Disclaimer : I do not own the Inheritance Cycle.
A/N : This story is dedicated to my most favorite writer. The one, I admire for his writing style – that's why the name 'Strong-Pen'. To Restrained Freedom for his healing story 'An Enemy's Heart'. May he finds the time and courage to finish it.
The horse galloped. And Murtagh couldn't remember another time when his horse had galloped faster. The sky overhead was dark. Black, rain-filled clouds hanged above the frozen road, and in front of him spread out farmland and vast plains. He had left Urû'baen several leagues behind, and so far he was not aware of any pursuit. But even if there was any, he was far beyond their reach.
The young man felt his face freeze under a strange wetness that dripped from his burning eyes. The image of Tornac faltering on his saddle and then collapsing, while the King's guards surrounded the fallen body, hiding it from his sight, would not abandon him. His throat was burning the same way his strangely wet eyes did. In the silence of the night, interrupted by the howling wind, he had yelled the name of his Swordmaster, friend and companion, dozens of times. And now, his fierce rage flooded his chest, reaching once again up to his throat.
'Tornac! … Where are you? … Tornac!'
Listening to his scream the horse neighed, reducing its frantic rush for a while. Then, it stood up on its hind legs and kicked the frosty air with its hooves. It seemed that the sound of the Sordmaster's name caused a strange effect on the steed, for each time it had reacted the same way.
Murtagh lay weary on the back of the steed and hid his frozen face in its thick, sweaty mane.
'… Tornac … where are you? …' he cried out through a sore throat, causing the horse to slow down its galloping, reaching a vigorous trot.
For some time now he had left the main road, leading to and from the capital behind, not only from fear he may be spotted, but because he was no longer aware of the landscape in front of him; and he had loosened the bridle, allowing the runaway horse through ice-cold fields and the wilderness. And now the tired animal lingered more and more.
It was still the deep darkness of the night when he realised that the horse had stopped and he looked around him to see sparse trees, a small creek and low undergrowth, with frozen drops of moisture on the leaves. Instead of dismounting he rather slipped and fell on the ground and he stayed there, on all fours panting, his chest tired from the curious sobbing that had left him out of breath so many times.
And then the anger returned. Ragingly, he struck the ground with his fists and screamed with pain.
A wet snout on his neck nudged his shoulder and then shuffled his hair; a soft whinny answered his ragged voice. And for the first time he noticed the foam dripping from the mouth of the horse. Its glossy coat was wet ... sweaty ... The young man suppressed the choking feeling that overwhelmed him. His horse … from now on his unique companion … he could not leave it in such a state in the middle of the cold night. He stood, and opening one of the saddlebags, he took a horse-blanket out of it and covered the steed. In the darkness he felt for its muzzle and touched his forehead on it. He gripped the long mane with both fists and hid his face there, feeling the warmth of the animal's body. He breathed deeply, allowing his lungs to be filled with the strong smell of the horse.
The same soft whinny was heard again. The same gentle nudge on his shoulder, the hot breath on his cheek …
In the sky above them, the raging wind swayed the rain-filled, menacing clouds towards the distant lake and the cold moonlight fell on the land. Among frozen shrubs and cold moisture dripping from the leaves of the trees, the man hugged tightly the neck of his horse.
It was still dawn, the dawn of a cold, sleety day, when the servants woke up their young master. A man on his horse had appeared at the entrance of the great estate, claiming friendship with the lord of the land, demanding to see him at once and asking for a few days' shelter. The man was young, proud and despite the condition of his clothing, he seemed of a noble origin. His horse, a gray war steed, was mud-splattered and tired but one of the best breeds in the country. He had been permitted entrance – the guards had not dared to refuse him – and the servants had taken care of his horse and had escorted him to one of the rooms on the ground floor of the main residence; they had prepared a fire at the fireplace for him and a meal he hadn't touched, while they had gone to call for their master.
The young Lord Melker had recently inherited his father's estate and office in the King's court, and was dividing his time between the capital and his residence in the countryside. In Urû'baen he had made the acquaintance of the son of Morzan and a kind of friendship had been established between the two. He was astounded to see his young friend standing in the middle of the room. He knew that he was never supposed to leave Urû'baen's castle and the city.
'Murtagh! What has befallen you?' He had looked at his torn, bloodied clothes, his haggard face, the dark circles under his eyes. 'Bandits on the road? Have you been ambushed?'
'You could say that' Murtagh had replied briefly. And to his question of what had brought him out of Urû'baen, he had tersely replied 'King's business.'
'Have you been traveling alone?'
To this question his friend had just shaken his head and had murmured a few words about a lost companion. After that, he had been shown to his room and had been left alone to rest.
And now, early in the afternoon, he had come out of the room, just to go to the stables to find out that his horse was well fed, well curried, well treated.
Standing by one of his windows the young Lord Melker watched his friend return from the stables.
'What does he want here?'
The voice made him swerve round to face his mother. Lady Melker was standing behind him, staring at the young man in the yard with a dark, sharp look. She had been informed by her maids of the guest's presence in the estate since early in the morning, as soon as she was awake, and she was eager to meet with him. But the guest had not ventured out of his room so far, and even hιs meal had been brought to him by a servant; or at least that was what her maids had reported to her.
Lady Melker never missed any detail concerning her home, her son's life or anything to her interest. The woman had given orders to her maids to keep an eye on the guest all the time, and, of course, everything concerning him so far had been reported to her. She had been informed of the improper timing of his coming, of his bloodied clothes, of his lack of escort. There was enough out of the ordinary about this arrival, to make anyone suspect. And Lady Melker was a suspicious type of woman.
The young Lord Melker looked at his mother's face very carefully. He was well aware that the woman befriended no one, unless she expected to gain a benefit from this relation. And he remembered very well that it was his mother who had insisted on his association with the son of Morzan in the first place. Probably, she expected him to curry favor with the King through this young man.
'Dear mother!' the young man slightly nodded to the woman, as she came to stand beside him, looking out of the window.
'He never leaves Urû'baen', she said. 'As far as I know, the King wants him to be around all the time.'
Her son gave her a sideways glance.
'He claimed to be traveling on the King's business'. He was aware of the suspicious nature of the woman. It was inevitable that she would interfere with this.
Lady Melker chuckled.
'I doubt it! His condition was not the proper one for a noble travelling on King's business'.' Her eyes glittered full of slyness.
'Let me remind you, my dear mother, that it was you who insisted on my befriending one such as the son of Morzan' the young lord commented, the last spoken name holding a hint of contempt. Then, his gaze returned to the yard. 'After all, since he is my friend now, I have no reason to question him.'
Lady Melker stood annoyed, offended.
'There are no bandits from here to Urû'baen'. She looked angrily at him. 'Why have you accepted him, my son? Does the King know that he is here? And if something … improper is on, what will become of us?'
This conversation was cut short. The young guest had already come through the main entrance and the lords of the house, mother and son, heard him ascend the stairs towards his room. When a distant door was heard open and close again, Lady Melker turned to her son.
'A very good idea would be to be ready to travel to the capital tomorrow.'
The young lord sighed. He knew that once something had entered his mother's head, she wouldn't stop insisting on it, until the goal had been accomplished.
'As you wish, dear mother.'
After all, if the son of Morzan had not been involved in anything, there wouldn't be anything wrong in a brief visit to Urû'baen'. If he had been … then the King would had better be informed of his whereabouts. Lord Melker had been a happy young man so far. He didn't like any trouble around him.
The Astrologist rushed into the throne room holding in his hands the ancient celestial map half-wrapped and out of its protective, leather cylinder. Panic shaded the face of the old man, panic mixed with fear and upon his chest he was clasping his valuable heirloom, as if it was a little, unprotected child who needed his care.
The King was seated unmoving on his throne, and the Dragon was wrapped up in his enormous wings, probably asleep. Everyone in the palace knew that two nights ago terrible events had occurred in Urû'baen's throne room. That during all this time, the King had not retired to his royal quarters at all, he had neither eaten nor drunk, he had seen no one. His wrath, expressed through the Dragon's roars, had rumbled over the citadel for hours on end, and the menacing sounds had reached up to the highest tower of the castle. But, concerning himself and the news he carried, the Astrologist was certain that an exception would be made. The King would be eager to know about what he had to report to him. And the old man had insisted on this to the reluctant guards who had discouraged his entrance.
The old man fell to his knees in the presence of his Majesty and spread open the valuable map on the floor in front of the dais.
'My King, this is something you have to see with your own eyes to believe.'
The malevolent gaze of the King focused on the man before his throne and he glanced at the map; and there it remained petrified. The 'Warrior's' flame, having shifted a little farther from the 'Lion', was burning brighter than ever. And the 'Dragon's' flame, having doubled in size, and having burned its spot on the map – where sixteen years ago it had appeared and developed – was fast approaching the 'Lion's' constellation shining and glimmering, and leaving behind it a blackened path on the indestructible material.
The King's eyes shone with fiery sparkles. With a voice as hard as the hardest of steel, he asked:
'When did this happen?'
The Astrologist raised his hands in despair.
'Last night, your Majesty, a little before dawn.'
The King stood. He had spent all the previous day and night cursing and threatening, and now his dark eyes looked sunken in their sockets. Just before dawn he had calmed down, he and his Dragon and he had given orders to have the body of Tornac removed from the throne room. Since then, he had sat silent on his throne to think.
For some time now he had become aware of the existence of a new Dragon Rider and he had sent his servants northerly to investigate. The choice of the place had not been made due to the information of the person kept under custody in Gil'ead, but according to his Astrologist's suggestion. He was the one who had read the omens in the stars of the universe, he was the one who had suspected the identity of the 'Dragon', he the one who a few years ago – when he had taught the son of Morzan – had become assured of the identity of the 'Warrior' too.
The king growled in anger. The disobedient son of Morzan had enraged him. He was going to bring back this insubordinate brat. Murtagh did not have many choices in his life. Only under the shadow of his King could he consider himself safe. He had not regarded him so foolish as not to have realized this by now.
His royal Majesty, the King Galbatorix of Alagaesia tightened his fists.
'I am surrounded by incompetents!'
The Astrologist gave him a cautious look. He had advised his King many times; but most of them his Majesty had preferred to disregard him. But, considering the warnings of the guards concerning the events of the past hours, he chose not to comment. The King sat again on his throne and continued.
'The Shade was unable to extort the information requested from the person in Gil'ead. His methods had not worked. And I sent the Ra'zac to the north to seek the Dragon's egg and find out who possesses it. And what do they do? They burn the house and the relative of the suspect, rather than use him as a hostage. And as if that was not enough, they have become the reason that Brom, one of my worst enemies, carries the boy away, and no one knows where they are now.'
The Astrologist spoke cautiously.
'Your Majesty, the 'Dragon' is coming closer. As for the 'Warrior', I would recommend you not allow them to meet. Find the son of Morzan my King and bring him back, so you can have him all the time under your supervision. I repeat that he and the 'Dragon' must never meet. It is written in the stars! Concerning the person in Gil'ead, my opinion is, as previously was, that it would be better if they accompanied her here under custody. In this way you will interrogate her yourself, and she will be unable to resist your methods.'
For a while the King remained silent. Every time the Astrologist had counter proposed something, the King had always remained silent. He was giving the impression that he never considered what had been said. But the Astrologist knew very well that the King counted and measured even the slightest thing. The silence was interrupted by a slight grunt behind the throne and an enormous eye in the colour of lazurite opened and focused on the old man. The gloss of a fang and a talon sparkled. With slow steps the King descended the throne and approached a carved, wooden table to his right, with a silver bowl on it filled with some liquid. The Astrologist knew very well the use of that particular object in the throne room. When the King wanted to scry on someone …
His Majesty stood rigid in front of the bowl and the Astrologist dared to approach him. The King's hand passed over the liquid, ordering.
The old man craned his head and he saw the milky liquid take a silvery hue, like the surface of a mirror. He managed to discern a prone man with his fists raised up in anger, hit at the surface he was lying on, his hair covering his face and features. He heard his angry moan, before the image faded from his eyes. The King ended the spell at the same moment the heavy doors of the throne room half opened and one of the guards dared inside.
'Your Majesty,' with purportedly calm and formal voice the guard reported. 'His Excellency, Lord Melker, humbly requires an audience with your Royal Highness. He asserts that he brings significant news concerning Lord Murtagh.'
Sweeping the celestial map to his lap, the Astrologist withdrew between two alabaster pillars of the hall, paying full attention to the event. The King glared at the guard, making the man feel insecure and then he ascended the dais and sat on his throne.
'Let him enter!'
At a fast pace the young Lord Melker approached the throne where the King awaited him, and bent his knee.
'Your Majesty! I humbly pay my respects.'
The King looked carefully at the young man who, kneeling in front of his throne, waited patiently to be addressed. He was well aware of his acquaintance with the son of Morzan and he had approved of it from the beginning. Lord Melker's father had always been his loyal servant and an ardent supporter of his reign. He expected likewise from his son.
'You have news that interests me.'
It was a statement, not a question. The young lord stood and began to recount the events with every detail. During the time he related his story the King remained silent; he didn't stop him to address any questions to him. His posture remained grave and unreadable. Not even when Lord Melker finished recounting did he state anything. The Astrologist, half-hidden behind the pillars, was holding his breath. The 'Warrior' had been found; it remained now to bring back the insubordinate young man. His amazement was great when he heard the King order the young lord to continue hosting the son of Morzan, without him knowing that his Majesty had become aware of his hideout. The young lord was granted permission to stay for the next day, so as not to raise suspicions with a quick return. He bowed and left.
'Your Majesty,' the Astrologist dared to interfere with the silence and contemplation of the King. 'They have not yet met. Perhaps it would be wiser if ... It would be better, my King, to bring back the boy.'
The king gestured, annoyed.
'I have more important things to attend to than the son of Morzan. As far as I'm aware of his whereabouts, I will permit him to swallow his anger for his Swordmaster's death before I bring him back.' The King frowned, his hands, with skin the color of tarnished bronze, clenched on the sides of his throne like the claws of a predator. 'I've made this mistake and I admit it. I have been hasty to delegate tasks to the son of Morzan; and the youth was not yet ready for full obedience to me, like his father had been. Morzan would have done my will without any question.' He gripped tightly the side carvings where his hands usually rested. 'As for now, I must locate this other … boy. And the … treasure he carries.'
The Dragon growled cravingly behind the throne and the Astrologist flinched in fear. The King's eyes flashed dark, lazulitic sparkles.
'The Ra'zac!' he hissed. 'They have work to do!'
Murtagh rubbed his horse to clean it with the currycomb. The steed nudged his shoulder whinnying slightly. Then, it kicked vigorously the ground with its right hoof, ready to canter.
'Hey, boy, I know you do not like being in this stable, but we have to stay here for a while.'
Murtagh scowled. Everything concerning his life had changed in a few hours. For a second time he had abandoned all he had considered to be 'home', any personal belonging, his habits, he had lost those few he had thought of as friends, Tornac ...
… Tornac …
He didn't like to be here either, but he had no other place to go. The morbid thought depressed him once again and he bit hard on his lip.
The terrible order he had been given and had not obeyed, the night's killing, Tornac's loss, his predicament due to his insubordination, had left him with an empty heart. And it was less the uncertainty of his future and the plight in which he found himself, but the Swordmaster's death that had caused him this permanent anger; a deep, suppressed rage that stemmed him from his core, threatening every moment to come to the surface and conquer his mind, leading him to madness.
The first few hours since he had reached this place he had not exited his room, but had stayed lying on the bed, face down, eyes full of emptiness, completely spent of emotion. And at times, the anger would rise in his chest choking him, and leaving him completely worn out. At these times, the only thing left for him to do was to beat the mattress with clenched fists, and call the Swordmaster's name in a muffled voice. And other times he was seated at the edge of the bed, the one and a half sword on his lap. And he was feeling guilty. Tornac had lost his life because of him! And as he fingered the blade, he could not but remember that the first blood that had ever stained this sword was Tornac's.
But later, he had tried to subdue his rage and force his brain to work. He was always proud of his square logic and restrained emotions, but what he had experienced the last few hours had left him shocked. The King had misled him, by making him believe in a lie. This accursed guard, the one he had bribed to leave the postern gate of the castle open, had betrayed him to the King. A cowardly soldier had killed Tornac from a distance, using his knife. The finest swordsman in all the Empire brought down by a knife in the back! And now, the only thing that was left to him was to try to survive. Thus, he would curb his anger, his pain, and all his emotions. From now on, he would trust no one.
On the very next morning after his arrival at this estate, the moment he was exiting the stables, he had met his friend and his escorts, ready to depart. 'For my lands, north-east of Urû'baen,' lord Melker had answered his questioning stare. 'I am sorry I have to go for a few days. This had been arranged and I expect to be back soon.' And the escort had exited the residence, leaving him standing alone on the wet stone slabs of the courtyard, in the cold, morning dew.
He didn't mind his friend's departure. Quite the opposite. He would not be obliged to follow the etiquette of the house, breakfasts, lunches, suppers, boring afternoons in a hall, the insipid conversation of his hostess. Most hours of the day he had stayed in his room, to abandon it only to come to the stables and see to his horse. And even here, the morbid thoughts never left him, only subsided, and he would taste rage, anger, pain, despair, emptiness of emotions. And now he felt devoid.
He patted the steed's neck with tenderness, and fed it a piece of candy he had saved for it in his pocket. It was the horse that had kept him from certain madness. Nevertheless, he felt empty. As he remembered, it was the first time in his life that he felt so empty.
He exited the stables to return to his room. At this very hour of the day, the courtyard was really busy. Servants and maids running for their errands, dogs and other small animals strolling around, merchants and providers with their carts and baskets were all mixed up in a continuous coming and going. Not wanting to see them or to be seen, he hurried inside the main residence to his room, oblivious to the fact that, standing on the balcony of her chamber, Lady Melker was watching him with cunning eyes.
The woman nodded knowingly. Since the previous evening, her son had communicated with her, using the help of a royal magician, to inform her of the King's orders concerning to this young man.
His Majesty had not divulged to the young Lord Melker that night's events. He had just instructed him to host the son of Morzan, to treat him as a welcome guest, to make him feel secure. But the entire palace knew by now of his defection. They all talked about his night desertion with the help of the Swordmaster, about their resistance to the guards who awaited them, about Tornac's killing. The servants always talked, and they had talked too much about it. And lord Melker had been informed of every detail concerning his young friend's nocturnal adventure. The guards – after their first scare about the consequences they might face for not being able to stop the young man from escaping – were talking with hatred against him, and were planning their revenge because of the bloodshed he had caused them; the servants, about a special cell that his Majesty had already given orders to be prepared, waiting to house the renegade once he was brought back; the maids, about the King's anger and wrath that he had taken out on his personal staff and belongings. Using his magic, the King had destroyed his rooms, and he had made the young man's personal servants suffer. And they were all scared. Lord Melker had seen on their faces the sheer, raw fear. He had heard whispers about the profaned bodies of the dead. And all of them had avoided looking him in the eye.
But his Majesty, the King, had given his orders, and Lady Melker, being a good royal subject, had treated her young guest with courtesy and generosity. She had no reason to be rude to him since the King had been informed. The son of Morzan was supposed to stay there and feel relaxed and secure and never suspect that his Majesty was aware of his bearings. She and her son had undertaken the task to report to his Majesty everything concerning him.
Lady Melker saw her young guest enter the house and in a while, she heard the door to his room open and close again. He was going to spend the rest of his day there, just as he had done the previous ones. The woman entered her room and gestured at the maid to close the balcony doors; the noise of the courtyard was annoying to her ears. Sighing she sat in front of her mirror and with the help of her maid she corrected her elaborate hairdo.
'What news, girl?' She fastened one loose curl of her light brown hair. Lady Melker was in her early forties and could be considered a good-looking woman. Oh! She had been beautiful once ... Even the King himself had praised her beauty.
Suspecting that her mistress waited for a compliment to feed her vanity, the maid gave a foxy smile.
'How beautiful hair you have, madam! How thick and bright!'
The satisfied glance lady Melker gave her through the mirror told her that she had guessed correctly, but now it remained to her to answer the question.
'Myrtil told me this morning that Tomlyn said he never eats meat. Tomlyn claims, he never eats enough. He said that the dishes are more half full than half empty.'
Lady Melker took a small vase filled with a rouge powder and carefully spread a small amount of it on her cheeks and lips. Since the first day of his arrival, she had asked for the help of her faithful magician – who lived in the estate – to brush the young man's mind, but he had only met with a strong, unbreachable wall. The son of Morzan had been well trained in protecting his innermost thoughts. So, the only method remaining was to keep a close and secret watch on his actions.
'Tomlyn said he never drinks wine either.' The maid blinked playfully. Her voice took a more mischievous tone. 'Myrtil watched him through the keyhole, while he was changing his clothes.' She giggled, hiding her lips under her palm. 'She said that … like this … he is very handsome.'
Her last statement caused her mistress' discomfort. The girl hadn't even blushed. She looked at her strictly, and nodded at her to go on.
'And during the previous night he had nightmares. He has been heard calling names … strange names.' The girl frowned. She leaned forward, closer to her mistress' ear. 'A man's name ... And he never goes out of his room. Only to visit the stables.'
The light giggle was repeated, and her mistress gestured at her to withdraw.
'Bring me my lacy shawl and hand me my silver fan, then go to fetch Myrtil.' Throwing one last satisfied glance at her mirror, lady Melker stood. 'It is time to pay a visit to our guest' she murmured. 'He has spent enough time alone in that room.'
She started to the exit, but then changing her mind she returned to her dressing table. She took the bottle of her perfume and slightly perfumed her neck, behind her ears. The giggle was heard again, even louder, and before she could say a thing to scold the girl for her levity, the maid rushed out of the room to do as she had been instructed and her mistress only had the time to glare at her back.
Lady Melker walked hastily through the cold corridors of the second floor, heading towards the room of her guest. The silver, ostrich feather fan in her hand was not suited to the freezing draft of the corridor, but lady Melker used this accessory every time she wanted to impress someone. The light whisper of the two maids behind her was reaching her ears, but she paid no attention to the excited girls.
She stood for a moment in front of the closed door and tried to listen to any noise she might catch from inside. When nothing was heard, she straightened her shoulders and hit lightly, but determinedly. In less than a few moments the door opened and the young guest appeared at the opening. His dark eyes sparkled with anger for the inconvenience, but when he saw who the annoying visitor was he gave his most courteous bow to the hostess.
'Good morning my Lord Murtagh!' The woman addressed him with urbane politeness, reaching blandishment. 'Since I did not have the pleasure of meeting with you earlier, I would like to be informed firsthand if you enjoy staying in our residence.' The silver fan opened, covering part of the woman's bosom. 'As you spend most of your time in your room, I am not so sure if you have been served as beseems your name and rank … if there is something that you would additionally like to have.' The fan closed, the feather lightly patting her rich bust, trying to capture the young man's attention. 'My dear son, who very unfortunately had to go for a few days' journey, would be very displeased if he found out on his return that you have not been treated as befits you.'
Lady Melker gestured at him, as if she would like to enter his room, but the young guest looked as though he had not understood and was standing in front of his door preventing her entry. He gave her another slight bow.
'I have been served very well, thank you madam. And there is nothing at all in addition I would like to have, more than what you have very kindly provided. Your hospitality is perfect to me.'
With one first look inside his room, Lady Melker noticed that everything was in perfect order. His bed was made and there were no personal items or clothing anywhere to be seen. A sword and a long bow were resting at one corner. The woman looked at his face very carefully, at those brown, sad eyes marked with dark circles. She sighed lightly, ignoring the slight giggle behind her. Young and ignorant, she thought.
'My dear Lord, if my maturity and experience as a mother could offer you some advice, please, accept it. It is not fitting for the golden youth to be isolated and melancholy.' She curtsied to him. 'Grief and youth are contrary concepts. Hear my advice and show yourself this afternoon to my parlour, where a couple of newly arrived actors are going to give a performance. Enjoy yourself, Lord Murtagh.'
'With all my respect, my Lady, I am in mourning for a very dear friend, whom I have recently lost.'
'My dear Lord, one mourning a friend so deeply, does not suit the beauty of their youth. And the spirit of a beloved friend would like to see those who had been dear to him do things matching their young age. So, I insist on your presence.'
The young man seemed reluctant for a while. Then, he bowed with consideration and answered.
'Very well, madam, I will attend your parlour this afternoon.'
Lady Melker curtsied again and left, followed by her two frivolous, empty-headed maids.
On that same afternoon, as he descended towards Lady Melker's parlour, he was feeling naked without his weapons. Insecure even inside the house, he threw sidelong glances at the empty corridors or glared at the passing servants. But he had not dared bring his sword to his hostess's parlour. The only thing he carried for his own protection was Morzan's silver-handle dagger which he usually carried in his boot. But on this special occasion he had shoved it into his belt, hidden among the folds of his tunic so as not to be seen. He knew that there was the least possibility of any danger against his life in here, but he trusted no one. He just hoped that, if needed, this dagger would be enough for his protection.
A big fire was burning in the fireplace, spreading its warmth around. Lady Melker waited for his arrival, lying lazily on a comfortable sofa. Her abundant hair was lifted, so as to offer a better sight of her soft, white neck, and she was dressed in a delicate lace bodice, which left her neckline ostentatiously naked. He wondered about her thin clothes. The weather was cold, too cold to justify such an attire, even within a lady's parlour. It was no wonder that she was seated so close to the fire.
'Ah, my Lord' she said in a playful mood and stretched her soft hand, which he just touched with the tips of his fingers, while bowing slightly. 'I'm glad you have heeded my advice. Our estate offers neither the pleasures and amusements of the court of his Majesty, nor the beautiful presences, to whom you must be accustomed to, but anyway, here it would be better for you than your melancholic room or the stables.' And she made room for him to sit on the couch beside her.
The excess of her smile, along with the last of her remarks, caused his eyes to flash with irritation, already beginning to repent that he had agreed to appear in her salon. Decidedly, he sat on a chair at some distance from his friend's mother. Her reference to Urû'baen and the King's court, had also stirred his anger.
'I'm not accustomed to many amusements, Madam. Back there, in the capital, I used to spend most of my hours in the training field or in the company of my books.'
The tone he had used referring to 'back there' would have given anyone, even the most ignorant, to understand that he never intended to return. Lady Melker smiled meaningfully. The arrogance of this young man was really great. She would like to tell him that a special cell had already been prepared to host him, once he was back. That the King had only to order his guards to have him escorted back. Maybe that way his impudence would subside, and he would be more condescending. For three days she had hosted him in her home offering everything to him, and he had preferred to spend his time in the stables with the horses instead of with her.
Lady Melker clapped her hands and a maid appeared carrying a tray with glasses, a bottle filled with red, sweet wine and confections. The manservant who accompanied her served the glasses and handed them to the hostess and her guest. She noticed that as soon as the young man took his own, he placed it on the small, nearby table without tasting it. The woman brought her glass up to her lips, drinking of the sweet liquid and closed her eyes with pleasure. A wine to delight the palate, one of the best harvest of their vineyard. She looked carefully at her guest's face. His dark, thoughtful eyes had already turned towards the fireplace, captured by the flames, and he made not even the slightest effort to be pleasant. The woman sighed slightly, without managing to make him notice even her sigh. She was not used to passing unnoticed, especially in her own home. She, who had been admired by counts and dukes and generals, even the King himself had praised her beauty. But she was obliged to tolerate this rough youngster with his harsh manners and entertain him, so that he would remain calm here, at least until the King decided his fate.
Lady Melker asked her maid to inform the actors that they were ready to watch the prepared performance. Earlier, at the one corner of her parlour, a makeshift tent had been readied, waiting for them.
A tall, gaunt man, dressed in loose, tawdry clothes made his entry with as glorious a style as he could muster, and bowed to them.
'Gracious masters, you who have welcomed us in your manor, deign to watch our humble performance...'
The young man's mind had already flown away and he was not watching. The fact that he had no place to go, a fact that more and more puzzled him, shouldn't stand in his way from now on. Yes, he was alone now that Tornac was lost. All his fortune was his horse and his weapons, along with his martial adeptness.
'… Open your ears! For who could possibly block them when loud Rumour speaks? I make the wind my horse, and ride it from the οrient to the place where the sun sets in the west, describing the events taking place in the world …'
What had his Swordmaster said when they were deciding to leave Urû'baen at the same night? 'Do not think about 'afterwards'. It's too early for this.' But 'afterwards' was already here; not so distant as it had seemed that morning.
'… Why am I here?
King Galbatorix has won the war, and at Utgard Mountain, he has ended the fight against his enemies by defeating Vrael and his Dragon, quenching the fire of the Riders with the opponents' own blood …'
Did Tornac have a plan about 'afterwards'? Where did he intend to hide after they had escaped? Which way to take? Would it be better to travel to the isolated villages of the north … or to the crowded western cities, by the sea? Staying within the territories of the empire seemed difficult, if not impossible. The risks for him would be great … to the South maybe, towards Surda? And, who would agree to give refuge to the son of Morzan? The son of the slaughterer? Suddenly, the world was not as wide as he had thought it would be during the time he had lived locked in the castle, and was imagining himself outside those walls.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed lady Melker having turned all her attention to him. He understood that this shelter she provided for him was all that he could currently have, and he decided not to risk his fate, insulting the woman. So he tried to concentrate on the show. For the remaining of the hour, he was obliged to watch an insipid performance about the killing of the last leader of the Dragon Riders, by his Majesty, the King Galbatorix. The actor who played the King, a skinny man with scrawny face, stood on the platform shoes to look taller. A wide breastplate covered his chest, and he made a great effort to appear majestic, as befitted his role. The other one, a short, fat, bald man who acted as Vreil, did his best to seem ridiculous. At the moment of his death he cried, screamed and grovelled before the feet of the 'King', begging for mercy.
The coarse spectacle was disgusting. The show was not only boring, but also unfair. Nevertheless, he forced himself to a conventional applause at the end not even being sure if he managed to hide the sigh of relief that inadvertently came out of his chest. As soon as the actors exited, he stood up to leave too. But at that exact moment they heard noises from the entrance, and the servants announced to their lady the arrival of their master.
At a brisk pace, Lord Melker entered his mother's parlour, and kissed her brow tenderly.
'Ah, Murtagh,' he turned towards his friend 'how nice to find you here. My trip may have been short, but I carry a lot of great news' he said cheerfully.
They dined all together and then they sat in the parlour, talking until late. Murtagh listened more and only spoke to ask about some detail concerning Lord Melker's narration. And indeed, he was not sorry that he had remained in their companionship. The news his friend had carried was rather peculiar, or even impressive.
The Ra'zac, those monstrous servants of the King, who everyone tried to avoid, had appeared again in the capital, a place Lord Melker had stopped for a while on his way back from his northern property. And almost immediately, they had departed under a new command. Lord Melker didn't know where to; and on Murtagh's cautious questions concerning himself, the man seemed to have heard nothing. Obviously, the King had kept his insubordination a secret. But the most important piece of news was that rumors of a new Dragon Rider had been heard; rumours spreading around like wildfire; rumours that the King had tried to keep hidden, but they had flown throughout the city on the wings of the wind.
It was late when he withdrew to his chamber. But the decision was made. Upon his return, his friend had passed from Urû'baen. He had not mentioned the castle, but news like what he had carried, he could only have heard in the palace. Perhaps Lord Melker had spoken to someone of his presence in the estate. Maybe his presence here would reach the royal ears. And he could not risk it. He remembered Tornac's last words a moment before they exited the stables. '…what I care most for is your dear life…' the decision was already made. The Swordmaster was dead, but he would go on.
During the same night, at the small chamber that had been given to the actors to rest, the door was knocked loudly and persistently. The man who had acted as the King a few hours ago opened the door; and he greatly wondered to see one of the lords who had previously attended his performance.
'What can I do for you, master?' he said and bowed submissively.
The young man standing in front of him looked at him carefully in the eye. Now that the man was not dressed in his breastplate and the platform shoes, his height was that of an ordinary man. He was gaunt without his beard, his cheeks sunken and he looked starved.
A silver coin was the payment for his trouble; and after that, with evident pleasure he stripped off some clothes of his vulgar performance. Beards and wigs and a beggar's clothes were wrapped and hidden in leather saddlebags along with valuable weapons and quality clothing, packed alongside Tornac's precious silver cup, with the copper maple leaf inlaid on it.
The very same night and without anyone realising he was going, not even the servant constantly entrusted on spying on him – who had fallen asleep at the back of the corridor – Murtagh left the estate of his loyal friend Lord Melker, never to be back again.
The King was restless. He had spent most of the night turning in his bed, trying to sleep in vain. And when he had decided that there was no meaning in trying, he had pushed aside the welter, stood up and had dressed; then he had scried the son of Morzan. He had seen the young man alone on his horse, galloping in the middle of the night and he had known something was wrong. The boy was escaping his grip again. Thus, surprised, he had ascended the highest tower of his castle to see his Astrologist.
'My King, the stars had suggested that you should have brought him here' the old man dared. 'The 'Warrior' is going to meet the 'Dragon'. Eventually, there will be consequences because of this meeting.'
He gave a cautious glance at his King. His Majesty had crossed his hands on his chest and had approached the small window, looking down at his city. For some time now he had stood there in silence, the strong wind blowing on his face and shuffling his hair. When he turned towards the old man, his lips had been twisted with the strangest of smiles.
'This rebellious son of Morzan, he reminds me of Morzan himself when he was young, even younger than his son. He had rebelled against the Riders to help me.' The King seemed amused.
The Astrologist was aware of his thoughts. He would like the son of Morzan to lead him to the 'Dragon', whom he still didn't know where to find. And, of course, to the … treasure he travelled with. But the old man had his objections about this. He nodded knowingly; once again his King had ignored his advice.
'Dras-Leona, your Majesty. The stars have spoken!' He included in this last sentence all the threats of an obscure future, and he folded his precious map, placing it in its leather case.
The King's eyes flashed. Time had come to arrange a visit to Dras-Leona, after he had sent the Ra'zac there, to make arrangements to the city for his arrival. The Ra'zac, who would have had executed his first command by now. His previously strange smile turned into a grin full of malice.
The raging wind, blowing through the valley, caused the cold face of the moon to hide behind changing shapes, dark clouds. The man on the galloping horse was a lonely traveller on the wide road, heading from Urû'baen to Dras-Leona. He had risked travelling almost casually because of the hour of the night, as well as of the freezing cold that would have kept any possible traveller in the sheltered accommodation they could meet on their way.
The man was in a hurry. Now and then, he threw cautious glances behind his back and around him. He had left the Ramr river to his right and on a curve of the road, he restrained the bridle of his war-horse reducing the animal's rush. For a moment he thought that dawn was about to break; and this puzzled him, for he knew it was still the middle of the night, and many hours were needed until dawn. But only for a moment, as he was still heading towards the southwest, and what he had thought of as the east was placed wrongly. Breathing hard he stopped the horse.
Gods above … this must be …
He clenched his fists biting his lips, and looking angrily around him like a cornered wolf. He dismounted and withdrew with the horse to a secluded place among some trees on the roadside, panting hard. If the fire was still so big, then the soldiers should be near. He calculated the days in his mind. Soon it would be the dawn of the fourth day since he had left Urû'baen.
He withdrew more deeply into the trees, seeking their shelter. Heading towards this direction, he had not reckoned with the fact that the road passed from … there.
'You do not have to see this, since you refused to do it.' A voice said mockingly in his mind. 'You were not the one who gave the order.'
He found a sandstone hill and once he had picketed his horse to some undergrowth, he climbed to the hilltop to have a better look around. The horizon, within less than four hours travel, shone brighter than the brightest dawn. The fire was the biggest he had ever seen.
It must be the whole town … gods above … the whole town …
And to his right, in almost half the distance, the small fires of a camp shone by the main road.
… the soldiers …
If he did not want to be captured and remain free, he had to move carefully and through the wilds.
He sat on a big stone on the hilltop. 'There', was a place he did not like to go. On the other hand, he could wait here hidden, until the soldiers left … or take another direction … anything, but this. He covered his face with his palms.
'You don't have to go there …' the voice in his mind mocked him again.
'You don't have to go there' Tornac had said. It was one day after his fifteenth birthday. A day after this bloody day, the day that his youth had ended. It was the day of Aldon's funeral. But he wanted to go, although the funeral was outside the castle, in the city's cemetery. And, very strangely, though Tornac had disapproved, the King had permitted it; but only after he had sent half of his guard along with him. Aldon was still under-age. He was not yet sixteen, and thus unmarried. He would travel to the kingdom of Death, without having known the soft touch of a woman. His body belonged to the daughters of the Netherworld to be his brides. His younger sister, a girl of thirteen years of age, was holding his wedding crowns, made of thin laurel branches entwined with lemon blossoms, which she had kept after the funeral laced together with a white ribbon. The girl had stood in front of him and had looked at him in the eye with contempt. 'Same marriage to you too' she had cursed him, placing her brother's crowns on his hair and spitting at his feet.
He descended the hill with a heavy heart. If he kept a steady trot through the wild, at about morning he would be … there.
A pack of angry dogs waited for him at some distance from the town, with their hackles up. The horse neighed and kicked the air with its front legs scaring the animals which hurried to disappear. Only one dared to follow, running along with them and barking raggedly for a while; a big, brown wolfhound which tried to attack him, but the horse kicked against it and the dog yelped and ran scared.
Two long lines of stakes with burned human bodies fastened to them, welcomed the newcomer at the entrance of the town. Crows were flying in the sky above a pile of slaughtered women and children in the middle of the main square and still smoking, collapsed timbers of the burned houses were all he could see … as well as the wooden billboard among the ruins of what once had been the market, written with blood on it:
'Here stood Cantos, destroyed in retribution for the murder of His Majesty's loyal soldiers, never to be rebuilt'.
Trying to stifle his need to vomit, he closed his eyes and bit his lip until he tasted blood in his mouth. Both his fists tightened on his horse's reins.
… Who could have given the order? …
And then …
… It was not me …
The strong wind rekindled the embers and stuck ashes and pieces of charcoal on his face.
… It was not me! …
He turned abruptly so as not to look at the slaughtered and the burned bodies and his gaze focused on the ground. Instinctively, he began to examine the tracks that could be seen there … too many military boots, marks of horseshoes, some animals which the army had drawn with them as loot. And …
… what is this? …
Yes, he had seen those marks before … these abhorrent remains on the soil.
… Ra'zac! …
The marks of their beasts which carried them to various parts of the empire, to execute the orders of His Majesty. They had given the terrible order. Thus, the total destruction could be explained.
He jumped down from his horse and began to examine the trampled soil in greater detail. The traces had been partly extinguished, but what had been left of them was enough for him to detect the direction the beasts had followed. Southwest. Dras-Leona! A grimace twisted his lips and his eyes narrowed. He clenched his fists until his nails dug in his flesh.
… Monsters ... Demons! ...
He turned abruptly towards the town, drew his sword and raised it along with his clenched fist.
'I will revenge!' he swore.
He stood against the wind which stained his clothes and hair with ashes coming from burned bodies and houses. His so far smothered rage flooded him like fiery lava and poured into an angry cry that escaped his throat.
'I will have my revenge!'
A/N : Thanks for reading.