"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
— Genesis 3:19, King James Version
Oh, hell, Eragon thought numbly. What have I done?
An idle question: he already knew.
His fingers still grasped the dagger's hilt, after all, and there was no mistaking the warm wetness washing over his bare skin for anything but what it was. The blade had sunk into his opponent's flesh like butter – no resistance, no fuss, and no doubt that the trembling body he cradled against his own would soon be all-too-still. Shaking with shock he released the dagger and sank slowly to his knees, pulling the other youth more tightly too him.
What have I done?
His throat restricted painfully as he swallowed back his tears, and finally spoke: “Why, Murtagh?” he demanded weakly, “Why? You could have dodged. You were supposed to dodge! Why didn't you?”
The dark-haired youth shifted carefully on his knees and, with a shuddering breath, tilted his face upward, one cheek still resting weakly against Eragon's armored chest. His smile was sad – but victorious. “Don't you see? I couldn't let you show mercy this time.” His fingers crept up to trail down one cheek, and Eragon leaned into the pressure. “Galbatorix no longer needs you alive. Your unwillingness to strike the final blow would have gotten you killed in the end. And I've found something more precious to me than my own life.”
“Murtagh,” Eragon sobbed. “No...”
“My brother. My friend. My Eragon. I am your weakness... And Galbatorix knows it... I won't let him hurt you. Not through me... Not anymore...” Murtagh's voice was quieting, his strength waning. With every breath, every heartbeat, he drew nearer to that threshold Eragon could not draw him back from. It might have warmed his heart, once, to know that Murtagh's loyalty and love for him was more powerful than his own self-protective selfishness, but not now. Now all he wished for was to see that familiar disdainful sneer as his friend claimed that he would do whatever it took just to survive.
Oh, please, don't let this be real.
“Coward! Fool!” he cried, grasping his friend's shoulders tightly – almost violently. “You're supposed to be the smart one. You didn't have to do this! I would have found a way! I wouldn't have let you kill me. I would have stopped you. I would have...saved you...”
And here his last defenses broke, the dam against his tears falling away.
“Era...gon...” Murtagh looked so lost, so broken.
For a moment, Eragon almost hated him. Who was the one being left behind to mourn? Who would have to pick up the pieces of a shattered future and sweep up the remnants of barely-realized hopes and dreams? He'd almost had a family again... Almost had something more... And now he was losing everything before it was ever even really his...
“Dammit, I wanted to save you!”
Eragon met Murtagh's gaze, just as wet and desperate as his own, and stuck out his chin stubbornly. “Not yet.” His eyes fell upon the dagger, the wound, the source of his anguish. “But I will.” And so he reach out his hands, to pull the blade free and work his Rider magic – but when Murtagh's hands covered his own at the hilt, he found himself blocked, unable to summon the miracle he so urgently needed.
The last of Murtagh's Rider magic... And he'd used it too... Too...
No, please, no!
“No,” Murtagh whispered, “You can't... I won't... let you.”
“The wound is... fatal... Not even... you... could heal me now... Save... your strength... The battle... It's not... over...”
There was nothing Eragon could do but to accept the cold, hard true: although one he loved yet breathed, he was already lost. “What can I do...?”
To ease the way.
“Hold me,” Murtagh gasped, burying his face back into his brother's chest, taking what comfort he could. “It won't... be... long... now...”
And so Eragon held him – held him, and sang to him the lullaby's of his childhood: humming where he had forgotten some lines, making up others, and all the while offering up silent prayers that the weary soldier he sheltered in his embrace would find the freedom and peace so long denied to him in this life somewhere in the next. He sang and he prayed and he held on tight long after the young man ceased to shudder and moan – until, at last, he could deny his loss no longer.
Murtagh was gone, and with him Thorn. Once again, he was the last true Dragon Rider – and it was time to let down his shields, to rejoin Saphira and the Varden in yet another pointless battle in a war he expected would never really end.
With great regret and bitterness, he settled his precious burden down on the cold earth – such an unfitting place for a hero to rest – and knew that no one, not even he, would ever truly be able to comprehend the significance of what had been lost that day to nothing more than a half-hearted and poorly-aimed jab of an elvish throwing-dagger.
Eragon pressed his lips to Murtagh's forehead.
All he tasted was ash.