She shouted at the ceiling and yanked at her restraints, angry with herself for not having done better. Still simmering, she glanced at the body on the floor, then quickly looked away. In death, the man’s expression seemed accusatory, and she could not bear to gaze upon it.
After she stole the spoon, she had spent hours grinding the end of the handle against the stone slab. The spoon had been made of soft iron, so it was easy to shape.
She had thought that Galbatorix and Murtagh would visit her next, but instead it was her jailer, bringing her what might have been a late dinner. He had started to undo her manacles in preparation for escorting her to the privy room. The moment he freed her left hand, she stabbed him underneath the chin with the sharpened handle of the spoon, burying the utensil in the folds of his wattle. The man squealed, a horrible, high-pitched sound that reminded her of a pig at slaughter, and spun thrice around, flailing his arms, then fell to the floor, where he lay thrashing and frothing and drumming his heels for what seemed an unreasonably long time.
Killing him had troubled her. She did not think the man had been evil—she was not sure what he had been—but there had been a simpleness to him that made her feel as if she had taken advantage of him. Still, she had done what was necessary, and though she now found it unpleasant to consider, she remained convinced that her actions had been justified.
As the man lay convulsing in his death throes, she had unfastened the rest of the restraints and jumped off the slab. Then, steeling her nerve, she pulled the spoon out of the man’s neck, which—like a stopper removed from the bung of a barrel—released a spray of blood that splattered her legs and caused her to jump backward while stifling a curse.
The two guards outside the Hall of the Soothsayer had been easy enough to deal with. She had caught them by surprise and killed the right-hand guard in much the same way she had killed her jailer. Then she had drawn the dagger from the guard’s belt and attacked the other man even as he struggled to bring his pike to bear upon her. Up close, a pike was no match for a dagger, and she had unseamed him before he had a chance to escape or raise the alarm.
She had not gotten very far after that. Whether because of Galbatorix’s spells or just plain bad luck, she ran headlong into a group of five soldiers, and they had quickly, if not easily, subdued her.
It could not have been more than half an hour later when she heard a large group of men in iron-shod boots march up to the door of the chamber, and then Galbatorix stormed in, followed by several guards.
As always, he stopped at the edge of her line of sight, and there he stood, a tall, dark figure with an angular face, only the outlines of which were visible. She saw his head turn as he took in the scene; then, in a cold voice, he said, “How did this happen?”
A soldier with a plume on his helm scurried in front of Galbatorix, knelt, and held out her sharpened spoon. “Sire, we found this in one of the men outside.”
The king took the spoon and turned it over in his hands. “I see.” His head swiveled toward her. He gripped the ends of the spoon and, without discernible effort, bent it until it snapped in two. “You knew you could not escape, and yet you insisted upon trying. I’ll not have you killing my men merely to spite me. You have not the right to take their lives. You have not the right to do anything unless I allow it.” He flung the pieces of metal upon the floor. Then he turned and stalked out of the Hall of the Soothsayer, his heavy cape flapping behind him.
Two of the soldiers removed her jailer’s body, then scoured the chamber of his blood, cursing her as they scrubbed.
Once they had left and she was again alone, she allowed herself a sigh, and some of the tension in her limbs vanished.
She wished she had had a chance to eat, for now that the excitement was over, she found she was hungry. Worse, she suspected she would have to wait hours before she could hope to have her next meal, assuming that Galbatorix did not decide to punish her by withholding food.
Her musings about bread and roasts and tall glasses of wine were short-lived, as she again heard the sound of many boots in the passageway outside her cell. Startled, she tried to mentally prepare herself for whatever unpleasantness was about to come, for it would be unpleasant, she was sure.
The door to the chamber crashed open, and two sets of footsteps echoed in the octagonal room as Murtagh and Galbatorix walked over to her. Murtagh positioned himself where he usually did, but without the brazier to occupy himself, he crossed his arms, leaned against the wall, and glared at the floor. What she could see of his expression beneath his silver half mask did not comfort her; the lines of his face seemed even harder than normal, and there was something about the cast of his mouth that sent a chill of fear into her bones.
Instead of sitting, as was his wont, Galbatorix stood behind and somewhat to the side of her head, where she could feel his presence more than she could see it.
He extended his long, clawlike hands over her. In them, he held a small box decorated with lines of carved horn that might have formed glyphs from the ancient language. Most disconcerting of all, a faint skree-skree sound came from within the container, soft as the scratching of a mouse, but no less distinct.
With the pad of his thumb, Galbatorix pushed open the box’s sliding lid. Then he reached inside and pulled out what appeared to be a large, ivory-colored maggot. The creature was almost three inches long, and it had a tiny mouth at one end, with which it uttered the skree-skree she had heard before, announcing its displeasure to the world. It was plump and pleated, like a caterpillar, but if it had any legs, they were so small as to be invisible.
As the creature wiggled in a vain attempt to free itself from between Galbatorix’s fingers, the king said, “This is a burrow grub. It is not what it appears to be. Few things are, but in the case of burrow grubs, that is all the more true. They are found in only one place in Alagaësia and are far more difficult to capture than you might suppose. Take it, then, as a sign of my regard for you, Nasuada, daughter of Ajihad, that I deign to use one on you.” His voice dropped in tone, becoming even more intimate. “I would not, however, wish to exchange places with you.”
The skree-skree of the burrow grub increased in volume as Galbatorix dropped it onto the bare skin of her right arm, just below the elbow. She flinched as the disgusting creature landed on her; it was heavier than it looked, and its underside gripped her with what felt like hundreds of little hooks.
The burrow grub squalled for a moment more; then it gathered up its body in a tight bundle and hopped several inches up her arm.
She wrenched at her bonds, hoping to dislodge the grub, but it continued to cling to her.
Again it hopped.
And again, and now it was on her shoulder, the hooks pinching and digging into her skin like a strip of minute cockleburs. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the burrow grub lift up its eyeless head and point it toward her face, as if testing the air. Its tiny mouth opened, and she saw that it had sharp cutting mandibles behind its upper and lower lips.
Skree-skree? said the burrow grub. Skree-skra?
“Not there,” Galbatorix said, and he spoke a word in the ancient language.
On hearing it, the burrow grub swung away from her head, for which she felt a measure of relief. Then it began to worm its way back down her arm.
Few things frightened her. The touch of the hot iron frightened her. The thought that Galbatorix might reign forevermore in Urû’baen frightened her. Death, of course, frightened her, although not so much because she feared the end of her existence as because she feared leaving undone all the things she still hoped to accomplish.
But, for whatever reason, the sight and feel of the burrow grub unnerved her in a way that, until that very moment, nothing else had. Every muscle in her body seemed to burn and tingle, and she felt an overwhelming urge to run, to flee, to put as much distance between herself and the creature as she could, for there seemed to be something profoundly wrong about the burrow grub. It did not move as it should, a
nd its obscene little mouth reminded her of a child’s, and the sound it made, the horrible, horrible sound, elicited a primal loathing within her.
The burrow grub paused by her elbow.
Then its fat, limbless body contracted, and it hopped four, five inches straight up into the air and then dove headfirst toward the inner part of her elbow.
As it landed, the burrow grub divided into a dozen small, bright green centipedes, which swarmed over her arm before each chose a spot to sink its mandibles into her flesh and bore its way through her skin.
The pain was too great for her to bear; she struggled against her restraints and screamed at the ceiling, but she could not escape her torment, not then and not for a seemingly endless span of time thereafter. The iron had hurt more, but she would have preferred its touch, for the hot metal was impersonal, inanimate, and predictable, all things the burrow grub was not. There was a special horror in knowing that the cause of her pain was a creature chewing on her, and worse, that it was inside her.
At the last, she lost her pride and self-control and cried out to the goddess Gokukara for mercy, and then she began to babble as a child might, unable to stop the flow of random words coming from her mouth.
And behind her, she heard Galbatorix laughing, and his enjoyment of her suffering made her hate him all the more.
She blinked, slowly coming back to herself.
After several moments, she realized that Murtagh and Galbatorix were gone. She had no recollection of their departure; she must have lost consciousness.
The pain was less than before, but she still hurt terribly. She glanced down her body, then averted her eyes, feeling her pulse quicken. Where the centipedes had been—she was not sure whether individually they were still considered burrow grubs—her flesh was swollen and lines of purple blood filled the tracks they had left underneath the surface of her skin, and every track burned. It felt as if she had been lashed across the front of her body with a metal whip.
She wondered if perhaps the burrow grubs were still inside of her, lying dormant while they digested their meal. Or perhaps they were metamorphosing, like maggots into flies, and they would turn into something even worse. Or, and this seemed the most terrible possibility, perhaps they were laying eggs within her, and more of them would soon hatch and begin to feast on her.
She shuddered and cried out with fear and frustration.
The wounds made it difficult for her to remain coherent. Her vision faded in and out, and she found herself weeping, which disgusted her, but she could not stop, no matter how hard she tried. As a distraction, she fell to talking to herself—nonsense mostly—anything to bolster her resolve or focus her mind on other subjects. It helped, if only a little.
She knew that Galbatorix did not want to kill her, but she feared that in his anger he had gone further than he intended. She was shaking, and her entire body felt inflamed, as if she had been stung by hundreds of bees. Willpower could sustain her for only so long; no matter how determined she was, there was a limit to what her frame could withstand, and she felt that she was well past that point. Something deep inside her seemed to have broken, and she was no longer confident that she could recover from her injuries.
The door to the chamber scraped open.
She forced her eyes to focus as she strained to see who was approaching.
It was Murtagh.
He looked down at her, his lips pinched, his nostrils flared, and a furrow between his brows. At first she thought he was angry, but then she realized he was actually worried and afraid, deathly so. The strength of his concern surprised her; she knew he regarded her with a certain liking—why else would he have convinced Galbatorix to keep her alive?—but she had not suspected that he cared for her quite so much.
She tried to reassure him with a smile. It must not have come out right, for as she did, Murtagh clenched his jaw, as if he was struggling to contain himself.
“Try not to move,” he said, and lifted his hands over her and began to murmur in the ancient language.
As if I could, she thought.
His magic soon took effect, and wound by wound, her pain abated, but it did not disappear entirely.
She frowned at him, puzzled, and he said, “I’m sorry. I can do no more. Galbatorix would know how, but it’s beyond me.”
“What … what about your Eldunarí?” she asked. “Surely they can help.”
He shook his head. “Young dragons all, or they were when their bodies died. They knew little of magic then, and Galbatorix has taught them almost nothing since. … I’m sorry.”
“Are those things still in me?”
“No! No, they’re not. Galbatorix removed them once you passed out.”
Her relief was profound. “Your spell didn’t stop the pain.” She tried not to sound accusatory, but she could not prevent a note of anger from creeping into her voice.
He grimaced. “I’m not sure why. It ought to have. Whatever that creature is, it doesn’t fit into the normal pattern of the world.”
“Do you know where it’s from?”
“No. I only learned of it today, when Galbatorix fetched it from his inner chambers.”
She closed her eyes for a moment.
“Let me up.”
“Are you s—”
“Let me up.”
Without a word, he undid her restraints. Then she got to her feet and stood swaying next to the slab while she waited for an attack of light-headedness to recede.
“Here,” said Murtagh, handing her his cape. She wrapped it around her body, covering herself for both modesty and warmth, and also so that she did not have to look at the burns, scabs, blisters, and blood-filled lines that disfigured her.
Limping—for, among other places, the burrow grub had visited the soles of her feet—she walked to the edge of the chamber. She leaned against the wall and slowly lowered herself to the floor.
Murtagh joined her, and the two of them sat staring at the opposite wall.
Despite herself, she began to cry.
After a while, she felt him touch her shoulder, and she jerked away. She could not help it. He had hurt her more in the past few days than anyone else ever had, and though she knew he had not wanted to do it, she could not forget that it was he who had wielded the hot iron.
Even so, when she saw how her reaction stung him, she relented and reached out and took his hand. He gave her fingers a gentle squeeze, then put his arm around her shoulders and drew her close. She resisted for a moment, then relaxed into his embrace and laid her head on his chest as she continued to cry, her quiet sobs echoing in the bare stone room.
Some minutes later, she felt him move beneath her as he said, “I’ll find a way to free you, I swear. It’s too late for Thorn and me. But not for you. As long as you don’t pledge fealty to Galbatorix, there’s still a chance I can spirit you out of Urû’baen.”
She looked up at him and decided he meant what he said. “How?” she whispered.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” he admitted with a roguish smile. “But I will. Whatever it takes. You have to promise me, though, that you won’t give up—not until I’ve tried. Agreed?”
“I don’t think I can endure that … thing again. If he puts it on me again, I’ll give him whatever he wants.”
“You won’t have to; he doesn’t intend to use the burrow grubs again.”
“… What does he intend?”
Murtagh was silent for a minute more. “He’s decided to start manipulating what you see, hear, feel, and taste. If that doesn’t work, then he’ll attack your mind directly. You won’t be able to resist him if he does. No one ever has. Before it comes to that, though, I’m sure I’ll be able to rescue you. All you have to do is keep fighting for another few days. That’s it—just another few days.”
“How can I if I can’t trust my senses?”
“There is one sense he cannot feign.” Murtagh twisted to look at her more directly. “Will you let me touc
h your mind? I won’t try to read your thoughts. I only want you to know what my mind feels like, so you can recognize it—so you can recognize me—in the future.”
She hesitated. She knew that this was a turning point. Either she would agree to trust him, or she would refuse and perhaps lose her only chance to avoid becoming Galbatorix’s slave. Still, she remained wary of granting anyone access to her mind. Murtagh could be trying to lull her into lowering her defenses so that he could more easily install himself in her consciousness. Or it might be that he hoped to glean some piece of information by eavesdropping on her thoughts.
Then she thought: Why should Galbatorix resort to such tricks? He could do either of those things himself. Murtagh is right; I wouldn’t be able to resist him. … If I accept Murtagh’s offer, it may mean my doom, but if I refuse, my doom is inevitable. One way or another, Galbatorix will break me. It’s only a matter of time.
“Do as you will,” she said.
Murtagh nodded and half closed his eyes.
In the silence of her mind, she began to recite the scrap of verse she used whenever she wanted to hide her thoughts or defend her consciousness from an intruder. She concentrated on it with all her might, determined to repel Murtagh if need be and also determined not to think about any of the secrets it was her duty to keep hidden.
In El-harím, there lived a man, a man with yellow eyes.
To me, he said, “Beware the whispers, for they whisper lies.
Do not wrestle with the demons of the dark,
Else upon your mind they’ll place a mark;
Do not listen to the shadows of the deep,
Else they haunt you even when you sleep.”
When Murtagh’s consciousness pressed against hers, she stiffened and began to recite the lines of the verse even faster. To her surprise, his mind felt familiar. The similarities between his consciousness and—No, she could not say whose, but the similarities were striking, as were the equally prominent differences. Foremost among the differences was his anger, which lay at the center of his being like a cold black heart, clenched and unmoving, with veins of hatred snaking out to entangle the rest of his mind. But his concern for her outshone his anger. Seeing it convinced her that his solicitude was genuine, for to dissemble with one’s inner self was incredibly difficult, and she did not believe that Murtagh could have deceived her so convincingly.