CHAPTER ONE: It's Never Easy
A/N: Okay, this is set after Brisingr. This is my first go at an Inheritance Cycle fanfic. Sorry if it's a little slow to begin with. There will probably be some flashbacks to the past. Murtagh will be in the next chapter.
It's never easy to be chosen,
Never easy to be called.
Standing on the front line
When the bombs start to fall.
- Who Am I Living For, Katy Perry
"Come on, Ashen, lunge!" Tristan called, cupping his hands around his mouth to make sure his sister heard him.
Ashen turned, planting her free hand on her hip as she glared at her older brother. Tristan was grinning across at her. She rolled her eyes and jerked her sword towards Eragon.
"If it's so easy, dear brother, why don't you come and have a go?"
Tristan just folded his arms and sighed heavily and Ashen took that as meaning that he wouldn't. With a satisfied smirk, she turned back to face her opponent – only to realize that Eragon had Brisingr pressed to her collarbone. There was the hint of a smile on his weary face.
"Never turn your back on your opponent," he chastised, "He won't be as kind as I am."
Ashen playfully punched Eragon in the shoulder. She wouldn't try and hit him even if she really was mad, because she'd probably break her knuckles. Besides, Eragon was much stronger than her. He was even stronger than Tristan.
Eragon laughed. It was good seeing him looking…well, free. Things were so stressful for Eragon these days. It must be so hard for him, being only sixteen years old and bearing such a heavy burden. Ashen would hate to be a Dragon Rider.
"I think that's probably enough for today," Eragon sighed, sheathing his sword and inclining his head to the siblings. "Ashen. Tristan. I'm not sure when I'll next get the chance to duel you, Ashen, but I look forward to it."
Ashen's face cracked into a grin. "As do I. Shadeslayer."
Eragon walked off and Ashen watched him go. There was a mischievous glint in Tristan's eyes as he approached his younger sister, ruffling her hair affectionately as only an older brother would. She pushed him away.
"I think someone fancies the Varden's young Rider."
Ashen frowned tersely. She hated it when Tristan teased her about such matters. Of course it was practically his duty as an older brother, but she still found it thoroughly irritating. She glowered at him without a hint of embarrassment.
"Don't be a fool, Tristan. You know well that Eragon and I are only friends."
Tristan raised his eyebrows. "Are you sure? Because if you are interested in him, I have no doubt that he would be attracted to you. You are the same age. You're clever and pretty."
Ashen ducked her head. Now she was embarrassed. Of course, Tristan was attempting to demonstrate the brotherly talk about why the young men should want to take an interest in her. Ashen knew that she was intelligent, that she could fight with a sword as well as any man, that her golden blonde hair and sapphire blue eyes were what most people considered beautiful.
"Why are we talking about me?" Ashen asked slyly, nudging Tristan, "You're two years my elder. Shouldn't you have found yourself a wife by now?"
Tristan was handsome like Ashen was beautiful. Many of the girls in the Varden took an interest in him, giggling whenever he was around, whispering behind their hands. Tristan knew this, but the problem was that he didn't seem to care.
"You're changing the subject," Tristan warned, but he said nothing more on the topic.
Ashen sighed wistfully as she watched soldiers practising just as she had been. Archers, like Tristan, were a little across and firing at targets. Everyone was on the brink of war and Ashen knew they must all be tense.
"I miss him."
Tristan had no doubt that Ashen was talking about Colton. He was their oldest brother and he would be twenty-one years old by now. Except he wasn't, because he'd been killed by the Shade Durza when Galbatorix had learned that he'd been assisting Arya with ferrying Saphira's egg. Colton had looked a lot like Ashen. All three of them had the same eyes – the only thing different about them was that Tristan had dark hair while his brother and sister were blonde. The three of them had been practically inseparable…then Durza had taken all of that away.
Ashen tried not to focus on that. It had been months since Eragon had killed Durza. There was nothing she could do to get Colton back, no matter how much she might miss her oldest brother.
Everyone had known Colton. He'd been charming and charismatic, very handsome. Tristan missed their heroic older brother as well. Rumour had it that he'd died under torture, while swearing he would never tell the Shade anything about the egg. It sounded like it was true. Colton had been very brave.
"So do I," Tristan muttered.
The three siblings had come to the Varden ten years ago, almost to the day. Their village had been burned by Galbatorix's soldiers and eleven-year-old Colton had found the Varden along with his younger brother and sister. They were practically like family to most members of the Varden. Ashen especially got along with Nasuada, who was only a year older than herself.
Colton's death had been painful for Ashen, but that hadn't been the only thing. Almost a year ago, when she'd still been fifteen, she'd met Murtagh. He was enigmatic, darkly handsome and bitter and she'd instantly been attracted to him. He was three years her senior, even older than Tristan…who had immediately sensed her attraction to the young man and warned her away.
Despite her brother's misgivings, Ashen and Murtagh had become friends, Murtagh most likely unaware of Ashen's infatuation with him…which she now found childish. Especially because he'd betrayed them and was now Galbatorix's right-hand man.
She thought of herself as stupid because of the fact that she'd taken to him. Since then, she hadn't wanted to open her heart to anyone. Ashen turned her mind from the matter. Thinking about Murtagh hurt too much now.
Both brother and sister turned to see Nasuada walking towards them. Tristan flushed and cleared his throat as she approached and Ashen restrained a wicked grin. Tristan had a soft spot for Nasuada which he wouldn't acknowledge to anyone, not even Ashen.
"Hello, Ashen." Nasuada spared the girl a brief smile, before she turned her attention on Tristan, seemingly oblivious to his coyness. There was a grim expression on her face and Ashen's heart sank as she knew the news couldn't be good. "I need to talk with you in private, Tristan. It's a matter of utmost importance."
Tristan flashed Ashen an apologetic look. She felt a little put-out as he walked off with Nasuada, but she reminded herself that it was business. Ashen glanced up at the darkening sky, thinking of Colton and Murtagh and all of it.
This war is far from over.
"Excuse me?" Tristan demanded, his dark blue eyes flashing with a mixture of anger and fear. Normally he wasn't so outspoken, especially towards Nasuada, the leader of the Varden…but this wasn't a normal situation. What she had asked him to do wasn't only suicide, but it brought up painful memories of the past. "No. Someone else can do it. I won't."
Nasuada sighed heavily, tapping her nails on her chair. She watched Tristan, wishing she could do as he wanted. But the problem was, Tristan was one of the best. He was stealthy and he wouldn't be caught.
"I'm sorry, Tristan. It has to be you. You'll have a guard with you, of course."
Tristan's eyes narrowed dangerously. "What am I supposed to tell my sister? She couldn't take losing another brother, Nasuada."
Nasuada squeezed her eyes shut. Colton had been like a brother to her as well. How could anyone who had known him forget? He'd impacted on everyone's lives. She knew that Ashen couldn't lose Tristan as well.
"We need that egg." Her voice lowered until it was little more than a whisper. "If it hatches for one of Galbatorix's people, we won't survive. We can't have the last Rider controlled by him. We wouldn't survive."
Tristan knew that and he could understand Nasuada's desperation. But stealing the green egg…it was definitely a suicide mission. Colton had only been associated with the egg and he'd been brutally murdered. If Galbatorix discovered that Tristan had taken the egg…he didn't want to think about it.
"You won't be the actual thief," Nasuada assured him, "I've already sent someone for that particular part of the mission. You'll just be taking the egg from him."
If this was meant to placate Tristan, then it wasn't working. His brows knitted into a concentrated frown as he observed Nasuada. He had nothing but the utmost respect for the young Varden leader, but he didn't agree with what she was asking of him.
Nasuada seemed to be deep in thought. "Perhaps it's wisest if Ashen accompanies you."
Tristan shook his head fervently. Danger to himself he could stand, but not his little sister.
Nasuada raised her eyebrows. "Consider that you'd both be safer watching each other's backs, Tristan. Your sister is an asset to the Varden, as are you."
Tristan chose not to say that they were expendable assets. He didn't want to anger Nasuada. He could also hear the truth ringing in what she said. What if there was an attack on the Varden while he was gone? He'd much prefer his sister by his side, where at least he could keep her safe.
"Fine," he grumbled, inclining his head stiffly to the Varden leader, "Lady Nasuada."
Ashen was lying on her back counting the stars. She would have slept, but she was too worried about her brother. What had Nasuada wanted of him? Tristan seemed surprised when he found Ashen lying out on the balcony with her hair streaming out around her and her face tilted towards the night sky.
"What are you doing?" he asked her.
Ashen sat up straight and jumped to her feet, moving towards her brother. Tristan was tense as she approached him and Ashen frowned at the hard light in her older brother's eyes. This definitely wasn't like Tristan.
"Tristan, what's the matter?"
He brushed past her, refusing to look her in the eyes. Ashen was overcome by a flash of hurt and her hands clenched into fists. Tristan whipped around to face her, clearly sensing that she was agitated. Out of the two of them, Ashen was the firebrand.
"We've been sent to claim the last egg."
There was no procrastination and Ashen flinched as if he'd slapped her across the face. She couldn't believe this. After Colton's death, she thought Nasuada would have been more compassionate…except she did realize that the leader of the Varden probably had no other choice.
"What?" Ashen's voice was tiny. "But…after Colton…"
"Grow up, Ashen," snapped Tristan, his concern turning him against her, "You're not a little girl anymore. Someone has to do it. If Nasuada has faith in you, the rest of the Varden does as well."
Ashen felt slightly sick. Suddenly, she could understand the responsibility that Eragon shouldered. She and her brother had been asked to accomplish the impossible. She noticed Tristan moving for his bow and arrow.
"Where are you going?" she demanded, suddenly overcome by a wave of panic.
He threw her a disbelieving glance. "We're leaving, Ashen. Both of us, right now, along with a guard. The sooner this is accomplished, the better. The egg must be free from Galbatorix, or else…"
Ashen gulped, knowing exactly what her brother was thinking. She didn't want to reminisce on the past – it was too painful. But she didn't have a choice.
"Or else the new Rider will become like Murtagh and we will be doomed."
Ashen understood the importance of their mission when they were seen off by Eragon, Saphira, Arya and Nasuada. Garbed in armour and boy's clothing, she felt more like a soldier than ever. Her grip didn't leave the hilt of her sword.
"I think you all understand the danger," Arya glanced over at Ashen, Tristan and three soldiers that accompanied them. "You will be hunted. Galbatorix may even send Murtagh after you to reclaim the egg. What matters is that you must return to the Varden in all haste."
Tristan gulped and inclined his head. He was the leader of the expedition, despite the fact that the three soldiers were older than him by at least five years. Ashen felt the urge to embrace her friends, but knew that she must be proper now. She held her head high as she mounted her horse. She felt dread at knowing that Murtagh might come after them, but she was prepared. She'd been with the Varden since she'd been six.
Saphira looked at Ashen and Tristan and projected her thoughts to the entire company.
Should you encounter danger, I don't doubt that Nasuada would allow Eragon and I to deal with Murtagh and Thorn if it means the last egg can be delivered safely.
Nasuada looked unpleasantly astonished, but she regained control of herself immediately and nodded slowly. Eragon was smiling slightly.
Ashen had to summon upon all her courage. If only she was as brave as Colton. He'd defied Durza until he'd died. Ashen thought she'd probably break under torture. It was not a comforting thought. She forced a smile as she faced her comrades.
"We should probably get going then," Tristan muttered, sounding as reluctant as Ashen felt. As the five horses disappeared in the darkness, Ashen twisted in her saddle to look behind her. At this speed, they would be out of Surda in no time. From then on…they would be in Imperial territory.