A/N: Notice the date! A good nine months have passed since the last chapter.
… And now it's truly over. I'm so sad, actually – I had a great time writing this! Lots of ups and downs, true, lots of frustration at times, but looking back, joy and pride prevail.
Where thou art, that is home - Emily Dickinson
2nd Hay moon
The air was shimmering over the ground, and there was no wind to disperse the heat. Breathing became a hard task for any living creature on the sandy fields of the northern Hardarac Desert.
"Milord, they're almost there!" the soldier urged, a trickle of sweat running down his hairline. He was in his best years and had a lot of experience, but apparently, the approaching army accompanied by the powerful blue Rider was too much for him to remain calm.
Eragon! Murtagh thought, sweating just like the soldier. You've grown… "Are the archers ready?"
"Of course, sir!"
Who is going to lead our army to battle? Thorn was resting some distance behind the front of the Empire army, watching the opposite host lazily. There truly is a lot of little Varden today, isn't there?
More than ever, Murtagh agreed. They'll cost us dearly. Look at Eragon and Saphira!
Thorn sighed. She's so beautiful.
And mighty! Are you well rested, my friend?
Enough to face her! But answer my question: Who will lead our force? Grall?
Who else? A picture of the captain of his guard sprang up in Murtagh's mind. He's got all that is needed: a proper head on top of his shoulders, authority, and skill. Things that most of the assembled nobles are lacking.
Are they going to accept that, though?
I'll tell them to. Murtagh looked out at the other army that had come to a stop about two leagues away. He tried to do some logical thinking concerning last-minute-tactics, but then Saphira caught his eye again, and he chose to pass the problems on. Stunning!
Your friends are coming…
Thorn! With the lightest pressure of a leg Murtagh forced Tornac to turn to the right, facing a handful of influential men who were usually at odds with each other but now united by the call of their king and their mutual dislike of the Varden. Their faces were torn in concern.
"Murtagh, sir," the Lord of Feinster opened conversation. "Any moment now Eragon will lead them into battle!"
Murtagh sneered and sat up a little more straight. Some continuously defied him the proper greeting. "Afraid, Burdo?" he asked back, taking the freedom to leave out any title at all.
Feinster grimaced, but vehemently shook his head. "All of us…" he included the nobles present with a gesture "… are convinced that their forces are stronger than ever – as is that little boy on his dragon. Our army cannot face a Shur'tugal!"
Murtagh raised an eyebrow. "Are you saying that I cannot handle him?" Dare to agree, fat man…
"No!" Feinster's younger brother hurried to assure. "No, the opposite is the case! Only you, milord, are capable of fighting him – to win over him – and so we have come to ask you- Uff!" He was cut short by his brother's elbow to his rips.
"You need to fight him!" Feinster said, in the last instant lowering his tone from order to request. "Fight and distract him, make sure he's as far away from our forces as possible. Then we can deal their army a painful blow."
They're so blind. Thorn rose to his feet and shook out his legs. Have they truly not seen how Eragon and Saphira have heartened the Varden, have given them spirit? Or don't they want to see it?
I guess it's both. "I know that I have to protect our army from him," Murtagh said as if lecturing a child.
"Very well!" Feinster straightened up. "Then I'll lead our men to victory!"
Murtagh smirked. "But it won't be you who's in charge," he said with his voice bittersweet. "I already appointed Grall."
When Feinster's face fell for a moment, and all others except his brother smiled, Murtagh knew he had guessed right concerning any other intention the Lord might possibly have. Idiot!
At that moment, horns were ringing on the Varden's side of the battlefield. Saphira roared out both anger and eagerness. The rebel army started moving again.
Immediately Grall cried out an order, and a shiver ran through the thousands of people surrounding Murtagh. One after the other they began hammering their swords to their shields, or their spears to the ground. When the rhythm became faster, an ear deafening thunder of screams set in, accompanying the hammering. The Empire was answering the battle call.
Despite the summer heat, every patch of Murtagh's skin was covered in goose bumps, and he felt his heart beat along the war drumming. Tornac reared.
Then Saphira leaped off the ground and rose above the Varden army, and the Empire host fell quiet. Murmur ran through the lines. Terrified murmur.
Murtagh's breath caught in his throat watching the distant dragon – and watching the small figure on her back. With a nod to the nobles he slid off his horse and jogged over to Thorn, who was shaking in anticipation. We're coming! Murtagh called out mentally into the air surrounding them, although only the magicians in the vicinity could hear him. It did not bother him. This thought, together with his smile, would only be interpreted as impatience to meet the other Rider in battle.
Within seconds they were in the air and soaring over their army, which was cheering them on, gathering new courage. Both Thorn and Murtagh, however, were focused solely on their counterparts and did not pay much attention to anything else.
Higher and higher they rose, out of the reach of any enemy spellcaster, then Thorn increased his speed and raced towards Saphira, who was doing likewise and came to meet them.
When Murtagh was finally able to make out Eragon's face, he was so excited that he nearly forgot to ready a spell. Only in the last instant did he cast a shield around Thorn and himself, which warded off the first powerful blue bolt of magic.
Screeching and roaring Thorn and Saphira crashed into each other.
Claws were extended and were looking for soft spots, spells were loosened to breach any gaps in the other Rider's defenses. Soon swords were drawn and Zar'roc met Brisingr in a shower of sparks.
The fight was a matter of life and death – or at least, it was supposed to look like one.
Locked in their struggle, both Saphira and Thorn aimed for the north. In no time at all, the outskirts of the desert were replaced by the first trees of Du Weldenvarden, and the furious wing beats swiftly carried them further and further over the territory of the elves.
All of a sudden, Saphira stopped, hanging in midair and breathing heavily. Eragon was likewise exhausted, but grinning widely. "I'd say we've come far enough!" he called.
Murtagh threw a glance back. Not even with magic were the armies detectable in the distance. An answering smile made its way to his mouth. "Good!" Eragon!
Thorn and Saphira closed the distance between their heads and gently rubbed their snouts – which, in dragon terms, did not exclude the use of generous amounts of fire. She says today, Thorn remarked absentmindedly.
The smile was immediately wiped off Murtagh's face and he swallowed hard. So soon?
You delayed forever! Thorn immediately defended her. And don't forget that she's even closer to him than you are!
You're right, Thorn, you're right. "I want to show you something!" Murtagh called to Eragon, whose eyes were burning with a blue fire that rivaled his magic. Like a candle lit in the dark, Murtagh's heart answered with an equally strong fire.
He felt horrible.
Just enjoy the day, Thorn advised, doing exactly that.
I love him!
Sure and swift Saphira and Thorn flew further north. In fragments, Eragon told Murtagh of his past weeks, while Murtagh's throat was too tight to answer. Every time that Eragon mentioned how much he had missed the other, Murtagh's heart fluttered, and he could only nod. Every moment you missed me, I missed you ten times more, he thought miserably, keeping his mind closed to his dragon.
When the burning sun passed the zenith, Eragon began twitching around in the saddle. Murtagh could tell by the other's face that the younger one communicated with his dragon, but apparently, Saphira would not provide the desired answers. So Eragon turned to him. "Where are we going, Murtagh? We haven't even said properly hello yet!"
"A lake," Murtagh called back – it was part of the truth, after all. "I figured some cold water would be nice."
Eragon studied him skeptically for a moment, but then only shrugged. Murtagh knew that being constantly in command and responsible for so many people was still hard on the other; whenever he was with Murtagh, he made no secret of loving to give up control, of simply being seventeen again for some precious hours. Or, if they were lucky, days.
Soon the silvery surface of a vast lake came into view, dismissing all grumpy looks on Eragon's part, his expression giving way to excitement – and far too soon a mischievous smile aimed at Murtagh.
Oh, no! Too late Murtagh realized what was awaiting him before the cool wetness. No, Thorn! No!
Hmm? Thorn asked innocently, while already gathering himself like a mountain lion before the jump.
A long look of large blue eyes over a scaly shoulder told Murtagh that Saphira was well aware of the situation as well. He would swear she enjoyed it, too. Cursing loud enough for all to hear, he gave in to his fate.
With a roar no less impressing than her whole appearance, Saphira dove down towards the water, a laughing and cheering Eragon on her back. Immediately Thorn followed swift, already making the first spiral turns. Briefly after, he drew a giant burning circle into the sky with breathing fire throughout flying a looping. Polite enough to let Saphira go first most of the time, Thorn was too much of a male dragon not to show off his immense flight skills nonetheless.
Within moments, Murtagh had to suppress his half-digested breakfast leaving his bowels again. Enough, Thorn!
He could as well have spoken to a mountain.
Saphira, half as impressed with Thorn as the red dragon wanted her to be, was now displaying her own skills as well. Her lighter body allowed her to let individual maneuvers follow each other quicker than Thorn could – provoking the older dragon to show even more spectacular twists and turns instead.
For a short time, Murtagh wanted to die. Then he heard Eragon's jubilant cries, and his misery was pushed back. He concentrated on the other's utmost happiness, trying to convince his body that there was nothing to feel bad about. His stomach would not listen, though.
Faster and faster they neared the surface of the lake, but with Thorn's radical ups and downs, it was not fast enough.
Just before the red dragon hit the water, Murtagh lost control and emptied his stomach over himself, over the saddle, even over some part of Thorn. Only then did the water come to his aid, stopping their fall and washing him clean. Blast it! he cursed feebly. Blast you, Thorn!
Thorn only laughed and dove some longer.
When they finally emerged from the depths of the lake, Saphira and Eragon were already there, the young Rider having freed himself from the saddle, laughing just like Thorn. With long, elegant movements he swam towards Murtagh, who was a little dizzy and kept afloat by his dragon.
"Did you throw up?" Eragon asked when he arrived at Murtagh's side, with steady hands helping Murtagh's shaky ones to loosen the strips of leather that tied Murtagh to Thorn. "No, don't answer! I saw it!" He was laughing again.
"Hush!" Murtagh protested, but protested weakly. Now that the water had cleared his head and calmed his stomach, he found himself dazed by his love, and needed a moment to gather himself. With several mouthful of water he swept away the nasty aftertaste lingering on his tongue. When Eragon began chanting "You threw up, you threw up!", Murtagh effectively silenced him with a kiss.
"I missed you so," Eragon whispered a moment later, his mood completely changed. "One month! It's been longer than ever before."
"I know, I'm sorry." They both held on to Thorn who was drifting lazily in the middle of the lake. "Didn't Brom tell you that-"
"He did," Eragon cut in. "But knowing that we can't meet for good reasons isn't much of a comfort."
"I know," Murtagh immediately agreed. A life spent alone did not prepare me for all those nights of loneliness. He waved for them to swim towards the shore, and even the dragons came along, wanting to get rid of their tack.
Once all four were naught but skin and scale, the dragons headed out again, flying and diving, enjoying each other. Eragon was watching them with his back to Murtagh – his wonderful, battle-toned, beautiful back, and those perky cheeks... Murtagh licked his lips.
"Let's go in again as well!" Eragon called and swayed his hips, thereby proving that he neither had to read minds nor needed eyes in the back of his head to know what Murtagh was thinking. He threw a look over his shoulder and the mischievous smile had returned. "I almost forgot… almost. You threw up! What a poor, poor Rider…" He sprinted into the water.
Murtagh barked out a laugh. "What? What?" As fast as his legs would carry him, he raced after the other. These days, however, they were an equal match.
Fortunately, Eragon stopped on his own after a while when the water was waist high. "It's the truth, isn't it?" he asked, laughing. "You must have the weakest stomach in the entire history of the Riders!" A hand crashed down on the surface of the lake, and a splash of water hit Murtagh in the face.
"Quiet!" he hollered. "Since when does a baby Rider mock an elder, eh?"
Eragon laughed some more. "I happened to know that you like men, not babies. Therefore, I must be a man."
Murtagh ground his teeth, even though he was facing the one person whose defiance he enjoyed very much. "Fuck you!" he cursed, repeating what he knew Eragon only used in times of high agitation.
From one instant to the next, Eragon's laughter died. Instead, his eyes clouded with lust and his mouth remained the smallest bit opened. "You want to fuck? Go ahead."
What did I just say? Murtagh was stunned into silence, but his body – hidden from sight – immediately reacted to the obvious message Eragon was sending out. "Uhm…"
"Go!" Eragon encouraged him, expression again turning to impish.
"I… didn't I curse? What did I say?"
Eragon ignored him. "You don't want to? Or do you want me to…?
Huh? Murtagh was not sure what to make of the other suddenly approaching him so determinedly. "Would you please explain to me what I yelled at you? I hate jokes that I don't under-"
Completely unexpected, Eragon suddenly jumped at Murtagh, turning his surprised victim around and pressing his arousal against the older Rider's behind. "Fuck you is a curse," he explained, his voice trembling, but his hands firm on the other's hips. "But to fuck also means to have sex… and you didn't react. So now it is my turn."
A stuttered chuckle broke from Murtagh's lips. Where did the shy boy go to? With all his might he pushed back and twisted to the side, escaping the tight grip for a brief moment. But the water slowed him down, and Eragon was more than resolute. Within moments, he was in control again. Murtagh stilled and forced his body to unclench. "You truly want me?" he asked, giving his voice a false curiosity.
"I do," Eragon agreed, kissing Murtagh's neck. His hands let go and instead caressed Murtagh's most private parts. "It's about time, don't you think."
Don't you know when not to trust me? Murtagh thought amused. "Time?" he relaxed even more and opened up for Eragon's touch. "Truly, you're right. It is time…" Fast as a lightening he whirled around, pulling Eragon's legs out from under him and pushing his shoulders back. Eragon yelled in protest and fought back, but was in a position of disadvantage. "… Time for you to understand who of us is in charge."
"Murtagh!" Eragon was both pouting and angry.
Murtagh chuckled, one hand expertly touching Eragon at his soft spots, killing some resistance. "Maybe these days you're fast as me…" He flicked his thumb over the head of Eragon's cock, drawing a moan. "Or strong as me…" His other hand let go of Eragon's shoulders and found its way down to the testicles, fondling them. "But never, never as bad as me. I tricked you, little one."
Eragon surrendered with a snigger. "I love you, bastard!"
"I love you, too!" Murtagh pushed the other's thighs apart and pulled Eragon onto his waist, gently entering him underwater.
Lost in each other's eyes, they became one.
It had been Saphira pushing the tired, naked bodies on the sandy beach, so far Murtagh knew. What he was unsure about, however, was what had happened in the hours ever since. Now, it was late afternoon, and Eragon's hand lazily stroked over Murtagh's sandy stomach, his face on the other's chest. By the look of it, he had been awake some longer.
Did I sleep? Murtagh wondered. Maybe I dreamt… All he remembered was a time of bliss.
"How long do you think we have to continue this? This hardly ever seeing each other?"
A few hours, perhaps? Murtagh's heart missed a beat. If you only knew, my love. "I don't know," he lied. "As you've seen, you and I isn't quite enough yet in the war." And now you might be gone by tonight… He blinked away a tear.
Eragon could not see Murtagh's face and was deceived by the calm voice. "Do you truly want the armies to decimate each other before we… I don't know… openly fight together? So many will die!"
"It wasn't our idea to ask for a major battle… or any battle at all, for that matter."
Eragon was silent for a while. "Why does the king never fight?"
Murtagh sighed. "Why should he? He has not yet seen the need to take a personal risk. It might change soon, however." And if he sees what I'm really doing during battle, how I avoid killing… May the Gods be with me!
Eragon's hand stopped moving. "When that happens, we can't wait any longer. Uru'baen is a fortress, but out in the open …"
Oh, Eragon. My brave, brave Eragon! "One of us might not survive it. None might."
"I know," Eragon whispered, his voice tight. "I hate the war, Murtagh! All I want is a quiet life with you – and the dragons of course!"
Murtagh blinked. Is that truly all? He didn't mention her… "I'm sorry I pulled you in. You shouldn't have to live a life like this." But never will I be sorry for claiming you as mine!
Eragon shook his head and gave him a sad smile. "It wasn't just you. Saphira played a major part as well, as did Brom, and my conscience. I can't sit by twiddling my thumbs while this world rushes towards chaos when I have a chance to make a difference." It was not the first time he said this.
"You make the difference," Murtagh emphasized. "About everyone else would have run before it all started… What is that about Brom's part?"
"Well…" Eragon shifted to place a small kiss on Murtagh's cheek, which, to Murtagh, had the feeling of an apology. "You told me a lot about this world, remember? After Ellesméra? It made sense, of course, but one thing I already knew back then: you aren't exactly objective."
Murtagh smiled. "I tried to be!" he protested out of principle, knowing the truth nonetheless.
"I know, and I love you for it. But only with Brom's extensive accounts of all parties involved in this conflict, all their interests, all that is at stake… Only all that information made me really want to get engaged. It triggered the need to go and become active, better today than tomorrow."
Murtagh's smile had faded. "Brom isn't always objective, either."
Eragon slapped the stomach he had been stroking. "Stupid Murtagh! Am I a Varden at heart, or does my heart belong to you? Don't be… Are you jealous?"
"No! Not of Brom, of all people! Only of those that get to spend so much time with you."
Eragon smiled. "Oh, I understand what you mean. Sometimes I'm even jealous of Thorn!"
Murtagh ran a hand through the soft, slightly sandy hair. "Brom means a lot to you, doesn't he?"
Eragon only nodded.
"Like a father?"
Eragon rose from Murtagh's chest and sat up to have a better look at the other. "How would I know?" He shrugged. "I never had one, remember? But if I did… I would want him to be like Brom, that's true." He smiled. "Don't forget that he's the only human I can talk to about you and me – that alone means so much!"
"Good," Murtagh said, meaning it. At least you have been able to build a somewhat normal life with all the people caring for you – and you caring back. Brom, Arya, Nasuada… Murtagh only had Eragon, and the thought of losing what had become his life was unbearable. Which turned his thoughts back to the original purpose of coming to Du Weldenvarden.
Out of nowhere Saphira was suddenly there as well, emerging from the lake like a creature from legend. She nudged Eragon ever so lightly and brought her tail up to wrap it tenderly around him. Her eyes, however, were locked with Murtagh's, and he could only imagine what the offer they had prepared cost her. He tried to mask his face behind an expression of reassurance but failed. This, not only Saphira saw, but Eragon as well.
"Enough!" the young Rider said. "Murtagh, you and Saphira have been odd all day long. A strange word here, a pained expression there… She won't tell me what's going on, though."
Murtagh exchanged another glance with the blue dragon, who nodded ever so slightly. "We haven't come here to go swimming, Eragon. Let's get dressed."
Not in the least satisfied with the answer, Eragon put on his clothes, shaking off Murtagh's hand when the older one wanted to rub Eragon's back clear of any sand. "Don't! I can't stand it if you treat me like a child!"
Murtagh sighed, or rather, tried to; his chest would not let in much air anymore. "I want to show you something in the woods," he produced a meager explanation, then gestured in the direction of the dragons. "It's a bit too far to walk, and they should be there, too."
Eragon hesitated, eyes darting back and forth between Murtagh and Saphira. Then the dragon seemed to say something and eventually he gave up and quietly saddled her.
They flew for perhaps an hour straight north. When the dragons descended, the sun was already low on the horizon, coloring the summer forest in gold. The air was still warm, charged somehow, and to Murtagh the world seemed indeed very magical at that moment. Or cursed.
The moment they landed Murtagh recognized the place, although he would have never guessed just how clear the memory had been. And I thought he didn't mean a thing to me back then? He snorted in response to the silent question.
Eragon stood at his side, clearly expecting for Murtagh to do something or lead him some last distance on foot. Then he took a closer look at Murtagh's face and his expression of expectancy changed to concern. "Murtagh? What is this?"
"…Forest," Murtagh said after a while, perfectly aware of how much of a coward's answer that was.
Murtagh, Saphira's pained voice resonated in his mind. Murtagh, she said again, putting all she meant into these two syllables.
I know. "Look around. Don't you remember?"
Eragon scanned his surroundings. "We might have travelled through this area, but then, what part of the elves' wood did we not travel through?" He shook his head.
Murtagh took a very deep breath. "Last time here, you were almost naked."
Immediately Eragon's eyes went wide. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing ever came out of it, so he closed it again. Almost automatically, he now looked at a tree close to Murtagh and raised a hand to point at it.
"Right," Murtagh confirmed. "This must have been the first tree you saw after coming around." He made a few steps and sat down, facing the tree in question. "Here you were lying, pressed to the ground by a large branch." At his right there was such a large branch, and Murtagh identified it to be what he was looking for. "Here," he said, knocking against it. "This is it."
Eragon came and fingered the wood. Despite his tan, his face was very pale and he was shivering. "Murtagh?" He turned around. "Saphira? Why did you bring me here?"
Murtagh only shook his head, but Eragon was not seeing it. His eyes were still on the blue dragon, who probably told him what she had told Murtagh already half a year earlier: she figured she could do it one last time, call upon the most powerful and untamable dragon magic one last time to bring Eragon back home. Murtagh loved and hated her at the same time for it.
"No!" Eragon yelled. "Saphira, no!" He swirled around again, eyes blazing with fury. "Murtagh! Why did you bring me here?"
Murtagh raised a hand in an effort to calm. "This is not your world," he said quietly. "You have a mother waiting for you."
Eragon shook his head. "I cannot believe you- Who do you think I am?"
"You still miss her," Murtagh said carefully. "Saphira says you still dream of her at times." Part of him loved how opposed Eragon was to the idea of returning, but he knew he should not be feeling like that.
Briefly Eragon glowered at his dragon once more. "And why did you bring me here now?" he asked Murtagh, not looking at him.
"Well…" Murtagh licked his lips. "When else would be a good time? And I have lied earlier. The king is in fact about to interfere in the war. It will get very dangerous for you and-"
From one instant to the next Murtagh found himself grabbed by strong hands and pushed against the nearest tree. "Murtagh!" the yell was back. "You brought me here for… for me to return home and leave you?"
Murtagh swallowed. "I can' let you die."
Suddenly Eragon only whispered. "But if I go back, we're as good as dead to each other. And I cannot see you dead, either!" Judging from the expression on his face, Saphira received a similar statement.
Again Murtagh swallowed, but this time it was the ever growing hope that he tried to get rid of. "Your mother?"
Eragon released Murtagh's vest. "To her, it is as if I already died a year ago," he said quietly, a look of distance in his eyes. "Of course I miss her still. She's my mother! But my dreams of her are full of love – not regret."
Eragon shook his head. "No. Her life has gone on, Murtagh. That's something mine wouldn't if I went back." A tear made its way down his cheek. "Stupid Murtagh! Stupid Saphira!"
Holding his breath, Murtagh asked, "You are staying?"
Eragon waved his dragon near and laid an arm over her lowered neck. Close to Saphira's ears but watching Murtagh he explained, "Where I am from, they say that home is where the heart is. Would the two of you please stop doubting where my heart is?" He smiled faintly at his attempted light mood. When he glanced at the tree one last time, however, the smile faded. "Farewell," he whispered so quietly that it was nearly lost in the sounds of the woods. "Farewell!"
Wanting it or not, Murtagh's heart was dancing circles in his chest. "You're so strong," he said proudly. "Even when you're missing someone as dearly, you're so strong."
Eragon took a deep breath and the smile was back. His eyes were wet, but decided. "That is something I inherited from her. I know she has made it until now, and she will live on. I'm with you now!"
Murtagh was afraid his chest would burst with happiness. "It'll be perilous," he protested at last, but all conviction had lost his voice. After all, he had not wanted Eragon to leave in the first place.
Eragon kissed his dragon on her brow before making his way over to Murtagh. "I know! We've been through this discussion already."
"Yes, true, but-"
"Murtagh! Shut up!" Possessively Eragon folded his hands behind Murtagh's neck and pulled him close. "My life! My decisions!"
Murtagh shook his head, smiling. "No. It's my Eragon!" He closed the remaining inches for a tender kiss.