Disclaimer: Everything canon belongs to Christopher Paolini. No money is being made from this story.

Warning: Slash. Adult content concerning matters of violent and sexual nature. M for a reason.

A/Ns: This is what happens when a "funny" little idea goes wild – and serious. The story is set in Alagaësia, but it's nonetheless AU. While having to twist and change numerous facts, I still tried to stay as true to the feeling of the canon as possible. I'm also aware that a few questions might arise while reading the fic, because at times things are mentioned/referred to in one chapter and explained/resolved only in much later chapters. Moreover, often a larger period of time passes in between two scenes or between chapters. However, for anyone reading closely neither should be a problem.

As for updates: a new chapter every Thursday.

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For me, fanfiction can be defined easily by asking only one question: What if?

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Italics:

a) the occasional emphasis

b) flashbacks

c) mind-to-mind communication

d) what I call 'direct' thoughts, usually marked by an "I" or "we" and always present tense


The only journey is the one within – Rainer Maria Rilke

Chapter 1

10th Hay Moon


Murtagh spurred his horse forward when he heard the first clap of thunder in the distance. "Wait here!" he ordered the two men accompanying him, not once looking back whether they in fact stayed at the bottom of the little hill. He was not disobeyed.

His horse's breath was heavy and its coat was soaked with sweat, yet it changed from trot to canter willingly, carrying its rider towards the crest. Murtagh was all too aware of the state his mount was in, not oblivious of the gadflies devouring it whenever their pace lessened. A little more, he thought, just a little more, my friend. He reached down with one gloved hand, petting the neck encouragingly, but was careful to avoid the sticky foam which covered both chest and shoulders. And his trusted companion of many battles hastened on.

He was never disobeyed.

On reaching the bare, treeless top of the hill, he reined in his horse and his mood darkened. Below him endless forest stretched to all directions, thick with undergrowth and littered with massive boulders – an area hard to cross under the best of circumstances. Now, however, the brooding, midday summer heat was about to give way to a major thunderstorm, and Murtagh glowered at the sky ahead, where dark blue and nearly black clouds were approaching rapidly.

They had known for a few hours that the weather would be changing soon, had watched the swallows dive deep for insects, and had suffered from sultriness so intense that after a while they had run out of curses to insult the weather god. However, Murtagh had not expected a storm of the extend that was unfolding in front of his eyes. Despite being drenched in sweat, he suddenly felt the hairs on his neck stand on end, as if they were warning him of unknown dangers. We can't change directions nor take a break! Growling quietly, he accepted the inevitable.

He turned his horse around and galloped back downhill. "Hurry!" he called to the two soldiers waiting. "It won't be long anymore before all hell breaks lose."

It turned out worse than they had expected.

At first they even welcomed the rain, which cooled them down and washed them clean. But after a while the riders got cold and soon freezing, and their horses detested the rain pattering on their heads. And instead of feeling protected from the strong gusts of wind in the midst of the forest, Murtagh was also immensely worried of being slain by a falling branch, as he had witnessed a not so small tree giving in to the storm and come crashing down. Yet he had not heard a single thing over the noise, so now he was constantly looking up, scanning the trees, and not trusting his hearing anymore. His horse would find a way on its own through the thick forest.

"Murtagh, sir!"

Murtagh's head snapped back when he heard Grimgald over the howling of the wind and in between two thunderclaps.

"This is madness!" Grimgald yelled, making a gesture which included himself, the young man riding close at his side, and their surroundings, but carefully leaving out his lord. "It's not a storm, but a curse!"

Murtagh brushed a strand of dark, wet hair from his face, acutely aware of the cold in his fingers. How is it possible for the rain to be so icy after so many hot days? He rode closer to his companions and scrutinized Grimgald for a moment, noticing that his sergeant was wrapped tightly in his cloak, only the hand holding the reins showing. Then his gaze fell on the other person, Marus, who was staring down at the ground, looking thoroughly miserable. "Marus, what do you think?" Murtagh felt himself agreeing with Grimgald already, but he would never admit to it if the boy said something different.

Said young man flinched and looked up, though avoiding Murtagh's eyes. "Milord? I… I don't know."

Murtagh cocked his head and flicked his tongue – whether about the answer or the fact that the young man was so obviously afraid of him, he did not know. "Shall we go on or not?"

Marus glanced at Grimgald, hoping for support, but the older man stared ahead into nowhere. "I-I think tha-that…" He paused and licked his lips. "I think that maybe we should rest a little, milord." His eyes suddenly darted to those of Murtagh before he blushed and quickly looked away again.

Murtagh hesitated only a moment longer before nodding his head and urging his horse to move. Their pace was now ridiculous in any case, thus waiting for the storm to end might truly be the best they could do.

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Even though evening must have still been far off, it was dark as night outside and Murtagh was staring into the fire that he had lit with magic, a source of both warmth and light.

He was sitting on bare ground beneath a roof of huge granite rocks, which also formed two of the three sides of what looked like a makeshift home of giants. He saw the others' silhouettes on the opposite side of the fire, their chests moving ever so slightly, sleeping despite being almost completely wet. He could smell the horses somewhere behind him and knew they had huddled close together for comfort and warmth, as the cold rain was still pouring and every few seconds flashes briefly lit up the world.

He knew he had asked a lot of all of them in the past days, but hardship was necessary in times like these and they were not yet at the end of their journey. However, although he urgently needed to rest, too, it was what he had seen in Marus' eyes earlier that kept him awake. The young soldier had been mortified. Due to the weather, true, but more so due to him, Murtagh.

Murtagh expected respect and obedience from his men, aspects necessary for all of them to survive. He trained them for battle and led them to war, and, though he was young still, he was good at both – if his men fought as he told them to, their losses were few. Along the way, their successes on the battlefields increased not only their own reputation and power, but also Murtagh's. It was about giving and taking.

His men, out of respect but also out of loyalty towards his house, saw him safe, not only when they were surrounded by enemies, but even more so when surrounded by allies. The king Galbatorix, Murtagh knew, did not trust him as he had trusted his father – in these chaotic days even less than previously. For Murtagh, though, this was no reason for grief.

Ever since his father had died, he had tried hard not to become like the cruel man he remembered, and he had thought he was doing a decent job of it… until today. True, he was dangerous, yet he had always made a point to be different towards his men.

He had immediately recognized the look in Marus' eyes, having seen it a thousand times when people were crouching in front of his father, still seeing it when people were around Galbatorix. He knew what the boy must have felt, as he had grown up feeling the same.

The longer he thought about it, the worse Murtagh felt. Even Grimgald, he realized, was not speaking his thoughts anymore. Grimgald, who had seen Murtagh go from infant to man, who – besides Tornac, who Murtagh still held in highest regards, and others – had trained him to become who he was today. Perhaps the sergeant would never go back to calling him 'milord', staying with the somewhat more familiar 'sir', yet other parts of the older man's behaviour had definitely changed over the past year.

Murtagh swallowed hard, forgetting all about the cold, only noticing the lump in his stomach. What else have I missed? With a shock he recalled how others had reacted to him the last time he had been among people familiar to him. They had been terrified. Why have I never noticed? Or had he simply not cared? Had he really transformed so much now that he was a Rider, Galbatorix' most powerful servant, in rank above all except the king himself? Because it now dawned on him that the one thing he had never wanted to happen was in the process of becoming true: he was turning into the person he hated most, he was growing into a man resembling his father.

His father who had never cared.

Murtagh's eyes were watering and he angrily tried to blink the tears away. However, he could not help clutching both hands to his belly in an attempt to lessen the dull pain.

"Get up already!" Morzan casually sank back on his chair as if he had not just beaten the other to the ground or kicked him in the stomach. "Don't be such a weakling!"

An odd mix of fear and fury was surging through Murtagh's veins and he slowly pushed himself into a kneeling position. But when he tried to stand up, he learned that his legs would not yet carry him.

"What a shame!" Morzan spat to the ground, missing Murtagh only by inches. "Look at you!"

With a few swift strides and ignoring the irate stare from his lord, Tornac moved to Murtagh's side, grabbed one of his arms and pulled him up. "You're now ten years old," he whispered urgently so that only Murtagh could hear. "You can take it. Don't get mad – you know how dangerous that would be."

Murtagh ground his teeth and gave his trainer a nearly imperceptible nod. "Let me go, I can walk." When Tornac obeyed, Murtagh looked at Morzan. "Milord." He bowed, turned around and staggered away.

Never again would he remind his father of his birthday.

More than angry with himself, Murtagh slammed a fist to the floor. What has happened to the values and virtues that Tornac taught me and that I swore to honour all my life?

He thought about it for a while, but his mind stayed blank. He did not know. He simply did not know. Only one thing was certain: his behaviour had degraded ever since Thorn had hatched for him. This was the most puzzling of it all, as Murtagh always considered his red dragon the best part of his life. Through Thorn, I gained immense power. What if that triggered this blasted part of Morzan's heritage? He sighed and closed his eyes, whishing the huge creature near, needing to discuss this with the only one left that he could truly talk to. Be it as it was, though, Murtagh had to deal with the situation himself.

Still staring into the fire, he eventually made a silent vow to fight the monster he was becoming, to start proving himself a worthy man for others to die for, and, most of all, to attack the fear in Marus' eyes. He vowed to begin right then and there, but once he had decided, his spirit lifted as it always did when a plan was made, and his consciousness gave way to exhaustion.

Within minutes he was fast asleep, ignoring the thunder and the storm, and also seeing nothing of the unusually bright flash outside. A flash that was neither white nor lasting only an instant, but instead it lasted moments and was of a sapphire blue, the colour of the stolen egg…

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Murtagh woke with a start, noticing right away that all was quiet except the occasional snort of a horse and some chirping birds. For a moment he looked out at the world in wonder, for it seemed as if the gods had stepped down and had turned this patch of earth into their playground, leaving nothing unchanged. We must have spent the night at the center of the storm! He took in how a good deal of the large, old trees around their shelter was not standing anymore, instead littering the forest floor as partly insuperable obstacles. Those trees still standing were not able to hold back the bright, early morning sun from sending its rays down to the ground. The air was fresh and clean and once again held the promise of warming up later.

He blinked, realizing how long he must have slept. Only his surroundings had changed, he reminded himself, nothing else. Somewhere else in Alagaësia the king would be waking up, too, and would still be raging about the loss of one of his precious two eggs. And elsewhere his enemies would be celebrating their greatest victory yet.

Elves, Murtagh suspected, had managed to steal the egg, which is why he had chosen his horse and not his dragon for the trip to the north. This way, he could spend some time in Du Weldenvarden practically unnoticed, although his hopes to learn something this far in the west of the forest had been small from the start. And indeed he had not seen a single elf, so he was eager to get to Ceunon, to learn whether the treacherous trader Jeod was involved in the theft. In the city, he was expecting to meet a spy, someone who would not stay long and might also sell his knowledge to the highest bidder if Murtagh was not around soon to pay him off. Thus, he should not delay.

He heard the low murmurs of Grimgald and Marus talking among each other and his anger was rising. Why haven't they woken me? They know that this mission is urgent. How dare- Suddenly Murtagh remembered his musings from the day before and tried to calm his emotions. Grimgald had said for days that Murtagh needed rest, so not waking him had probably been done with the best of intentions.

Cursing under his breath about his stiff muscles, Murtagh slowly sat up. "Morning."

The soldiers had had their backs to him and had been sitting on a fallen log, but now both jumped up and turned around. "Good morning, milord!" Marus hurried to respond, while Grimgald only watched Murtagh warily, apparently all too aware that the storm had ended hours ago and that they could have been moving again already.

Murtagh got up, buckled his long sword at his side and fastened the smaller blade across his back, and headed for his horse's saddle, lifting it off the ground with a grunt. "We should get going," was the friendliest thing he could produce.

A good three hours later they had not yet covered much distance. The slippery ground forced them to go at a snail's pace, either riding around the barriers formed by fallen trees, or Murtagh lifted them with magic and moved them out of their way. However, he was not too fond of this, as he had been suspecting for a while that using magic left traces behind, traces for other magic users to detect. It was unlikely that anyone besides the three of them would soon pass through this remote, wild area, yet he did not want to give up on the recently begun habit of using as little magic as possible. Unless in battle, of course, but there, due to Thorn, his presence was obvious anyways.

Murtagh was leading the way, munching quietly on some stale bread and salt meat, allowing himself to dream about what he would have for first meal in one of his castles. His mind was still on fruits and fresh, white rolls, when his eyes caught sight of something that had him pull his horse to an abrupt stop. "Grimgald! What do you see over there to the right, underneath the large oak?"

Grimgald closed the gap on Murtagh for a better look. "Lots of fallen down branches, sir, though one of them has a strange colour…" Suddenly he drew in a sharp breath and rubbed a hand over his eyes. "It's a leg! There's a leg underneath that one large bough!"

So there is nothing wrong with my vision. "There's probably a person connected to that leg, Grimgald," Murtagh unconsciously corrected right away. Jumping off his horse he drew Zar'roc, the larger of his swords, wishing that indeed his eyes had only played a trick on him. But if Grimgald sees it, too…

He neared the leg cautiously and sure enough, the closer he came, the more he saw of someone on the other side of the big branch. It was not an elf, as a part of his mind had suspected, basing it on an odd vibe coming from the person. Instead it was a human boy or young man, lying motionless, blond hair and the rest of the body covered partly in mud. The person was fixed to the ground by the large bough on his hip and thighs. The only piece of clothing Murtagh could discern was some odd, tight-fitting sort of undergarments that was partly showing.

"It's a human boy," he said loud enough for the others to hear.

Marus fidgeted in his saddle, trying to get a better look, not daring to come close unasked for. But curiosity made him braver than usual. "Is he alive, milord?"

"I don't know," Murtagh replied, coming to a stop next to the leg and poking at it with his blade. No reaction. He poked harder, drawing some blood, but still the boy did not move. Suddenly Grimgald and Marus were at his side, and Murtagh only nodded to his sergeant before all three put their hands to the bough, heaving it off the body. It was heavy, yet not as heavy as Murtagh had expected it to be, and he figured that it could not have caused too much damage.

Murtagh pushed the boy not too gently with his foot, turning him first on his side and then on his back. An oval face appeared, finely chiselled, with high cheekbones. Rather handsome, Murtagh thought, noticing a partly open mouth sucking in air in a steady rhythm. "Alive, but unconscious," he said superfluously. He put his sword back in his sheath and went down on one knee next to the boy… or was he really? Murtagh found himself unable to guess the age. "I wonder… Grimgald! Marus! Check the surroundings. See if you find other people, a horse, clothes, anything."

The men nodded and left, leaving Murtagh to stare at the person at his side. "Who might you be?" he murmured, thinking quickly. As far as he knew, this area was uninhabited save for a few outlaws maybe. Yet this youth could not be one of them: no scars whatsoever were showing and someone with so little muscle would be heavily scarred – if he survived at all – living among them. It was a world where only the strongest lived.

A runaway slave perhaps? Murtagh checked the body for brandings, turning it around again in the process, a bit more gently this time. He saw none, so he finally pulled down that strange loincloth, wondering at its elasticity, ensuring that no one had left his mark there, either. Instead, he found the hip badly bruised in varying shades from purple to black and he fleetingly touched it, probing for damaged bones. As far as he could tell, there were none.

He pushed the boy on his backside yet another time and inspected the front of the hip, smirking to himself when he saw that it was indeed only bruises, everything else was fine. He pulled the piece of clothing up again and pushed himself upwards, slowly circling the boy. A pleasure slave perhaps? They were often not branded so as to not mar their looks, and this one fulfilled all the prerequisites normally sought for: he was slender and lean, quite opposite to the muscular soldiers Murtagh was usually surrounded with, and he had a beautiful, faultless skin, although at the moments it was dirty and there were some scratches next to the bruises, too. Murtagh studied the face once more, noticing the long eyelashes and soft lips. Pleasure slave, definitely. He wondered about the eye colour and had just decided on trying to wake the boy when his men returned, shaking their heads.

"Nothing, sir," Grimgald reported. "No traces of any other human being, or of him having carried anything except himself." Now all three of them stood around the figure on the ground, staring down at it. "What do you think, sir? A messenger?"

"A naked messenger?" Murtagh asked sceptically, yet inwardly he scolded himself an idiot. It was very well possible, because messengers were indeed the only humans passing this area on a regular basis. Especially those of Galbatorix, for the king was good in choosing some that were hard to identify. So why not this boy? Murtagh's interest was now fully aroused. What message had the king sent out that he did not know about? "Possible, though," he conceded and crouched again to lightly slap the boy's face. "Wake up!"

Nothing happened.

Murtagh slapped him again, but the boy only stirred, no more.

Ordering his men to carry the body over to a mossy spot a few yards away and prop him up against a tree, Murtagh unfastened his cloak, which was somewhat waterproof, folded it twice, and walked to a puddle of water to fetch some of it. He hurried back and emptied the provisional large bowl into the face of the boy, and sure enough, the latter started to snort. Murtagh pushed the utterly fascinated Marus away and told him to make camp.

"Sir…" Grimgald began tentatively. "Should we not move on? I mean, we must hurry if-"

"No!" Murtagh cut him short. "We must nothing." He had just made up his mind that if he wanted to be unlike his father, he should also quit following every single one of Galbatorix' orders as if they were his own heart's deepest wish. The king wanted news? He had to wait until Murtagh delivered them. He was far too interested in the strange person in front of him, and even more interested in the message he might be carrying. "We'll stay for a while. I want to talk to this one."

Grimgald nodded and retreated, helping his young comrade unsaddling the horses.

The eyelids of the boy fluttered but did not yet open, and Murtagh decided to slap him once more, convinced that after the water it was all that was needed.

He was right.

After a moment, he found himself looking into eyes that were slowly opening the more the boy regained consciousness. Azure, Murtagh noted. Pretty.

Suddenly the eyes were torn wide open in shock and the youth yelled in fear, trying to scramble away. Murtagh was faster, though, and had both hands on the other's shoulders, holding him in place. The boy struggled for a moment helplessly, uttering hostile sounds unknown to Murtagh, and then stilled, body tense and face alert.

Murtagh lessened his grip on the shoulders and held eye contact. "Who are you?" he asked sternly, but not unfriendly. This was the perfect situation for him to prove – mainly to himself – that he was not Morzan, that he was different.

The boy glared at him some more and answered. Or rather, there was a flood of sounds coming from his mouth, very harsh sounds, of which Murtagh understood not one word.

"Quiet!" he ordered, but was completely ignored. The tirade of whatever it was that the other was saying continued, and all of a sudden Murtagh felt a strong, well-aimed kick into his groin and he fell backward, cursing loudly. The boy struggled to his feet, but when he made the first step, he toppled down like a sack of flour, whimpering in pain. "Serves you right!" Murtagh growled, waving away both Grimgald and Marus who had positioned themselves to stop the youth. He could handle this very well himself.

His face an iron mask despite the pain that was close to laming him, he carefully stood up and walked over to the boy, who was lying on his side, hands clutched to his hip, panting. Murtagh drew his sword, which caused the younger one to look up. He placed the tip at the blond's throat, enjoying how the defiance in the fierce blue eyes quickly changed to fright. "So, you speak some other language, eh? And want to make me believe you don't speak the common tongue?" Sword made contact with skin, and fright turned into mortal fear. "Let's see whether Zar'roc can make you reconsider…"

The boy was frozen, his breathing shallow and rapid. He made no sound.

Murtagh sighed and rammed his sword into the ground right next to the head of the youth. He saw the other flinch and then shiver uncontrollably, but all he felt was annoyance. Can't I, for once, run into someone who doesn't need torture before he speaks? He swiftly crouched and drew his dagger to replace the sword at the throat, then brought his face close to the other's, scrutinizing him.

"So," he hissed, but then changed his mind, speaking the next words clearly and slowly. "I will make this easy for you. You only have to answer with yes or no." He slowed his speaking pace even more, pronouncing every word distinctively. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

The boy continued to watch him with terror in his eyes, but did not react in any other way.

With a sigh Murtagh shook his head. There had been nothing to read in the other's gaze, not the faintest hint of recognition. He began to accept the nearly unbelievable: he was truly not understood. Or maybe he is deaf? The boy had talked, true, but perhaps he had only lip read and had guessed that it was his turn to answer? Murtagh flipped his fingers in close proximity to the youth's left ear, keeping his hand out of eyesight. The boy winced and immediately turned his head in the right direction, displaying that there was nothing wrong with his hearing.

Murtagh mulled over this for a while. Never had he encountered someone like this. People unwilling to speak, certainly, and people unable to speak, too, but he had found ways to communicate even with those that had previously lost their tongues.

"Sir?"

Murtagh sheathed his dagger and moved away from the boy, who did not dare to move. "Speak!" He was in desperate need of a good idea.

Grimgald cleared his throat. "It looks like he truly doesn't understand you, sir."

"I think so, too."

"Do you still want to talk to him?"

Again aware of the state of undress and vulnerability of the pretty little thing at his feet, Murtagh smirked. "More than ever."

"Well," Grimgald began carefully, "he's like a child then, is he not? My… my sister has children, and I always started my first conversations with them by introducing myself. Maybe he has heard of your name, sir."

But your sister's children have grown up with our language, Murtagh thought, although introducing might truly be a good thing. "Maybe…" He sat down cross-legged and motioned for the boy to do likewise. When he heard him moan quietly he made a mental note to check the hip more closely later. There had to be more than only the bruises.

When the strange boy was finally sitting, Murtagh held his own hands in front of him, palms face up, hoping to get across that he did not mean any harm - at least at the moment. Then he pointed at himself and said slowly and audibly, "Murtagh."

The boy, whose azure stare had never once left Murtagh, scowled at him, before breaking anew into an outburst of sound. It still sounded hostile and now Murtagh's name was somewhere in the mix, too.

Grimgald chuckled involuntarily, which earned him a shocked look from Marus. "Looks like his fear is gone and he's angry again, sir."

Murtagh ignored his sergeant and instead gave the youth a likewise hostile stare as answer, because he was most definitely being insulted. Then he pointed at the boy. "In case you didn't know, what I want is your name."

The boy snorted before looking away for the first time in a while. Then he said something, quietly but without hesitation, and this time it consisted only of a few syllables.

"A-Arargon?" Murtagh tried.

The youth looked back and shook his head. "E-ra-gon. Eragon."

Murtagh only nodded. He pointed at himself again and gave the other a questioning look.

Eragon rolled his eyes. "Murtagh." He added something incomprehensible.

Murtagh's eyebrows shot up. The pronunciation had been perfect, but there had been no sign of recognition. He thought for a moment, then raised both hands again, presenting first all ten fingers, made fists, then showed nine. "Murtagh is nineteen." He felt like an idiot.

"Isnain-teen." Eragon repeated, making the exact same hand movements, before understanding dawned on his face. "Eragon," he said and held up his hands twice, one time showing ten, the other time showing six fingers. He explained something in his language, but for Murtagh is was once again only a rush of sounds.

"Sixteen. Eragon is… sixteen?" Murtagh frowned.

"That is impossible!" Marus exclaimed, before hurrying to add, "Milord."

Murtagh agreed with a nod. "This can't be. He can't be a man yet." He made a stern face at Eragon before pointing at himself again and saying slowly and carefully: "Murtagh is nineteen. Eragon is…?"

Eragon had apparently noticed their disbelief and was now looking bewildered. He held up his hands again and repeated what he had heard Murtagh say: "Eragon is… six-teen."

Murtagh shook his head. "Eragon can't be sixteen. Eragon no sixteen."

Eragon asked something, one word, and Murtagh was sure it meant 'why'.

"Because…" He looked around and saw Marus, so he waved him close. "Marus," he said, pointing at him. "Marus is sixteen."

Eragon was watching with an expectant frown on his forehead. "Marus is sixteen. Eragon is sixteen."

"But Marus is tall," Murtagh exaggerated Marus' height with one hand, "and broad," he demonstrated the span of Marus' shoulders with both hands, "and strong." Marus shoved up one sleeve of his shirt and flexed his arm, his muscles creating an impressive bulk. Murtagh looked at Eragon, waiting to see whether he had understood the arguments.

Eragon nodded, said something, then shook his head. "Eragon is… tall." He tried to push himself upright, but staggered when he was halfway straight. One of his hands immediately reached out in Murtagh's direction.

Initially stunned by this untypical sign of trust, Murtagh acted out of reflex and stepped close to offer his shoulder as support. However, he paid close and cautious attention to see whether the other would try to reach for his weapons or attack him in any other way. Yet Eragon was concentrated solely on standing upright, pain showing in his face.

Once he was standing, Eragon's breathing became even and Murtagh and both his soldiers were surprised to see that the boy was indeed tall, only an inch or so shorter than Murtagh and slightly taller than Marus. Grimgald whistled approvingly while Eragon threw Murtagh a daunting glance. "Eragon is tall. Sixteen!"

Murtagh confirmed it with a shrug. "Eragon is sixteen." The last minutes had shown him that the youth was by no means stupid, quite the opposite, actually, so he was eventually ready to accept the age. "And Eragon is hurt. Pain." He pointed at the other's hip where the bruises were showing over the waistband of… whatever it was that he was wearing.

Eragon looked in the indicated direction and up at Murtagh again. "Heard?"

"Hurt," Murtagh corrected and pinched Eragon's arm without warning. "Pain."

Eragon slapped the hand away and glowered at him. "No!"

Murtagh sighed, slowly losing his patience. He was being nicer than he had been in months, if not years, but this was taking far longer than he had intended it to and they could not rest forever. However, he was also not willing to let go of Eragon, so he decided to postpone the amiable way of conversation and do what was necessary. "Grimgald! Marus! I want to check on his hip, hold him down!" He quickly grabbed the youth and threw him off balance, though he did not let go, ensuring that the other did not fall too harshly.

The second Eragon made contact with the ground the two soldiers pinned him down effortlessly, Grimgald taking the arms and Marus sitting on the legs. Murtagh undressed the boy once more and started working. Eragon's hip was indeedpartially fractured, something Murtagh must have overlooked earlier, so he increased the pace of the healing process in the knowledge that the pain would subside throughout the day and following night.

Soon they were moving again, with Murtagh riding ahead, lost in thought. Behind him rode Marus, and the rear was formed by Grimgald and their 'guest'. The only spare item of clothing that they had come up with had been a second pair of trousers from Marus, which were full of holes and worn thin, but it was all Marus had except the leather breeches he wore now, so he always carried them around with him.

The trousers were a bit too wide for Eragon, but he had been the only one complaining. And as the day had become warm again, Murtagh had decided that they would worry about anything resembling a shirt later.

He turned around for a moment and watched the sulking youth in front of Grimgald, wondering about the tanned skin on display. There were farmers in the far south whose appearance was similar to Eragon's, farmers that worked outside all day and often took off their shirt due to the heat, but those were a month of travel away. And people born with a darker complexion never had hair this fair and rarely eyes of such a colour... Nothing about him makes sense, but why do I even bother? He is only a stranger from the side of the road.

However Eragon had ended up in the forest – almost naked, Murtagh reminded himself, smirking – apparently the last thing he had wanted was to accompany them. They had had to pry the boy off a young tree once he had understood that they were about to heave him on top of Grimgald's horse. Once mounted he had continued to struggle, so without further ado, the experienced soldier had bound Eragon's hands and now had an arm securely around his waist, pulling him close. Murtagh knew that Grimgald did not fancy men or boys, yet the two together so closely looked somewhat odd. He found himself pitying Eragon for a moment, as his sergeant stank, especially his breath, but then he quickly dismissed the thought as being foolishly sympathetic.

They rode in almost complete silence for most of the day, only Eragon's occasional mutterings and cussing in his strange language could be heard. Murtagh listened intently, telling himself that he was trying to catch something that sounded familiar, but in truth he found himself strangely drawn to the youth's voice. Yet he did not feel like starting another attempt at conversation.

When the sun began to set, Murtagh halted his horse. "Enough for today. The boy's been squirming for a while, if I'm not mistaken. Let's allow him to rest. Doesn't look like he's used to riding."

"Yes, sir." The two soldiers exchanged a wondering look before dismounting, Marus taking the reins of Murtagh's stallion. Grimgald pulled the boy down after him, simply leaving him standing and glaring at him, pointing at the ground. "Stay!"

Observing that Eragon understood the order, Murtagh wondered why he did not stop squirming, which looked funny as his hands were still tied on his back. He walked over to him, trying to solve the new riddle. "What?" It was the only way that came to his mind to ask for the problem in simple terms.

Eragon looked at him entreatingly, making odd walking movements on the spot.

Convinced that he was missing some important point, Murtagh removed one glove, reaching out to touch the naked torso to try to detect something with magic. But before he made contact, Eragon moved forward and rubbed his hip against Murtagh's for a moment, head flushed crimson.

Murtagh froze, utterly perplexed. He would have instantly beaten the other down for this behaviour had it not been for Eragon's attractiveness. Then it finally dawned on him. "You need to pee? Pee?" They had given Eragon water to drink earlier, but no one had thought of letting him urinate. Murtagh quickly unfastened the rope binding Eragon's hands and the boy managed exactly one step away from him before he tore down his trousers and found relief.

Murtagh chuckled quietly, ignoring the strange looks this earned him from his men. That boy is amusing! He stayed and waited until Eragon was done, then beckoned him to follow, which the younger hesitantly did.

The soldiers were done looking after the horses and had just started a little fire. Marus was sharpening the tips of the long twigs he had gathered, while Grimgald produced some meat to roast from his saddlebags. Murtagh sat down next to them and noticed Eragon do the same, but the boy did so some distance away from all three, eyeing them grumpily.

"Sir," Grimgald began, "we can't take him to town with us."

"It's three more days to Ceunon. I'll think of something."

"Teach him our language, milord?" Marus shifted closer to Eragon, again scanning him with fascination as he had done so often that day. Eragon felt visibly uncomfortable under the stare and folded his arms over his chest, covering the naked skin there with other naked skin.

"In three days?" Murtagh snorted. "Three month would be too short for that." He studied the youth some more, too. Lean indeed, he confirmed his first observations, but holding the promise for more. His muscles are toned, actually, simply not so prominent, and some decent practice with a sword could broaden the small of his back… "Nah, first of all I must find out where his alliance lies and what he has been in the forest for."

"With only those three words that he knows, sir?" Grimgald asked sceptically.

Murtagh threw him a sharp glance, unused to being questioned, then remembered his vow. "I guess not… But who knows?"

Grimgald shook his head and chuckled quietly. "Perhaps there will be a solution presenting itself in the morning. There is something odd about this forest, so much is for sure. Just where else in this world does it rain young lads?"

Murtagh snorted in amusement. "Hey, Eragon." The expressive eyes were once again on him. "Hungry?"

Eragon shrugged and said something in a resigned tone.

When he poked the meat at the end of his stick, Murtagh found it eatable, so he cut down a slice and handed it to Eragon. "Here, food. You have to eat."

Eragon had paid attention but shook his head in confusion. He took the meat and held it up, looking at Murtagh inquiringly.

"Food. Meat." Murtagh reached for a saddlebag to fetch some bread and cheese, included all with one gesture and repeated, "Food." Then he pointed at the meat and again said its name. To his astonishment, Eragon understood right away, repeating after him before pointing at the bread and cheese individually, wanting to hear their names, too. Finally he nodded his head and began to eat, yet he stopped right after the first bite, pointing at the meat and bowing his head to Murtagh, while there was again an unspoken question in his eyes. "Thank you," Murtagh said slowly.

"Than-kyou," Eragon repeated softly, looking anything but happy.