Pömnuria Hjarta er Medh Ono
A/N: Steadily moving our way toward the finale. This is the beginning of the final arc! Thank you to all of you who have given feedback. I'm really glad so many of you are ready to join me for the end of this story. Sorry this chapter is a little bit short, but the action begins now, so, as always, ENJOY!
It was in the dead of the night that they coasted low over the dark ocean to swoop in for a landing upon the dark coastline of Beirland. Thorn landed as quietly as he could, tucking his wings and keeping his body low as his passengers climbed off from his back in quick succession, taking off silently through the forest as the dragon slid between the trees for cover. The darkness of the forest forced the senses of the dragon's Rider to sharpen, his eyesight adjusting accordingly so that he could observe the scene around him. The three of them silently slunk up to the edge of the tree line skirting the edge of a cliff jutting over the island's only port town, Eoam. Murtagh silently slid to his belly beside Garven through the foliage to see through to the town below them.
It was a small town made up of a collaboration of houses and buildings, torches lighting up the spaces between them as bandits brandishing swords at their waists patrolled the streets. In the darkness, the Rider could just make out the transfer of goods from the ships docked at port to the well-lit entrance of a large cave fitted into the face of the rock ledge surrounding the city. He felt a chill fall down at the sound of a woman's screams as she was drug away from her children to be loaded onto the ships in place of the cargo, a line of other silent, shaking women in chains following after her.
"Human trafficking," Garven said quietly beside him. "Humanity never ceases to disgust me." He shook his head and moved to stand up again. Murtagh pressed his lips together and looked over his shoulder to where Nasuada stood, shoulder stiff and her expression hard.
"How long has this been occurring?" she asked, her voice tight.
"Our sources say about a month," the Nighthawk responded. "They've made this town their main base of operations, under the guise that they are reinventing the sea trade for Surda. But if selling stolen goods and the people they took it from is their twisted idea of turning a profit, I don't want to see what else they have planned for the rest of Alagaësia."
"But why this town?" he heard Nasuada ask. "The mainland port cities are better suited for trade and accessibility. Beirland is out of the way and dangerous to traverse with the whirlpool so close. It makes no sense."
"They're not here for the trade," Murtagh said quietly. Nasuada and Garven both looked at him as he turned his eyes back out to the town below. Even with the curse suppressing the magic within him, he could tell that there was something different about this island. It practically hummed with an unknown energy of limitless proportions, practically permeating the air around him. "They're looking for something else. Something a lot more… valuable."
Nasuada was about to say something when applause broke the silence between them, making the three of them freeze in their places. Murtagh was on his feet in seconds, his hand on the hilt of Zar'roc as a figure stepped out from between the shadows of the trees. As the dim night light fell upon her, Murtagh could see that she was just a child, dressed in dark clothes and her hair pulled in a ponytail away from her face. But her eyes were something else altogether, bright violet and gleaming in the darkness with an unnatural sense of knowing far beyond her years. A patch of silver skin in the shape of a star on her forehead glinted in the low moonlight and Murtagh was reminded of a time when he knew a girl with unique eyes and a haunting talent.
"What a good guess, Rider," she said, a thin, knowing smile lifting on her lips. "It's almost as if you knew what they were looking for beforehand."
"Elva," Nasuada said, stepping forward. "I had not realized that you were on this island."
"Well, top secret information isn't obtained without getting close and personal to the source," the girl said, leaning against the tree with a slight smirk. "And there's no one better at getting information than me."
"I cannot disagree with that," the young queen admitted. "How long have you been on this island?"
"Nearly a fortnight," Elva said. "And believe me, there is plenty to say about it."
"Then say it quick," Murtagh said, glancing out toward the sounds of the town. "The longer we linger, the more dangerous this becomes."
Elva shifted her unusual violet eyes his way. "Nervous, Rider?"
He pressed his lips together, unnerved by the way her eyes seemed to see straight through him. "I prefer cautious."
She shrugged slightly. "Fair enough. You're not wrong when you said that they are looking for something in particular, Rider," she said, walking forward a few paces to point out at the city. "That cave there is the center of their operations. Not only do they store all of their valuable cargo there, but deep inside its winding caverns is the only known form of naturally occurring magic in Alagaësia."
Murtagh's mind finally made a connection to something he had heard about many years ago. "The Floating Rock."
"Very good, Rider." Elva clapped again, much to Murtagh's annoyance. "It's this natural magic that has caught their attention. They've been trying to harness this power, but magic like this cannot be controlled so easily." She gave Murtagh a knowing glance as she turned to face Nasuada again. "For a while, that was all it was. Aside from the underground trade, their efforts have been futile. But two days ago, something changed."
Nasuada's expression grew dark. "Drayok."
"That's part of it," Elva confirmed. "But his retrieval was merely an aftereffect of something bigger: the arrival of their one true leader. His father."
"His father?" Nasuada echoed in surprise.
"Rasenth Burtonsson," the girl said with slight malice. "He's a truly nasty character to have create so much death and destruction in such a short amount of time."
"I know of this man," Garven said then. "He was said to be an avid supporter of Galbatorix and the reign of the empire. Not surprising since he was one of the corrupt elitists that benefitted from such a government. Drayok claimed him to be dead."
"Makes you wonder what else he lied about," Elva said forebodingly. "This is no longer a rouge group of underground pirates. Rasenth has rallied them into something bigger and more aggressive. He's raising an army, and they've begun searching for the one thing that will ensure their ability to overthrow the throne: the Pure Spring."
Murtagh felt his blood grow cold. In the back of his mind, he could feel Thorn stirring with suspicion. Elva's eyes were trained on him. "It seems I don't have to explain what that is, do I, Rider?" she asked.
"What does he want with it?" he asked lowly. If the Spring is what they are after, then everything we have seen and all they have done thus far explains their reasons for being here, he said to Thorn. The assassin at the Games, the destruction in Surda.
"Rasenth believes that the Spring will erase all signs of aging and heal all wounds, no matter how grave. As long as he has its healing waters, he believes that it will grant him immortality," she said. "I hear that the Spring is a closely guarded secret by the Urgals. You can only imagine how he obtained the information from such a proud race."
Garven looked skeptical at best. "Is such a thing even possible?"
"Immortality? No," the girl replied frankly. "But if he believes it possible, then nothing will stop him from obtaining it and turning his sights on the Empire."
Nasuada frowned, her brow furrowing with deep thought. "Regardless of whether or not this Spring does as it is claimed to do," she said slowly, glancing at Murtagh. "Building an army to try and overthrow my rule over the kingdom is reason enough for us to bring this to a stop. We must end the underground trading, release the people he has enslaved and finish this before everything gets far worse than it already is."
"I will gather the Nighthawks on your word, my lady," Garven said. Nasuada nodded.
"Luckily, you still have some time to plan out a proper assault," Elva added in. "He is preoccupied by combing the islands for the Spring, and will not leave Surda until he has found it. Although, you may want to hurry, because he has already narrowed it down to the final island in the archipelago: Parlim."
The Southernmost island, Murtagh confirmed. "We need to get there before he does."
Nasuada recognized the tone of his voice and nodded once as she turned back to her most trusted Nighthawks. "How long do we have before things begin to change again?"
"Days at most, hours at the least," Elva admitted. "Rasenth's return has accelerated their production rate. They are gathering more people at every moment."
"Then I can't afford to have my eyes off of them," she said. "I'm leaving you both here to watch for changes. Notify me immediately if Rasenth returns, or things start to take a dramatic shift in any way. We will return as soon as we find the Spring."
Garven snapped a proper salute to his queen while Elva gave them a muted smile. "Whatever it is that takes you there, I hope that you find what you are looking for," she said, her violet eyes glinting in the low lighting.
Somehow, Murtagh got the impression that she knew exactly what they were here for and why. It unnerved him, but saved him an uncomfortable explanation. "Thank you."
Elva went to nod when she froze, her violet eyes growing wide. She spun on her heel then, her stance defensive and cautious. Garven immediately reached for the dagger on his hip, flipping it into his hand. Murtagh stepped back instinctually, putting himself between the mysterious threat and Nasuada, his hand moving to Zar'roc's hilt.
"They've caught wind of our meeting," Elva hissed. "They're coming to ambush us." She spun toward the Queen, her hair flying behind her. "Get out of here! Now!"
Murtagh didn't need a second warning. Turning on his heel, he grabbed Nasuada's hand and took off at a sprint through the black forest the way they came. She stumbled after him, trying to catch up with his accelerated pace. He broadened his senses, becoming hyper aware of the sounds around them. Already, he could make out the sounds of metal upon metal as the two Nighthawks met their attackers. He grit his teeth and pushed forward.
"We need to get to Thorn," he said before thinking out toward his dragon. We're being attacked. Get ready to fly.
There was a crunch of a branch breaking to their left and Murtagh pushed Nasuada behind him, just barely whipping out Zar'roc in time to parry a blow for his neck. He slashed down his assailant as Nasuada pulled out the knife tied to her waist, dodging a blow thrown her way. Within moments, there were three attackers on top of them, viciously attacking with the intent to knock them unconscious. Murtagh expertly took them down as more arrived, watching Nasuada closely as she took down an attacker herself only to have the knife knocked from her fingers. Murtagh kicked away the attacker near him as she ducked a punch thrown at her head before shouting her name and throwing Zar'roc towards her. She caught it by the hilt and turned to stab it through the man coming at her as Murtagh knocked out the man next to him with a solid kick to the head. He breathed heavily for a moment, trying to calm down his frantically beating heart as he jumped over the bodies of the men to get to her. Her hands were shaking when he took her face into his hands.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "Are you hurt?"
She swallowed thickly and shook her head. He gave a quiet sigh of relief, briefly stilling at the sound of the battle rising again in the distance. Nasuada had her eyes turned back toward the way they came, something undistinguishable reflected in her eyes.
"There's too many of them," she said. "They're going to be captured."
"They knew the risks going into this," Murtagh responded.
"But how did they know we were here?" she demanded.
Murtagh was silent for half a second. "They must have been expecting us."
"Then it was a trap," she said. Her brow was pulled down and he could tell that she knew exactly what was going on. Her mind was reeling, and Murtagh could see the direction her thoughts were going. She looked up at him.
"No. Absolutely not," he said.
"It's my fault that they're here in the first place," she said. "I can't just leave them behind."
"Yes, you can," he argued. "This is their job, Nasuada. They're trained for missions like this. If you go back for them now, then you are risking your own life needlessly." She bit her lip in response, her eyes nervously darting back. He lowered his voice slightly. "Don't waste the sacrifice they made for you."
Her brow furrowed and she squeezed her eyes shut. "I know… I know…" she whispered.
He could see the unwillingness in her face warring with the need to do her duty. His heart softened for her. He wanted to tell her that they would be fine, but he knew she wouldn't believe him. Not when he didn't even believe it himself.
There was a whoosh by his ear and a crossbow bolt buried itself in the tree just behind where they were standing. His heart gave a start and he instinctually started running again. His hand gripped Nasuada's wrist with nearly bruising strength as he pulled her along behind him again. Several more crossbow shots whistled by them and for the first time, he could make out the shouts of men as they thundered after them. His breath was sharp in his head as he narrowed his vision in.
How many are there?
Twenty, came Thorn's response. He could practically feel the anxiety coming off the dragon in waves. Four have branched off to take the other two-legs down to the town, but the rest are tailing you.
They'll catch up before I can reach you, Murtagh realized. I can't outrun them with Nasuada.
Before Thorn could respond, a sword sliced the air directly beside Murtagh's head. The Rider instinctually jumped back, stumbling into Nasuada. They both tumbled to the ground unceremoniously. Murtagh's heart pounded frantically as he pushed her down to avoid the second swing of the sword at their heads, and turned to sweep the man's legs out from underneath him. He fell heavily to the ground, his sword tumbling out of his fingers, and Murtagh lunged forward to grab it. With a quick, deadly slice, he finished him off. Scrambling to his feet, he yanked Nasuada back onto hers as well. Already, he could see their pursuers pushing through the trees closest to them.
"You need to leave!" he shouted at her. "I'll keep them off of you long enough for you to get to Thorn and get in the air."
She hesitated like she was going to protest when another attacker pushed through the bushes toward them. Murtagh thrust his sword at him before he could gather himself, putting him on the defensive.
Nasuada gave him a short look before turning to run. He watched her go for a moment over his shoulder before forcing his attacker off of him and swinging his sword down the man's middle. He crumpled to the ground and Murtagh took a step back to catch his breath. The next wave of attackers would be on him in seconds and he wanted to be sure Nasuada was a good distance away from them. Taking a small breath, he steeled himself for what he was about to do next.
You cannot be serious.
Thorn's voice was low and angry, just as Murtagh expected it would be. He closed his eyes and gave a quiet sigh. There's no choice, Thorn.
I refuse to believe that, the dragon snapped back. There are better ways to gather information than willingly allowing yourself to be captured!
And what would you suggest instead? the Rider asked. Without her Nighthawks, there's nobody here to relay the enemy's movements to her. I'll have the best advantage on that. I can learn who their leader is and tell her the best route to march her army in. I have the tactical advantage.
And what if they hurt you? Thorn argued.
Then I will deal with it, Murtagh responded. You and I both know that there is nothing they can do to me that I can't handle. Thorn was silent, but Murtagh could still feel his anger. There was a rustle in the bushes ahead of him, and Murtagh saw the next wave of attackers. He slid back into his stance and lifted his borrowed sword. Thorn, please. I know you don't like this, but this is something I feel like I need to do.
I know… There was a sigh in his head. Just promise me this, bróðir. If you find this so called Rasenth Burtonsson before I do, spare him long enough for me to bite off his head. I deserve that much after all that has happened.
I will, he agreed. Take care of her, Thorn.
He felt rather than heard Thorn's agreement and the attackers burst through the trees again. Letting his lingering thoughts fade away, he shifted his feet and launched himself towards them.
Even though his plan dictated that he get overwhelmed halfway through the fight, he couldn't help but thrash a couple heads first. The sword he took from the fallen pirate didn't sing quite as well as Zar'roc did, but it was still just as deadly in his hands. He slashed down three of his attackers in a matter of seconds before he allowed the blade to be knocked from his hand. He knocked two more assailants out before they finally managed to get the better of him and tackled him to the ground. He struggled underneath the weight of four men, but despite his best efforts, he was caught. One of the men not pinning him down walked up in front of him.
"Not so tough now, aren't you, Rider?" he sneered, pressing his boot against Murtagh's forehead. Murtagh said nothing. The man tsk'ed and turned to the person beside him. "Wasn't there one more traveling with him?"
Murtagh's heart gave a heavy thump. The person shrugged uncertainly.
"It doesn't matter," the first man eventually said. "We have the spies and the Rider. That alone should be enough for the boss."
In the back of his mind, Murtagh could feel Thorn taking off from the island with Nasuada on his back. He hid the internal sigh of relief as the men hefted him to his knees. The man kneeled down in front of him, giving him a full view of his shaved head and the ugly scar roping across its scalp. He sneered, showing off a mouthful of broken teeth.
"Didn't think we'd recognize you, did you?" he taunted. "Where's your dragon, little blood traitor?"
Murtagh narrowed his eyes and responded by spitting on the man's shoes. His expression twisted and he stood again to throw a viscous kick at the Rider's ribs. Murtagh coughed as his bones bent, but smirked to himself. These men were far too easy to read.
"Bring him with us back to the caves," the man ordered. "Drag him if you must. I'm sure our boss will be most pleased to see him a little roughed up before we present him to him."
The other men laughed and Murtagh fixed a glare at the man in charge of the group. He hadn't been lying when he said he had been through worse, but that wasn't going to stop them for trying to give him a run for his money. The best he could do now was focus on the things he needed to know and find a way out before the pirate's plan came to full fruition. He could only hope he wasn't getting in too deep.