Author's Note: So this might be my favorite chapter yet. Just saying.
Disclaimer: I don't own the Inheritance Cycle and promise to put the toys back in the toy box when I finish playing.
Murtagh was floating.
He didn't remember how he'd gotten here, but it didn't matter. There was no pain, no fear, no nothing. It was peaceful. He had no idea how long he'd been floating, but he blinked when the void around him started taking form. The darkness rescinded and took on colors. Murtagh watched in confusion as cobblestones formed beneath his boots—when had he gotten feet?—and a fiery sunset expanded above his head. He frowned as walls and towers rose around him, taking familiar shape.
He clenched his jaw when he realized that it was Morzan's castle. But the gardens were alive and well-groomed and none of the stones were crumbling. Torches were coming to life around the perimeter of the courtyard Murtagh now stood in. He turned around in a circle just as his surroundings finished taking shape; it looked just as he remembered it as a child.
Murtagh felt an explicable pull toward the castle; there was something important in there. He began walking toward the building. Torches came to life, illuminating the hallway in front of him once he stepped inside; the warm lights danced over the grisly paintings and tapestries Morzan had chosen to line the walls of his home. Murtagh glanced at them as he passed, noting the clear lines and crisp colors, as though they'd just been hung.
He didn't see anyone else as he walked, nor did he pay attention to the route he was taking. Instead, he followed the pull he'd felt outside. It was stronger the deeper into the manor he went, the torches always lighting the way ahead of him.
Minutes or hours later, he didn't know, Murtagh stopped outside a pair of double doors; this was where the pull had been leading him. He blinked as though coming out of a trance and recognized the doors to the drawing room. His stomach tightened. He had no happy memories of this place, either recent or long past. But there was something here that was important.
He swallowed and made to grab the handles, but the doors swung open on their own. Murtagh's brow furrowed but he stepped inside. The room was decorated as he remembered, the velvet curtains pulled back to let in the weak light of the rising moon. There was an inviting fire crackling in the fireplace, and he sat in his favorite chair by the fire.
"Murtagh," Morzan greeted, raising his glass of red wine in the younger man's direction.
Murtagh's mouth worked but no sound came out. The man in front of him had starred in his nightmares for as long as he could remember, usually drunk and towering over him, wielding Zar'roc. Murtagh glanced to a certain spot on the floor and noticed there was no bloodstain. He frowned and glanced back up.
Morzan wore an odd expression—if Murtagh hadn't known better, he might have called it regret. "Please, join me, my son," he said, nodding toward the empty chair across from his.
For a moment, Murtagh hesitated. But the pull returned and Murtagh relented. Morzan seemed to relax slightly when Murtagh sat down across from him.
"Wine?" he asked, indicating a bottle of red and an empty glass at his side.
"No, thank you," Murtagh replied curtly, the forced nicety slipping off his tongue without a thought.
Morzan nodded, a look of understanding crossing his face, before taking another sip from his own glass. He then put it down next to the bottle and sat back in his seat. He rested his arms on the chair and seemed to study Murtagh.
Murtagh forced himself not to fidget under his father's inscrutable multi-colored stare. Though Morzan had relaxed, Murtagh sat with a stiff back on the edge of his own seat. This was all too strange and he didn't trust any of it.
"You've grown into man," Morzan said at last. He seemed… thoughtful.
"You've been dead a long time," Murtagh said, fixing his father with a level stare.
"Yes," Morzan allowed, "I suppose that's true."
"So what is this about?" Murtagh demanded.
"We need to talk," Morzan said.
Murtagh crossed his arms, irritation flashing through him. "What could you possibly have to say to me?"
"I know I wasn't the best father—" Murtagh snorted and Morzan sighed. "I know what you must think of me, my son."
"Do you?" Murtagh cut in, raising an eyebrow. He leaned back in his chair, arms still crossed, as he didn't seem to be in any immediate danger. Morzan's volatile moods had been infamous, though; things could change in an instant. "You nearly killed me when I was a toddler," he hissed. "You deformed me and left me with nothing but a legacy of bloodshed and hatred. What do you think I think of you? You are no father to me."
"You're right. I deserve that."
"So I repeat," Murtagh growled, "what could you possibly have to say to me?"
There was something cathartic about raging at the man who had ruined his life by the simple act of fathering him. But Murtagh had been trapped by his father's legacy since birth. Had his father been anyone else…
Like Eragon's, a traitorous voice in the back of his mind added. Murtagh shoved the voice down as hard as he could.
"One has a lot of time to think over his life in death," Morzan said, a look crossing his face so quickly that Murtagh couldn't read it. "And there are things you need to know going forward."
Alarm bells began tolling in Murtagh's head at that. "I don't understand."
"There was certain… work I was doing before my death," Morzan replied.
Recognition hit Murtagh like a blow. "The prophecy."
Morzan nodded. "Yes."
Murtagh's mind spun at that. He considered the notes he'd found in the library those months ago, the prophecy he and Roran had been able to read, the other page in the same book with the strange pull, the king's words…
"You were trying to overthrow Galbatorix." Murtagh shook his head. "First you betray the Riders, then the man you betrayed them for?"
"It's more complicated than that."
"How?" Murtagh retorted. "Either you did or you did not."
Morzan leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, entwining his fingers, making the missing bit of his finger obvious in the firelight. "I'm sure you, of all people Murtagh, can understand doing something against your will."
Murtagh was unable to mask a flinch at that and Morzan nodded. "And I'm sure you also understand the thrill of power when you've been oppressed for a long time—the feeling of having control once again."
Murtagh licked his bottom lip; yes, there was a part of him that accepted the king's orders because the power he got as a Rider and from the Eldunarya was intoxicating, especially after being nothing but a pawn for so much of his life. He hated that part of himself, but the more often he went into battle, the harder it was to rein back in afterwards.
"Are you saying," Murtagh said slowly, "that you were being oppressed?"
"At the time I thought so," Morzan replied. There was a weariness to his voice that gave Murtagh pause as he listened. "Like I said, in death you have much time to consider your actions in life." He shook his head. "In those days, the Order was a tight-knit group, closed off to outsiders. The elves considered themselves better than human Riders and were not shy about their supposed superiority. They considered 'outsiders' to be any Riders unlike them."
"So the elves were oppressing the other Riders," Murtagh echoed in disbelief. He knew the stories about his father painted him as strong of body and weak of mind, but Murtagh also knew Morzan had been very intelligent, though perhaps lacking in wisdom. Yet hearing the man speak…
Morzan inclined his head. "At the time, I thought so. I was young and hot-headed." He sighed. "Brom somehow managed to get along with the elves, but that was unheard of. I was sure he must have some elven blood in him and never forgave him for that."
He shook his head. "Anyway, I was not the only human Rider to resent the elves' domination of the Order. We were dangerously close to war within the Riders when I met Galbatorix."
Murtagh blinked. "I didn't know that."
Morzan smiled humorlessly. "Few do. The Order was very secretive. The Riders were meant to keep peace, so the public could not know there were quarrels among the peacekeepers."
Huh, Murtagh thought. That didn't excuse the betrayal, but as a student of history, Murtagh found it interesting nonetheless.
"When I met Galbatorix, he presented the idea of reforming the Order under a leadership based on power, not race. The strongest Rider would lead, whether he be a young elf, an old man, or something else entirely."
"That sounds about right," Murtagh muttered.
Morzan ignored the comment, though the way his lip quirked, Murtagh knew he'd heard. "I recognized Galbatorix as the strongest of the extant Riders."
"Even though he was a criminal?" From what Murtagh knew, the order had been to kill Galbatorix on sight at that point. Yet Morzan had joined him.
"Yes," Morzan agreed. "He promised that together we could rebuild the Riders. But first, we had to destroy the unjust system."
"And that's when you helped him steal Shruikan?"
Morzan nodded. "Together we fled and he taught me magics he'd learned from a Shade. And the power was just… intoxicating." Murtagh shifted uncomfortably in his seat, knowing that feeling. "During that time, I also managed to recruit other Riders who wanted to rebuild the Order on a basis of power. And together we all formed the—"
"I was going to say Wyrdfell, but yes."
Murtagh nodded for his father to continue. Morzan crossed one leg over the other and placed his hands in his lap. "After we destroyed the Riders, Galbatorix took power, just as we had planned. And for a time, it was as we had hoped."
"But something changed," Murtagh assumed.
"Galbatorix became paranoid over time," Morzan replied. "He encouraged in-fighting within the Forsworn because he thought it would remove those actually disloyal to him. It soon became my duty to communicate between the other Forsworn and Galbatorix."
"He trusted none but you?"
Morzan nodded. "It was why he wanted this castle built so close to Urû'baen. But then… I met her. Selena," he clarified.
And Eragon's, that voice added unhelpfully.
"Yes." Morzan's look was surprisingly soft. "In truth, I did not love her at first, though she was quite enamored with me. I used that to my advantage and after swearing oaths to me in the Ancient Language, she became my Black Hand."
Bitterness twisted around in Murtagh's gut at that; Morzan had kept Murtagh and his mother separated for most of his childhood; the quilt hanging in his childhood room one of the few tokens of her love that he had. Just another thing this man had taken from him.
"I thought she was useful," Morzan pressed on, "and encouraged her affection. It pushed her to be my best agent." Murtagh knew very well the stories of the Black Hand. "But one day, she returned from a mission early with tidings that saved my life."
Murtagh frowned. "What tidings?"
Morzan scowled. "Galbatorix had gotten wind from another of the Forsworn that I was plotting against him. It wasn't true, but his paranoia allowed him to believe it. Though I was closest to him, I think he also feared me above the others, so was willing to believe the story. Having so many powerful Riders around him only fed his paranoia over the years." Morzan shook his head in disgust.
Murtagh's eyes widened. He'd never heard this story. "What happened?"
Morzan shrugged. "Because of Selena's warning, I was able to track down the bastard that set me up. I brought him to the capital personally and forced a confession from him in front of Galbatorix. Had I not known of it, Galbatorix would have arrived unannounced and likely killed me for an imagined slight."
Murtagh tried not to think about the amount of torture it would take to get another Rider—a fellow traitor to the Order and one loyal to Galbatorix—to break in front of the king like that.
"I think I may have fallen in love with Selena then," Morzan said. "She was the first person to truly save my life like it mattered." He shook his head. "She was cold and ruthless when on missions, and the Forsworn and Varden alike feared her. But in private… she was different. You were conceived after that, you know."
Murtagh took a moment to consider that before changing the subject. "And what does this have to do with the prophecy?"
"In the wake of that scare, I realized that even I, Galbatorix's right-hand man, was not safe. His paranoia was so extreme that he actively searched out disloyalty among the Forsworn." He shrugged. "In my research for further defenses of the castle—from both the king and the other Forsworn, as they could not know about you," Morzan said, nodding at Murtagh, "I discovered a book of prophecy in my collection. And I knew in reading the words that Galbatorix would bring ruin down upon us all."
He shook his head. "And I suddenly had a family to worry about."
"Right," Murtagh scoffed, unable to keep the comment back. Because Morzan was the epitome of a family man.
Morzan smiled sadly. "If any of the Forsworn were to find out about you, they wouldn't have hesitated to use you to get to me. Or the Varden. In those days, they were not nearly so honorable as they are now."
Murtagh snorted and Morzan nodded approvingly.
"Selena knew this as well and stayed away from the castle after you were born." He ran a hand through his hair. "Because she was well-known, spending more time than usual here would raise suspicions and eventually someone would investigate. We couldn't take that risk."
"So my emotionally-deprived childhood was actually to protect me," Murtagh replied flatly.
"During this time," Morzan said over Murtagh's commentary, "I was able to recruit several members of the Forsworn to my side. Together, we should have been strong enough to defeat Galbatorix and the remaining Forsworn. Much of the in-fighting history recognizes was a result of this conflict. Galbatorix encouraged it, not realizing that we were trying to destroy his power base."
Murtagh considered this and wondered if perhaps Morzan was underestimating what the king knew. He always seemed to know more than he should, as though he had eyes and ears everywhere. "That seems inefficient," Murtagh finally said.
"I could not challenge him directly."
"He knew about me," Murtagh realized. He was stunned; Morzan would only have cared if he thought it would work. If Murtagh had been nothing but the tool he always thought he'd been to his father, his existence would not have been nearly so important. Tools can be replaced, after all.
Morzan nodded. "That was not a risk I was willing to take." He shook his head. "But it did not end up mattering. Brom reentered the picture, working with the Varden. He was killing Riders on both sides of the battle. I don't think he realized we were having a civil war."
"Or he did and did not care," Murtagh pointed out. He was still reeling but tried to collect himself. "He was the enemy of both sides."
"Also possible," Morzan granted. "Either way, he seduced Selena and whisked her away while I was working to take down the king." His voice turned bitter at that.
"And that's when he killed you."
"Months after Selena disappeared, but yes."
Everything Morzan said seemed to mesh with what Murtagh knew and what he'd come across in Morzan's notes. Yet it was still hard to wrap his head around.
"What does this have to do with me?" Murtagh asked finally. "Why all of this?" He waved his arm, indicating the whole illusion.
"Because you are the only one who can finish my work."
Murtagh frowned. "I don't understand."
"You are the one closest to Galbatorix," Morzan said. "You have the best opportunity, as I did."
Murtagh shook his head. "I have sworn oaths of loyalty in the Ancient Language. He knows my true name. I cannot fight against him."
But Morzan shook his head. "You do not give yourself enough credit, Murtagh. You are my son. If anyone can do the impossible, it is you." He smiled again. "You have my power and your mother's heart. That is a dangerous combination."
But Morzan cut him off. "I always thought myself great and that I should be a man of prophecy. Instead, it is you, my legacy. You shall be far greater than I ever was, Murtagh."
Murtagh opened his mouth, but the room began to swirl and shake around them. Their surroundings were being pulled back into the void they'd come from. Wide-eyed, Murtagh looked back at his father, who had a look of… pride on his face. "Go well, my son," he said before he too was pulled into the swirling void.
"Wait!" Murtagh cried. "That can't be it!" There had to be more to this story. There had to be…
Murtagh's eyes flew open and he gasped, breath coming in short pants. His body jerked, only to painfully protest the movement, and something cool and wet slid from his forehead. He groaned at the pain and blinked several times as he worked to get his breathing under control. After a moment, he realized he was staring at a familiar ceiling. He was lying in the bed in his chambers. He reached for the wet cloth that had fallen from his forehead and stared at it uncomprehendingly.
"My Lord! You're awake!"
Murtagh grimaced at the unexpected voice and turned his head to see Conrad at the foot of his bed. The servant had jumped out of a chair and was making his way to Murtagh's side. He picked the cloth out of Murtagh's fingers and deposited it in a tub.
"Conrad? What happened? Why are you here?" His last memories were still fuzzy and he couldn't seem to make sense of this new situation.
"You've been unconscious for three days, my Lord."
Murtagh frowned. "What?"
And then the memories slammed back into him and his chest clenched tightly. He gasped at the sudden onslaught, his back arching off the bed and his vision whiting out. After a long moment, the white gave way to the dim colors of his chambers and he collapsed weakly back into the mattress. His breath was still short and his insides felt twisted, but he was slowly able to collect himself.
Thorn. Murtagh felt relief flow across the bond. He latched on to the dragon's calming presence, using it as a lifeline as he so often did and soon his breathing calmed.
I was worried.
I'm all right. I think.
"My Lord?" Conrad asked once the Rider had settled.
Murtagh shook his head. "It's fine. Tell me."
The servant hesitated but finally nodded. "After the king—Ah, well, after your meeting with the king, you were unconscious. The king had healers look over the worst injuries, but you've still had a fever."
Well that explained the cloth that had been on his head. "Have you been here all this time?"
Gratitude welled up in Murtagh at that; it wasn't often he had someone care enough to look after him. He usually licked his wounds in private or with Thorn. "Thank you."
"O-of course," the servant stammered, clearly surprised to be thanked for his work.
Murtagh studied the man and noticed bags under his eyes. "Go get some sleep."
"On a bed?" Conrad opened his mouth, but Murtagh cut him off. "You're no good to me exhausted." And then Murtagh yawned and winced at the bolt of pain that laced through him at even the small movement. "Besides," he said wryly, "I don't think I'm going anywhere."
Conrad finally nodded and left the room with one final glance back. Murtagh sighed and felt his eyes drooping. He ached all over and exhaustion washed over him like a wave. Just before he fell back asleep, he realized Thorn was humming softly across the bond.
How is the camp? Eragon asked.
He could practically hear Saphira rolling her eyes. Same as the last time you asked.
Arya is looking after him. Still.
Let me know if anything changes.
Just as I promised the last time you asked. Shouldn't you be focusing on your own task?
Then I'll see you when you return, little one. At that, Saphira cut off their link and Eragon slumped back in his chair.
Nasuada raised an eyebrow at him from under her hood. "What?"
In the days since the battle, Eragon, Arya, Nasuada, Saphira, and their two captives had been on the run. They'd managed to run into a few Varden soldiers who'd avoided capture at the bay, but it was a small, ragtag band that was moving back south toward Feinster where the majority of the Varden forces remained encamped.
To get information on the aftermath of the battle, they'd taken turns visiting local pubs to hear the rumors. Today the duty had fallen to Eragon and Nasuada; to avoid recognition, they'd donned cloaks with hoods and were nursing their drinks in a back corner booth. When they'd gotten there, the patrons had been chatting animatedly about the battle, gossiping about unfounded rumors, many of them ridiculous.
Eragon shook his head and took a drink of his ale. "Saphira is growing impatient with me."
Nasuada laughed lightly. "Then maybe you should trust her and Arya to look after things."
Eragon scowled into his glass. "It's not that I don't trust her. It's just…"
He trailed off, but Nasuada nodded her understanding. "I know. Roran is important to you."
"And he's dangerous right now. We don't know the full extent of his new power." Eragon shook his head. "And until we can learn more about the oaths he swore, we can't help him."
Nasuada opened her mouth, likely to say something comforting, but stopped when a man at the bar slammed his mug down. He was thick, perhaps a smith of some kind, Eragon decided, thinking of Horst. The man had kept silent until now, head down in his ale. But he looked up and slowly turned around from the bar to stare around the room. The patrons had gone silent in surprise.
"You're all damned fools," he growled. "Gossiping about a battle like it's some petty intrigue. Men lost their lives in Urû'baen Square. Good men who will never see their wives or children or brothers or sisters ever again."
Eragon and Nasuada exchanged a glance.
"Why do you care so much?" someone demanded.
The man glowered. "Because I was there. I heard men die or scream and wish for death. I smelled the fetid odor of death wafting around the city. I saw dragons fly and clash in the sky over Urû'baen."
An uncomfortable hush fell across the pub at that. Eragon sank deeper into his chair and pulled his cloak further down over his head.
"Why were you there?" someone else asked, though his one was far more respectful.
"I had wares to sell in the city. I planned to return home earlier, but snow fell and my wagon was stuck. Then the city was shut down for the execution."
"Did you see the red Rider defeated?" another patron asked eagerly. Eragon's eye twitched at the question, the memory of Murtagh kneeling in front of him flashing across his mind's eye. He did not think that was an image he would ever not be haunted by.
"Long live the Shadeslayer! Cheers to the Varden!" yet another declared. "The Empire grows weak."
"Watch what you say," the bartender hissed. "We're not three days from the capital. The king's soldiers are constantly crawling around here. You can take your Varden sympathies south where they're more welcome."
"You're wrong," the smith said to the room at large, ignoring the bartender. "The Empire does not grow weak."
"Are you a king's man?"
"It matters not," he countered. "I know the Empire does not grow weak. And if you'd heard what I did, you wouldn't think so either."
"What are you talking about?"
Eragon had a sinking feeling in his stomach. Nasuada had tensed up next to him.
"Galbatorix did not take defeat well," the smith said. "His Rider survived the battle, but he may not wish he had." The man looked around the room grimly. "Do not think the son of Morzan will dare lose another battle after this."
"What do you mean?" the bartender asked. He'd stopping cleaning the mug in his hand.
The smith looked around the pub gravely before speaking. "The king made sure his red Rider's screams were heard in every corner of the city."