A/N: A little less than two weeks. Not too bad, right? And we finally get to know how Arlet will get out of this mess! Also, a BIG thank you to everyone who reviewed, favorited, and is now following this story! :)
Happy 3 year anniversary to this story!
"You must be willing to protect yourself and what you cherish, no matter what the cost." – Murtagh Morzansson
"Let her go," I demanded to Calhoun in the most menacing voice I could muster.
As I glanced around at my armed companions, I had never wished for a sword as fervently as I did then. On one hand, I knew Calhoun would never face me in a challenge of sword because I did have the upper hand over him; on the other, I wanted a blade to slice through his throat.
Perhaps, I thought to myself, there was a reason my sword had been removed.
But not your dragon, Thorn growled. I could feel the fire burning in his belly and his rage influenced my own emotions. He had stayed at the camp because he could not fly, but also because the sapphire dragon refused to budge from his side—regardless of the amount of times she growled and snapped her jaws at the air over her Rider.
Calhoun let out a dark laugh before replying bitterly, "You know I cannot." He bent down to take Arlet into his arms and her insentient body easily folded into his large figure. I watched as he looked down at her with an unreadable expression before saying, "I'll keep her safe. Probably better than you can." There was a smug smirk on his face when he looked up at me again.
"The hell you can," I snorted. "Put her down and I'll prove to you that you still cannot defeat me."
"It seems I already have," Calhoun retorted as he gestured to the unconscious girl in his arms. "I'm holding all the cards now, Kingslayer."
A tendril of rage fired up inside me at his words. "For the moment, perhaps, but you will not leave Dras-Leona with her. I promise you that."
He frowned. "Have you no regard for your own life? Let me take her and I promise you this will be easier than what I will have to do if I return her to you now. Accept that Galbatorix will keep her safe—perhaps give her a good beating now and then, but she will live longer than if she were to stay here." His words stirred something inside my chest and I took a step towards him. Calhoun gave a disappointed shake of his head. "Do not let this sense of protectiveness overcloud your judgment, Kingslayer. Do not play a game where you cannot win."
"Enough," Arya barked as she drew her sword. "Hand her back to us and no harm will befall you."
Calhoun's eyes swept to Arya and a flicker of irritation passed over his face, but was quickly swept under his sardonic countenance. "Tsk, tsk. What business does a woman having meddling in mans' affairs? Quite now, elf, and leave the negotiation to us men."
"Have you no regard for your own life?" I shot back mockingly. "Insulting a woman—much less an elf—would make one believe that you have no regards at all."
"I never cared for their opinion," Calhoun admitted with a scowl.
"Yet you care greatly for hers," Eragon snapped as he lifted his hand to point to Arlet. "Otherwise, why go to all this trouble?"
"I said I do not care," Calhoun said with an annoyed expression. "Galbatorix, on the other hand, has become quite obsessed. Now if you do not mind…" Calhoun took a step back and adjusted Arlet so she was slung over his shoulder. I could hear her moan softly but her eyes remained closed. "Always a pleasure to see you, Kingslayer."
"Wait," I called to his back. "You do not have to do this. We were on the same side, weren't we? You helped us escape Urû'baen; you gave her father a quick death. You care for her, Calhoun, I know you do." The dark haired man had paused with his back to us, listening. I inhaled a sharp breath and continued, "She cares for you, too. She knows you are not the man others think you to be. She believes you are good."
Calhoun slowly turned around wearing a mixed expression. It was the second time I had seen him unsure—unsure of what to feel or what to say. Calhoun was a sarcastic imbecile, but the look on his face then greatly contrasted to his imagine. Finally, in words so soft I could scarcely hear, he said, "You do not understand… If I give her to you now… There will be no escaping what he has planned." He looked over at the calm waters of Leona Lake and exhaled an angry breath before whirling around to face our small group, his smug expression firmly planted on his face. "If she chooses to believe that I am something other than I am, then she is at fault. Why should you pay for her mistake, Kingslayer? Walk away while you have the chance."
"You know I cannot do that," I returned.
"Then she is not the only one who will be making a mistake."
"No," Arya seethed. "The only mistake was yours." Her lips began to tremble and it took only a moment for me to realize that she was chanting under her breath. As I opened my mouth to stop her, she completed the spell and cracked a smile as a gust of wind sped towards the duo on the hill. Because Arlet did not have the wards Calhoun did, the spell pushed into her and caused Calhoun to fall backwards under the unexpected weight.
We were upon them before he even touched the ground and before the magician could even register what was happening, Eragon and I had pulled Arlet from his grasp and the Urgal had pressed his sword against the delicate skin under his jaw. Calhoun's eyes were alight with fury when he realized his predicament and he glared at the Urgal.
"You should have just left when you had her," Arya commented dryly.
"And deny myself the pleasure of your company?" Calhoun retorted. He grunted when the Urgal pressed the knife harder into his skin. His hard eyes fled to me and he said through clenched teeth, "You're making a mistake. Just let me take her."
"And you're mistaking if you think I'll just let you," I stated as I drew Arlet closer to me. Her body was limp in my arms and as I softly touched her cheekbone, I murmured the spell that would wake her. The moment the words left my lips, her eyes fluttered open and she became immobile as she tried to figure out her situation.
"It's me," I whispered to her. "You're safe now."
"No," she murmured. She jerked from my arms and looked around blindly—for what I do not know. "What have you done?" Her words were quiet, but they held an intense amount of accusation. "What have you done?"
"It's not too late, little moon," Calhoun told her kindly. "Come with me and my oath will be satisfied." He grunted and then hissed to the Urgal, "If you press any deeper, you will have killed valuable information. I hardly imagine your leader allowing you to kill me." The Urgal growled in answer, but kept his sword pressed firmly against Calhoun's skin.
Unhearing of the transgression between Calhoun and the Urgal, Arlet's face had contorted into one of painful sorrow. "Where did you…? Only my father…" Her sentence broke off.
"If you leave with me now, Murtagh will live. Do not let your father's death mean nothing," Calhoun reasoned. At his words, Arlet took a stumbling step towards his voice but I grabbed her arm and yanked her back into the circle of my arms. She fought against my grip, but her weakened state made her no challenge against me.
Finally, she slouched into me and pleaded, "Calhoun, please. I chose to come to you. Please spare him."
"Restrain him," Arya ordered to the Urgal and the other elf. The giant creature grunted in approval and lowered himself to wrap his meaty paw around Calhoun's arm when the magician lifted his arms and shouted a spell that sent the Urgal and elf a few paces back. Both landed with a resounding thud and Calhoun quickly jumped to his feet—though his expression continued to remain smug.
He brushed off the dirt from his shirt and said to Arya, "How unkind of you, elf, to try and kill a weaponless man. Where is your honor?"
"Weaponless, perhaps, but not defenseless," Arya defended.
Calhoun smirked at her words. "No, never defenseless." His eyes swept to Arlet and he said, "It appears your dear lover has chosen how this little game ends, Arlet."
Arlet's face paled and she rushed, "Cal, I'm begging you. Spare him. Do not take him away from me too."
She couldn't see it, but there was a flicker of regret that slid across his face—so quick that I thought perhaps I had imagined it. His smirk hardened into a frown as he replied, "I wish I could." He straightened himself and rolled his shoulders back before adopting a lazy smirk. "You cannot say I didn't warn you, Kingslayer. But be forewarned: I do not have to kill you for you to die." His eyes swept to Arlet before snapping back to me. "When the time comes and you believe yourself to be safe and happy, remember these words: good things do not last. When the joy you feel tarnishes your mouth, you will know then that my oath has been fulfilled. Remember that." He then turned abruptly on his heel and disappeared into the protection of the trees.
If someone were to ask me how to describe that hour or so within Nasuada's tent, the only word I could think of would be unbearable. So incredibly unbearable.
The moment we returned to the camp, Angela had stormed to our small group with an expression so fierce I was sure Galbatorix would have cowered. Although Arlet could not see her aunt, she knew exactly when the herbalist had arrived and strayed from our path to follow her back to their tent. I was sure whatever Arlet was about to face would be something similar to my own predicament.
There had been a lot of yelling—mainly from the dwarf. There had been a lot of negotiation about my discipline and finally, finally I was able to convince them that I had done it in the best interest of someone I cared about. It had taken a long time to get them to calm down enough so I could tell them Arlet's story: her father's capture, Galbatorix's promise, her betrayal, and then of our daring escape. They listened with rapt attention to my account and from the looks on their faces I knew they did not agree with my reasoning, but they understood where it came from.
And much to my surprise, Nasuada promised to keep Arlet's secret from the public. She had sworn on her honor that the only people who would know of Arlet's power would be the people within that tent and Angela. "For the sake of the kind, honorable man from Farthen Dûr," she had said, "For the man who brought Eragon and Saphira to the Varden because of loyalty, I will protect her secret—we all will. But you must swear to never lie again. You must understand we cannot have our soldiers keeping secrets—especially ones of this magnitude."
For the first time since returning to the red pavilion, Eragon spoke and worded the oaths for me. Even though I could do it myself, Nasuada did not want another loophole so I had waited as Eragon crafted an oath as binding as the ones Galbatorix had given me after the battle at the burning plains.
It appeared I had shed one set of chains only to bind myself in another.
The meeting ended shortly after my oath and Eragon accompanied me back to my tent—with the irritable group of guards in tow. His face was blank as we walked and when we finally reached the shared tent, I turned to him and asked, "Do you mind if I go make sure Arlet is still alive?"
For a long time the young Rider was silent. Finally, he said in a whisper, "Why did you not tell me?" His brown eyes looked up at me and I noticed with a surprised amount of guilt that an overwhelming amount of betrayal swirled within them.
"I didn't want to put you in that position," I told him honestly. "You would have been morally obligated to tell Nasuada her secret—regardless of the promises you made me. I didn't want to put you in that conflict."
"Were you not also morally obligated to tell?"
I sighed. "Not in the way that you are, Eragon." I looked at my feet as I said, "All I have ever known is the absence of those I care about. Our mother abandoned me to save you, and then died shortly thereafter. My good friend Tornac trained me and guided my angry soul until he, too, was taken from me. Then you." I looked up to see Eragon's face scrunch in confusion. "I journeyed with you, protected you, and practiced swordsmanship with you. We became friends and then you, too, were taken from me. Now all I have left is Thorn and Arlet. If something were to happen to either of them, I don't know what I would do."
"Tell me something, Murtagh: would Arlet have been better protected by only you, or by the force of the Varden? I understand why you wished to keep her a secret, because I too have lost the majority of those I care about. I know how it feels," he said hesitantly. "But through the course of my time as a Rider I've learned that, although you should do anything to protect those you care about, it's easier when you have a group of people behind you. These people here… If given the chance, they will protect you, Thorn, and Arlet in exchange for your protection. If you have their back, they will have yours."
"I never thought about that," I answered. "I always just assumed that everyone would take advantage of her."
"The thought is tempting," he mused in jest. "But just like the little girl Elva, Arlet would be more useful if she was willing."
"I just want to keep her safe," I murmured. "Keep them both safe."
Eragon lifted his hand and grasped my shoulder. "Your loyalty knows no bounds, I know. One way or another, she will be safe." The corner of his mouth tilted upwards and he backed away from me. "Please do not lie to me again."
"I have nothing else I've consciously kept from you," I returned gently.
He nodded his head in approval and lifted the flap of the tent. "Then go make sure Angela did not kill Arlet. Her expression might have scared the hairs off the dogs." I chuckled to myself as he disappeared into the tent and made my way among the familiar route to Arlet's tent. I could tell by the people following me that they disapproved of my actions, but at the moment I couldn't find it in myself to care. I wanted to see her—and make sure Angela hadn't killed her. And find out how she managed to escape the herbalist.
The herbalist in question was absent when I entered the tent. As usual, the guards spread around the small tent and their shadows cast large, black figures against the canvas. The Urgal's shadow was probably the most troubling, but the only other person within the tent to notice was sound asleep on her cot.
Arlet's back faced me and I quietly slipped off my boots to slowly climb into the cot with her. I lifted the blanket, slipped underneath it, and pressed my chest up against her back as my arm wormed its way across her stomach. I heard her inhale a deep breath and then snuggle closer to me.
"Do you always accept men into your bed in such a fashion?" I whispered to her.
"Only if they are warm," she responded sluggishly.
"No," I declared. "You're mine."
She laughed softly and turned so she was lying on her back, bright blue eyes staring into mine. I had forgotten the brilliance of her electric eyes and I felt a smile creep up on my face as I watched her—and she me. Her small hand reached up and cupped my cheek as a gentle smile broke out across her face.
"Hello," she said softly.
"Hello," I returned. I leaned forward and pressed my lips against hers in an innocent kiss, but the intensity picked up and I hadn't the mind to pull away. It was only when air became a necessity that I regretfully broke the kiss and smiled down at her. "I had almost forgotten what intimacy felt like."
She rolled her eyes and gently smacked my shoulder. "Don't be such a pig."
"I'm a pig because I want you?" I inquired with a raised brow.
"No, you're a pig because you come to my tent—my bed, no less—to complain about a lack of intimacy," she responded. "I do have a reputation to maintain, you know. And I would much like it not to be your 'plaything'."
"Then I shall marry you and put an end to those rumors," I replied without thought. The words had flown out of my mouth before I had a chance to consider the after affect, but as the seconds ticked by in silence as we both mulled over my careless words, I couldn't help but wonder if it was something I was ready for. The idea of binding myself to one person had once been terrifying, but as I laid on that cot and stared down at Arlet, I did not feel fear.
Finally, Arlet broke the silence by asking in a small voice, "Is that what you want?"
"Yes." My voice was quiet but it was steady. Even though my heart thundered in my chest, my voice portrayed a man of confidence—a man who knew that the girl in front of him was forever. There were times when I had heard Tornac speak of marriage, but I had brushed the idea off. Marriage was not for a man like me.
Marriage was for men who could provide their wives with a home, with children, and with safety.
"I can see the wheels turning in your head," she said with a laugh. Her fingers went to my chin and guided my face to look at her. "We do not need to talk about this now, Murtagh. There are many more things that should be on the forefront of our minds."
"Such as you sneaking away to leave with Calhoun?" I hadn't meant to sound rude, but my words had a tint of darkness to them that I know she heard.
Arlet sighed. "I did what I thought was best to keep you safe."
"Keep me safe?" I asked incredulously. "I'm supposed to be keeping you safe."
"And who is better able to keep a knife from your back? Those guards who detest you?" she snapped.
"At least they are able to see when they walk into a situation like that," I responded curtly. "I do not know how you managed to sneak past Angela, but what would have happened if I hadn't stopped you? Where would you be now? In Galbatorix's throne room with a knife in your own back?"
Her jaw tightened and for a long while she remained silent with her eyes squeezed shut. She gave out a defeated sigh and when she opened her eyes to look at me, they were soft. "Did you not once say that you should always be willing to protect yourself and those you care about, no matter the cost?"
"No fair," I responded lightly. "You cannot use words I have not said in your presence against me."
"Does it matter?" she replied with a roll of her eyes. "You, Murtagh Morzansson, are all I can think about. I worry endlessly for your safety because I know you'll do anything to protect me—regardless of the harm that may befall you. I love you more than I can ever show, more than I can ever say, and if I were to lose you too…" She looked away as the meaning behind her words sunk in.
It seemed we shared the same level of desperation for the other's safety.
"I don't think I could… I don't know what I would do if…" Her words were garbled, but the message was clear: it was the same one I had given to Eragon earlier.
My hand went to cup her cheek as I tilted her head towards mine. "There is nothing Calhoun could do that will take me from you. I promise I will always find you—no matter where you are, or where I am. I will always come for you." A small smile broke out across her face and she lifted her head to press her lips against mine. She rolled back over to her side and I snuggled up to her back and I could hear a contented sigh escape her lips.
For a long while neither of us spoke. It wasn't until my curiosity got the best of me that I asked, "Where is Angela?"
Arlet shrugged. "She said she'd be back when she was back."
"You can't see her?"
"I never have been able to see her," Arlet responded slowly. "Papa said that she created this tonic that would protect her from my visions, but that she would not share the secret. She had told him that if he was this great potions master, he could figure it out himself." She laughed softly and then added, "And to answer your next question, I—in a roundabout way—drugged her to get past her. She made me a sleeping elixir and I switched our drinks when she was not looking. By the time she had realized what I had done, it was too late."
"How did you manage to swap drinks blind? And with all-knowing Angela?"
She laughed and answered, "My aunt is not all-knowing, though she will lead you to believe she is. It's easy to do something when no one suspects that of you. That's why she is so angry with me. She knew I would try and get out; she just did not know how."
"You are full of surprises," I whispered into her ear.
"I cannot say it isn't inherited."
She started to wiggle around and I leaned away as she grunted in frustration. "What on earth are you doing, woman?"
"This is why I hate wearing dresses," she said as she lifted her body off the stalk. "They always ride up when you move around."
I couldn't help but laugh—and then laugh harder when her glaring eyes turned to me. My hand wandered under the blanket and rested against her hip to keep her from moving. "I love it when you wear dresses."
She rolled her eyes as she said, "Of course you do. You're a pig."
"How much time do you think we have?" I rolled her over so she was lying on her back and she shook her head, her blue eyes filled with amusement.
"Enough," she answered as she reached up to lock our lips.
After a moment, I murmured against the softness of her lips, "And you called me a pig."
Thank you for reading! Next chapter we'll get on to the battle at Dras-Leona:)