Chapter Thirty-Six

Murtagh felt his heart rate speed up and a cold sweat bubble beneath his skin. Every nerve in his body felt on edge. Bernhold was with Siobhan and he knew Siobhan was no match for Bernhold. He would doubtless be in possession of an Eldunarya and Siobhan was without her dragon. His heart hammered against his ribcage. How was Siobhan to survive the encounter? Bernhold was evil, almost as dark and demented as Galbatorix himself. Murtagh still bore scars from one particularly nasty encounter with Bernhold. Siobhan's identity was sure to be discovered.

Suddenly, Ailín let out a loud roar, filled with sorrow and rage. Murtagh whipped his head around and saw Ailín bolt into the sky, barreling towards Dras-Leona. Seeing the green blur, Murtagh feared the worst. Across the field, Murtagh and Eragon's eyes met when they spurred their dragons into the air. Murtagh flattened himself against Thorn as much as he could. Thorn and Saphira met her in the air, restraining her. Ailín roared again and struggled against the larger dragons. Murtagh grimaced and held on tightly. What happened? Murtagh demanded, fear sweeping over him like a cold wind.

Thorn did not answer with words. Rather, he relayed the entire scene, just as Ailín had shown it to Thorn and Saphira. Murtagh's mouth fell open. A tidal wave of emotions submerged him – terror, sorrow, shock, rage, hate, and some Murtagh could not even name. She is not dead. Thorn informed hesitantly. Emmy can still feel her. She is just unconscious.

Bernhold has her, Thorn! Murtagh shouted at him. If she is not dead now, she soon will be.

I agree, but why don't we focus on keeping Emmy from a psychopathic rampage at the moment? Thorn suggested. We need to get her on the ground, away from the men.

It took both Saphira and Thorn to wrestle the emotionally charged Ailín to the ground near the command tent. Grass, dirt and rocks went all directions when they landed, the bystanders splashed with the debris. The earth rumbled beneath them. Saphira and Thorn flanked Ailín and watched her warily. Ailín's chest and muscles quivered and coiled. Her eyes darted about like a caged animal. There was sympathy in the red and blue eyes. Nasuada, Arya, Redbeard and Jörmandur rushed out of the tent and Murtagh and Eragon slipped off their dragons.Murtagh raked his hand roughly through his hair and kicked the ground. Dirt and rocks scattered in every direction. Angry tears pricked the back of his eyes.

Bernhold will want her alive, if he discovers that she is a Rider. Thorn reminded his Rider, though he knew it provided little comfort or peace of mind. Murtagh growled in response.

"What is going on?" Nasuada demanded, noticing the struggle between the dragons and Murtagh's murderous expression and Eragon's tense and concerned posture. All eyes swiveled to Murtagh. He took deep breaths in a feeble attempt to control his feelings. Murtagh swept into the secrecy of the command tent, Nasuada, Arya, Eragon, Redbeard and Jörmandur on his heels. "What is going on?"

Murtagh rubbed a hand over his face, his whole body tense and coiled. "She's been taken." Murtagh rasped out. "Siobhan." There was a momentary shocked silence while the information was registered.

"And the rest of her team?" Nasuada asked in a strained voice. Murtagh scowled and kicked the ground again.

"Fine, as far as I know." Murtagh ground out. The others frowned and glanced at each other. "Siobhan had to leave the team to maintain their cover. They went on and grabbed Melfonse, but were not able to meet up with her. Siobhan was captured by Bernhold." Murtagh spat his name as if it were poison in his mouth. Arya stiffened; she was very familiar with the man.

"Please tell me that is a different Bernhold – not Galbatorix's chief magician." Jörmandur stated in a low voice. Murtagh clenched his jaw shut and gazed at him with steely eyes. Nasuada exhaled slowly and sunk into the nearest chair.

"At least we have Melfonse." Redbeard murmured. "Let us be grateful for that." Murtagh slowly turned towards him. His arms quivered from the restraint it took to not lay Redbeard out on the ground.

"Yes, we have him." Murtagh stated, his voice deadly calm. "But he took Siobhan, a Dragon Rider who possesses intimate knowledge of the inner workings of almost every aspect of the Varden – including its leaders and its military. On top of that, Ailín is about to go on a murderous rampage if she does not get Siobhan back soon. And when I say murderous rampage, I mean catastrophic damage to anyone in her path, friend or foe. In short, there could not have been a worse person to abduct."

"We are well aware Murtagh." Arya replied wearily, rubbing her temple. "Right now, our focus needs to be on securing this victory." Arya did not cower from his thunderous look and continued to speak before Murtagh could open his mouth. "Siobhan should, of course, still be a very top priority, but you know as well as I, Murtagh, how thinly our forces are stretched. She is a strong woman. She will last until we can recover her. We cannot be everywhere. We must prioritize." Murtagh forced himself to take deep breaths.

"It is not recovering her that is the problem, because I know I will get her back. Make no mistake about that." Murtagh stated in a low voice. "It is the state in which we will find her that concerns me."

"You are not the only one that cares about her, Murtagh." Arya's statement was almost inaudible. Murtagh's initial rage began to slowly ebb when he heard her words and was replaced by despair and steely determination.

"I would very much like to see the elves when they return with Melfonse." Nasuada stated with authority. "Very much."

"So would I." Murtagh muttered. "So would I."

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Siobhan awoke with a jolt, her head pounding. Pain exploded throughout her entire body as she was immediately slammed against a stone wall. Iron cuffs were slapped around her wrists almost as soon as her back had encountered the stone. Her arms were held over her head. Siobhan grunted, her eyes fluttering open. A great Rider I am. Siobhan disparaged. Her mind felt empty without Ailín's steady presence.

Siobhan did not know how Bernhold had gotten them where they were, but somehow she knew she had not been unconscious long. Based on the tumultuous churning of her stomach and tingling of her skin, Siobhan had a feeling magic was somehow involved. She felt the familiar symptoms that always crept upon her minutes before she was about to vomit.

"Make sure she does not escape." Siobhan cringed internally when she heard Bernhold's harsh order.

"Yes, my lord." Bernhold paused after the other man had spoken. Siobhan glared at Bernhold when he crouched down beside her.

"Search her. She may still be armed." Bernhold said crisply. Siobhan swallowed hard, knowing that four knives were still strapped to her person.

"With pleasure, my lord." the man responded lasciviously, his eyes raking up and down Siobhan's body.

"This will not be a pleasant experience for you, I am afraid." Bernhold purred, a gleam of victory in his eyes. "Pity you had not been more cooperative."

"Yes," Siobhan managed, unapologetic. "Pity."

Siobhan promptly vomited, covering Bernhold's chest in the bile. Siobhan wiped her mouth on her shoulder and smiled sweetly at Bernhold, even though the cuts on her cheeks were smarting painfully. She could not bring herself to regret her action even when his fist harshly connected with her face. It was a small price to pay. Siobhan was determined to show Bernhold that he did not own her.

"You will regret that, wench." Bernhold spat. Siobhan gave a short laugh.

"No, I don't think I will." Siobhan shot back. "I have met people like you before, Bernhold. I am not cowed easily." Not anymore. "I do not fear you." Bernhold stood angrily. He moved to storm out of the room, but stopped short of the lone guard.

"Spare her no pain. Make her suffer." A slow smile grew on the guard's face when he heard Bernhold's revised orders. The guard bowed low.

"Of course, my lord."

"I am not done with you, Bernhold!" Siobhan shouted. Bernhold froze at the door and slowly turned around, one eyebrow raised, his posture stiff.

"Oh, really?"

"I would thank you to kindly remove these cuffs and release me this instant." Siobhan tried to keep her voice calm and level. Bernhold clucked his tongue.

"I'm afraid I can't do that." Bernhold replied, stepping into the light that streamed through the gated window many feet above Siobhan's head.

"Of course you can." Siobhan snapped. "You have two hands and the key, and you clearly hold sway. You have absolutely no right to keep me here like this! I demand my release!" A sly smile stretched across Bernhold's face and he stepped closer.

"Yes, you certainly have spunk." Bernhold purred as he stroked Siobhan's cheek. Fire flashed in her eyes and she swept her left leg out and toppled Bernhold. She spat on his robs contemptuously. Bernhold slowly rose, his posture stiff. She grunted when his fist made contact with the soft flesh of her cheek. "Do not tempt powers you have no knowledge of." Bernhold hissed. "I could break you like a twig."

"Then why haven't you?" Siobhan challenged, raising her eyes defiantly.

"You musn't stick your nose where it does not belong." Bernhold chastened. Siobhan arched here eyebrows.

"My nose very much belongs there, thank you very much." Siobhan shot back. She barely paused before she continued. "You think I am valuable." Bernhold crossed his arms and lazily studied her, almost as if he was bored, yet Siobhan had a feeling she was being closely scrutinized. "Well, I'm not! I am a healer." The guard snorted softly, but Siobhan ignored him. "That is my only value! I am of no use to you!" Siobhan shot off before plowing ahead. "I have done nothing worthy of imprisonment! I demand that you let me go at once!" Bernhold chuckled darkly.

"I am afraid you are in no position to be making demands, my dear. As you so astutely observed, I hold the key to your release. You will only be released if I wish you to be released, and I am afraid that is not going to be happening any time soon. You see, I do not take kindly to people lying to me, and you, my dear, are lying." Siobhan's blood ran cold.

"I am not!" Siobhan cried out desperately, struggling against her chains. Without Ailín I am nothing! Just another spellcaster and healer. Siobhan knew better than to voice those words. Bernhold stepped closer. She did not like the look she found in his eyes.

"Then explain why a supposed healer was armed and skilled with the blade she wielded." Bernhold demanded coldly.

"A young woman must know how to protect herself from unwanted advances." Siobhan huffed. "Your advance was most certainly unwanted." Bernhold studied her for a few moments before he continued.

"Explain your use of magic." Bernhold pressed. Siobhan swallowed hard, her mind racing.

"A woman I used to know. She taught me a few spells, just little ones to help make my life easier." Siobhan blurted. There was no way to get out of answering that she saw. "Please, she meant no harm." Bernhold eyed her.

"What was this woman's name?" Bernhold inquired harshly, the skin around his eyes tightening.

"Why is it important?" Siobhan responded with a frown. "She is hardly the one locked up in a cell and apparently on trial."

"You have the stench of a traitor, Cwenhild." Bernhold stated bluntly, though his words slid easily off his tongue. "Where is she now?" Bernhold's tone brooked no opposition. Siobhan looked away.

"I do not know. My village burned." Siobhan whispered. She did not know when she had last stretched the truth this much. Still, it was not quite a lie. Siobhan knew she could not tell a convincing lie.

"I see." Bernhold did not sound pleased. Siobhan watched Bernhold warily, unsure of what he would do next. She knew she was on tenuous ground. "We will have to do this my way, then."

Siobhan took a deep breath and closed her eyes when she felt him try to wiggle his way into her mind again. She built her defenses as high and strong as she imagined the walls of Urû'baen were. She threw all of her energy behind her defenses, determined that she would not let him win. She put herself on the defensive, letting Bernhold come to her. He was like a barbed snake, striking rapidly and retreating while dodging every counter-attack. Siobhan knew she was outmatched. Even Arya had not pressed her that hard, and Siobhan knew Arya had given her best. It was as if Bernhold had another power source. She put up the best fight she could, but she could feel him slowly peeling away the layers of shield.

Siobhan defended her mind for what seemed like hours. She felt her shield begin to crumble and she worked furiously to corral her memories of Ailín and important information regarding the Varden. It was futile and she knew it, but she had to try. She felt Bernhold pause at a memory and she gave him a violent push, but he did not budge. In one last desperate attempt to protect Ailín and the Varden, she threw a random memory at him, a memory before she had even met the Varden or Ailín had hatched.

I ran, oh, I ran as fast as I could. But my little legs were not working. I should have been running faster! I knew I should have been. Rayne outpaced me quickly. Putrid smoke swirled around me, and the sounds of screaming women and children filled my ears. I tried to shout for Rayne to slow down, for she and Mother to watch out. The timber was coming down! How could they not see it? I tried to shout again, but my mouth was not working. It had suddenly gone dry. I was screaming, but no words would escape. I watched in horror as the timber fell, crushing Mother and Rayne.

I stopped running, my feet rooted in place as I stared at Mother and Rayne's bodies from afar. I told myself, even as they lay limp on the ground, that they could not be dead. It was not possible. My legs were suddenly mobile again. I was cradling Mother's head. I was crying. I screamed at her, but she didn't respond. Her brown hair was matted against her flushed skin.

A terrible roar suddenly filled the air, startling me. It was a dragon! A blood-red dragon and it was screaming right at me. Its eyes were so large and filled me with unspeakable fear. I scrambled up. I was so scared! I was terrified! Yet I was in awe of the man and beast that were responsible for the death my mother and sister. "

What do you think you're doing?" I screamed. My throat was raw and constricted from grief and smoke; the words hurt as they erupted from my throat. But I couldn't help myself. "How dare you!" I shivered when the rider laughed. It was a cruel and horrible sound. I could not see the man's face, but I would have bet anything that he was horribly disfigured and ugly. He deserved to be.

The red monstrosity shifted forward and I took a step back, whimpering. My mind was frozen.

"How dare I? I am Morzan! I may do whatever I please, little girl." The man spat. Oh, he was horrid! I took deep breaths. What was I thinking! This was a dragon! I was a small girl. What could I do against a dragon? I was such a silly, foolish, stupid girl.

"You killed my mother and sister!" I screamed again. I could not help myself. Tears, hot and angry, ran down my dirty face. The man laughed again and again I shivered.

"All the better!" My eyes widened. How could someone be so...so cruel! "Would you like to join them?" You should! But I did not say that. Suddenly, the rider's face came into full view. A face I would never forget, not for as long as I lived.

The ruby dragon reached out a claw. It was coming towards my face! I couldn't move! Strong arms encircled my waist from behind and pulled me back. Searing pain in my cheek... No! The dark haired man that had grabbed me darted in front of me. There was a flash of steel and he fell! I felt nauseous and lightheaded as Father's face turned towards me. His eyes were glassy and full of pain. I screamed – the last sound I heard before everything turned into blackness.

Siobhan pushed violently and Bernhold left her mind. "A touching scene." Bernhold sneered. She was breathing hard and drenched in sweat. "You are full of surprises, aren't you?" Siobhan glared at him. She had not meant to choose that memory; she wished she had not.

"You had no right to do that, Bernhold – no right to try to invade my privacy like that." Siobhan ground out. "That is a low, vile, cheap trick."

"Ah, but it is useful, though, is it not?" Bernhold replied cheerfully. "So it matters naught to me. Never you fear. I will discover your true identity and loyalties soon enough. Do not doubt it." Siobhan dreaded that moment. "Do you know what else I call that little scene? Motive for treason." Siobhan's eyes widened. "Roden," Bernhold barked suddenly. The guard snapped to attention.

"Yes, my lord." Roden intoned. Bernhold glanced at him imperiously.

"See if you can persuade our guest to talk." Bernhold ordered. He cast one last piercing look at Siobhan before he swept out of the room. "Do not forget to search the wench. Do not trust her."

Siobhan raised her chin when Roden stalked toward her. She watched him carefully, her head tilted. Her mind raced, desperate to delay the inevitable. "This must be quite the plush job for you to voluntarily remain down here." Siobhan suddenly remarked conversationally. She paused before she began to babble, words tumbling out before she could stop them. "Well, that or you have no soul. But it's rude to accuse someone you just met of having no soul. Honestly, though, it is so dark and dank down here. Only one window in the entire room." She glanced up at the gated window many feet above her head. Siobhan looked at him curiously. "Am I in a dungeon?"

"Where else?" Roden snapped. Siobhan nodded, not offended. She was not surprised by his treatment; it was rather expected.

"I've never been in a dungeon before." Siobhan stated, glancing around. "I always imagined there would be a lot of rats, but I don't see any here. That is something of a disappointment, I must confess. I just see a lot of bones, stone walls and strange looking metal instruments – for torture, I presume." The guard made no moves to confirm or deny.

"Shut it." the guard ordered gruffly. Siobhan rolled her eyes.

"Why? I have a captive audience and I have ever so much to say. Do you think you frighten me simply because you are holding a large knife? I have faced much worse than one man with a knife." Siobhan laid her head against the wall behind her and looked away. The overwhelming sadness was nothing new. "I have seen the worst of war and hate and anger. Pain is temporary. I do not fear pain." She did not cry out when he punched her. Siobhan spat blood out of her mouth. "Yes, that was so very original." Siobhan muttered sarcastically.

"I could easily remedy the problem and remove your tongue. And I may not be neat about it." the man threatened. He held up a large pair of metal shears and advanced towards Siobhan so that he was standing a foot away from the captive. Siobhan's eyes widened slightly. She quickly shook her head and sighed.

"Do you really think Bernhold would be very happy if you kept me from talking? You know hardly anything about me." Siobhan reminded. Not that there is much I want to share.

"Bernhold is not my master." Roden grunted. Siobhan rolled her eyes as if she did not care. She knew, however, that she had just found a very sensitive subject. Siobhan felt a tiny spark of guilt before she continued to speak.

"So you are completely comfortable disobeying King Galbatorix's Chief Spellcaster." Siobhan prodded, her voice solemn. "That seems to be a very prudent decision. Very wise. You should be praised." Roden glared at her.

"I have had just about enough of your prattle." Siobhan's eyes widened when he grabbed her by the collar, pulling her forward. He slammed her back, her head meeting the wall with a resounding thud. Her eyes rolled back in their sockets when she slipped into unconsciousness.

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Eilinel was silent during their flight from the castle. She hobbled beside Teiglin, who was pushing the wheelbarrow containing Melfonse. Losgar and Nuada, the most powerful spellcasters in the party, had cast a spell over the transport. Anyone that looked into it would see a wooden wheelbarrow full of cabbages. The other elves were equally as silent, their minds heavy. The night had been both a victory and a loss.

Once out of the city, Teiglin had foisted Melfonse over his shoulders, left the wheelbarrow in the field and the group began the trek back to the Varden command tent, running as fast as they could. They knew it was imperative to return as quickly as possible, though none of them were thrilled at the prospect of facing an irate dragon and admitting their failure. They were not unaware of the implications of the events at the castle. Siobhan was beloved, as well as a valuable asset.

The group passed through the sentries and ignored the cold and hostile looks directed at the prisoner. Nasuada and Redbeard looked up when they entered. Teiglin dropped Melfonse Ankorson on the ground. There was silence for a moment. "Is this him?" Nasuada asked after a moment, her voice even and cool. "Is this Melfonse Ankorson?"

"Yes." Eilinel informed. "This is he. Alive, merely under a forced sleep." Nasuada frowned when she saw Eilinel's blood stained skin. She had paused long enough to heal her cuts and lacerations before they had left the castle, but the blood was shining in the bright candlelight. Eilinel clenched her jaw. "Bernhold is a powerful spellcaster. Doubtless you are aware of the situation." Nasuada nodded curtly.

"Aye." Redbeard grunted.

"But we are much desirous to hear your tale." Nasuada interjected. "I have already called Murtagh, Arya and the others. They should be arriving momentarily. In the meantime, let us make our guest more comfortable."

"We will take him to the holding cell." Teiglin spoke up and Helcar nodded. Nasuada gave them a small smile. "He will not escape."

"Thank you." Nasuada murmured. "Please return when he is fully secure. Maluch and Drazan, two of my guards, are already stationed there. They will see that no harm will come to him while you are away."

"Of course, my lady." Teiglin and Helcar gracefully stooped and took him out. Murtagh, Arya, Jörmandur and Nar Garzhvog entered just moments after Melfonse was removed. Eilinel lowered her head when she caught Murtagh's eye. She hated the look of pain and agony that clouded his eyes. He had always been kind and helpful to her and she felt an added guilt that she had caused his pain. Teiglin and Helcar returned a few minutes later, their faces as calm as ever.

"I am sure we are all very anxious to hear the events of the mission, so, please, enlighten us." Nasuada swept her arm open, gesturing for any of the elves to speak.

"The mission began very well." Nuada began. She proceeded to explain how they entered the castle and how the females ran into Maugan. Nuada stopped and turned to Eilinel.

"We successfully incapacitated Ankorson's guards and captured the man himself. Losgar, Teiglin, Helcar and Nuada dropped over the castle wall, but I went in search of Siobhan." Eilinel continued. "I returned to Ankorson's suite when I did not find her, thinking that we may have crossed each other. I did not find Siobhan, but Galbatorix's chief spellcaster – Bernhold – was there. We fought, but I was outmatched; his magic was strong. I barely escaped. I fled with my life and found my companions. I found that Siobhan was not with them. At that point, it became clear that Ankorson's abduction had been discovered and that the alarm had been sounded. We could only conclude that Siobhan had been taken." Eilinel paused. "I wanted to resume the search and rescue her, but I was forced to choose – Siobhan or the Varden. We had to leave without her." Eilinel swallowed hard. "I would have gladly given my life in her stead."

"Bernhold has her." Murtagh muttered. "I attempted to scry her, but where ever Bernhold has imprisoned her is protected by magic that prevents scrying. There is a very good chance that he had taken her to Urû'baen. He has always been fond of using magic to transport himself, and with an Eldunarya I am confident he could easily take Siobhan with him. This will make the battle easier, for Bernhold could easily have lead the city. Siobhan has intrigued him enough that he will not want to wander far from her."

"What will he do with Siobhan?" Jörmandur asked. "Specifically. You probably know him better than any of us, Murtagh." There was no judgment or condemnation in Jörmandur's eyes or voice. Murtagh sighed.

"With Bernhold, it is difficult to say for certain." Murtagh admitted. "Bernhold is undeniably a sociopath, but he is only tenuously loyal to Galbatorix. He would as soon assassinate Galbatorix as he would support him. Bernhold will likely not inform Galbatorix of her capture until he is certain of her identity and usefulness. When he took her, he did not know she was a Rider."

"And after he finds out? What then?" Jörmandur pressed. Murtagh ran a hand through his hair.

"If she has any modicum of luck, he will try to use her to his own advantage. He won't tell Galbatorix." Murtagh replied. He glanced around the room. "We have something that he will want, after all." He rolled his eyes and continued at the uncertain faces of some of his companions. "Ailín. What good is a Rider without her dragon? With a Rider and dragon on his side, it is possible Bernhold will try to make a power play against Galbatrorix. Either way, Siobhan's life will be hanging by a thread, and a thin one at that." Murtagh paused. "And when we find her, she will not be herself. Not anymore."

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"I am truly sorry, Murtagh." Eilinel called when they exited the tent. Murtagh stopped and slowly turned around. He sighed and raked a hand through his hair.

"I know you are." Murtagh replied wearily. "I know."

"I meant what I said." Eilinel pressed. "If I could have exchanged my life for hers, I would have done it gladly." Murtagh held up a hand and shook his head.

"I know, Eilinel, I know." Murtagh tried to keep the impatience from his voice. "You do not owe me any explanations. Siobhan knew as well as you and I the danger she was being put in. The damage is already done. We must recover." Murtagh stated. It was something he had forced – was still forcing – himself to come to terms with. "The time for apologies is over. If you truly wish to atone for whatever wrong you believe you have committed, focus on the here and now. Focus on winning this battle." That was what Murtagh intended to do. He would extract his revenge on Bernhold and Galbatorix later.

Eilinel nodded mutely. Murtagh gave her a curt nod and continued with long strides.

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Murtagh clenched his jaw, his senses on high alert. The wind ruffled his hair as Thorn circled in the pre-dawn sky. The battle for Dras-Leona was about to begin; the Varden were steadily advancing toward the city. It would be a brutal battle, Murtagh knew. Ailín had been resigned to stay at the camp, helping to guard Melfonse. Thorn had barely been able to convince her to stay. Murtagh wasn't quite sure how he had done it, Ailín was determined. He suspected that when Ailín was allowed on the battle field the carnage would be immense. At the present, Murtagh also knew that Ailín would do more harm than good to the Varden. He had witnessed a dragon with blood lust before and he had no desire to repeat that experience.

From their great height in the sky, Murtagh could see that they were nearing the city. He could feel the adrenalin beginning to course through his veins. Thorn was growing restless, as well. The battle is upon us. Thorn observed several minutes later. Murtagh squinted to try and see what Thorn had. The sentry has spotted our advance guard. His family will mourn him, I am sure.

There will be no mercy tonight.