Author's Note: This story loosely connects to the one-shot Misery, but it's not required to read that to follow this since that occurs after Eldest and this story is post-Brisingr. Leave me a review and let me know what you think!
Disclaimer: I don't own the Inheritance Cycle and promise to put the toys back in the toy box when I finish playing.
The dragon hold at the castle in Urû'baen was a cold, uninviting chamber, but that did not stop Murtagh from spending the bulk of his free time there. For him, the dank atmosphere was a friendly haven of warmth compared to the remainder of the castle. It was in the dragon hold that he could spend time with his only remaining friend and confidante, the red dragon Thorn. Though they were always linked together by the sacred bond of Rider and dragon, Murtagh felt an even stronger compulsion to be around Thorn as much as possible. Their relationship was unorthodox and they both suffered for it, but at the very least they suffered together.
It's been two weeks, Thorn, Murtagh whispered across the bond. He looked at his hands and balled them into fists. And I still can't get over it.
The Empire's red Rider sat against Thorn's side, his back resting against the red dragon's scales. The small of Murtagh's back fit seamlessly against the curves of Thorn's regal form, as if their bodies were formed specially to meld together. The close physical proximity was comforting for both Rider and dragon. They needed to be together, if only for the sake of each other's sanity.
I know, young one, Thorn replied gently, though frustration underlay his even tone. I am troubled, too.
Murtagh sighed. I knew he had excessive power over me—over us—but possession? He shivered.
It had been two weeks since he and Thorn had fought Oromis and Glaedr over Gil'ead; two weeks since Galbatorix had taken over Murtagh's mind and killed the elder Rider. Murtagh hadn't known what had happened until too late. He felt dirty; a heavy filth permeated his being that no amount of washing could cleanse. And Murtagh had tried, scrubbing his skin raw and bloody until Thorn had brought him back to his senses. But the desire to scrub himself for hours on end persisted, like an itch he could not scratch.
I don't like it anymore than you do, Murtagh, Thorn said. Of course he didn't. Just as Galbatorix had taken over Murtagh's body, Shruikan had possessed Thorn in order to fight off and kill Glaedr.
Both Murtagh and Thorn had been secretly pleased to find that Glaedr's heart of hearts was no longer present so Galbatorix couldn't steal it as well. Both Rider and dragon felt dirty for using stolen Eldunarya in battle. But those dragons were as much prisoners of Galbatorix as Murtagh and Thorn, so there was little choice for any of them. All they could do was silently thank whoever responsible for holding onto Glaedr's Eldunarí; they were doing Alagaësia a service by protecting the ancient dragon's consciousness from the king.
If Galbatorix could intervene during that fight, then there's no time we are truly safe from him, Murtagh said after a time. He had been brooding over the same thoughts since the battle at Gil'ead, but he just needed to hear them spoken again.
Which means it could happen the next time we face Eragon and Saphira, Thorn concluded and Murtagh groaned.
We've been successful in avoiding capturing them up until now, but that can't last.
So we are left to either obey our oaths to capture Eragon and Saphira or…
"Die," Murtagh finished aloud.
I don't think Galbatorix is so willing to let us die. He wants as many dragons and Riders under his control as possible. And with our oaths binding us, killing us serves no purpose.
So we either capture them ourselves or risk Galbatorix and Shruikan interfering again and doing it for us. The Rider leaned his head back against Thorn's side. I don't like those options.
What about what Eragon said about changing our true names? Thorn prodded.
It's an option worth looking into, Murtagh acknowledged, but I don't want to risk it without knowing what we're getting into. Galbatorix probably has spells to safeguard against that possibility anyway. Murtagh frowned and scratched one of Thorn's scales absently. The dragon hummed in contentment. Despite their position as prisoners, the time spent together made living in solitary slavery almost bearable.
A few moments passed before Murtagh spoke again. If only we could have spoken to Oromis… He might have been able to tell us something, anything, to help.
Perhaps Galbatorix sensed that and interfered at that exact moment to prevent that from happening, Thorn suggested.
Murtagh nodded. It wouldn't surprise me. "He has us in the palm of his hand…" he whispered bitterly. Thorn's tail twitched and, with a sigh, Murtagh tried to push the dark thoughts from his mind. After a few moments, they lapsed into a companionable silence.
An approaching commotion jerked the pair to attention. Murtagh shared a curious glance with Thorn before rising from his seat and moving to a nearby window. Beyond the city walls, a trail of dust was picking up and horns were blaring. The Rider pursed his lips.
"The soldiers are returning."
Which soldiers? Thorn asked, not bothering to take a look for himself.
"Who knows?" Murtagh shrugged. "Surely not from Gil'ead; they remained to lay siege to the Elves." Running his fingers through his hair, Murtagh turned from the window. "They might be coming from the south. There were still plenty of soldiers stationed close to the Varden."
Murtagh's stomach clenched the moment the name passed his lips but he ignored it. Though he didn't enjoy serving Galbatorix, he also wasn't in complete agreement with the Varden's methodology, despite his one-time friendships with Eragon, Arya and Nasuada. It pained him to think of them as enemies, but he would do what was necessary in order to survive.
And after years of learning to survive on his own, Murtagh made sure to insure his own life—and now, by extension, Thorn's—before anything else. Alive he could find a way to escape. Alive he could make amends to those friends—if they'd take him after he'd killed Hrothgar. But dead he could do nothing.
Murtagh, a new voice rang through his mind, and the Rider winced. He hated that Galbatorix could worm his way through his carefully crafted mental defenses with ease. Come to the throne room immediately.
Yes, Your Highness, Murtagh replied, not bothering to conceal his bitterness. He thought he heard Galbatorix chuckle before the connection was severed. The sound made Murtagh's skin crawl. For some reason, the king was in a good mood. That was never a good sign.
With a heavy sigh, Murtagh grabbed Zar'roc from the floor and strapped it onto his belt. His father's sword was heavy; Murtagh preferred it that way—as a reminder of the burden of his sins. He carried his father's sins along with his own because he had fallen into the same trap Morzan had, albeit unwillingly.
What do you think he wants? Thorn asked, watching his Rider brush himself off.
Murtagh shrugged uncomfortably. I don't know. Probably to greet the soldiers.
In the throne room? And without me?
Ah, good point. I don't know then.
Be careful, Murtagh.
Murtagh placed a hand on Thorn's snout and gave his friend a wan smile. I will.
Thorn huffed his acceptance and Murtagh left the dragon hold, attempting to appear unhurried to any outside observers despite Galbatorix's immediate summons. As he strode through the dank corridors, his boots clacked loudly on the stone floor. He pulled his frigid attitude over himself like a cloak, hardening himself in order to deal with the king. Galbatorix had caused him and Thorn immeasurable pain, so Murtagh had reacted the only way he knew: by toughening himself both inside and out. Thorn was the only one to see past the façade. Murtagh could never harden himself to his soul mate.
As Murtagh approached the double doors leading to the throne room, his pulse quickened and his palms began sweating. Countless hours of torture had occurred in that room since his capture at the hands of the Twins.
It was in that room that Galbatorix had broken Murtagh's spirit.
It was in that room that the king had revealed Murtagh's and Thorn's true names and forced them to swear oaths of loyalty in the Ancient Language.
It was in that room that Murtagh was punished for letting Eragon go not once, but twice.
It was in that room that Galbatorix's fury at the death of the Ra'zac had turned on innocent servants and eventually Murtagh and Thorn.
Pain seemed inevitable whenever he entered. He only wished, as he reached the doors, that he knew why he was being summoned now. He hadn't done anything that should have incurred the king's wrath as of late, but Galbatorix was renowned for his unpredictable temper. Murtagh bore numerous scars to bear witness to that.
The guards saluted Murtagh before opening the doors and announcing his arrival. Murtagh stepped into the room and a chill ran up his spine as he made his way toward the throne occupied by the king. The throne room always felt like winter no matter the season.
The younger Rider knelt, not meeting Galbatorix's eyes. "You summoned me, Your Highness?"
"Yes indeed, Murtagh." Galbatorix's tone sounded amused. But that didn't make any sense. Then again, the king had a warped sense of humor. "You may have noticed that some of the Empire's brave soldiers have returned. And they have brought an important prisoner."
Murtagh frowned, though continued watching the floor as he knelt. He didn't dare rise until the king bade him do so. A prisoner? That's not generally his style… unless it was somebody very important. But who? A sudden jolt of fear ran through the younger man. It couldn't be Eragon. No, I'm the only one, outside of Galbatorix himself, who has any chance of capturing him. But then, who?
"Rise, my Rider," the king practically purred.
Murtagh pushed himself to his feet with a grimace. He didn't want to be this man's Rider, ally, or anything. That was why he had left in the first place. When he finally dared look at the king, Murtagh noticed an eerie smirk on his face.
"You have served me well, Murtagh, despite some lows," he said. "But all relationships have ups and downs. I would like to think that, as not only my servant but the eldest son of my greatest friend, you and I will continue to work together to bring unity and peace to this land."
Murtagh bit his tongue to keep from replying. Galbatorix knew very well that Murtagh hated him and his situation, but was determined to provoke the younger Rider as if it were his favorite past time.
"And it's because of that hope that I wanted you to be here when the prisoner is brought in. As my right-hand man, Murtagh, you deserve to see this as much as I do."
"I'm honored," Murtagh managed to bite off in a vain attempt to preserve propriety. Galbatorix was strangely a stickler for niceties, and Murtagh had learned the hard way that making even the most insincere attempt at politeness when around the king was better than nothing.
The monarch's smirk deepened and Murtagh was struck by a sudden urge to flee from the room, but he knew Galbatorix would stop him before he could take two steps, punish him for insubordination, and then force him to sit through whatever was about to happen anyway; experience was a cruel teacher.
"Then come, take your rightful place, son of Morzan," Galbatorix said, gesturing to his right side. Murtagh took up the indicated position, careful to keep his face neutral. Zar'roc felt heavier than usual on his belt in the presence of the elder Rider. Once the king was satisfied, he called for the guards to bring the prisoner in.
"You should find this especially interesting, Murtagh," Galbatorix offered by way of commentary. "I offered an earldom for this man's capture and we finally caught him."
Murtagh mentally ran through the list of wanted criminals and could only come up with two names with that high of a bounty. Eragon and—
Looking up, Murtagh watched as a limp figure was dragged into the throne room. Several more guards flanked those holding the man even though he was bound, gagged and bloodied—clearly in no position to fight back. The man on the prisoner's far left stepped forward and Murtagh vaguely recognized him as a captain he had seen in the first battle with the Varden. The captain grabbed the prisoner's shaggy hair and roughly lifted the man's head.
Murtagh inhaled sharply.
"We have captured Roran Stronghammer, Your Excellency."
"Excellent." The king studied the prisoner with critical eyes for several moments before dismissing the guards with a wave of his hand.
Murtagh spent those moments trying to breathe again.
The captain hesitated. "Are you sure, Your Highness? This man is extremely dangerous."
A low barking laugh escaped Galbatorix's throat and echoed through the throne room. "Do you think I am incapable of defending myself, Captain?" The soldier's mouth opened but no sound came out. He was suddenly terrified at how the volatile monarch might respond to such a slight, inadvertent or not. And rightly so. "And even if that were so, my Rider is here at my side. I am well protected."
All eyes in the room, including Roran's, flicked momentarily to Murtagh. The young Rider's gaze fell deliberately to the floor. He didn't like the apprehensive yet appraising look the soldiers were giving him. Nor did he want to meet Stronghammer's eyes. He still wasn't sure what to make of the situation so didn't trust himself to make the appropriate expressions, whatever those might be.
"Of course, Your Highness," the captain said shakily, returning to himself. "I was out of line to suggest anything else and beg your pardon."
At Galbatorix's nod, the captain signaled his men, who followed him from the room. The group's collective posture was relieved that they escaped the king's presence whole. Murtagh was mildly surprised all the men had left with their lives; he'd seen the king kill for far less.
Roran was left in a boneless heap on the floor in front of the two Riders. Once the door closed behind the soldiers, Galbatorix turned to Murtagh. "What say you, Murtagh? Roran Stronghammer has finally been captured. His crimes are many, but the greatest of these—treason—carries a death sentence."
Murtagh forced himself to return Galbatorix's look and found a strange expression on the king's face. The king seemed to be studying him. The younger Rider fought the urge to squirm under Galbatorix's unblinking gaze.
"It is indeed a great accomplishment," he hedged. Since he was unsure of where the conversation was going, he had to be careful. He could afford no more disadvantages when it came to dealing with Galbatorix.
Galbatorix nodded thoughtfully as if coming to some conclusion, and then stepped from his throne down to tower over Roran's prone form. Murtagh remembered lying in the same vulnerable position in front of the king and clenched his fists as the monarch knelt in front of his prisoner. He cupped Roran's chin and forced the younger man to look at him. Murtagh had to admire the fiery hated that burned in Roran's eyes as he stared at the king. By all rights, he should be terrified, and yet…
"I see the resemblance between you and your cousin," the king commented absently. "Though I have not yet had the pleasure of young Eragon's company, the memories I took from Murtagh here give me a good picture."
Roran looked past the king's shoulder to Murtagh, the same hatred reserved for Galbatorix now aimed at him as well. It was almost enough to make Murtagh want to step back, but he held his ground and pushed down the nightmare-inducing memories of Galbatorix shattering his mental defenses to take those precious recollections of better times.
Galbatorix chuckled at Roran's reaction. "No need to make such a face at him. He didn't willingly give them up, after all. I haven't had to struggle against such a strong mind to get what I wanted since the Fall." The king's lip twitched as Roran's gaze returned to him. "But the rewards have been more than worth the effort." He glanced back to his enslaved Rider. "Isn't that right, Murtagh?"
Murtagh's fingernails dug painfully into his palms as his fists clenched at his sides, but he forced himself to bow his head to the king. He refused to make a verbal reply, however.
Galbatorix rose to his feet. "But that is all in the past. The question is now what to do with you, Roran Stronghammer."
Roran tried to say something, but the words were muffled by the cloth gag in his mouth. With an indulgent smile, Galbatorix loosened the gag. He was amused by the whole situation. And for good reason, Murtagh thought. He'd caught Eragon's cousin, one of the men to slay the Ra'zac, and a commander among the Varden all in one. He had the upper hand in the fight now.
"Kill me," Roran growled.
"The punishment for your crimes is death," the king mused. His light tone sent a shiver up Murtagh's spine. "But I think there are better uses for you. We would love very much to entertain your cousin as well."
Roran's eyes widened then narrowed angrily. "Eragon would never—" He was cut short as Galbatorix waved a hand.
With one move, Roran was rendered mute. Though his mouth continued moving, no sound came out. Indignant, the prisoner clamped his mouth shut.
What did he think would happen? Murtagh thought irritably. Real life isn't like the grand stories where the hero is captured and waxes poetic about his hatred of his enemy before defeating him in an honorable duel. No, this is real and Galbatorix is dangerous. He needs to understand his place if he wants to survive this.
The elder Rider took a step back toward the throne as if there had been no interruption. "Now that I think about it, Murtagh, isn't this man also your cousin?"
"Yes, Your Highness," Murtagh replied tightly. Though he had never formally met Roran, he'd heard much about him from Eragon. When he found out Eragon was his brother, he'd realized he was also related to Roran as a result. It always comes down to family. Fathers, brothers, cousins…
Galbatorix seemed to be thinking along similar lines. "It seems the fate of your family is inescapably linked with mine, Murtagh Morzansson." Murtagh winced at the reference to his father. The king sat back down on his throne and studied Roran silently.
"Your cousin," Galbatorix said, addressing his prisoner, "your other cousin, will come for you."
Roran's mouth opened again, but still no words came forth. With a nonchalant wave of his hand, Roran's voice returned in the middle of his refutation. "—agon won't fall for it." He was momentarily startled into silence at the return of his voice before continuing. "He's not stupid. He knows I wouldn't want him to come."
And yet, he will come, Murtagh thought with some remorse and no small amount of bitterness. No matter if Eragon had promised Roran he wouldn't come if something like this were to happen; Eragon was too attached to those he cared for to see reason. No, he would come.
Murtagh felt a twinge of jealousy in his chest. Eragon would undoubtedly come for this man, his cousin, but he had left Murtagh, his brother in both blood and arms, to rot in Urû'baen. For a time, he'd held out hope that Eragon would come for him, but the Twins and Galbatorix made it explicitly clear that Eragon thought him dead in the raid on Tronjheim. Though realistically Murtagh knew he shouldn't blame the younger man, he couldn't help but resent that Eragon had assumed him dead so easily without a body. He went to train with the Elves while Murtagh endured a living hell.
"Perhaps," Galbatorix said, making it clear that he too thought Eragon would come for his cousin. The room fell into an uncomfortable silence as Murtagh wished to be anywhere else, Roran lay in a heap on the floor in front of the two most powerful men in the Empire, and Galbatorix pondered the fate of his prisoner.
"Perhaps," the king continued after a time, "we shall schedule a public execution. That will draw out Eragon and his dragon."
Murtagh swallowed. The trap was obvious, but Eragon would likely fall into it anyway, knowing all the while he was falling into a trap. He was too loyal for his own good. A sudden thought struck Murtagh. But would it work?
"Your Highness," the younger Rider began and both king and prisoner looked at him, "this man has proven himself a dangerous opponent, helping to slay the Ra'zac and fight for the Varden. Wouldn't it be a waste to merely use him as bait for Eragon?"
Galbatorix looked at Murtagh thoughtfully while Roran glared at him with burning hatred. Don't like at me like that, you fool, the Rider wanted to snap. I'm saving your life here.
"Wouldn't that be ironic," the king said with a laugh. "Both the brother and cousin of Eragon Shadeslayer fighting for me." The twisted man smiled at his private joke. "That would undoubtedly lure him out as well. But he wouldn't be able to raise a hand against Stronghammer."
Roran's eyes had gone wide. Such a fate seemed worse than death to him. Murtagh shook his head to himself. No fate is worth than death. Alive you can strive for something more, even when it seems hopeless. Death is the easy way out.
"Yes Murtagh, I like your idea. Looking for someone to sympathize with?" the king asked knowingly.
"Your Highness—" Murtagh started to protest but was cut off.
"It matters not. I have decided that Roran Stronghammer will join my service. However, for the crimes he has committed against the Empire, of which there are many, including killing my precious Ra'zac and the Twins," Murtagh ground his teeth at the mention of the two traitors that caused him no end of suffering, "as well as holding a position of command in the rebel Varden, there must be punishment."
Galbatorix called for the guards. "Take this man to the dungeon; the most secure cell we have," he ordered once they'd filed in. He looked at Roran as the guards grabbed his arms to drag him from the throne room.
"Soon enough you will swear allegiance to me."
Roran spat defiantly. "Never."
Galbatorix's eyes drifted to Murtagh as he said, "I have heard that before, boy, from warriors far greater than you."
Roran's eyes met Murtagh's and held for a moment. There was a mixture of fear, anger, hatred, sadness, and even a small bit of hope in them. Murtagh wondered then how he appeared to his cousin. At the moment, he felt saddened and resigned to the whole situation.
Once the door closed behind the exiting prisoner and his guards, Galbatorix turned to face his Rider. "Even if you are trying to save the boy's life, Murtagh, things will turn out best for me. You may think yourself clever, but I think far ahead."
"I know not of what you speak, Your Majesty," Murtagh replied evenly. "I merely wish to serve."
The king snorted. "Of course. You are my loyal Rider, after all." He folded his arms across his chest. "And with this new development, I shall have another Rider serving under me shortly."
I hope not. Eragon, don't come…
"Go tend to Thorn," the king muttered. "You will have a new mission tomorrow."
Murtagh bowed at the dismissal and left the room as quickly as he could while keeping up his detached front. He would not show fear in front of the king. The moment the door closed behind him, Murtagh reopened his mental connection to Thorn. He shut it when around Galbatorix because an open connection made it easier for the king to access his mind—not that he had any trouble doing so on his own.
Murtagh? What's happened?
You won't believe it…
Revised as of May 15, 2011