Eragon crept closer to the herd of deer, bedded down in a glen for the night. There was one in particular he’d been following: a doe, with an injured foreleg. He hadn’t expected her to keep up with the herd this long. The late autumn moon was waxing, and its bright glow silvered the deer in the clearing, clearly illuminating his target. The doe slept at the edge of the clearing, one foreleg stuck out in front of her in an uncomfortable-looking position.
Carefully, quietly, Eragon drew an arrow from his quiver and lay it on the string. He drew and sighted, as he’d done so many times before.
With a thrrum he loosed, and the arrow flew true to the doe’s eye, killing her instantly. The rest of the herd was startled by the soft noises into waking, and Eragon waited patiently for them to clear. When the last leaping buck disappeared into the shadows of the trees, Eragon hurried to the fallen doe and retrieved his arrow, then hefted the dead deer over his shoulder. He retreated into the woods, hung his catch from a sturdy bough so that it wouldn’t be easily stolen by marauding wildlife, and made camp for the night.
The next morning, he started for home. He traveled through the day, enjoying the quiet solitude of the Spine forest. Eragon was one of very few who dared to traverse the Spine, for many others had tried, and died for their trouble. But not Eragon; he knew how to follow the game trails, and he hadn’t ever seen Urgals in his journeys. Perhaps it was skill, or luck—the King’s own army had yet to conquer the untamed mountains, and entire companies had disappeared trying.
The Spine’s grim history was well-disguised in the welcoming trunks and thick foliage, the birdsong and the spongy moss. Dusk was setting in when Eragon met a ravine, and he camped near it, watching the moonrise and listening to the Anora River rushing far below him as he went to bed. The next day broke cold, and Eragon was grateful for his socks—green ones, made of soft wool, given to him on his fifteenth (most recent) birthday.
He didn’t travel long before he reached the Igualda Falls. His brother waited for him there, idly poking a small fire with a stick, an open book on his lap. Four rabbits were strung together in pairs, and hung from his pack.
Murtagh looked up as Eragon neared, and gave him a quick smile before standing. “What took you so long?” he asked. “I was about ready to go looking for you.”
Eragon rolled his eyes. “As if you’d put down that book long enough to find me,” he teased.
“What can I say,” Murtagh said, laughing, “it’s a good book.”
“You’ve read it at least five times now!”
“It’s good! And short!”
“It’s hardly short! What’s it about, anyway? I’ve never asked.”
Smug, Murtagh slipped said book into his pack. “I’ll tell you when we get moving. Help me break camp?”
All that really needed to be done was Murtagh’s bag repacked and dirt kicked over the fire, so they were soon on their way. They stopped, as they always did, do take in the view of Carvahall: a cluster of brown buildings, surrounded by farms and fields. Murtagh smiled and pointed to one farm, close enough to make out two houses, each smoking at the chimney, and a small barn. “I think I can see old Rose,” he said.
Eragon squinted. “He’s more gray than red, now,” he muttered, “I can hardly make him out.”
As they began their descent into the valley, Eragon asked again what Murtagh’s oh-so-special book was about.
“Oh, it’s a romance,” Murtagh said off-handedly.
Eragon snickered. “Seriously? The book you can’t put down is a wishy-washy love story?”
“It’s not wishy-washy!” Murtagh protested. “It’s a very beautifully written tragic romance about two lovers from warring kingdoms.”
Eragon nodded along sagely. “Ah, yes. A tragic, wishy-washy love story.”
Murtagh rolled his eyes. “It was Dad who gave it to me. Said it was one of his favorites,” he said smugly.
Halting suddenly and sputtering, Eragon couldn’t make a reply beyond opening and closing his mouth several times. Murtagh, who was in front, cackled as he continued down the path.
“You get back here!” Eragon shouted, bounding down the path after his brother. “Dad actually has good taste in stories, I absolutely do not believe you!”
“Ask him yourself!” Murtagh countered.
“I will!” Eragon retorted.
Dusk was gathering as they finally reached the village. The brothers wove through the buildings until they reached Sloan’s butchershop, but when they reached it, Murtagh handed his rabbits to Eragon. “You go on in,” he said quietly, “I’ll get Roran’s message delivered.”
Eragon scowled at him. “You know Sloan hates me!” he hissed.
Murtagh shrugged. “Hey, he hates me, too. And our dear cousin, hence why I’m delivering Roran’s message while Sloan’s distracted. Have fun!” With a sly grin, Murtagh slipped around the building to find Katrina.
Heaving an exasperated sigh, Eragon slumped through the door. Sloan looked up from polishing the counter—a counter that was already obnoxiously clean, just like the rest of the shop.
“Ah, the mighty hunter descends from the mountains to join us mortals,” Sloan sneered. “What, no brother? Has he finally made himself useful and found a proper line of work?”
Struggling not to make an unpleasant face, Eragon replied coolly, “No, he had some other business in town he wanted to get done.”
Sloan shook his head. “Business,” he scoffed disbelievingly. “Alright then, what’ve you brought me?”
Eragon lay the deer on the counter. “You’ll get a quarter as usual,” he said curtly. Sloan harrumphed, but made quick work of the carcass. When he’d done that, he weighed the meat, selected his quarter, and wrapped up the remainder for Eragon.
“Need those rabbits done, too?” Sloan grunted.
“Nope,” Eragon answered without hesitation. And, because his father had taught him to be polite even to those he disliked, he added (perhaps a bit too cheerfully), “Thank you for your business, Sloan.”
“Ngah, get out of here,” Sloan sneered, waving him on.
Murtagh, on the other hand, had a much more pleasant errand. He rounded the butcher shop and took long strides to Sloan’s home, hopping onto the low steps and knocking in an easy, practiced rhythm, leaning casually against the doorjamb.
He didn’t have to wait long before the door opened, spilling the scent of a well-spiced dinner onto the street. Katrina gave Murtagh an amused smile.
“My lady,” Murtagh greeted her.
“Uh-huh,” Katrina replied. “What’s your errand, errand-boy?”
“Is that all I am now?” Murtagh gasped, clutching dramatically at his chest. “I am wounded, Katrina, wounded, that my best friend sees me as nothing more than an errand-boy —a tragedy!”
She laughed. “Just like your favorite books,” she teased.
Chuckling, Murtagh straightened and obliged, “Oh, all right. Roran wanted to make sure you knew: as soon as the traders arrive, he’ll come into town, and he’ll see you then.”
Katrina raised an eyebrow with a wry smile. “Is that all he said?”
“Oh, of course not, you know him. He also wants you to know that you are the most gorgeous, stunning, beautiful girl he’s ever seen, and that he thinks of nothing else. At the rate he’s going, he should be writing down what he says and publishing books of poetry,” Murtagh added.
Katrina’s smile was warm and bright, and redder than her hair. “Well, let him know: I’m going to hold him to his promise, and he’s not so bad himself. Now get on home, before your mother comes looking for you again.”
Murtagh stepped down from the threshold and made an exaggerated bow. “As you wish, my lady. Goodnight.”
Rolling her eyes and laughing “Good night,” in return, Katrina shut the door.
Humming as he returned to the street, Murtagh was able to catch Eragon leaving Sloan’s with an expression of mixed relief and pride.
“Wasn’t so bad, huh?” Murtagh asked knowingly.
“Oh, shush,” replied Eragon, shoving his brother in the shoulder. “Let’s get home, I miss my bed.”
The brothers left the village and its warm lights behind, and the road was silvered by the moon. They lapsed into comfortable silence, and it wasn’t terribly long before they turned from the road onto a path cutting through the waist-high grass, into the shadows of the elms. They were soon greeted by three buildings: the darkened barn—which was home to the horses, chickens, the cow, and even a pig (which they’d barely been able to afford this year)—and two houses.
The older house had only one lit window, on the second floor—undoubtedly Uncle Garrow, who seemed to turn in later and later with each passing season. The second house, built less than two decades ago, was well-lit in the kitchen—undoubtedly Selena, their mother. Eragon hurried to the porch of the second house, Murtagh close behind, both of them weary but glad to be home; the door opened as they reached it, and a middle-aged woman with sharp, angular features stuck her head out to see them. Selena eyed the two with warmth spilling from her eyes and the subtle crinkles in their corners, and the easy smile curving her lip.
She stepped out and enveloped the both of them in a tight hug. “Welcome home,” she murmured into their shoulders—a little awkwardly, as Murtagh had a good four inches over Eragon.
Murtagh hugged his mother back fiercely, bent over slightly to press his face to her silvered brown hair, and he had an arm around Eragon’s shoulders, too. Eragon melted a little into the embrace, tired from the hunt, and incredibly aware of the firm place his mother held in his heart. It was their little ritual, this three-way hug. Not even Murtagh could have pinpointed exactly when it had started.
Selena took a deep breath in, taking in the strong fragrance of pine and the fresh scent of village chimney smoke clinging to her sons; she let it out in a satisfied sigh and stepped back, a hand on each of their shoulders. “So what have you boys caught?”
Brightening, Eragon slipped his pack from his shoulders and proudly showcased the wrapped venison in his pack; Murtagh dangled the four rabbits in the air by their feet. Pride glittered in Selena’s eye, and she congratulated them each, quietly, as she led them inside.
“I’ll put these in the cold overnight,” said Selena, taking the meat. “You get on to bed, you both look exhausted.”
Murtagh and Eragon yawned simultaneously in answer, making Selena chuckle, and shuffled upstairs to do just that.
Eragon paused at the door to the master bedroom, listening. Sometimes Brom was up late, knitting, or reading, or writing. No noises beyond the door, until—snor-r-r-e—yep, Brom was asleep.
“‘Agon,” Murtagh muttered from their room, “bed. Lamp.”
“Coming, coming,” Eragon answered. He’d been more than a little afraid of the dark as a small child, and while sharing a room with his brother had helped, it hadn’t fully beaten back the fear—it was only when Murtagh gave him full rights to lighting or snuffing the lamp-candle that Eragon began to conquer his dread of the night. That fear was gone, but Murtagh hadn’t asked for control over the lamp—he just nagged Eragon until the lamp was snuffed.
Tip-toe-shuffling into the room like a drunken dancer, and closing the door with a soft click!, Eragon toed off his boots, wiggled out of his jerkin and shirt, and traded tough trousers for a pair of soft woolens (knitted, homemade), before flopping onto his bed. Murtagh was already half-asleep, buried in haphazard blankets and already giving himself bedhead. Eragon couldn’t tell if he’d changed into more comfortable clothes, or simply gone to bed in what he’d already been wearing.
Eragon tried to gauge if his brother was actually asleep or not. “I’m gonna ask Dad tomorrow about your wishy-washy romance book,” he called softly.
“Mm-hmmph,” Murtagh grunted in reply. “Lamp. Bed. Sleep. Tomorrow comes later.”
Eragon’s own body betrayed him, yawning hugely in agreement. And then again, and then a third time as he snuffed the lamp. He lay down, and let himself drown in his own blankets and pillows and soft things, and as his eyes adjusted the room slowly turned to a shadowy bluescale of indigo and navy… accented only… by his breath… and Murtagh’s… until he descended… into a hazy dream—surrounded by the green of a summer forest, and the brilliant verdant hue of a thousand glittering green gemstones, and a pair of eyes so green they were almost black, and a whispered name that disappeared before it could be said.