An Unlikely Meeting

"Ah," sighed Gandalf. "The borders of the Shire. It is here I must leave you." He stopped where he was, while Bilbo walked a while longer, before stopping and turning around.

"Oh," he said. He walked back to where Gandalf was. "That's a shame. I quite liked having a wizard around. They seem to bring good luck." He smiled at Gandalf. To his confusion, Gandalf did not return the smile.

"You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were all managed by mere luck?" asked Gandalf. Bilbo began to frown, wondering where this was headed. He soon found out. "Magic rings should not be used lightly, Bilbo." Bilbo opened his mouth to protest but to no avail. "Don't take me for a fool, I know you found one in the Goblin tunnels, and I've been keeping my eye on you ever since."

Bilbo closed his mouth and nodded. "Well, thank goodness.," he said, smiling again. He positioned his bag so it wouldn't fall, and stuck out his hand. "Farewell, Gandalf." He looked up at Gandalf.

"Farewell," said Gandalf in return, shaking Bilbo's hand. He watched, as Bilbo turned and left, before stopping and turning once more.

"You know," began Bilbo. "You needn't worry about that ring anymore, Gandalf. It fell out of my pocket during the battle."

Gandalf looked at him, knowing full well that Bilbo was lying. "You're a fine person, Mr. Baggins," said Gandalf. "And I'm very fond of you. But you're only quite a little fellow," he raised his eyebrows, "in a wide world, after all." And with that, he turned around and walked to the nearby ponies.

It took Gandalf a few weeks to return the ponies to Beorn. He stopped by Imladris, and gave the treasures he got from the Troll burrow to Elrond. There was a good deal that was of Elven make, from the First and Second age. Elrond was quite pleased to see them. He stayed for a night, and was off again, directly to Beorn this time. From there, he walked, heading to the nearest village or town that had an inn. However, it seemed fate had other ideas for him.

As he wandered, Gandalf had a sudden feeling come about him. The air shimmered around. The ground shifted beneath his feet. Gandalf tried to move, but was stuck in position, like a statue. For the first time in a long while, Gandalf felt truly helpless. Had the Enemy devised some way, before he was driven out of Dol Guldur, to trap Gandalf, should he be driven out? Gandalf, frozen, began to panic. He could not think of any spell to counter this, nor could he simply break free. He began to fear the worst when, to his great relief, the air before him cleared. However, before Gandalf had a chance to feel any great relief, he noticed the difference. Instead of mountains, grass, and trees before him, there lay naught but an empty desert, and behind him too. Barren. Desolate. These words flew through the mind of Gandalf, before he saw that it was not entirely so.

Far ahead was a circle of people on horses. They looked ragged; their weapons were rusted. They were surrounding two people, and their horses. Gandalf was immediately suspicious. No good came from such encounters. Gandalf hurried closer. As he neared them, he could make out more of them. There was a man, mostly hidden from view by the other riders, who was talking to the two men, as he now saw. He wagered this was their leader. The leader finished talking for a moment, and the men chuckled. Gandalf could see now that some men held bows, ready to fire. Now, he felt he could guess what these men were. One man snuck up behind the two men and lifted a blanket. Gandalf furrowed his brow. Even from where he was, with his view obstructed, he could see that it was an Elf. The man called to the leader, Torkenbrand, unless Gandalf heard incorrectly. What their leader said in reply confirmed Gandalf's guess.

Slavers, Gandalf guess was confirmed. He was only a few meters, maybe ten, no more, behind them. He cleared his throat so that their attention could be on him. He hid a smile, as all the heads turned suddenly to him. 'Ah, hello,' he began, slowly. 'I don't suppose any of you could tell me where I am? I happen to have gotten terribly lost.' The men all looked at him, confused. The leader, Torkenbrand was his name, Gandalf remembered, moved his horse to take a look at him.

'Humph.' His voice was hoarse. He looked down on Gandalf in disdain. 'Looks like he'd break trying to move a cart. But what's with the pointy hat? You some sort of wizard?'

'Well, I suppose you could say so.' Gandalf looked up at the man, a model of innocence. He looked over to where the two men stood. In the brief glimpse he had, he could see they were ready for battle. There was something strange about the man with brown hairs hand. He returned his attention to the ignorant slaver leader. 'Most of the Race of Men call me a Wizard. So, I suppose you could, too.' The man snorted.

'Whatever.' He waved his mace towards Gandalf. 'Lay down your sword, and we'll kill you quickly. Resist?' He chuckled rather evilly at that. 'And you'll end up wandering this desert with a hole in your arm. Your choice.' Gandalf simply smiled up at him.

'You know,' he began, a hint of humor permeating his voice. 'I rather think I like my chances resisting.'

'Your choice- argh!' The arrogant leader never got to finish his sentence. In an instance, a bright flash appeared from the tip of Gandalf's staff, blinding the slaver, who fell off his horse, trying to shield his eyes. Not even a moment later, the man with black hair spurred his warhorse into action. It spun around and struck the dismounted slaver. The man fell, screaming. Chaos soon ensued. A nearby slaver moved towards Gandalf. Gandalf stepped to the side as the rider passed, missing his javelin. He swiftly took out Glamdring, and in the same movement cut through the slaver. But soon, the battle was halted.

Words were spoken. They were heavy with power. Gandalf turned to the source of the words. It was the boy with brown hair. He held up his hands, and there formed a globule of fire, indigo in color. It struck a slaver, and burst asunder, like a molten fountain. Gandalf's curiosity piqued. It was soon forgotten when Gandalf heard a sound, which quaked him to the bones. A dragon, blue and terrible, was flying towards them at great speeds. Gandalf felt despair, for the second time in a few minutes.

The dragon roared, and the slavers screamed, and cowered. They turned to run. But too late. The dragon snatched some in its talons. Gandalf prepared to fight the beast himself. Then something of great curiosity happened. The boy with brown hair stood on a hill, with his sword as red as blood unsheathed, bellowed to the slavers.

'Behold!' he cried. 'I am a Rider!' He lifted his blade. 'Flee! If you wish to live.' And the slavers all turned and ran. All forsaking their leader, who had injured himself in the fall. But any concern about him could wait. The dragon had landed nearby. Gandalf looked towards it, fearfully, but determined to give the two boys as much of chance of escape as possible. In his despair and weariness, Gandalf did not notice the horses.

Gandalf leapt forth with a cry, standing between the two boys and the beast. 'Get back!' he ordered them. 'Get on your horses and run!' At that moment, Gandalf seemed to grow. He began to speak before the boy who had shot fire from his hands leapt between him and the dragon. Gandalf looked down, confused. 'Did you not hear me? Run!' he ordered once more. But the boy stood firm.

'Wait!' he yelled to Gandalf, holding out his hands. 'She's on our side.' Gandalf seemed to grow back to his original size.

'I beg your pardon,' he said. 'What exactly do you mean our side?'

'Well, just that, I suppose.'

'And just which side would that be?' questioned Gandalf. If these people were in league with dragons, then he may very well be in greater danger than he thought.

'We're headed to the Varden,' said the boy. 'We hope to seek refuge there, and hopefully, join the war.'

'And what war might that be?' interrogated Gandalf. Gandalf needed more information about the current state of affairs in whatever place he was, and a war explained it quite clearly.

'The war between the Varden and the Empire, of course!' he spat the latter name. 'You do know about the Varden and the Empire, do you not?' he added.

'I most certainly do not,' replied Gandalf.

'Where have you been living? Under a rock?' asked a voice behind him, almost mockingly. It belonged to the boy on the horse, with black hair. Gandalf spun around to greet him.

'No,' he answered. 'But I'm certainly not from nearby,' he added, warily. He looked towards the sun. It was going down. He sighed, and moved towards what was the campsite, so as to face all three at once. They were telling the truth, about heading to this "Varden", and that there was a war going on. And they seemed innocent. There was no malice in their eyes. Protectiveness in the eyes of the boy standing between him and the dragon, and suspicion in the eyes of the boy on the horse. But no malice. Even the dragon bore no malice, though it looked ever ready to attack. He looked at the three of them, and sighed. 'I think we should all stop, and wait a moment to catch our wits.' He looked at the two of them, and they looked at each other. Then the one with brown hair spoke.

'First, put away your sword,' he demanded. Gandalf tightened his grip. He was loath to lower his defences in the presence of a dragon.

'Give me your word that the dragon will not attack, and I shall,' he answered.

'I give you my word that she won't attack,' came the reply, somewhat strained. Gandalf reluctantly sheathed his sword. The tension in the air dissipated, somewhat. 'Now, what is your name, may I ask?' asked the boy.

'I am known by many names,' replied Gandalf. 'But most call me Gandalf. Gandalf the Grey. And you two are?'

'I am Eragon, son of none,' answered the boy with brown hair, putting his sword away. 'And this is Murtagh.' He gestured to the boy on the horse. 'And this,' he turned and gestured to the dragon behind him, 'is Saphira.' Gandalf was confused by the familiarity he displayed with the dragon. 'Now, tell us, how do you not the Empire? The Varden, I can slightly understand, but the Empire?'

Gandalf sighed. 'I think we should sit down,' he suggested. The two boys looked at each other and nodded. Murtagh sheathed his blade, and came near to him. They all sat, cross legged in a triangle. Saphira lay next to Eragon. Gandalf placed his staff next to him, lying down. 'Now, in order to answer your question, you shall first have to answer some of mine.' The boys nodded their ascent. 'Good. My first question is: what is the name of this land?'

Eragon looked confused, but answered anyway. 'This is the Hadarac Desert.' Gandalf was confused even more; he had not heard that name before.

'Thank you, but I meant as a whole. What is the Hadarac Desert a part of?' Gandalf clarified. Eragon and Murtagh looked at each other, bewildered.

'I… Alagaësia,' Eragon again replied.

Gandalf looked into his lap. Things were finally making enough sense. Then he looked up again. 'Thank you,' he said. 'Now, to answer your question, I have never heard of this Empire of yours because I have never been to these lands. Alagaësia, that is.' Eragon and Murtagh looked at each other in shock, and disbelief. Surely this old man was mad! Even the dragon, Saphira, reared her head in disbelief.

'What do you mean, you've never been to Alagaësia? How'd you get here then?' asked Murtagh, almost shouting. Gandalf raised a hand to calm him.

'I mean exactly what I have said. I have never been to the land known as Alagaësia before. Nor have I ever heard of it. And to answer your second question: I don't know, and I would very much like to know who sent me here and why.'

'Alright,' spoke Eragon. 'Assuming you're telling the truth, where did you come from, then?' This was more a question to satisfy his curiosity, than anything else.

'I come from a land known as Middle-Earth,' answered Gandalf. He looked down. 'I was sent thither, in order to aid the Free People in their fight against the evil known as Sauron. Just a few weeks ago, I learnt he was resurfacing, in an old fortress of his. His was driven out, but now I need to prepare for war. But here I am, in a different world, indeed, a different universe, unable to do the work I must.'

Eragon and Murtagh, once again, looked at each other in confusion. Saphira, on the other hand, seemed to be wondering the full meaning of these words. There was a silence. But before they could say anything, Gandalf spoke up again.

'But now,' he said, forgetting his sorrow, 'tell me your tale. Who is this Varden, who is the Empire, why are two young men wandering a desert with an unconscious Elf, and why I should not be afraid of the dragon, Saphira.'

Eragon opened his mouth to talk, but before he could, Saphira growled. They all turned to where she was looking, and saw the slaver, Torkenbrand, try to crawl away. Murtagh stood up, and walked over, unsheathed his sword, and in a single, fell swoop, lopped of his head. Eragon stood up, enraged.

'Is your brain rotten?' he yelled. 'Why did you kill him?'

Murtagh wiped his sword on the back of Torkenbrand's jerkin. The steel left a dark stain. 'I don't see why you're so upset—'

'Upset?' exploded Eragon. 'I'm well past that! Did it even occur to you that we could've just left him here and continue on our way? No! instead you turn into an executioner and chop off his head. He was defenceless!'

Murtagh seemed perplexed by Eragon's wrath. 'Well, we couldn't keep him around—he was dangerous. The others had run off… without a horse he wouldn't have made it far. I didn't want the Urgals to find him and learn about Arya,' Gandalf reasoned this was the Elf, 'so I thought it would—'

'But to kill him?' interrupted Eragon. Saphira sniffed Torkenbrand's head curiously. She opened her mouth slightly, as if to snap it up, then appeared to decide better of it, and prowled to Eragon's side.

'And what were better options?' asked Gandalf, who was done simply observing. 'What would you have Murtagh do instead? Give him water, and a horse, and tell him to flee? Or would you rather he wanders around, starving, thirsting, wishing for a swift death?' Eragon turned to look at Gandalf, and was about to retort, when he saw that the old man had… changed. Gone was the old man, who looked lost, and confused. In his place stood an ancient being, with wisdom and knowledge beyond compare. A being of great kindness, and sorrow. This being held more authority than any king in the history of Alagaësia, be they Dwarf, Elf, or Man. Whoever he was, whoever he is, Eragon knew he could be trusted. 'It is very good, Eragon, that you do not seek out death and destruction. That is the mark of a good person. But Murtagh did indeed have no other option. His death was a kindness.' The anger in Eragons face drained away. He looked down, subdued. 'In any case,' said Gandalf, seeming to become more mundane, 'there is much we must discuss. You need still tell me your tale.' He sat back down, beside his staff. He took out a pipe, put some pipe weed in it, and lit the contents. He puffed contently.

Eragon and Murtagh sat down, in their original locations, and Eragon told the story. He started first with who the Dragon Riders were, and their downfall. He then moved to tell Gandalf of Galbatorix, and the Empire. He explained then who the Varden were. He told him that they were a resistance, hidden in the Beor Mountains. He then told the tale of how he and Murtagh ended up in the desert, from his finding of the Saphira's egg, to his uncles' death, and his oath to kill the Ra'zac, to Brom's death at their hands, to the desperate escape from Gil'ead. He explained how they planned to reach the Varden, and that there were Urgals going their way, and that they might be following them. By the end of Eragons tale, the sun was going down, and Gandalf had made up his mind about his next course of action.

'Your quest,' Gandalf started slowly. 'Is a noble, and honest one.' He looked up at them. 'I should be honoured if you let me join you.'

The two looked conflicted at that. 'Um, I don't know.' Eragon looked at Gandalf uncomfortably. He didn't want to turn the offer down. But he didn't know how Gandalf would travel.

'I would not be a burden for the horses,' prompted Gandalf. Eragon shifted in his place. He sighed.

'Alright,' he said. 'But we need to leave now. We've wasted too much time as it is.'

'I agree,' said Gandalf, standing up. He picked up his staff. He moved towards Snowfire. 'Come, we can talk while we run.' He mounted Snowfire. Eragon tied Arya to Saphira's belly. 'We should ride only during the night, dawn, and dusk. That is when the desert is coolest.'

'We can't,' said Murtagh. 'The Urgals seem to be running day and night.'

'Then they shall be all the more exhausted,' replied Gandalf. 'If we rest during the day, we shall be able to cover greater ground during night. We all shall be rested, and they will not.' Murtagh found it difficult to argue with that. His conceded, and mounted Tornac. Eragon, finished with tying Arya to Saphira, ran to Gandalf and Snowfire. Saphira took off, flying quickly in the direction they were headed. He mounted Snowfire, in front of Gandalf, and spurred him into action. They took off, and it seemed that Snowfire and Tornac ran faster than before. The leagues seemed to melt away. Eragon suspected somehow it was Gandalf's doing. They rode swiftly through the night, Gandalf's staff providing them light. Eragon and Gandalf spoke, and Gandalf learnt the Dragon Rider, and Eragon's bond with Saphira. It appears his connection with her gave him enhanced abilities, and access to magic. He learnt that Saphira, until she came of age, could not breathe fire. They could also communicate telepathically. Gandalf asked Eragon to tell Saphira he was sorry for his earlier actions. He then talked to Eragon about magic for many hours, finding himself curious about this worlds magic. He determined that, when the opportunity arose, he would have to learn more about it.

It was around midday when they stopped. While they rested, Eragon went off to fly with Saphira, to keep an eye on the Urgals, he said. Gandalf knew better, of course. He was still conflicted about yesterday. So he sat with an impatient Murtagh. He took out his pipe, and started smoking it again.

'Ahh,' he sighed. 'Would you care to try some, Murtagh?' He took another pipe out of his cloak. 'It's Old Toby, the finest pipe weed in the Farthing. I got it from the Hobbits who lived there. Nothing better to sooth your nerves.' Murtagh looked conflicted for a moment, then accepted.

A while later, he was learning to blow smoke rings. He caught on quickly enough. 'So,' Gandalf said after blowing a smoke bird through one of Murtaghs rings, while they were waiting. 'Pray tell, what is your story, my friend? I have heard Eragon's, now I think we have time to learn yours.'

Murtagh hesitated. This man, whoever he was, was wise. But he was still new. He did not want to explain too much of his history. But, then again, he felt he could trust this man. He felt this man would not judge him. He sighed, and sat straighter. 'Okay. But if I tell mine, you have to tell me yours in return.' Gandalf nodded. 'Alright. So, my father was Morzan, the first and last of the Forsworn. I was raised in the service of Galbatorix. At one point, I was called to eat with the king. It was an unusual demand. I went to dine with him, all the same. We ate alone. And he… he spoke to me. He was the most convincing man I ever knew. His words were perfectly chosen. He spoke to me visions of a grand and beautiful future, one where everyone lived in peace and harmony. I was ensnared by his words. And then, he told me that he would call on me, one day. Years passed. He finally did. There were three brigades that was burnt down by the Varden. It would prove to be a massive strategic hindrance. The king called, and I came.' His words became softer. 'The man that I had seen at the dinner table, all those years ago, was gone. And in his place, a monster. I saw the king for what he truly was. He cared not for the lives of his subjects, only what they could do for him. He yelled at me, and demanded in a terrible voice I burn them all to the ground, and to bury them in dung. That night, my servant, Tornac, who taught me everything, who was more a father to me than Morzan ever was, worked with me to escape.

'But something went wrong. The guards were waiting for us. I imagine Galbatorix was spying on me the whole time. They were ordered not to kill us, I think. But somehow, Tornac died. He was stabbed in the back.' Murtagh smirked. 'Imagine that. The finest swordsman taken down like a common thug. I was fortunate enough to escape. I made my way, in grief, to someone I thought I could trust in Dras Leona, and spent the rest of my time trying to hide. And now, the Empire will know where I am.' He took a deep breath of the pipe. He blew out a great ring, and turned to Gandalf. 'So, your turn.'

Gandalf took a deep breath of Old Toby as well, before releasing an intricate ship in the shape of a swan. He sighed. 'You must understand, Murtagh,' he turned to look at him. 'That I cannot tell you my entire story. I have been around far too long to be able to do so. But I can tell you my most recent adventure. Is that acceptable?' Murtagh nodded. 'Good. Now, in a hole, in the ground, there lived a Hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, full worms, and oozy smells. This was a Hobbit hole, and that means good food, a warm hearth, and all the comforts of home…' Gandalf then told him the tale of Bilbo Baggins. By the time he was finished, Eragon and Saphira had arrived. They landed hurriedly.

'What now?' asked Murtagh, curtly.

'The Urgals are overtaking us,' said Eragon. He pointed back towards the camps column.

'How far do we have to go?' asked Murtagh, putting his hands against the sky and measuring the hours until sunset.

'Normally, I would say five days. At the rate we've been travelling, only three. Maybe two. But unless we get there tomorrow, the Urgals will probably catch us, and Arya will certainly die.'

'She might last another day.'

'Don't count on it,' object Eragon. 'The only way we'll get to the Varden is if we don't stop for anything, least of all sleep. That's our only chance.'

Murtagh laughed bitterly. 'How can you expect to do that? We've already gone days without adequate sleep. Unless Riders are made of different stuff than us mortals, you're as tired as I am. We've covered a staggering distance, and the horses, in case you haven't noticed, are ready to drop. Another day might kill us all.'

Eragon shrugged. 'So be it. We don't have a choice.'

Gandalf decided to intervene. 'Actually, I rather think we needn't worry so much. I have a little something that I got as a gift from the Elves of Rivendell a while back, for returning to them a great deal of belongings to them. And Elrond felt he owed me for not listening to me when I told him Sauron was on the move.' Gandalf chuckled a bit at that, and the fact that Eragon was completely oblivious as to the names. Only Murtagh understood the names.

'Well,' Murtagh asked, impatient. 'What is it?'

Gandalf produced a flask from his robes. 'Miruvor. A cordial that was given to me. It will renew your strengths, and Saphira, and the horses as well. Do not take too much! I have only a little with me, and I do not know the recipe.' He passed it around, instructing them only to take a sip. He spoke to the horses, and told them to only take two sips. Saphira had three. He told Eragon and Murtagh to save their questions for another time.

'This still begs the question,' said Eragon, feeling stronger than he had in days. 'How will we out run them? Somehow, they are faster on foot than we are on horseback.'

'I could leave you and Gandalf to fly ahead with Saphira… it would force the Urgals to divide their troops, and give you a better chance at reaching the Varden.'

It would be suicide,' said Eragon, crossing his arms. 'They would run you down like a deer. The only way to evade them is to find sanctuary with the Varden.' Despite his words, he was unsure if he wanted Murtagh to stay. I like him, he confessed to himself, but I'm no longer sure if that's a good thing.

'I'll escape later,' said Murtagh abruptly. 'When we get to the Varden, I can disappear down a side valley and find my way to Surda, where I can hide without attracting too much attention.'

'So you're staying?' asked Eragon, hopeful.

'Sleep or no sleep, Miruvor or none, I'll see you to the Varden,' promised Murtagh.

'And you, Gandalf?' asked Eragon.

Gandalf smiled warmly. 'Even if I didn't have to, I would still see you to the Varden.'

With new found strength and determination, they sped off, struggling to distance themselves from their foes. However, though they ran through the night, and the better part of the next day, the Urgals still crawled closer. Soon, they were a third closer.

Eragon had relied heavily on the memories of Arya. But due to the alien nature her mind, he often misinterpreted them. Gandalf convinced him to share these memories with them the fifth time they were mislaid. The Elven mind, whilst alien to Eragon, was familiar to what Gandalf knew. They gradually angled towards the foothills of the eastern arm of the mountain – which Gandalf confessed was an impressive size –, searching for the valley that would lead them to the Varden.

On the third day, by their reckoning, Eragon looked, and was pleased to see that the Urgals were far behind them. 'This is the last day,' he told them, yawning widely. 'If we aren't reasonably close by noon, I'm going to fly ahead with Saphira and Arya. Murtagh, you'll be free to go where ever you want. Gandalf, if you still want to follow me, then just be careful.'

'That might not be necessary; we could still get there in time,' said Murtagh. He rubbed the pommel of his sword.

'We could,' said Eragon. He went over to Arya, and put a hand on her forehead. It was damp and dangerously hot. Her eyes wandered uneasily beneath her eyelids, as if she was experiencing a nightmare. He placed a damp cloth on her, wishing he could do more.

Later that day, after Gandalf had given them some more Miruvor to drink, and they had circumnavigated an especially broad mountain, Gandalf saw a valley that was so restricted, it was almost overlooked. Water flowed out of it. He smiled to himself. The Urgals, he knew, were closing in. He turned to look back at the Urgals. He was not quite as alarmed as he showed the others. 'The Urgals are but a league behind us,' he informed them. We may be able to hide, and confuse them.'

Murtagh looked sceptical. 'It's worth a try. But they've followed us so far.'

They went forth, into the valley. There was a deep forest, which they entered. Saphira flew above them. Gandalf soon realised that this valley was not quite as inconsequential looking up close. In fact, it was rather large. They passed through it at a moderate pace. Gandalf took this time to marvel at the place. Wild strawberries dotted the place; there were waterfalls dotting the great walls. The trees were old and thick. There was little sunlight, due to the grey clouds and deepness of the valley, and the trees. Moss covered the stones. A heavy fog lifted from the ground, dampening the sound. Some hours later, Saphira landed in a nearby glade. They exited the forest, and entered the glade. A conversation passed through her and Eragon.

'The Varden are hidden,' informed Gandalf, 'at the end of this valley. If we are swift, we should make it there before nightfall.'

'Where am I going to escape?' asked Murtagh, putting his hands on his hips. 'I don't see any valleys out of here, and the Urgals will be closing in. They will hem us in pretty soon.' I need an escape route.'

'It is a large valley, dear Murtagh,' answered Gandalf. 'There is bound to be one further down the road.' He stopped, so that Eragon could get off.

'Watch Arya,' said Eragon. 'I'm going to fly with Saphira for a bit. We'll meet you up ahead.'

Gandalf nodded his ascent. He murmured words to Arya, as she was put on Snowfire. Her fever cooled a little. Not much, but enough to be of some comfort. He could do no more beyond that. He felt wind against his face as Saphira took off. He looked up, then continued on, heading back into the forest. They picked up the pace a bit. Gandalf was deep in thought. He wondered how he was sent here, and by whom? Could this be the workings of Sauron? A ploy to remove Gandalf from the playing field? Or was this the doing of one of the Valar? Or even Eru Ilúvatar himself? His thoughts were cut short when Murtagh spoke.

'Gandalf,' he said, getting Gandalf's attention. He turned towards Murtagh. 'Could you tell me a story? From your world?' Gandalf pondered this for a few seconds.

'I dare say I could,' he answered. 'But there are very many, and they are very long. They have songs, which are shorter. So, I will sing to you the tale of Beren and Lúthien.' He paused, to gather his thoughts, and sung, his voice deep and sorrowful. Long he sang, and it seemed to Murtagh as though he could see far off visions, of a mortal man, and Elven princess, and the turmoil they went through. He felt almost sad that the song ended.

Afterwards, they rode on in silent for a time. He thanked Gandalf, breaking the silence for a second, before going quite again. A little while later, Murtagh stopped, and looked at the ground. Gandalf looked to where he was, and saw tracks, in the shape of a wolves, but much larger. At the same time, Eragon and Saphira landed in a small field. Gandalf saw Eragon was stooped, exhausted. He hurried Snowfire to them, concerned.

'What happened to you?' he asked, concern permeating his voice.

'… I made a mistake,' confessed Eragon. 'The Urgals have entered the valley. I tried to confuse them, but I forgot a rule of magic, and it cost me dearly.'

'Fool of a Rider!' scowled Gandalf. 'This is no time to make foolish mistakes. From what you told me about the rules of magic, you could very well have killed yourself.'

'I know,' said Eragon. He grinned. 'Saphira tells me to tell you that she said much the same thing.'

'Oh,' said Gandalf. 'Proves my point, does it not?' He sighed, and took out his flask of Miruvor. 'Here, my lad. Have two sips of the Miruvor.'

Eragon accepted them gratefully. Murtagh trotted towards them, a grim look on his face. 'You alright?' he asked.

'I am now,' replied Eragon.

'Right, well, I just found some wolf footprints, but they're as wide as both my hands, and an inch deep. There are some creatures here that would harm even you, Saphira. I know you can't enter the forest, but could you fly directly above us? Otherwise there might not be enough of us left to roast in a thimble.'

'Humour, Murtagh?' asked Eragon, a smile coming to his face.

'Only on the gallows.' Murtagh rubbed his eyes. 'I can't believe that the same Urgals have been following us this entire time. They would have to be birds to catch up to us.'

'Saphira said they were bigger than any we've seen before,' remarked Eragon.

Murtagh cursed in realization, clutching the pommel of his sword. 'That explains it! Saphira, if you're right, then those are Kull. They're the elite of the Urgals. They don't ride horses because there are none that can carry them. Not one of them is under 8 feet tall—and they can run without sleep for days without sleep and still be ready for battle. It can take five men to kill one. The Kull never leave their caves except for war, so they must be expecting a great slaughter, if they are out in such force.'

'Can we stay ahead of them?' asked Eragon.

'Who knows,' said Murtagh, wearily. 'They're strong, determined, and large in numbers. It's possible we may have to face them. If that's so, then I just hope the Varden have men posted nearby. Even with our skill, and Saphira, we can't hold off Kull.' Murtagh sighed, and scanned the valley walls, worry in his eyes. Eragon knew what he was searching for.

'There'll be one farther in,' he told Murtagh. Gandalf looked back, knowing this was not true.

'Of course,' said Murtagh, with forced optimism. He turned Tornac around. 'We must go.'

'How's Arya, Gandalf?' asked Eragon.

'Her fever is worse, though I have done what I could to lower it,' replied Gandalf. 'She's been tossing and turning.'

'What do you expect?' asked Murtagh, desperately. 'Her strength is failing her. You should fly her to the Varden now, before the poison does any more damage.'

'I won't leave you behind,' insisted Eragon. 'Not with these Urgals so close behind.'

'Murtagh is right, Eragon,' interjected Gandalf. 'Fly with Arya to end of the valley, but stop some five hundred feet before you reach the waterfall. When you land, lay Arya down. Then you can return and drop stones on them from above. Murtagh and I will go as fast as we can. And Murtagh,' he turned now to Murtagh. 'I'm afraid that, if there is a way out of this valley, you should not take it.'

Murtagh turned to Gandalf. 'Gandalf—'he got no further.

'If you take another path, then the Kull will most certainly overrun you, before tomorrow at the most. Or the Varden, thinking you a spy, will.' He looked hard into Murtaghs eyes. 'I know your grievances with Varden, and they are valid. But your only other option is death.' Murtagh glowered at Gandalf.

'Fine, if there's no way I can slip away quietly, and undetected I will,' he conceded. He turned back to Eragon and Saphira. 'You heard Gandalf. What do you think?'

'I think it might just work, except I think I should stay with Arya, just to be safe,' said Eragon. Murtagh nodded, and Eragon and Saphira took off. Gandalf and Murtagh followed soon after, quickly going into a slow canter.

They made their way to the end of the valley, though it was not yet in sight. A horn echoed through the valley. Gandalf looked over his shoulder. He could not yet see them, so he reasoned they were still far behind. He looked up quickly, and saw Saphira fly overhead, a boulder in her talons. He smiled, grimly, and looked back. Whatever foul beasts these were, they would surely be hampered. However, he feared that despite Saphira's aid, the Kull may still find their way to them, before they reached the end of the valley. His smile broadened, however, when he heard the cries of the Kull.

Hours passed, and the valley darkened. The falling night, and the rising fog meant there was little light. Gandalf did not initially want to give any light, for fear that the Kull would see them, but soon reasoned that they would find them anyway. So he risked a little light, just enough to see where they were going, so they didn't trip over any roots, or rocks. The two made their way wordless through valley, turning slowly right.

It was the evening, when they reached the field where Eragon, and now also Saphira, who had taken a respite from her constant bombardment, lay. Both had worry in their eyes. Eragon looked worriedly at Arya, while Saphira looked concernedly to where the Kull would be. Gandalf and Murtagh trotted up to them, and Gandalf gave Arya a sip of the Miruvor. Gandalf looked at the two of them, confused. This was not where they were meant to be.

'Why are you here?' he asked irately. 'The Varden are still a thousand feet that way.' He pointed down the valley, where a distant waterfall flowed by a pebble beach.

Eragon stood to his feet. 'I didn't know,' he confessed. 'I ended up relying on your guidance, and my own memories faded.'

Gandalf sighed. 'No matter,' he said. 'Now, let us tie Arya back to Saphira. And you should ride with us again, Eragon. I have a feeling we may need your skills before the night is over.' He looked at Saphira. 'Also, I must say, miss Saphira, you have done a finer job at deterring the Kulls than I had originally anticipated.'

'Saphira says thank you,' Eragon told Gandalf. He got up, and helped Murtagh tie her to Saphira again. He jumped on Snowfire, after Gandalf.

They rushed to the waterfall, Saphira running alongside them, causing the ground to tremble, arriving there in a few minutes. Eragon got off of Snowfire, but before he could do anything, he was stopped by Murtagh, who rode Tornac in front of him, blocking his path.

'What are you doing?' asked Eragon. He heard Gandalf sigh behind him, for Gandalf knew what was coming.

'Eragon, Saphira,' said Gandalf cautiously, but quickly. 'What Murtagh will say will shock you. But you must not waste time questioning him. He has told me his tale, and I believe he will be no harm to us.'

Eragon looked nervously at Murtagh, who looked down at him, fear in his eyes. 'You… you have a right to know, Eragon.' He took a deep breath, before continuing. 'I am son of Morzan, first and last of the Forsworn.'