Over a decade has passed since Christopher Paolini last published a book in The Inheritance Cycle, and he returns to Alagaësia, this time following a fan-favorite character from the original series, Murtagh. Picking up a year after 2011’s Inheritance, Murtagh, alongside his dragon, Thorn, is searching for meaning in a land that has largely moved on without him—but hasn’t forgotten the crimes from his past.
Murtagh must seek out the darkness lurking in the unexplored corners of the land, and face down a witch who is much more than she seems.
Linda Codega, io9: How long have you been thinking about the Murtagh story?
Christopher Paolini: I’ve wanted to write a book about Murtagh for a very long time. (There are a host of stories I want to tell in the World of Eragon.)
However, this specific idea came from, of all places, a tweet. A number of years ago, when I was in the midst of rewriting To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, a fan asked me what Murtagh was up to at that moment. It was way past my bedtime, and I was feeling a bit punchy, and as a result, I replied as follows:
At one point (after Inheritance), Murtagh enchanted a fork to be as deadly as any sword. He called it Mr. Stabby. Thorn was not amused.
Absurd though it was, the idea stuck with me, and in 2018, when I decided to finish a collection of short stories set in Alagaësia, I thought back to that tweet. With some adaptation, it formed the basis for the first story in what became The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm, the first volume in Tales from Alagaësia. (Will there be a second volume? Indubitably.)
That story, as some readers will recall, was written from the point of view of a young girl named Essie, not Murtagh, but even so, I could feel the outline of a larger tale coalescing around that core, one that might serve as a proper, full-sized return to that world. And so it proved.
io9: There’s a bit of a redemption story going on here—in Eldest, Murtagh really becomes a villain, even if we later learn this is against his will—how did you balance the reactions to his actions and his true intentions in this book?
Paolini: In a lot of ways, that’s the central issue of this book: how Murtagh sees himself and his actions vs. how the rest of the world sees him. It’s a source of enormous conflict, and a wonderful dramatic opportunity. As for how I balanced it… through careful consideration. Although, since this book is from Murtagh’s point-of-view, it’s inherently biased toward his side of things.
io9: What sort of consequences of the first four books will Murtagh have to deal with?
Paolini: The biggest one is that he and the dragon, Thorn, are outcasts when this story starts. Their isolation is self-imposed to a degree, but their names are cursed throughout the land, and figuring out how to deal with that and move forward in a productive manner is one of their greatest challenges.
io9: Did you see this as a chance to refine the world you built in the first four books?
Paolini: Absolutely. I’ve spent much of the past decade thinking about the peoples and places of this series. It was a lot of fun to put all that to use in this book. I think readers are in for some exciting twists, turns, and revelations as Murtagh and Thorn chip away at the deepest secrets of the land.
io9: Did seeing your characters on screen impact your writing at all?
Paolini: If anything, it made me more confident in my own approach.
io9: Will any of the characters from the first four books return?
Paolini: Great question. No comment. 😀
On still wings, Thorn soared into the cleft. The soft ceiling of clouds muffled the air, and the silence only heighted Murtagh’s anticipation as he leaned forward in the saddle, peering over Thorn’s neck to see what lay ahead.
The mountains formed blue-white walls to either side, broken by cliffs of bare grey granite that protruded from the ranks of snowbound trees. Below, the river flowed swift and narrow along its course, the water so clear Murtagh could count the rounded rocks beneath its rippling surface.
As they neared the back of the valley, the smell of rotten eggs grew stronger, and to Murtagh’s surprise, the air seemed to grow warmer as well, as if winter had yet to lay its frozen fingers upon the northern reaches.
Beneath the scrim of smoke draped over the foothills piled before them, he saw a collection of closely built stone structures. They were dark grey with domed roofs, unlike the style of construction elsewhere in Alagaësia. Some were houses, he thought, but there were other buildings as well: a narrow tower that would not have been out of place in Urû’baen and, set into the base of the near hill, what looked to be a palace or temple with a large open courtyard and a tiered roof.
Figures were visible in the streets, but distance and smoke obscured them.
The land surrounding the village was charred black like the surface of a burnt log, cracked and brittle, with tendrils of smoke rising from hollow pockets where the surface of the ground had collapsed. The few trees that stood upon the scorched earth had died, their branches bare and grey, and the bark had sloughed off the trunks in great sheets.
Wariness dampened Murtagh’s anticipation. For all their powers, they were alone, he and Thorn. Not so different from Galbatorix and Jarnunvösk. If things went badly, they could expect no reinforcements. Lord Varis wouldn’t ride to their rescue, Tornac wouldn’t parry a blow meant for his neck, and Eragon and Arya were too far away to reach them in time.
A short growl rumbled Thorn’s sides between his knees. Galbatorix and Jarnunvösk were brash and foolish. We will not repeat their mistakes.
“Let’s hope not. Turn around for now. I’d rather not rush into anything.”
Thorn banked and—without a flap of wing or sweep of tail that might have betrayed their presence—glided back toward the mouth of the cleft. There was a beaten path along the river, and Murtagh thought he saw weirs and nets set in the crystalline water.
By unspoken agreement, Thorn settled along the side of a hill one mountain over from the cleft, where a sharp-edged ridge hid them from the narrow valley.
Murtagh loosened the straps around his legs and slid to the ground. He stretched his arms and looked across the Bay of Fundor before turning back to Thorn. “What do you think?”
The scales along Thorn’s neck prickled. No village has the means to build such shells.
“The houses? I agree. Not without a great deal of help. That or they used magic.” He scratched his chin; his shave should be good for another day. Without a dagger or camp knife, he’d been forced to use a spell to remove his stubble, which made him more nervous than did a good, honest blade.
Thorn crept closer and placed his head by Murtagh’s shoulder. How long do you think you will be gone?
“I won’t be gone at all.” Murtagh smiled. “This time, I think we should do things differently. This time, the situation calls for some thunder and lightning.”
Thorn’s long red tongue snaked out of his mouth and licked his chops in a wolfish way. That seems most agreeable to me.
“I thought it might.”
Do you mean to kill Bachel?
“I mean to talk with her. If we have to fight, we fight, but—” Murtagh’s brows drew together as he frowned. “We need to find out what she and the Dreamers are about. Whatever their goal, they’re pursuing it with serious intent.”
And you want to scent out how many of them are in Nasuada’s realm.
“That too, although I doubt Bachel will tell us. At least, not willingly.” He scratched Thorn atop his snout. “Either way, we have to be careful.”
Our wards should protect us from her wordless magic, same as any other.
He gave the dragon a grim look. “Maybe. It’s hard to say. If things go badly, it might be best to flee.”
Flee or fight, I shall be ready.
“Then let us be at it.”
Murtagh walked along Thorn’s glittering length to where the saddlebags hung. He opened them and removed in order: Zar’roc, his arming cap and helmet, his greaves and vambraces, his iron-rimmed kite shield—from which he’d scraped the Empire’s emblem—his padded undershirt, and his breastplate. When not marching into open battle, he preferred to wear a mail shirt for the mobility it provided, but it wasn’t mobility nor even protection he was after. It was intimidation.
So, for the first time since Galbatorix had died and the Empire had fallen, Murtagh decided to substitute spectacle for subterfuge.
As he donned the armor, its familiar weight settled onto his frame with cold, forbidding constraint. Piece by piece, he assembled himself—or rather, a version of himself he had hoped to abandon: Murtagh son of Morzan. Murtagh, the dread servant of Galbatorix.
Murtagh the betrayer.
There was a circlet of gold about the helm, reminiscent of a minor crown. Galbatorix’s idea of humor. He’d introduced Murtagh as his right-hand man in the Empire. A new Rider, descended of the Forsworn, sworn to the king and devoted to his cause. Before the crowds, Galbatorix had treated Murtagh as all but his son, but in private chambers, where the truth could not hide, Murtagh had been nothing more than a slave.
He placed the helm upon his head and then walked to a marshy pond lined with cattails and studied his reflection. He resembled a princeling sent to war. With the added harshness his visage had acquired during the past year, he found himself thinking he would not want to fight himself.
He nodded. “That’ll do.” Then he eyed Thorn. “A pity we don’t have armor for you.”
Thorn sniffed. I need none. Besides, it would have to be made anew every half year.
It was true. Like all dragons, Thorn would continue to grow his entire life. The rate of growth slowed in proportion to overall mass, but it never entirely stopped. Some of the ancient dragons, such as the wild dragon Belgabad, had been truly enormous.
Murtagh belted on Zar’roc and then closed the saddlebags and climbed back onto Thorn. “Letta,” he said, and ended the spell that concealed Thorn in the air. “All right. Let’s go meet this witch Bachel.”
A rumble of agreement came from Thorn. Then the dragon lifted his wings high, like crimson sails turned to the wind, and drove them down. Murtagh clutched the spike in front of him as Thorn sprang skyward, and cold air rushed past with a promise of brimstone.
Excerpt from Murtagh by Christopher Paolini reprinted with permission of Random House.
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