Eragon winced as the probe dug in farther, hunting for information, like a nail being driven through his skull. The bald man roughly seized his childhood memories and began sifting through them. He doesn’t need those—get him out of there! growled Eragon angrily.
I can’t, not without endangering you, said Saphira. I can conceal things from his view, but it must be done before he reaches them. Think quickly, and tell me what you want hidden!
Eragon tried to concentrate through the pain. He raced through his memories, starting from when he had found Saphira’s egg. He hid sections of his discussions with Brom, including all the ancient words he had been taught. Their travels through Palancar Valley, Yazuac, Daret, and Teirm he left mostly untouched. But he had Saphira conceal everything he remembered of Angela’s fortunetelling and Solembum. He skipped from their burglary at Teirm, to Brom’s death, to his imprisonment in Gil’ead, and lastly to Murtagh’s revelation of his true identity.
Eragon wanted to hide that as well, but Saphira balked. The Varden have a right to know who they shelter under their roof, especially if it’s a son of the Forsworn!
Just do it, he said tightly, fighting another wave of agony. I won’t be the one to unmask him, at least not to this man.
It’ll be discovered as soon as Murtagh is scanned, warned Saphira sharply.
Just do it.
With the most important information hidden, there was nothing else for Eragon to do but wait for the bald man to finish his inspection. It was like sitting still while his fingernails were extracted with rusty tongs. His entire body was rigid, jaw locked tightly. Heat radiated from his skin, and a line of sweat rolled down his neck. He was acutely aware of each second as the long minutes crept by.
The bald man wound through his experiences sluggishly, like a thorny vine pushing its way toward the sunlight. He paid keen attention to many things Eragon considered irrelevant, such as his mother, Selena, and seemed to linger on purpose so as to prolong the suffering. He spent a long time examining Eragon’s recollections of the Ra’zac, and then later the Shade. It was not until his adventures had been exhaustively analyzed that the bald man began to withdraw from Eragon’s mind.
The probe was extracted like a splinter being removed. Eragon shuddered, swayed, then fell toward the floor. Strong arms caught him at the last second, lowering him to the cool marble. He heard Orik exclaim from behind him, “You went too far! He wasn’t strong enough for this.”
“He’ll live. That’s all that is needed,” answered the bald man curtly.
There was an angry grunt. “What did you find?”
“Well, is he to be trusted or not?”
The words came reluctantly. “He . . . is not your enemy.” There were audible sighs of relief throughout the room.
Eragon’s eyes fluttered open. He gingerly pushed himself upright. “Easy now,” said Orik, wrapping a thick arm around him and helping him to his feet. Eragon wove unsteadily, glaring at the bald man. A low growl rumbled in Saphira’s throat.
The bald man ignored them. He turned to Murtagh, who was still being held at sword point. “It’s your turn now.”
Murtagh stiffened and shook his head. The sword cut his neck slightly. Blood dripped down his skin. “No.”
“You will not be protected here if you refuse.”
“Eragon has been declared trustworthy, so you cannot threaten to kill him to influence me. Since you can’t do that, nothing you say or do will convince me to open my mind.”
Sneering, the bald man cocked what would have been an eyebrow, if he had any. “What of your own life? I can still threaten that.”
“It won’t do any good,” said Murtagh stonily and with such conviction that it was impossible to doubt his word.
The bald man’s breath exploded angrily. “You don’t have a choice!” He stepped forward and placed his palm on Murtagh’s brow, clenching his hand to hold him in place. Murtagh stiffened, face growing as hard as iron, fists clenched, neck muscles bulging. He was obviously fighting the attack with all his strength. The bald man bared his teeth with fury and frustration at the resistance; his fingers dug mercilessly into Murtagh.
Eragon winced in sympathy, knowing the battle that raged between them. Can’t you help him? he asked Saphira.
No, she said softly. He will allow no one into his mind.
Orik scowled darkly as he watched the combatants. “Ilf carnz orodüm,” he muttered, then leapt forward and cried, “That is enough!” He grabbed the bald man’s arm and tore him away from Murtagh with strength disproportional to his size.
The bald man stumbled back, then turned on Orik furiously. “How dare you!” he shouted. “You questioned my leadership, opened the gates without permission, and now this! You’ve shown nothing but insolence and treachery. Do you think your king will protect you now?”
Orik bristled. “You would have let them die! If I had waited any longer, the Urgals would have killed them.” He pointed at Murtagh, whose breath came in great heaves. “We don’t have any right to torture him for information! Ajihad won’t sanction it. Not after you’ve examined the Rider and found him free of fault. And they’ve brought us Arya.”
“Would you allow him to enter unchallenged? Are you so great a fool as to put us all at risk?” demanded the bald man. His eyes were feral with loosely chained rage; he looked ready to tear the dwarf into pieces.
“Can he use magic?”
“Can he use magic?” roared Orik, his deep voice echoing in the room. The bald man’s face suddenly grew expressionless. He clasped his hands behind his back.
“Then what do you fear? It’s impossible for him to escape, and he can’t work any devilry with all of us here, especially if your powers are as great as you say. But don’t listen to me; ask Ajihad what he wants done.”
The bald man stared at Orik for a moment, his face indecipherable, then looked at the ceiling and closed his eyes. A peculiar stiffness set into his shoulders while his lips moved soundlessly. An intense frown wrinkled the pale skin above his eyes, and his fingers clenched, as if they were throttling an invisible enemy. For several minutes he stood thus, wrapped in silent communication.
When his eyes opened, he ignored Orik and snapped at the warriors, “Leave, now!” As they filed through the doorway, he addressed Eragon coldly, “Because I was unable to complete my examination, you and . . . your friend will remain here for the night. He will be killed if he attempts to leave.” With those words he turned on his heel and stalked out of the room, pale scalp gleaming in the lantern light.
“Thank you,” whispered Eragon to Orik.
The dwarf grunted. “I’ll make sure some food is brought.” He muttered a string of words under his breath, then left, shaking his head. The bolt was secured once again on the outside of the door.
Eragon sat, feeling strangely dreamy from the day’s excitement and their forced march. His eyelids were heavy. Saphira settled next to him. We must be careful. It seems we have as many enemies here as we did in the Empire. He nodded, too tired to talk.
Murtagh, eyes glazed and empty, leaned against the far wall and slid to the shiny floor. He held his sleeve against the cut on his neck to stop the bleeding. “Are you all right?” asked Eragon. Murtagh nodded jerkily. “Did he get anything from you?”
“How were you able to keep him out? He’s so strong.”
“I’ve . . . I’ve been well trained.” There was a bitter note to his voice.
Silence enshrouded them. Eragon’s gaze drifted to one of the lanterns hanging in a corner. His thoughts meandered until he abruptly said, “I didn’t let them know who you are.”
Murtagh looked relieved. He bowed his head. “Thank you for not betraying me.”
“They didn’t recognize you.”
“And you still say that you are Morzan’s son?”
“Yes,” he sighed.
Eragon started to speak, but stopped when he felt hot liquid splash onto his hand. He looked down and was startled to see a drop of dark blood roll off his skin. It had fallen from Saphira’s wing. I forgot. You’re injured! he exclaimed, getting up with an effort. I’d better heal you.
Be careful. It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re this tired.
I know. Saphira unfolded one of her wings and lowered it to the floor. Murtagh watched as Eragon ran his hands over the warm blue membrane, saying, “Waíse heill,” whenever he found an arrow hole. Luckily, all the wounds were relatively easy to heal, even those on her nose.
Task completed, Eragon slumped against Saphira, breathing hard. He could feel her great heart beating with the steady throb of life. “I hope they bring food soon,” said Murtagh.
Eragon shrugged; he was too exhausted to be hungry. He crossed his arms, missing Zar’roc’s weight by his side. “Why are you here?”
“If you really are Morzan’s son, Galbatorix wouldn’t let you wander around Alagaësia freely. How is it that you managed to find the Ra’zac by yourself? Why is it I’ve never heard of any of the Forsworn having children? And what are you doing here?” His voice rose to a near shout at the end.
Murtagh ran his hands over his face. “It’s a long story.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” rebutted Eragon.
“It’s too late to talk.”
“There probably won’t be time for it tomorrow.”
Murtagh wrapped his arms around his legs and rested his chin on his knees, rocking back and forth as he stared at the floor. “It’s not a—” he said, then interrupted himself. “I don’t want to stop . . . so make yourself comfortable. My story will take a while.” Eragon shifted against Saphira’s side and nodded. Saphira watched both of them intently.
Murtagh’s first sentence was halting, but his voice gained strength and confidence as he spoke. “As far as I know . . . I am the only child of the Thirteen Servants, or the Forsworn as they’re called. There may be others, for the Thirteen had the skill to hide whatever they wanted, but I doubt it, for reasons I’ll explain later.
“My parents met in a small village—I never learned where—while my father was traveling on the king’s business. Morzan showed my mother some small kindness, no doubt a ploy to gain her confidence, and when he left, she accompanied him. They traveled together for a time, and as is the nature of these things, she fell deeply in love with him. Morzan was delighted to discover this not only because it gave him numerous opportunities to torment her but also because he recognized the advantage of having a servant who wouldn’t betray him.
“Thus, when Morzan returned to Galbatorix’s court, my mother became the tool he relied upon most. He used her to carry his secret messages, and he taught her rudimentary magic, which helped her remain undiscovered and, on occasion, extract information from people. He did his best to protect her from the rest of the Thirteen—not out of any feelings for her, but because they would have used her against him, given the chance. . . . For three years things proceeded in this manner, until my mother became pregnant.”
Murtagh paused for a moment, fingering a lock of his hair. He continued in a clipped tone, “My father was, if nothing else, a cunning man. He knew that the pregnancy put both him and my mother in danger, not to mention the baby—that is, me. So, in the dead of night, he spirited her away from the palace and took her to his castle. Once there, he laid down powerful spells that prevented anyone from entering his estate except for a few chosen servants. In this way the pregnancy was kept secret from everyone but Galbatorix.
“Galbatorix knew the intimate details of the Thirteen’s lives: their plots, their fights—and most importantly—their thoughts. He enjoyed watching them battle each other and often helped one or the other for his own amusement. But for some reason he never revealed my existence.
“I was born in due time and given to a wet nurse so my mother could return to Morzan’s side. She had no choice in the matter. Morzan allowed her to visit me every few months, but otherwise we were kept apart. Another three years passed like this, during which time he gave me the . . . scar on my back.” Murtagh brooded a minute before continuing.
“I would have grown to manhood in this fashion if Morzan hadn’t been summoned away to hunt for Saphira’s egg. As soon as he departed, my mother, who had been left behind, vanished. No one knows where she went, or why. The king tried to hunt her down, but his men couldn’t find her trail—no doubt because of Morzan’s training.
“At the time of my birth, only five of the Thirteen were still alive. By the time Morzan left, that number had been reduced to three; when he finally faced Brom in Gil’ead, he was the only one remaining. The Forsworn died through various means: suicide, ambush, overuse of magic . . . but it was mostly the work of the Varden. I’m told that the king was in a terrible rage because of those losses.
“However, before word of Morzan’s and the others’ deaths reached us, my mother returned. Many months had passed since she had disappeared. Her health was poor, as if she had suffered a great illness, and she grew steadily worse. Within a fortnight, she died.”
“What happened then?” prompted Eragon.
Murtagh shrugged. “I grew up. The king brought me to the palace and arranged for my upbringing. Aside from that, he left me alone.”
“Then why did you leave?”
A hard laugh broke from Murtagh. “Escaped is more like it. At my last birthday, when I turned eighteen, the king summoned me to his quarters for a private dinner. The message surprised me because I had always distanced myself from the court and had rarely met him. We’d talked before, but always within earshot of eavesdropping nobles.
“I accepted the offer, of course, aware that it would be unwise to refuse. The meal was sumptuous, but throughout it his black eyes never left me. His gaze was disconcerting; it seemed that he was searching for something hidden in my face. I didn’t know what to make of it and did my best to provide polite conversation, but he refused to talk, and I soon ceased my efforts.
“When the meal was finished, he finally began to speak. You’ve never heard his voice, so it’s hard for me to make you understand what it was like. His words were entrancing, like a snake whispering gilded lies into my ears. A more convincing and frightening man I’ve never heard. He wove a vision: a fantasy of the Empire as he imagined it. There would be beautiful cities built across the country, filled with the greatest warriors, artisans, musicians, and philosophers. The Urgals would finally be eradicated. And the Empire would expand in every direction until it reached the four corners of Alagaësia. Peace and prosperity would flourish, but more wondrous yet, the Riders would be brought back to gently govern over Galbatorix’s fiefdoms.
“Entranced, I listened to him for what must have been hours. When he stopped, I eagerly asked how the Riders would be reinstated, for everyone knew there were no dragon eggs left. Galbatorix grew still then and stared at me thoughtfully. For a long time he was silent, but then he extended his hand and asked, ‘Will you, O son of my friend, serve me as I labor to bring about this paradise?’
“Though I knew the history behind his and my father’s rise to power, the dream he had painted for me was too compelling, too seductive to ignore. Ardor for this mission filled me, and I fervently pledged myself to him. Obviously pleased, Galbatorix gave me his blessing, then dismissed me, saying, ‘I shall call upon you when the need arises.’
“Several months passed before he did. When the summons came, I felt all of my old excitement return. We met in private as before, but this time he was not pleasant or charming. The Varden had just destroyed three brigades in the south, and his wrath was out in full force. He charged me in a terrible voice to take a detachment of troops and destroy Cantos, where rebels were known to hide occasionally. When I asked what we should do with the people there and how we would know if they were guilty, he shouted, ‘They’re all traitors! Burn them at the stake a
nd bury their ashes with dung!’ He continued to rant, cursing his enemies and describing how he would scourge the land of everyone who bore him ill will.
“His tone was so different from what I had encountered before; it made me realize he didn’t possess the mercy or foresight to gain the people’s loyalty, and he ruled only through brute force guided by his own passions. It was at that moment I determined to escape him and Urû’baen forever.
“As soon as I was free of his presence, I and my faithful servant, Tornac, made ready for flight. We left that very night, but somehow Galbatorix anticipated my actions, for there were soldiers waiting for us outside the gates. Ah, my sword was bloody, flashing in the dim lantern glow. We defeated the men . . . but in the process Tornac was killed.
“Alone and filled with grief, I fled to an old friend who sheltered me in his estate. While I hid, I listened carefully to every rumor, trying to predict Galbatorix’s actions and plan my future. During that time, talk reached me that the Ra’zac had been sent to capture or kill someone. Remembering the king’s plans for the Riders, I decided to find and follow the Ra’zac, just in case they did discover a dragon. And that’s how I found you. . . . I have no more secrets.”
We still don’t know if he’s telling the truth, warned Saphira.
I know, said Eragon, but why would he lie to us?
He might be mad.
I doubt it. Eragon ran a finger over Saphira’s hard scales, watching the light reflect off them. “So why don’t you join the Varden? They’ll distrust you for a time, but once you prove your loyalty they’ll treat you with respect. And aren’t they in a sense your allies? They strive to end the king’s reign. Isn’t that what you want?”
“Must I spell everything out for you?” demanded Murtagh. “I don’t want Galbatorix to learn where I am, which is inevitable if people start saying that I’ve sided with his enemies, which I’ve never done. These,” he paused, then said with distaste, “rebels are trying not only to overthrow the king but to destroy the Empire . . . and I don’t want that to happen. It would sow mayhem and anarchy. The king is flawed, yes, but the system itself is sound. As for earning the Varden’s respect: Ha! Once I am exposed, they’ll treat me like a criminal or worse. Not only that, suspicion will fall upon you because we traveled together!”