rider! Help me! he cried.

"Stop!" yelled Murtagh, forgetting about his own defenses. "Let him go! Let him go right now, or I'll kill you both!"

He rushed at the soldiers, not knowing what he was going to do them, and not caring. He would kill anyone who tried to hurt his dragon. There was no one else in the world he cared about – no one else he loved. In the hell of Uru'baen, Thorn was not just his life's companion ... he was Murtagh's only hope.

With the strength of desperation, Murtagh landed on the back of one of the soldiers holding Thorn. He had a chokehold around the man's neck instantly. The soldier let go of Thorn and tried to pull Murtagh's arms off, but he could not get air, and his resistance crumbled in moments. He sank to the floor, unconscious or dead. Murtagh broke his neck to be certain, and stepped over his body. The other soldier had dropped Thorn and drawn his sword. The spearman still stood threatening Murtagh's dragon, never taking his eyes off it.

Murtagh paused, two paces away, not daring to come nearer, for the spear.

Are you hurt, Thorn? he asked. What did they do to you?

The dragonling was on his feet, but he was shaking. I ... I think I'm all right, he said, but his thought-voice was pitiful. If he'd been a human child, he would have been close to tears. They just twisted my wings a little. It hurt, but nothing is broken. And I'm bruised from being dropped on the floor. Murtagh, I want to go. I want to leave this place. Take me out of here, take me somewhere safe.

Murtagh swallowed, trying to get rid of the lump in his throat. "I'm sorry, little one," he whispered. "I don't think we are ever going to leave this place."

"Not until you have promised to obey me, at any rate," said Galbatorix. He had not moved from his throne during the scuffle. "If you will not cooperate ... why then, perhaps your dragon will."

The soldier with the spear stepped forward, and hefted it as though he meant to stab Thorn with it. Surrounded by half a dozen men, there was nowhere for the dragon to run.

"No!" exclaimed Murtagh, sharply. His voice had broken again. "Please. Thorn is only a hatchling. He doesn't deserve to be harmed. If you want to hurt someone, hurt me instead. Not him."

No! wailed Thorn. They cannot hurt you, Murtagh! I will not let them!

Murtagh tried to draw a deep breath. It was all so impossible, so unfair. Had Eragon gone through anything like this, when his Saphira first hatched?

No. The two of them were free. Born free, and raised free. They were lucky. They didn't know it, but they were the luckiest dragon and Rider in all of Alagaesia. They weren't trapped in the clutches of Galbatorix, and gods willing, they never would be.

Murtagh could not bear it. He was too exhausted to even spend the breath to curse his fate. Despair overwhelmed him.

Thorn looked at Galbatorix, and spoke to the king directly for the first time. I will swear, he said. Tell me the words and I will speak them.

Thorn, you can't, thought Murtagh, tiredly. You don't know Galbatorix as I do. You don't know what he will make you promise. He will force you to betray friends and attack the innocent. There are some things worse than death.

There is only one thing I fear, replied Thorn, and that is separation from you, my Rider. I cannot let you be killed, no matter what. I will do anything I must, to stop it. I love you, and I cannot live without you.

Murtagh sighed, feeling as if the last of his hope were leaving him with his breath.

Do not despair, said Thorn. As long as we are together, all is not lost. We have each other. Never forget that.

Murtagh nodded. Galbatorix seemed to know what had passed between them, even though Murtagh was certain Thorn had not spoken for the king to hear.

"Are you ready now?" said the king.

"Yes," said Murtagh, in a flat voice. He shut out all traces of Eragon and the Varden from his mind. Hardest to banish was the image of Nasuada -- the memory of her movements, the sound of her voice. He forced himself to think only of Thorn, only of survival. The others were far away, and in any case, they meant but little to him. They weren't his friends. They had no claim on his loyalty. Thorn was his only friend, and he had to keep himself and Thorn safe. Whatever the cost.

Slowly, he knelt before Galbatorix, and Thorn came to his side. He put his hand on the dragon, and the touch comforted both of them. As long as they were together, nothing else mattered.

"I am ready now."