The Weeping Man

Or Sloan's Revenge

For Kippurbird, master sporker and President of the Sloan Appreciation Society

They called him the Weeping Man, but in fact Sloan of Carvahall had not shed a single tear in all the years of his exile. Not since he had been trapped in Ellesmera and the curse had been placed on him. Not since the last time he had seen her. Even after his eyes had been restored, he had not cried. At least, not on the outside. His tears were all trapped inside him, as they always had been, ever since the death of his wife and the loss of his daughter, Katrina.

Katrina.

He thought of her while he sat by the river, outside the little dwelling that had been provided for him. His hands were busy with another wood carving, but his attention wasn't really on his work. It had been five years since he had last seen his daughter – five years since the end of the war and the fall of the Empire. Since then Katrina had left with her husband Roran to rule over Palencar Valley and raise her daughter. And, by now, a son. She and Roran had returned to visit Ellesmera more than once during those five years, but Sloan had never spoken to them. He could only watch, from a distance, held back by the curse that had been laid on him.

Perhaps, he knew, he deserved it. After all he had betrayed his village to the Empire. But he had suffered for it. Days of torture at the hands of the Ra'zac, his eyes torn out, not knowing if his daughter was alive or dead when he had done everything in his power to protect her.

And then… rescue. Rescue by the last person Sloan had ever wanted to see again.

Maybe, if his rescuer had been anyone other than Eragon, Sloan would have asked for forgiveness. He might even have asked for mercy. But his pride had stopped him from apologising for what he had done. As for mercy, he knew all too well not to expect any from Eragon. The boy had always been selfish and entitled, expecting special treatment from all and sundry. But since he had become a dragon Rider, his arrogance and bloodthirstiness had become almost legendary. Sloan had heard the stories since then; Eragon Bromsson never spared his enemies, and was absolutely merciless in his treatment of anyone who displeased him. He went into battle with terrible enthusiasm.

Of course, no-one else seemed to see it that way. The elves who occupied Sloan's' new home always spoke of "their" Rider with respect – almost awe. But of course they would; none of them had ever been in Sloan's' position. None of them had ever been at Eragon's mercy.

Mercy which, for Sloan, had been the worst punishment imaginable. A curse which prevented him from ever seeing or speaking with his daughter again. The only thing he cared about would be forever beyond his reach. And yet somehow, Eragon had seemed to think it was preferable to death.

After that Sloan had been sent to live in Ellesmera, alone and forgotten, with everyone including his daughter believing he was dead. It was only fitting; after all, his existence since then had been not much less than a living death.

In the end, the only mercy Eragon had shown him was to give him a new set of eyes and allow him to look at Katrina and his granddaughter. He had watched from a distance her with her new family, her face alight with laughter. And, though he now regretted it, he had thanked his tormentor for it.

After that Eragon had left the country with his dragon, never to return, leaving Sloan to suffer on. Bad enough, he thought, to have been forbidden to see his daughter again. But now he could see her when she came visiting, it only served to remind him even more sharply of what he had lost.

He brooded on all that while he carved, feeling the ache in his bones. He was growing old now; maybe his sufferings had made time catch up with him all the faster, or maybe it was simply that he was surrounded by ageless elves which made his own ageing seem so rapid. He hated the elves, almost as much as he hated Eragon, but no wonder Eragon liked them – they were just as smug and arrogant as he was. None of them would ever know the slow decline into infirmity. It was they who called him the Weeping Man – no doubt they thought it was poetic and clever, and not at all insulting.

The knife slipped, and Sloan started at the sudden flare of pain in his hand. He looked blankly at the cut on his palm, and the blood welling up over his rough old skin. It wasn't serious, but it brought him back to the present. He put his whittling aside, tucked the knife into his belt, and got up to go and wash the cut in the river. Getting up wasn't easy these days; his knees creaked and his arthritic hip throbbed.

Slowly, grimacing slightly, he shuffled down to the water's edge and thrust his hand into the icy stream. Threads of blood wove their way into the current, drifting away down the river. The cold soothed the pain, however, and he pulled his hand out and wrapped a scrap of cloth around it. He could always ask one of the elves to heal it for him – it wasn't as if it would take much effort for them – but he wouldn't. Blood was blood and scars were scars; only cowards tried to avoid them. And anyway, he didn't trust magic. Never had and never would, especially not now.

Reluctantly, he started to climb up the bank toward the centre of the elvish city, where Queen Arya's residence lay. Vanir the elvish ambassador had returned the previous day; maybe there would be some news of Katrina and her children. Sloan hated lurking around the edges of the elvish gatherings, pathetically picking up whatever scraps he could like a dog under a banquet table – but what other choice did he have? This was the closest he would come to real contact with his daughter and her family – the closest thing to comfort in his life.

Up by the garden where the Queen held her audiences, there were plenty of elves about. A weird-looking lot, they were; all pale and pointed with their shiny eyes and fancy hair. Some of them were much odder, though; like that furry one with the claws. Sloan steered well clear of the stranger specimens, but most of the elves there did recognise him. Some of them called out greetings to him as he passed them by. Sloan grunted in response; he had become fairly fluent in the so-called "Ancient Language" over the last few years, but he didn't have much use for it. What was the point of a language that wouldn't let you lie?

He went to his usual spot by a birch tree and lurked there, silently listening in on the elves' conversation. There were a few bits and pieces of news to be had. Apparently Queen Nasuada and King Orrin of Surda had some kind of falling-out. King Orik of the dwarves had just welcomed his third child into the world. And over in the Urgal settlements, the first ever Urgal Rider had just returned from his training over the sea with Eragon. Sloan took all this in and dismissed it – as far as he was concerned, the dwarves and the Urgals could all go burn. As for Alagaësia's new Queen, he hadn't given a damn about her before and he wasn't going to start now.

Eventually, Roran's name came up. But there was nothing interesting to be had about the Earl of Palencar Valley and his wife, and no mention of their children.

Irritated, Sloan gave up and wandered away. Why had he even bothered to come here? Nobody was going to tell him anything, even if he swallowed his pride and asked them outright.

Not far from the Queen's garden, a huge old oak had been hollowed out into a special chamber. All the elvish dwellings were made from trees, including his own. This one, though, was special. The elves kept it under guard – he'd seen the guards standing outside the arched entrance every time he came this way. He wasn't sure why, and hadn't ever bothered to investigate.

Today, though, things were a little different. The two guards were still there, but as Sloan passed by he overheard them talking in low voices. Unusually for elves, they sounded angry. He paused curiously, watching out of the corner of his eye. With his dimmed hearing he couldn't make out exactly what the two guards were saying, but their voices rose higher while he listened, and the one on the left made a move toward the other. The second guard retreated as his fellow came after him, and they ducked behind a root to continue their argument in steadily loudening voices, leaving the entrance unguarded.

Sloan glanced at it, curious. He was certain that he would never have been allowed in there normally – this could be his one opportunity.

On an impulse, checking that nobody was watching, he quickly ducked through the door and into the tree.

Inside everything was dim and quiet. The tree's interior was a single round room with a high ceiling. The air smelled musty, as if no-one had been in here in a while, and there was no furniture at all. Sloan had half expected it to be a treasure vault of some kind, but there was no treasure in sight – only a single, raised wooden plinth in the middle of the floor. On it was a velvet cushion, and resting on that was something large and oval shaped. The faint light from the entrance gleamed on its surface.

Sloan paused, staring at it in puzzlement and wondering why it looked familiar – and then his breath caught in his throat. He took a step closer, not quite sure if what he was seeing was real.

But it was. He knew what this was – he had seen one like it before, after all.

A dragon egg.

It was almost exactly the same as the one Eragon had tried to sell him back in Carvahall – about the size of a melon, its surface like polished wood. But where Saphira's egg had been blue this one was grey, traced with silver veins. They glittered like the surface of the river that had carried Sloan's blood away.

Sloan backed off, half afraid and half awed. It all made sense now. What else would the elves have been guarding all this time if not a dragon egg? Dwarves cared about gold and jewels – the elves were different. Eragon had been sending dragon eggs back to Alagaësia ever since he and Saphira had left; one to the Urgals, one to the dwarves, one to the humans and one to the elves. Once each egg hatched for someone, the new Rider would go away over the sea to be trained by Eragon. As far as Sloan knew, no new elvish Rider had emerged since Queen Ayra, so this egg must be the same one that had been given to the elves by Eragon before he left. All this time it must have been sitting here, waiting for its rightful Rider to come along.

Sloan paused. Common sense told him to leave before the guards came back, but something about the egg fascinated him. So strange to think that the last time he had seen one it had marked the beginning of the end of his life. And hadn't he told Eragon to get rid of the damn thing – that it came from the Spine and was bad luck? Of course the boy hadn't listened, but in his own way Sloan had been right. He had just had no way of knowing that the bad luck would strike him, not Eragon. No, for Eragon everything had turned out perfectly.

Scowling, Sloan stepped over to the plinth and picked the egg up. It was smooth and heavy in his hands just like the last one had been. And inside another dragon must be lurking, silently waiting to be unleashed.

'Blast you,' Sloan muttered to it. 'Tiny little bastard, waiting to come out and make another one like him. If I had my way…'

Crack.

Sloan froze. For a moment he thought the sound had been his imagination – but then it came a second time. A faint, crackling, grinding sound coming from inside the egg. He could feel the vibration of it in his hand. And there, before his eyes, he saw the grey shell beginning to split.

Panicking, Sloan put the egg down again and started to back off, eyes flicking toward the entrance. But it was too late now. The egg rocked gently on its pillow, and now the sound of cracking was joined by a squeaking, like a baby bird. The damn thing was hatching!

Heart pounding, Sloan fled from the tree. Outside the guards had returned to their posts, and they shouted in alarm when Sloan appeared. But he completely ignored them. He roughly shoved one aside and hobbled away as fast as he could go, his hip screaming at him and his head spinning with the sudden change in light.

He didn't stop until he reached his own home, and there he went inside and slammed the door.

Safe, he slumped down on the bed and gingerly rubbed his knees. He would pay for daring to run on them, he knew. But at least he was well away now – away from the egg, the elves, and all the rest of that insanity.

He slept uneasily that night, after a bland vegetarian meal, and dreamed of Katrina. She waved to him from the other side of a great abyss where monstrous dragons lurked, ready to take him down into death the moment he tried to reach her. All of them were blue, but their eyes were Eragon's: cruel, disdainful and without a single trace of compassion.

Sloan woke up with a headache – not an uncommon thing these days. His back and legs throbbed as he reluctantly opened his eyes. For a moment he lay still, remembering the dream. Then the previous day came rushing back, and panic came with it. He tried to sit up and immediately regretted it. His knees locked in place and his back, which had never been the same since his ordeal in Helgrind, immediately gave out on him as well. A sharp pain stabbed between his shoulderblades and he slumped back, groaning. Clearly, getting up today was going to be even harder than usual.

He rested for a little while and then made another, more careful attempt to sit up. His back flared up immediately, but with some effort he managed to prop himself up on the pillow and look around the room. The single space which made up his home was full of sunlight coming in through the two round windows set into the pointed ceiling. The walls were wood, of course – living wood, which had been shaped into shelving, a table with a chair, and his bed. He had to grudgingly admit that it was pretty. A set of knives hung on one wall; elvish made blades which one of his neighbours had given him as a gift. They, and a few sets of clothes, were all he owned.

Sloan yawned, which made his jaw click, and wondered if he should risk getting out of bed and finding something to eat. But only if his legs would co-operate. He looked down at them, and froze.

There was a dragon sitting on the end of his bed.

Only a small one, about as long as his arm, its scales an attractively shaded grey – very pale on the belly, darker on the flanks and the front of the legs. On the creature's spine was a line of shining silver which spread over the backs of the wings.

It perched on the wooden bed-end, little white talons curving into the wood, its big silver eyes fixed on Sloan's face. Its tail, with its stripe of glittering silver, curled around the post beneath it and its wings were partly spread to help it balance.

Fear and disgust hissed through Sloan's teeth. 'Get away from me!'

The dragon stared at him, big-eyed like a child. Then it hopped down off the bedpost and started to walk toward him over the blankets, tail waving behind it. Its claws snagged in the cloth, and it made odd little jerking steps, raising each paw to avoid becoming trapped. Sloan tried to get up out of bed, but his legs wouldn't co-operate. He wriggled backward as the dragon came closer.

'I said get away, blast you!'

The dragon ignored him. Its head rose toward him, mouth slightly open. In a moment it would be close enough to – to do what? Bite him? Breathe fire on him? Whatever it was, he wasn't going to wait and find out. He disentangled his arm from the bedclothes and aimed a blow at the dragon. His hand hit its head, and as the creature toppled sideways, it happened.

A great flash of silvery light blasted through Sloan's head, blinding him. He fell back, hand burning and freezing at once, unable to move as an unbearable wave of energy filled his body. Alien feelings surged through his mind until, unable to take any more, he blacked out.

He woke up a moment later, feeling utterly exhausted but strangely warm. He was still in his bed and nothing much seemed to have changed, but when he opened his eyes the world looked different. The sunshine was brighter, the details of his surroundings sharper. The faint humming in his ears had disappeared, and the stiffness in his limbs had gone as well – soothed away by the warmth in his stomach and chest.

Sloan looked around, confused, and the first thing he saw was the dragon. The creature had righted itself and now lay beside him like a cat, tail curled around it. Sloan's hand still felt odd from where he had touched it – not painful, just odd. He lifted it and examined the palm, and saw something that sent horror through his heart.

There, on his rough old palm, was a silvery mark. The same mark that sat on Eragon's palm. The mark of a Rider.

Sloan looked down at the dragon. 'What did you do?' he said. 'Curse you, you little – I didn't want this! Take it back!'

The dragon stirred and looked up at him, all innocence. It cooed.

Sloan rubbed at the mark, as if in the hopes that he could make it come off. But it stayed stubbornly there, tingling slightly. He was stuck with it. He was a Rider. And that meant…

It meant a thousand things. It meant he was immortal now, like an elf. It meant he now had magical powers – the same powers Eragon had used to curse him. And it meant something else, something far worse. By law, every new Rider had to leave Alagaësia; to go over the sea to the land where Eragon now lived, and be trained. He, Sloan, would have to go to him and work as his student – be subjected to the brat's whims every day for however long it took.

Of all the things he could have imagined ever happening to him, few things could have been worse than this. That he could become like his tormentor, and be forced to learn from him. And how Eragon would love that – to be in a position of power over Sloan once again. At least while he was away from Alagaësia he couldn't trouble Sloan any more. Now, his opportunity would come again.

Galvanised into action, Sloan got out of bed. This time, nothing happened to stop him. The pain in his legs, back and hip was gone. Puzzled, he looked down at himself. His knees were no longer swollen, and the varicose veins had disappeared from his skin. His hands were still browned and wrinkled and his hair had not turned back to its original chestnut colour, but it was now a dark iron grey rather than white. Had the dragon's power somehow made him younger?

He walked carefully around the room, expecting his aches and pains to return at any moment, but nothing happened. He felt more limber than he had in years.

At least that would make what he had to do next easier. After a quick check at the window to make sure no-one was around, he snatched up the previous day's clothes and started to dress. The moment he had finished with that he grabbed a bag and began to stuff it with everything he owned – clothes, the few things he had carved, some dried food. Finally he took down his knives and stuck them into the row of sheaths on his belt. He may not be a butcher any more, but having a good set of knives with him always made him feel better.

The dragon watched everything from the bed, with a curious expression. Sloan paused to glance at it.

'You're staying here,' he told it. 'I've got no use for you. Go choose someone else, damn you.'

The dragon said nothing, but at that moment Sloan felt something strange in his head. Not a voice, but definitely a presence. A little twist of feeling came to him – puzzlement, hurt, and loneliness.

Sloan glared at the dragon. 'Stop it.'

The dragon stood up, and the feeling of sadness and rejection increased.

Sloan hesitated, and then slipped away out of the house as quickly as he could. He stopped just outside the doorway, checking the coast was clear. He couldn't see any elves, but he could hear them – a mess of shouting came from somewhere up the bank. They sounded angry and upset. Sloan hurried away up the river and into the forest. The sooner he got out of here the better. The elves must have noticed that the egg had hatched, and be searching for the dragon. If any of them found him and saw the mark on his hand…

Sloan stopped suddenly, and stooped to scoop up a handful of mud from the river bank. He quickly rubbed it over the silvery mark and then pressed on. Nothing and nobody was going to force him to go to Eragon.

His legs felt much stronger now. He crept out of Ellesmera without being challenged and hurried on through the forest, not feeling at all tired. Normally he would have needed to stop for a rest, but not now. He felt almost young again, and if he hadn't been so angry and confused he would have marvelled at it. As it was, his new strength was only a blessing in that it would make his escape easier.

As he jogged along the riverbank, bag slung on his back, he felt the presence of the dragon's emotions again. This time the feeling of sadness had become mixed with determination. Sloan didn't even need to look back to know the beast was following him. He gritted his teeth and sped up, and after a while the dragon's presence faded. Hopefully he had managed to shake it off.

After a while the forest opened up, and he entered a pleasant little glade full of rich grass dotted with flowers. The air sparkled with pollen. He sniffed, and was amazed by now sensitive his nose was now. Was this how all dragon Riders felt?

No! He pushed the idea away – he wasn't a dragon Rider. It didn't matter that the dragon had decided to come bothering him and thrust its mind into his head; that didn't make him a Rider. He wasn't going to be trained, and he wouldn't ride the damn thing. If he had to, he'd kill it.

But as Sloan walked on, the sunlight coming through the trees to warm his back, a slow, treacherous thought wormed its way into his head. He might almost have imagined it had come from the dragon, but he wasn't going to fool himself – it was his own.

Now that he had been bonded to a dragon, that meant he had magic. And if he had magic now… did that mean he would be able to undo the curse? Could he set himself free?

He tried to push the idea away, but he couldn't help it. It lodged in his mind and began to grow, and despite all a faint excitement bloomed in his stomach. If he could lift the curse, then he could go to Katrina. He could visit her and his grandchildren, and even his son in law. Roran might be Eragon's cousin, but he wasn't so bad. At least he treated Katrina with the love and care she deserved.

If Sloan could go to them now, he could make amends. Explain himself and beg Katrina to forgive him for his mistakes. Surely she understood that he had done all he did for her sake. At the very least, even if she wouldn't forgive him she might let him see his grandchildren. The one thing he wanted could be in his reach at last.

But without training, he had no way of knowing how to lift the curse, or even any idea of whether it was possible or not.

Sloan chewed on his knuckle, his mind dropping further into turmoil. He did need to be trained, at least a little. But if he didn't go to Eragon, where could he go? Who would help him? There were other Riders in Alagaësia – could he speak with one of them? But no… they'd only force him to go to Eragon. After all they had all been his students; they would betray Sloan to him in an instant.

Was there anyone else who knew about magic, then? Someone who wasn't a Rider or an elf? Someone he could trust?

He had no idea. But as he began to leave Ellesmera behind the determination grew in him, and a goal other than that of escape. He would go in search of someone to teach him what he wanted to know. It didn't matter how long it took – he was immortal now, after all. As long as he learned how to remove his curse before Katrina's life ran out, it would be enough.

He would have to be careful, of course. He couldn't let anyone see the dragon, or the mark on his hand. But at least he didn't look like a Rider.

Sloan smiled grimly to himself. He'd seen plenty of drawings and statues of Riders. Everyone knew what they were meant to be like – tall, strong, handsome, elvish looking even if they weren't elves. Maybe there were Urgal and dwarf Riders these days, but even so nobody would imagine a bad-tempered old man like him was a Rider. He didn't fit at all. No pointed ears, no shiny eyes, no mighty sword on his back. Just the slightly ragged green elvish robe and a set of good knives. It was all he needed.

His new determination made him feel more energetic, and he made good progress that day, not even stopping to eat. He munched on some dried fruit and nuts while he walked along, and drank from the river. There was no sign of the dragon, and no elves about. He should be safe now. And even if someone did see him, why would they care? Nobody would miss him now he was gone – nobody cared a whit for what happened to him.

He walked on all day, feeling almost buoyant. When night fell he stopped at a handy clearing and sat down on a hollow log. He hadn't thought to pack a blanket, but the night was warm enough. He just wished he had some means of lighting a fire.

He rested for a while and ate the last of his supplies. Above the stars showed through a gap in the branches. Somewhere those same stars must be shining on Katrina as well. Sloan smiled to himself at the thought – the first time he had smiled in a very long time.

But the smile faded very quickly when he heard a rustling in the undergrowth and looked up to see an unwelcome figure approaching.

'You again,' he growled. 'I told you to leave me alone.'

The dragon crept closer, head low. It almost looked apologetic. It was apology, he realised – he could sense it in his mind. The thing was sharing its feelings with him again.

'Sorry, are you?' he said. 'Well you should be. I didn't ask you to come bothering me like that. What were you thinking, hatching for the likes of me? I'm no elf. You should've hatched for one of them and left me alone.'

The dragon's apologetic feeling became tinged with puzzlement.

Sloan hesitated. He didn't want to sympathise with the thing, but it was almost impossible not to, with its emotions mingling with his own. Finally, he sighed and gave up. Maybe the dragon had gotten him into trouble, but it had still given him his chance to escape Eragon's bonds at last. He owed it that.

'Come here,' he said.

The dragon's head lifted and it hurried over, as if it thought he might change his mind. He sensed its relief. It came straight to him and climbed up onto the log beside him, where it perched with its eyes on his face. He sensed its curiosity.

'Don't you talk?' he asked it. 'Dragons are supposed to talk; everyone knows that.'

The dragon stayed silent. Maybe it was too young, he thought.

Sloan sat with his chin on his hand, thinking. If the dragon wasn't going to leave him alone, he may as well talk to it. After a long pause, and with some reluctance, he started to speak while the dragon listened. He told it his name and where he had come from, that he had once been a butcher. He talked about his wife and daughter, and then, before he knew it, he was telling the dragon everything – every detail about his long and ultimately doomed life. How his wife, Mardras, had been the beauty of Carvahall, courted by every man of their generation. But she had chosen Sloan – plain, shy Sloan. Their wedding day had been the happiest day of his life. Then, when she had given him a daughter…

'I never thought anyone could be that happy,' Sloan muttered. 'I felt like the luckiest man alive. I should've known it was too good to last.'

The dragon stayed silent, still watching, and its emotions changed as he talked. He sensed curiosity – of course it wouldn't know anything about human ways.

Sloan talked on, telling the dragon about the day his wife had died. 'She just went to get wood,' he said. 'That was all. Just went off into the forest. I told her to be careful, but she said she'd be fine. Never afraid of anything, that woman. But she never came back…'

Tears ached in Sloan's chest, but as always his eyes stayed dry. Never a tear for the Weeping Man.

'After that it was just me,' he said. 'Me and Katrina. Raised her myself, I did. She was as beautiful as her mother, and she was all I had. Promised I'd always keep her safe, for Mardras' memory. But I failed.'

The dragon's emotions changed again. As Sloan's grief rose, he started to feel something from the creature – something he had not had from anyone in years.

Sympathy.

Even as Sloan continued, telling of how he had betrayed his whole village to the Ra'zac in an attempt to protect his daughter, the dragon's feelings did not change. There was no anger from it, no condemnation or judgement. The dragon only listened, and shared its feeling of gentle compassion, and for the first time Sloan began to see that he had found something here that he had never expected to find: someone who understood. The rest of Carvahall, the people he had grown up with, would condemn him forever for what he had done. Eragon had cursed him for it. Even Katrina might never forgive him. But this dragon – this little, voiceless dragon – could feel what he felt, and silently accepted it.

When Sloan reached the part of his story where Eragon had cursed him, his anger rose. He knew the dragon could feel it, and the creature's own feelings reflected the fact. Sympathy became coloured with anger in return, and that only fuelled Sloan's own rage at the injustice of what had been done to him.

'I know what I did was wrong!' he raged. 'How could I not? The Ra'zac used me as their plaything. They pecked out my eyes, tore my back open and licked up the blood – they told me Katrina was dead or driven mad. They left me in the dark, starving to death, thinking I'd brought my own daughter to her death. I had all the time I needed to see my mistakes for what they were. But I got no chance to admit it, or try and make amends. No, that Eragon, he… he had to punish me further. He sat himself in judgement over me, and what gave him that right? His dragon? His magic? That mark on his hand?' Sloan spat.

The dragon came closer, resting a paw on his leg. Anger and empathy radiated from its mind into his, and despite Sloan's own rage he felt a great relief. Finally someone was listening to him. Not arrogant, condescending elves, not his own reflection in the river, but someone else – someone who didn't even need to speak.

'Anyway,' he muttered at last. 'That's why I was there in Ellesmera. And that's why I wanted you to go. I don't want to be a Rider, because then I'd be like him. Why would I want that? And being trained by him – I would rather die. You hear me, dragon? I would sooner die. I don't care if he killed the King; he's a monster.'

The dragon crooned softly.

Tentatively, Sloan reached down and touched its head. 'We don't have to be like them, though, do we?' he said. 'Eh? Maybe I've got you now, but I won't curse anyone. I should be thanking you,' he added. 'You gave me magic. Maybe I can use it.'

The dragon pressed its head against Sloan's palm, like a cat. Sloan scratched it behind the stubby horns, admiring the way the starlight glittered on its silver scales.

'You gave me magic,' he said again, musing now. 'I should try and use it.'

But what should his first spell be? He may not have had any training, but he did know a couple of things about magic. He'd seen the elves using it. By the look of it, all you had to do was say things in the Ancient Language and that would make something happen. He didn't know enough of it to try and remove his curse yet, but maybe he could try something smaller to begin with. Lighting a fire, for example.

Sloan got up and went to gather some wood. Luckily there were a few dry branches lying around in the clearing; he collected some of those and built himself a fireplace on a patch of bare earth. Once he was satisfied, he sat back down on the log and considered what to do next. What was the word for "fire"?

Oh, yes.

Sloan pointed his marked hand at the heap of wood, cleared his throat, and said 'Brisingr!'

A rush of energy went through him, and a burst of silvery light shot from his palm. It hit the wood, which immediately burst into flame. Silver flame, which established itself almost at once and then settled down into a steady burn.

Sloan laughed in disbelief. 'Magic!'

The dragon hopped down off the log and padded over to the fire, peering at it with interest.

Sloan looked at his hand, marvelling. He'd done it! He'd cast a spell! And without any training at all. He could make fire whenever he wanted to, all with a word. And maybe, if it was that simple, all he had to do was learn more of the Ancient Language and he would have all he needed to remove his curse.

Triumphant, he stretched out his hands to warm them over the fire and looked at the dragon. The little creature had curled itself up beside the flames, warming itself like a dog.

'You should have a name,' said Sloan. 'Wish I knew if you were male or female.' He paused to think it over. 'I'll call you Silver,' he said. 'That's a name for male or female. Like it?'

The dragon looked up at him, and he felt its approval.

'Yes, then,' he said. 'Silver.' He yawned. 'Well I'm going to sleep, Silver. I'm an old man, and we have a long way to go to get out of this damned forest.'

It took Sloan about a week to walk out of Ellesmera, but at least nobody appeared to try and stop him. He and Silver travelled together, following the river, and during that time Sloan continued to experiment with his magic. He used it to light a fire every night, but he tried other spells as well, weaving them together with his limited vocabulary. In time he worked out how to lift objects by saying "rise" in the Ancient Language, how to reveal if a plant was edible or not, and even how to make firewood by breaking branches with a couple of words.

Food was still an issue despite his new ability to reveal edible plants, but that was where Silver came into his own (for the time being Sloan had decided to assume his partner was male). On their second night together Silver had gone on ahead, and shortly after Sloan stopped to make camp the dragon came back carrying a freshly killed duck. Sloan hadn't forgotten any of his skills as a butcher, and he plucked, gutted and spitted the carcass with practised ease while Silver watched with interest. Sloan gave him the wings and legs and ate the rest himself – he might be more energetic these days, but all the exercise had given him a big appetite. It was the first meat he'd eaten since coming to Ellesmera, and he savoured it.

After that Silver brought him other animals he must have hunted, and Sloan shared the meat with the little dragon, who was already growing noticeably. Sloan wasn't sure how long it would take him to reach maturity, but probably not long considering how quickly Saphira had become large enough to ride. Sloan was still reluctant over the idea of riding Silver, and aware that once he grew up he'd be much harder to hide. They would have to come up with something.

Even so, Sloan did not resent the dragon's presence any more. He tried to, once or twice, reminding himself of what dragon Riders were like and what he himself could become as a result of his bond with Silver. But he couldn't help it. Sharing Silver's emotions, walking each day with the dragon perched on his shoulder or scurrying on ahead, he couldn't stop himself from becoming attached to the creature. Silver was… he was a friend. And after so many years alone, Sloan felt only gratitude for it.

At last the edge of the forest came in sight, and Sloan strode out from between the trees and onto open plain. The river flowed on ahead, and he could see what looked like a settlement not too far ahead.

'We made it,' he told Silver, who was currently perched on his shoulders – both shoulders, since by now he was too big for just one.

Silver opened his wings partway and raised his tail, sharing his sense of excitement and trepidation.

'You have to stay hidden now,' said Sloan. 'If anyone sees you…'

Silver shared a feeling of resignation – he understood. Then, as if he had planned it beforehand – which he probably had – he climbed down Sloan's front and into his robe, wrapping himself around the small of Sloan's back where he wouldn't make too much of a bulge. Sloan winced at the claws sticking onto his skin, but almost as soon as the pain registered Silver quickly adjusted his grip – no doubt he could feel Sloan's pain as well as his thoughts. After a moment the dragon's head poked out of the neck of Sloan's robe, looking out at the road ahead.

'Stay there,' Sloan told him, confident that he would.

Closer to, it quickly became clear that he had reached human lands. For one thing there were fields by the river here, and a proper road. Elves never farmed, and they didn't make roads either. He started to see farm houses, and people out in the sunshine, hard at work. They were the first other humans he had seen in a long while, and the sight of them gave him an unexpected pang of nostalgia. The land was flatter here than the mountainous country around Carvahall, but it still felt close enough to home – certainly closer than Ellesmera ever had.

As soon as they were close enough to be seen, Silver quickly pulled his head back inside Sloan's robe and stayed out of sight. Sloan felt the dragon's presence grow stronger in his mind; Silver was curious, but cautious. Sloan wondered if Silver could see what he was seeing – it would make sense if he could.

Most of the people along the way toward the village ahead ignored Sloan, but a couple of farmers working close to the roadside looked up from their planting and waved a quick hello. Sloan nodded back, glad to see them. Other humans at last! So straightforward compared to the elves. He almost expected to recognise some of them; to see faces from his old life. It was just as well that he didn't, of course.

He reached the village, walking at a steady pace he had acquired over the last week of travelling, a couple of rabbits Silver had caught hanging from his belt. The village itself was fairly large – a cluster of buildings around a dirt square, where a few chickens wandered about pecking at the ground. A blacksmith was at work in his shop, and some sheep milled about in a pen. It could have been any one of the hundreds of villages which dotted Alagaësia.

Sloan quickly spotted a fair-sized two-storey building whose sign bore a picture of a foaming tankard. A tavern – perfect. He could get himself a drink and see if he could get his bearings.

Inside the tavern was quiet enough; a few people sat around the tables drinking beer or eating lunch, and a middle-aged woman was serving behind the bar where a selection of mugs hung on hooks. It reminded him slightly of Morn's tavern back in Carvahall.

Silver shifted nervously inside his robe as he went up to the bar. 'Hello,' he said shortly.

The woman peered at him. 'What'll it be?' she asked, wiping her hands on her grubby apron.

Sloan unhooked the rabbits from his belt. 'Will you trade these for a beer?'

The woman inspected them. 'Sure,' she said. 'Where did you get them?'

'Caught them myself,' said Sloan.

'Hm.' The woman looked at him with interest. 'Haven't seen you before – where are you from?'

It had been such a long time since Sloan had talked to anyone except Silver that he had some trouble finding the words. 'Nowhere,' he said after a pause. 'My village burned in the war.'

'Ah.' The woman gave him a sympathetic look. 'You wouldn't be the only one. Here, let me get you a tankard.' She unhooked one from behind herself and filled it with beer from a barrel.

Sloan took it and went off to sit down at a table by himself. His first beer in years – it tasted perfect. He sipped gratefully, and listened in on the talk around him. None of it was very interesting, though; he only caught the odd snippet about anything going on outside the village itself, and most of it was old news. Not surprising – after all, the people here didn't have an ambassador riding back and forth with the latest information.

He looked at the people around him. They all looked like farmers, with only two exceptions. One was a man who could have been a travelling trader, and the other… the other one sat in a corner with several empty tankards in front of him. He wore slightly ragged black clothes and kept his eyes down, as if he didn't want anyone to look at him, and Sloan noticed that other people stayed away from him. Odd.

Sloan drank up and considered his next move while he idly looked around. But the next time he chanced to look at the man in black, the man's head suddenly lifted and he looked back. Their eyes met, and for a moment they stared at each other. The man's face was pale and angular, framed by long, curly black hair. A pointed chin-beard made his features even sharper, and his eyes were black as well – sly and glittering, fixed on Sloan's face.

Sloan felt a little jolt of fear from Silver, and he hastily looked away and drained his beer.

A few moments later, a second beer quietly slid over the table toward him. Sloan looked up and saw the strange black-eyed man. He was holding a beer of his own, and he sat down opposite Sloan and held it up. 'Cheers.'

Sloan took the beer. 'Thankyou,' he said cautiously, aware of Silver's nervous stirring.

'You're welcome,' said the man. His body was as thin as his face – lean and narrow-shouldered. He didn't look very strong, but there was something about him that made Sloan hesitant.

'I'm Sloan,' he said.

'Pleased to meet you,' said the man. He took a drink from his mug. 'And what brings you here, may I ask? You're obviously an outsider with that outfit.'

'I'm a traveller,' said Sloan.

The man raised an eyebrow. 'Oh yes? Then where have you travelled from? And where are you travelling to?'

'My home's destroyed,' said Sloan. 'Don't know where I'm going. How is it your business anyway?' he added, defensive under the man's stare.

The man only smiled – a strange, compelling smile. His eyes stayed fixed on Sloan's face, and after a moment something odd began to happen. All of Sloan's tension drained away, and a powerful calm replaced it. He felt a brief jolt of fear from Silver, but then that too was brushed aside and he began to hear a voice murmuring in his head.

'Be calm, Sloan,' it said. 'Everything is all right. I'm your friend. Your good friend. You can trust me.'

A wonderful peace soothed him, and he relaxed before the man's gaze. Why in the world had he been suspicious? This man was his friend, wasn't he?

Sloan smiled and nodded. 'It's good to see you,' he said.

'Of course it is,' said the man. 'It's good to see you too. Now tell me – where are you going? Where did you come from? That outfit looks elvish to me – did you come out of the forest?'

'Yes,' said Sloan, unable to stop himself.

'Do tell,' said the man, sitting back with a satisfied expression.

And Sloan told him everything. He couldn't help it. 'I'm from Carvahall, in Palencar Valley. I was cursed by Eragon the Rider and sent to live in Ellesmera, but then a dragon egg hatched for me, and…'

The man listened, calm at first, but the moment Sloan mentioned the egg he tensed. 'Wait – you're a Rider?'

'Yes – my dragon is hiding in my robe,' said Sloan, the words tumbling out of him as if he were drunk. 'I told him to keep out of sight.'

'But why?' said the man. 'Aren't you going to go away for your training?'

'No,' said Sloan. 'I hate him – Eragon. He cursed me. I would rather die than be his student, and I don't want to be like him. I just want my curse to be lifted, so I can see my daughter and grandchildren.'

'Well.' The man drained his beer and put the empty mug down. 'Well… it sounds like you need help.'

'I do,' said Sloan. 'I need someone to teach me how to lift the curse. Not him, and not any other Rider. But I don't know…'

The man smiled – a small, cunning smile. 'Perhaps I can help you,' he said.

Some of the numbing relaxation left Sloan's mind, and he sat up straighter. 'Can you teach me? Who are you?'

'You know who I am,' said the man. 'I'm your friend. But come on – you should come with me so we can talk in private. I have a room upstairs. Join me, won't you?'

Sloan stood up obediently, and followed him up the stairs behind the bar. As soon as they lost eye contact, Sloan's head began to clear and he could feel Silver's mind again. The dragon was afraid – horribly afraid. But why?

Still, Sloan couldn't stop himself from climbing the stairs and following the man through a cheap old door into a simple room. There was only one bed, a clothes chest, and a table with two chairs. The man closed the door behind them and muttered a word, and Sloan felt a tingle over his skin. Magic, he thought.

'Now,' said the man. 'Why don't you ask your dragon to show himself?'

Silver needed no prompting. He climbed out of Sloan's robe and back onto his shoulders, tail and wings raised. He hissed at the stranger.

The stranger only smiled. 'I'll be damned,' he said. 'You truly are a Rider.' He fixed his gaze on Silver's eyes, and Sloan felt a sliver of panic from the dragon followed by sudden calmness. The stranger kept eye contact for a long moment, and then looked away. 'Silver, eh?' he said. 'A fitting name. Most Riders would have called him Silfr – it's the Ancient Language word for silver. But perhaps plain Silver is better. His colouring is most attractive, I must say. Once he learns how to fly, he'll blend in perfectly with a cloudy sky.'

The last of Sloan's confusion finally left him, and he straightened up. 'Who are you?' he demanded. 'How do you know all that?'

The man raised a long-fingered hand. 'Be still,' he said. 'Everything is fine. I won't hurt you. In fact I need your help. And you – you need mine.'

'And how can you help me?' said Sloan, reaching up to touch Silver.

'With my knowledge,' said the man. 'Now listen – this curse of yours can be lifted, but not by you. I can't lift it either. Only one person can take it away, and that's the one who cast it in the first place. In short, you need Eragon.'

Sloan's gut twisted. 'I can't go to him. I won't.'

'But you don't have to,' said the man. 'With my help, you can make him come to us.'

'Back to Alagaësia?' said Sloan.

'Yes,' said the man. 'I would do it myself, but only a Rider with a dragon can cast the spell to call him back to our shores. I can teach you that spell.'

'Then you're a magic weaver,' said Sloan. 'Why would you help me? What do you want in return?'

The man's smile widened. 'Why, I want them to come back as well – Eragon and Saphira. There's something I want from them. And with your help I can get it.'

'I won't do a thing to help you,' said Sloan, aware of Silver's growing fear. 'Not until you say who you are.'

'Oh. Yes.' The man straightened up. 'My name is Galbatorix. Pleased to meet you.'

Sloan tensed, and then relaxed and laughed incredulously. 'You're named after the King?'

'No, I am the King,' said Galbatorix. 'Or at least I was.'

Sloan's laughter instantly died. 'Don't be stupid; the King is dead! He died years ago! That whiny scug Eragon killed him.'

Now it was Galbatorix who laughed. 'Him? Kill me? Not likely. The man the Varden killed was an imposter. My finest spell-weaver. I set him up as a figurehead to protect myself, which was a mistake. Once he started playing about with Eldunari and got his hooks into Murtagh, he became powerful enough to lock me out of my own palace. I would have dealt with him myself, but I realised the much simpler option would be to go into hiding and let the Varden take care of him for me. I'm old enough and cunning enough to know when I'm beaten.'

Sloan held still, fists clenching. 'Prove it!'

'Fine.' Galbatorix looked him in the eye again, and a moment later a stream of images ran through Sloan's mind. He saw the man before him riding on a black dragon. Saw him killing an elf with a white sword, and leading thirteen other Riders. Saw him sitting on a throne. Saw him slinking away into the night, leaving another, stockier man to take his place. Saw him lurking here and there on the outskirts of Alagaësia's settlements, watching and waiting for his opportunity to come along. And now, here was Sloan – the chance Galbatorix had been looking for.

Sloan sagged as the images ceased. He looked up at Galbatorix with a mixture of hatred and fear. 'It's true. It really is you.'

'That's right.' Galbatorix chuckled. 'There's no need to look at me like that; I told you I'm not going to hurt you. You and I have a common enemy, don't we? But we both want something from him.'

'Why should I help you?' said Sloan. 'You were the ruler of Alagaësia; you sent those Ra'zac, you-,'

Galbatorix held up a hand. 'I did not send the Ra'zac. The imposter did that, and plenty more. I'll admit I made a mistake letting him take my place like that, but it hardly matters now – he's dead, and my time on the throne is over. Will you at least listen to my offer before you start throwing accusations about? I should add, just in case it becomes necessary for you to know, that I can kill you on the spot if I want to. But I don't want to. Now, shall we be rational?'

'Fine,' Sloan growled. 'Tell me what you want.'

'Better.' Galbatorix started to pace back and forth, hands behind his back. 'I'm not going to fool myself,' he said. 'My life here in Alagaësia is done. I've lost my Empire, and most of my power. My partner Shurikan is dead. My family and friends – all gone. There's nothing left for me here. I only have one hope left, and that's Eragon. There is a spell, you see – a spell which only he has enough power to cast. That spell will open… a door, if you like. A door which leads to another reality.' Galbatorix's voice became almost dreamy as he stopped pacing and stared up at the ceiling. 'A new world, completely separate from this one. There, I shall be reborn. A new life, far away from here. So you see,' he added, turning to face Sloan again, 'It's in your interests to help me do this. Once I pass through the portal I'll never be able to return to Alagaësia. I'll never threaten you or yours ever again.'

Sloan paused. In his head, Silver shared a feeling of cautious interest.

'Fine,' said Sloan. 'How do we do it?'

'That's simple,' said Galbatorix, smile returning. 'You and I will combine forces to send a message to Eragon – a vision, if you like, which will tell him that I'm still alive. The moment he receives it he'll come flying back here to deal with me. When he and Saphira arrive, you will meet them. Tell them that, in exchange for lifting your curse, you'll not only lead them to me but also teach them the one spell that can still kill me. That spell will be the one that opens the portal. Once they get to me and cast it, I'll step through and be gone for good. That way both of us will get what we want.'

'But what happens to us after that?' said Sloan. 'Eragon cursed me for betraying Carvahall – if I betray him…'

'But you won't have betrayed him, will you?' said Galbatorix. 'You'll have given him a spell which will send me away for good, and he'll see it work. If he complains you can always say you were mistaken; by all accounts he's stupid enough to fall for it. Now, what do you say?'

Sloan chewed on his knuckle. 'How could I trust you? You're, well… you're…'

'I'll admit I'm not the nicest man in the world,' said Galbatorix. 'But I'm no worse than you, and I'm certainly no worse than him. How many times did I send you off to live in exile and take away the one thing that made your life worth living? How many times did I torment you, or anyone else you cared about for that matter? For gods' sakes, I ruled over Alagaësia for over a century and the worst thing I did was fight back when the Varden started attacking my men. Plenty of people rebelled against Queen Nasuada – did you see her lie down and take it? No, I didn't think so. But if you're still not convinced, I'm prepared to swear to it in the Ancient Language.'

'Fine,' said Sloan. 'Swear it.'

Galbatorix nodded. Switching to the Ancient Language he said; 'I swear that I, Galbatorix, have told the truth and will not betray you.'

Hearing that, even Silver calmed down. Maybe, he seemed to be thinking, maybe this would be all right.

'Satisfied?' asked Galbatorix.

Sloan nodded jerkily. 'I'll do it.'

'Wonderful.' Galbatorix gave an elegant bow. 'Let's get started then. We'll travel toward Teirm. Silver should grow to maturity along the way – he needs to be fully grown before we can cast the spell. I can teach you some things during the journey; some useful spells and other things. But for now I'll hire the other room for you, and we can both get some sleep.'

The next day, Sloan's journey began again. Galbatorix already had a horse, and he bought a second one for Sloan, and the two of them rode off toward the coast. Almost immediately, Galbatorix started his lessons – but they didn't feel much like lessons at all. Instead the former King merely talked, telling Sloan stories about Rider lore. Sloan still didn't want to trust him, but his talk was so fascinating that he couldn't help but relax and listen to it, only half aware than he was learning anything. Silver was still wary as well, but he too seemed to have accepted that Galbatorix wasn't a threat.

As for Sloan, now that he had accepted his new companion's identity he had plenty of questions to ask, and he asked the most obvious one first. 'You were a Rider,' he said. 'Why'd you kill all the others?'

Galbatorix gave him a look. 'Think that question over, Sloan. I think the answer will come to you by itself in time. But if it doesn't, ask me again.'

Sloan muttered irritably to himself – that sounded like an elvish answer to him; weaselly and self-satisfied. 'Why'd you run away, then?' he went on. 'Why not come out and fight Eragon before he left?'

'Because I knew it was a lost cause by then,' said Galbatorix. 'I'd lost Shurikan, and without him I'm far less powerful than before. Your magic comes from your dragon, you see. And really, who could possibly stand up to Eragon now? He has the Eldunari; before he left he was the most powerful entity in Alagaësia. I only have one advantage over him.' Galbatorix gave that sly smile. 'I'm smarter than him. Which is why you and I will have to rely on trickery to defeat him. But tell me – what do you plan to do when this is over? Once your curse has been lifted – what then?'

'I'm going to go to Katrina,' Sloan said immediately.

'And then?' said Galbatorix. 'What will you do after that? You're a Rider now, you know; you'll live forever. That's a lot of time to fill.'

'I don't know,' said Sloan. 'Don't care either.'

'Well you'll figure something out, no doubt,' said Galbatorix. 'Once Silver is old enough to talk I'm sure he'll help you.'

'When will that be?' asked Sloan.

'Soon, I think,' said Galbatorix. 'Do let me know, won't you?'

'Sure,' Sloan grunted.

They rode on for several uneventful weeks, staying in inns along the way. During this time Galbatorix taught Sloan a few different spells, most of them simple enough, and helped him learn more of the Ancient Language. He offered to teach Sloan some swordplay as well, but Sloan said no to that.

'My knives are all I need,' he said.

'Fair enough,' Galbatorix shrugged. 'With a proper control of magic, conventional weapons aren't much use. I've often thought the old Riders carried those swords for show as much as anything.'

With the war over the countryside was peaceful, and nobody bothered them along the way. They saw elves, dwarves and the odd Urgal mingling freely with the human locals, and though there was the occasional sign of tension all was quiet. The only problem the two travellers faced was Silver. At first the dragon was small enough to hide in Sloan's robe and then in his saddle bag, but as predicted he grew at an incredible rate. Before long he was far too large to hide, and since he had now begun flying it seemed obvious to let him follow from a distance.

'Or,' said Galbatorix. 'I have another suggestion.'

'What's that, then?' asked Sloan, eyeing him cautiously. Silver watched from his hiding place under a hay rack in the stable where he had been forced to spend the night. Sloan sent him a feeling of reassurance and the dragon came out to join him. His scales had darkened by now, and the line of silver along his back glittered like a fish's.

'I can cast an illusion on him,' said Galbatorix. 'It's a simple enough spell, but it will make everyone except us who looks at him see a dog. That way he can ride with you and no-one will notice anything odd.'

Sloan blinked. 'Huh,' was all he could think of to say.

'Well, and what do you think?' Galbatorix pressed. 'More importantly, what does Silver think?'

Sloan looked at the dragon. Silver looked back, head on one side.

'D'you want to have an illusion to make you look like a dog?' Sloan thought.

'Will it hurt?'

Sloan started. 'What was that?'

Silver came closer, tail waving. 'Me, Silver,' said the voice in Sloan's head.

Galbatorix watched with interest. He said nothing, but then his voice sounded in Sloan's mind as well. 'Mind if I join the conversation?'

Silver's head turned to look at the former King. 'Keep away from us,' his silent voice hissed. 'Your mind tastes foul.'

'Now that's just rude,' said Galbatorix's mental voice, but his presence withdrew.

Sloan squinted, and concentrated on speaking with his mind. 'You're talking, Silver?'

'Yes,' said Silver. His voice was indeed male; light and young-sounding, but not like a child's voice.

'Oh.' Sloan managed.

Silver's tail thumped on the floor. 'You don't talk much.'

'Never have,' said Sloan. His mental speech had begun to come more easily now, but it was awkward, thinking words like this.

'Well you don't have to,' said Silver. 'Not with me. I know what you're feeling, always. I know everything about you.'

Sloan slowly scratched his bald patch. 'Do you want Galbatorix to put a spell on you so you look like a dog?'

'No,' said Silver. 'I want you to do it. Make him teach you the spell.'

'All right.' Sloan turned to Galbatorix. 'Teach me how to cast it,' he said. 'The illusion thing.'

'Certainly,' said Galbatorix. 'Listen carefully.' He recited a string of words in the Ancient Language. Sloan listened closely, repeating them several times until he had them memorised. When he was ready he summoned up his magic as he had learned to do, held his marked hand out over Silver's head, and cast the spell.

Nothing much happened. Sloan felt the energy leave him, and the air around Silver shimmered. Silver turned on the spot, looking at himself. 'I still look like a dragon.'

Sloan looked at Galbatorix. 'Did it work?'

'Probably,' said Galbatorix. 'Let's go outside and see how people react.'

'But what if it didn't work?'

Galbatorix grinned. 'Not to worry – if anyone sees the real Silver, we'll just have to kill them.'

Sloan started. 'What?'

'Relax, I'm joking,' said Galbatorix. 'If anyone sees him, we shall just have to beat a hasty retreat. Now let's go.' He strode off out of the stable. Sloan paused, shrugged, and followed. Silver stuck close to his side, blinking as they emerged into the daylight outside.

Not far from the stable entrance, the woman who owned the place was at work repairing a fence. She looked up as the travellers appeared, and her eyes immediately went to Silver. She stood up sharply. 'What are you two doing?' she demanded.

Instinctively, Sloan moved to put himself between her and Silver. 'Leave him alone.'

'Oh, so that's your dog, is it?' said the woman, calming down slightly. 'What were you doing, letting it into the stable? Get that thing out of here, right now!'

Sloan suppressed a sigh of relief. 'Sorry,' he grunted. 'We're leaving now anyway.'

'Fine,' said the woman. 'But if you come back here and I catch you letting your dog sleep in my stable without permission…'

'We won't be back,' said Galbatorix, cutting her off. 'Now kindly bring our horses out for us and we'll be on our way.'

The woman walked off into the stable, muttering under her breath.

'It would seem your spell worked,' Galbatorix said coolly. 'Well done. In time you could become quite an accomplished spellcaster.'

'I don't want to be,' said Sloan. 'Curse magic – it's brought me nothing but trouble.'

'But it seems to be doing you plenty of favours now,' said Galbatorix. 'Eh? Anyway, the illusion should last until you remove it, and that's one less problem for us to worry about.'

Silver looked up at Sloan, eyes shining. 'You did well. Now we can travel freely and be untroubled.'

Sloan couldn't help but share a feeling of pleasure. 'Aye, we should be fine now,' he admitted.

The stable owner brought the horses out, saddled and ready to go, and Sloan and Galbatorix rode off with Silver perched on the back of Sloan's horse, just in front of him. Sure enough the illusion held; passers-by either ignored them or looked amused.

After this the had no more troubles – as long as Silver took care not to fly when anyone was around, nobody looked twice at him. He must however have begun to look like a very large dog indeed, since he continued to grow at a rapid pace as Teirm grew steadily closer. By the time the city was within striking distance the dragon had grown larger than the horses, and Sloan was forced to replace the dog illusion with a new one which simply made him invisible. Once again, Galbatorix taught him the spell.

'Why didn't we just make him invisible from the start?' Sloan complained.

Galbatorix offered up yet another one of his sly smiles. 'That would have been a lot less fun. Anyway, as long as people could still see him in some form you could still touch him.'

Silver, walking alongside them at the edge of the road, arched his neck to look down on them both. 'And now you know two useful spells,' he said.

'Now then,' Galbatorix went on. 'I think the time has come. Silver should be strong enough now, and Teirm is only a day or two away. Tonight we should send our message to Eragon.'

Nervousness twinged in Sloan's heart, but he pushed it aside. 'Fine,' he said.

'Then I shall teach you the spell now,' said Galbatorix. 'It's simple enough – basically, it's a form of reverse scrying.'

Sloan had no idea what the man was talking about, but he nodded anyway. 'Tell me the words.'

'Of course,' said Galbatorix. 'Listen carefully, and repeat after me…'

That night they made camp at a spot well away from the road, in a copse of trees close to some farmland. The spot was isolated enough to satisfy Galbatorix, who found them a clearing surrounded by birch trees. There they tethered the horses at a safe distance, and Sloan watched while Galbatorix wandered around, searching the area until he found a backdrop that seemed to satisfy him – a cluster of trees which stood close together.

'Now then,' he said. 'Before we begin, a little enhancement…' He turned away from Sloan and began to mutter a string of words in the Ancient Language. Sloan felt the tingle of magic, and Silver stirred uneasily as the ground around Galbatorix began to change. The trees shimmered and then disappeared, to be replaced by what looked like a farmhouse. It was on fire, flames licking around the eaves and windows, but Sloan felt no heat. Piece by piece, other things added themselves to the illusion. Bodies faded into view; slaughtered men, women and children lying on the suddenly bloodstained earth. Broken weapons appeared as well, scattered between them. Behind the farmhouse other buildings appeared, all also burning, and the sky turned red and smoky.

Galbatorix stood back, inspecting the images he had conjured up. He nodded to himself, then turned to Sloan. 'Lend me one of your knives, would you?'

Sloan drew one from his belt and passed it over, trying not to look at the bodies at their feet. Even though he knew they were nothing more than illusions, they looked so real that the sight of them made the bile rise in his throat. Unwelcome memories stirred in his mind, and his old injuries twinged. Nearby Silver, sensing his partner's feelings, sent back a feeling of sympathy and anger.

Galbatorix, completely unflustered, took the knife and rolled back his sleeves. Quickly, and without any hesitation, he pressed the blade against his palm and slashed it open. The wound began to bleed freely, and he inflicted a matching cut on the other hand. Tossing the knife aside, he rubbed his hands together, spreading the blood up his arms.

'What are you doing?' Sloan managed.

'Got to make it look convincing,' said Galbatorix. He frowned thoughtfully, then wiped one hand over his forehead, leaving a red smear. 'There, that should do it,' he said. 'Now, just look directly at me – both of you – and cast the spell.'

Obediently, Sloan looked straight at Galbatorix. The former King positioned himself directly in front of the illusory village, and tilted his head forward, smiling a horrible, sinister smile back at Sloan and Silver. His eyes glittered with evil satisfaction, and a cold shiver went through Sloan. But a quick mental nudge from Silver reminded him of what he was supposed to do, and he recited the words in the Ancient Language – '"May the sights and sounds which we observe now be sent to Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Brightscales".'

He felt the energy rush out of him as he stood there, and the strangest sensation gripped him, as if he were suddenly falling backward. He had the sense of something else leaving him along with his magic; something flowing away, through the back of his head and off to some distant place. Silver shared the feeling, but neither of them moved.

In front of their staring eyes, Galbatorix began to speak. 'Greetings, Shadeslayer,' he said, voice smug and vicious. 'Do you know me? But of course you don't – we've never met face to face. But you know my name.' A horrible smile spread over his pale face. 'My name is Galbatorix,' he said, speaking the Ancient Language. 'Your rightful King. I know you think you killed me, but you were wrong. Did you honestly think it would be that easy? That after so many years on the throne I would be unprepared for self-righteous challengers like you? Rest assured, I had plenty of time to think up at least a dozen ways to outwit you. Now it seems I have. I waited until you were gone, and now… now I'm free to take my revenge on your pathetic friends.' Galbatorix laughed evilly. 'Will you return, Shadeslayer? Are you truly brave and stupid enough to think you can challenge the real Galbatorix? No, I doubt it. But rest assured – your followers will pay for your treason. Already your cousin Roran lies dead. Once I'd finished with him I went to Ellesmera for you darling elf, Arya. They, and your friend Nasuada, have all paid the price for treason. Not even you, with all your powers, could have had a chance at stopping me.' Galbatorix laughed again – a horrible, discordant, soulless laugh, and walked away toward the illusory village.

Sloan muttered a word to end the spell, and gently sagged. His hands were shaking. Beside him Silver's head drooped and his tail waved rapidly from side to side. Neither of them could look away from Galbatorix. But, as soon as the spell ended, their companion's demeanour completely changed. He straightened up and recited a quick spell, and the burning village instantly disappeared – fading away back into the ordinary trees of the forest.

Galbatorix turned back, looking slightly drained. 'How was that?' he asked. 'Did I overdo it? Ah, who cares?' he added before Sloan could answer. 'I doubt either of them would have been expecting much in the way of subtlety. But well done. The message has been sent. Even now our little friend will probably be sitting bolt upright and screaming "no!" or some such thing. Melodrama,' he sighed.

'That was terrible,' said Silver, speaking to both of them. 'The things you said…'

'It was just a little acting,' said Galbatorix. 'Would you rather it was real? I know a lot more than just seven words of death, you know.'

Once again Sloan had no idea what the man was talking about. 'It should bring them back,' he said instead.

'Yes indeed,' said Galbatorix. 'Now all we have to do is ride on to Teirm. When we get there I'll wait outside the city – there's always the chance that someone will recognise me. You and Silver can go in and wait by the water front. I can stay in touch with you if you'll let me into your mind – I'll speak to you the way Silver does. Either way, when Eragon and Saphira arrive, you can lead them straight to me.'

'Right,' said Sloan. He went to retrieve his knife. 'Why don't you want to kill them all?' he asked as he wiped the blood off it. 'If you could do it?'

Galbatorix shrugged. 'It's tempting, but I can't see much point in it. I'm done here. But rest assured, you'll be rewarded for helping me.' His sly smile returned, and his black eyes glittered. 'Both of you. Yes, very well rewarded.'

The next day, while the two of them were riding along the road, Silver came down to land beside Sloan's horse. Still invisible, the dragon walked alongside him and arched his neck so he could look directly at his rider. 'Sloan.'

Sloan looked up at him. 'Hello.'

Silver's mind felt troubled. 'You are a dragon Rider now,' he said.

'I suppose,' said Sloan.

'Yet you are still riding that horse,' said Silver. He growled softly. 'I think I have the strength to carry you now – why don't you climb onto my back instead? I can fly… everything looks so perfect from above. You should share it with me.'

Sloan tensed immediately. 'No.'

'You're afraid,' said Silver, eyes bright.

'I'm not,' Sloan snapped back. 'I just don't want to do it.'

'I won't let you fall,' said Silver. 'I promise.'

'Your scales are too rough.'

'Then protect yourself with magic,' said Silver.

'I don't know how,' Sloan said feebly.

'It should be simple enough,' said Silver. 'You know enough of the Ancient Language. Try it.'

'No,' Sloan said again.

'Then admit you're afraid,' said Silver. 'There's no other reason for this.'

Sloan hesitated, trying to think of some argument, but Silver sent him a feeling of such profound compassion and trust that he felt his fears start to fade. 'All right,' he said at last.

Flying for the first time was not as frightening or perilous as Sloan had expected it to be, but he still didn't enjoy it much. Having cast a spell to protect his legs from the dragon's scales, he climbed onto Silver's back and wrapped his arms around his neck to hold himself on. Silver took off carefully, but the motion still came close to throwing Sloan off. He hung on, a trifle desperately, and Silver must have sensed his panic, because he levelled out when they were barely above the treeline. After that the rush of the wind lessened and the dragon's wings beat less violently, but Sloan didn't feel much better. He didn't slacken his grip in the slightest, and kept his eyes closed.

'You're safe,' Silver said soothingly. 'Do you trust me?'

'Yes,' said Sloan, surprised by how easily the answer came to him. 'I trust you.'

'Then relax,' said Silver.

Slowly, Sloan relaxed. He opened his eyes. Beyond the glimmering surface of the metallic stripe on Silver's neck, he could see the landscape he had been riding through, all laid out below him like a blanket of fields and forests. The last time he had seen the world like that, he had been in the claws of the Lethrblaka.

'But this is not like that,' said Silver.

'No…' Sloan felt the dragon's confidence move through him, and his fear slowly faded. Silver wasn't afraid up here, so why should he be?

'You have no need to fear,' said Silver, sensing his thoughts. 'All is well.'

But Sloan had already felt the dragon's own emotions. 'No it isn't.'

'No,' Silver admitted. He beat his grey wings slowly, neck and tail outstretched.

'What's wrong?' Sloan asked.

'Galbatorix,' said Silver. 'I don't trust him.'

'I know,' said Sloan. 'But he's on our side…'

'No he isn't,' said Silver. 'He's on his own side and we both know it.'

'But he's helping us!' said Sloan. 'Anyway… you heard what he said. He wants to leave Alagaësia. If we help him do this, he won't ever trouble us or anyone else again. And he told us in the Ancient Language – promised he was telling the truth.'

'Even so,' said Silver. 'I tasted his mind – it was full of selfishness and cruelty. I think he's using us.'

'Then what do we do?'

Silver shared a feeling of uncertainty. 'Keep a close eye on him.'

'I will,' Sloan promised. But both of them shared the same thought – what could they really do to stop Galbatorix if they ever needed to? Sloan felt nearly helpless in the face of his travelling companion, with his sly eyes and cunning words, and Silver's feeling echoed his own. But what could they do? Galbatorix's plan was the only way to remove Eragon's curse. In the face of that, Sloan would do anything he had to.

'Anything?' Silver pressed.

'Yes.' Sloan shared a feeling of steely determination. 'I would kill for it.'

'I know,' said Silver. 'Sloan, I know.'

After this Sloan and Silver flew together several more times, forcing Galbatorix to catch up with them in the evenings. After a few flights Sloan lost his fear, and even started to enjoy it. Being up so high, with Silver, sharing the dragon's thoughts and feelings, and with a feeling of his own – that soaring sensation in his stomach, the lightness in his head – it was unlike anything he had ever known before. Away from Galbatorix, he could enjoy his partner's company, and though he kept trying to resist it, perhaps out of sheer bitterness, he knew just how much Silver had changed his life. No matter what happened from now on, he would never be alone again. His troubles would never belong just to him. Silver would always be there to share them, to understand them, to offer his quiet understanding and sympathy. It wasn't enough to heal the wound which losing Katrina had inflicted, but it still soothed him and helped to prepare him for whatever might happen in Teirm.

Sloan and Silver were the first to see the city, from the air of course. It sat on the coast, dominating a large bay, walled on its inner side. From the height they were at Sloan and Silver could both see the ships moored in the harbour. Closer to, cliffs overlooked the city, and Silver came down to land there. Sloan dismounted, and the two of them looked down on the city.

'It's bigger than I thought it would be,' Silver remarked.

Sloan had never seen a big city before. He slowly scratched his bald patch, trying and failing to take in Teirm's sheer size. 'How many people could live in a place like that?' he wondered.

'I don't know,' said Silver. 'I wish I could go in there with you.'

'You can,' said Sloan. 'I won't go in by myself – come with me. Fly above me.'

'I will,' said Silver.

The two of them stood looking down on Teirm and talking in the privacy of their minds for some hours, until Galbatorix finally arrived. He rode to the base of the cliffs, still leading Sloan's mount, and Silver helped Sloan down to meet him.

Galbatorix looked toward Teirm's walls with a satisfied expression. 'We made it,' he said. 'My birthplace.'

'You were born here?' Sloan said in surprise.

'So I was,' said Galbatorix. 'Home sweet home. I haven't been there in a long while, but you never do forget your first home, do you?'

Sloan thought of Carvahall. 'No,' he said quietly.

Galbatorix rubbed his hands together. 'Now then,' he said briskly. 'It's time. Are you ready?'

Sloan squared his shoulders. 'Yes. Are you going to camp here?'

Galbatorix looked around. He had left the road, and the horses were now grazing in a hollow at the bottom of the cliffs. There was plenty of space here, with just a few trees ringing the grass where Sloan and Galbatorix stood. Silver stayed on the clifftop, watching them both.

'Yes, this should do the trick,' Galbatorix said finally. 'I'll make myself comfortable here. I take it Silver is going to follow you into Teirm?'

Sloan nodded.

'Well then,' said Galbatorix. 'Don't let me hold you back. Good luck, and remember – if you ever need to contact me, just find me with your mind.' He tapped himself on the forehead.

'I will,' said Sloan, privately vowing that he would only do that if there was no other choice.

There didn't seem to be much else left to say, so he gave Galbatorix a nod, adjusted the hang of his knife belt, and walked off toward Teirm's gates. A short time later, Silver took off from the clifftop and followed him.

The city gates were open, and though there were guards posted outside it they let Sloan in without any questioning. His elvish clothing attracted a few curious glances, but there was no hostility. Nor had anyone noticed Silver as he flew over the city walls – the invisibility spell must still be holding.

Inside the city, Sloan looked around in undisguised amazement. He'd never seen so many other humans in one place. The city was nothing like Carvahall, and nothing like Ellesmera either. There were paved streets between the houses, which had tiled roofs rather than thatch. Their walls were brick rather than wood, and some even had glass windows, unlike anything he'd ever seen. And there were people everywhere. People, carts and horses, a flock of sheep being driven to market – he had to duck into an alley to avoid them – travelling traders, an entertainer telling stories on a corner, and a thousand and one other things.

Silver shared Sloan's astonishment. 'Did you ever imagine it would be like this?'

'Never,' said Sloan, glancing up as the dragon's shadow passed over him. He could hardly believe it either when no-one around him seemed to notice anything at all. But not one person looked up as Silver flew overhead. He, and his shadow, were invisible.

No-one paid much attention to Sloan, either, which was how he preferred it. As he got used to the noise and the bustle around him he slowed down into an easy stroll. He had some money which Galbatorix had given him, and he stopped at a baker's stall to buy himself a meat pastry. After years of being forced to eat nothing but dull vegetarian food, it was good to taste meat again – in this case, some very well spiced shredded pork.

Sloan leaned against one of the stall's supports while he ate, wanting to savour every bite, and idly listened to the people around him. It was only a short time later that he heard something which made him look up sharply.

'-Don't know what we're going to do now,' a woman was saying, with a note of sadness in her voice which immediately caught Sloan's attention. 'Everything was so much better under the King. Those rebels, they couldn't hold everything together. Look how long that Nasuada lasted.'

Sloan frowned to himself, and shuffled closer to listen. The woman, who was carrying a couple of pails of milk on a pole across her shoulders, had stopped to talk to a friend with a cart of apples.

'They'll sort something out,' said the apple seller. 'It's not our problem.'

'I'm just saying it didn't have to be like it is,' said the woman with the milk. 'If they'd just left well enough alone, none of this…'

Sloan was on the point of asking them what they were talking about, but at this point the pair of them moved off into the crowd, still chatting, and left him behind. He paused, shrugged, and walked on toward the docks. What did he care about politics?

'But it sounds as if something bad has happened,' said Silver. 'You should find out.'

'Not my problem,' Sloan said shortly.

Not far from the docks, however, he noticed something else which made him pause. There were shops along the street he had chosen to follow, belonging to various tradespeople, and one of them looked far more crowded than the rest. Dozens of people could be seen milling around inside, and more had gathered out the front. They clustered together in little groups, all talking in hushed voices beneath a hanging sign in the shape of an anvil.

Puzzled, Sloan slowed down as he passed by – what in the world were they doing? He might have been tempted to stop and ask, but he didn't want to draw attention to himself, even after he had caught the sound of sobbing from somewhere among the crowd.

As Sloan skirted around them, a small girl wandered out from between the adults and stopped to look curiously at him.

'Who are you?'

Sloan glanced at the child. She was an adorable creature, with a sweet, freckled face and slightly curly brown hair. She reminded him so much of Katrina as she stood there guilelessly staring at him that he couldn't resist answering her.

'I'm Sloan,' he said. 'Who are you?'

'I'm Hope,' said the girl.

The hint of a smile tugged at the corner of Sloan's mouth. 'Hope, are you?'

'Yes,' said the girl. 'I was born in the war. Where are you from? Your clothes are funny.'

'What's all that about?' Sloan asked, gesturing at the hushed gathering.

Hope looked solemn. 'One of Daddy's friends died,' she said. 'Everyone's really sad.'

'Losing people is sad,' Sloan admitted. 'I had friends and family once – not any more. If I died, no-one would care,' he added with some bitterness. 'Most people think I died years ago.'

'That's so sad!' said Hope. 'Why is that?'

'I did something very bad,' said Sloan. 'Made everyone hate me.'

'Why did you do that?'

'I thought it was the only way to save someone I loved,' said Sloan. He shook his head slowly and turned away – he was sick of talking about this.

Hope took the hint. Someone called her name from inside the blacksmith's shop, and she hurried off back into the crowd, leaving Sloan to go on his way.

'She was sweet,' said Silver.

'Aye,' said Sloan. 'So much like Katrina when she was little.'

'I know,' said Silver. 'I'm at the docks now – come and meet me there.'

Sloan walked on, a little faster now – but he'd hardly gone any distance at all before a shout came from behind him. 'Hey – hey you! Stop!'

Sloan stopped and looked back over his shoulder. 'What do you-?' he started to say, but then his heart froze. 'You!'

The man who had stopped him stared in disbelief. 'You!' he echoed.

Sloan started to panic – but the faint pulse of magic in his veins calmed him. He could defend himself if he had to. 'Hello, Horst,' he grunted.

Horst the blacksmith looked dumbfounded. 'Sloan,' he said. 'Everyone thought you were dead.'

'Not that anyone would care,' said Sloan.

Horst's expression darkened. 'You deserve to die after what you did,' he said. Behind him others had begun to arrive – Horst's wife Elain, Morn the tavern owner, and Horst's son Balder, now a burly young man. All of them were looking at Sloan with disbelief which quickly turned into anger.

'Sloan!' several voices exclaimed. 'It's Sloan the traitor!'

Sloan spat. 'You're the traitors. If you'd just kept out of the Empire's business none of it would have happened. Letting that young fool Roran-,'

'Don't you dare say anything about him!' Elain shouted. 'For all we know you were the one…'

Horst swore under his breath. 'It was you, wasn't it? You're the one who murdered Roran.'

Sloan's anger vanished immediately. 'What? Did you say-?'

'Aye, Roran's dead,' Horst said bitterly. 'Murdered in his own castle, just like Queen Nasuada.'

'The Queen is dead?' said Sloan, his shock matching Silver's. His stomach churned. 'Katrina,' he said urgently. 'Where is she? Is she safe? And her children?'

Horst's anger softened slightly. 'She's fine,' he said. 'On her way here to Teirm, I think.'

Sloan took a slow, deep breath. Katrina was alive. He was surprised to find he was sad to know Roran was dead; the two of them had never been close, but the boy had loved Katrina and he had been good to her. It had been a small comfort to Sloan, knowing that Roran was there to take care of his daughter. And now he was dead.

'Murdered,' Sloan muttered.

'Aye, and who's to say it wasn't you?' said Balder. 'You murdered Byrd.'

'He attacked me first,' said Sloan.

'You betrayed us to the Empire,' said Horst.

'I made a mistake,' said Sloan. 'I didn't do anything to Roran, or the Queen – I never even knew they were dead. I was in exile all this time; it's nothing to do with me.'

'So you say,' Morn spat. 'I wouldn't believe a word you said.'

Sloan hesitated, torn between trying to argue with them and simply running away. But then Silver spoke. 'Tell them the truth,' he said. 'Tell them Galbatorix did it. Tell them about Eragon and Saphira.'

'Galbatorix didn't kill them,' said Sloan. 'Or…'

Or had he?

Sloan's stomach twisted. Could it be that Galbatorix had been lying to him all this time? That before he found and recruited Sloan, he had already been to Roran's castle and killed him – and Nasuada as well?

'It doesn't matter,' said Silver. 'Tell them he did it. Quickly!'

Sloan's former neighbours were starting to advance on him, and Balder was even fingering the knife in his belt. If Sloan didn't do something, he could very well be attacked.

'I know who did it,' he said.

They paused. 'Who?' asked Horst. 'What do you know?'

'It was Galbatorix,' said Sloan. 'He's alive.'

Elain and Morn both laughed derisively.

'It's true!' said Sloan. 'I saw him myself. That's why I'm here. I came to meet the only one who can stop him.'

'We came,' Silver corrected him.

'Aye,' Sloan said aloud. 'We came.'

'What are you talking about?' said Horst.

All of Sloan's confidence had come back, bolstered by Silver's determination. 'Come with me, and I'll show you,' he said.

He walked off, and the former citizens of Carvahall followed at a distance. Down at the docks, Silver was sitting on disused pier, his silver stripe glittering. 'Let them see me,' he said.

Sloan went to him, already feeling safer, and muttered a few words which undid the illusion woven around the dragon. All Sloan saw was a faint shimmering over Silver's scales, but immediately afterward his followers cried out in amazement.

Standing just in front of Silver, Sloan turned and held up his hand – displaying the mark on his palm.

'You?' said Horst. 'You're a Rider?'

'Aye,' Sloan sneered at him. 'Crusty old Sloan got a dragon. You believe me now?'

Silver looked benignly down on them. 'They look like good people to me,' he said.

Sloan lost his sneer. 'Aye… they're good people,' he confessed. 'Fools, but good.'

'I don't believe it,' said Morn. 'Sloan, a Rider…?'

'Aye, I'm a Rider,' said Sloan. 'This is Silver. He hatched for me in Ellesmera.'

'Then why are you here?' said Elain. 'Why haven't you gone to Eragon?'

'Don't have to,' said Sloan. 'He's coming to me. Him and Saphira are coming back.'

They all gasped.

'But he said he was never going to come back,' said Horst. 'He said…'

'Aye, he said that,' said Sloan. 'But we sent him a message – he knows Galbatorix is alive. He and Saphira will come back to stop him. Only they can do it.' He paused. 'I know I was a traitor and a murderer; I know that, and Eragon punished me for it. I deserved it,' he added, the lie nearly catching in his throat. 'But this is more important than me. Silver and I came here to meet Eragon, so we can help him.'

'Well said,' said Silver.

His listeners seemed to agree – all of them, even Horst, nodded seriously.

'I'm glad,' the blacksmith said after a short pause. 'You were my neighbour once, Sloan. Maybe we were never friends, but I respected you. You should still be punished for what you did, but maybe you can redeem yourself.'

'Aye, I plan to try,' said Sloan, doing his best to sound humble.

'Eragon's coming back!' Baldor said excitedly. 'I can't wait to see him again! When will he get here, Sloan?'

'Don't know, but I'm going to wait here until he does,' said Sloan, and with that he sat down cross-legged beside Silver, facing the sea, and began his vigil without another word to any of them.

Hours passed. Word quickly spread through the city, and before long a large crowd had gathered to see the mysterious old man in elven robes and the grey and silver dragon beside him. Many of them were people Sloan remembered from Carvahall, but he refused to speak to them; Horst told them what was going on, and after that they kept their distance and waited just as Sloan was doing. Hope came too, and she ventured closest of all – she seemed to have taken a liking to him for some reason, though her father – Horst himself – stopped her from going too close.

As for Sloan, he paid almost no attention to any of them. He kept his eyes on the horizon – the new, sky blue eyes Eragon had given him, whose vision had not faded over the years. Silver saw further than him, and even shared something of what he was seeing, mostly just as a demonstration of his greater long-distance vision, since so far there was nothing to see but endless waves.

While they watched, they talked in the privacy of their heads. 'Do you think it was really him?' asked Silver. 'Did Galbatorix kill Roran and Nasuada?'

'Maybe,' Sloan shared his feeling of unease. 'There's no way to know.'

'We can always ask him,' said Silver. 'Remember he said we could talk to him through our minds.'

'But you don't want to do that,' said Sloan.

'Letting that man into my mind makes me feel sick and frightened,' said Silver. 'Who knows what he could do to us?'

'He didn't hurt us before,' said Sloan.

'I know…' Silver raised a wing. 'How badly do we want to know the truth? And would he tell us the truth if we asked him? I doubt it.'

While Sloan sat there, turning the problem over, he felt something probing at his mind – and Silver's. A third presence had touched them both, gently nudging as if asking for permission to be let in.

Not exactly certain of what he was doing, Sloan opened his mind toward it. 'What's that?'

'Who else could it be?' a voice answered. 'It's your friend Galbatorix. You weren't this nervous about letting me talk to you before.'

Sloan and Silver both tensed. 'Where are you?' Sloan demanded.

'Back where you left me,' said Galbatorix. 'And you?'

'Down at the docks,' said Sloan. 'Waiting.'

'Good, good,' said Galbatorix. 'But something's changed – I can feel your suspicion. Would you care to enlighten me?'

'Earl Roran and Queen Nasuada are dead,' Silver butted in. 'Murdered.'

'How awful,' said Galbatorix. 'I take it everyone is terribly upset.'

'Did you do it?' Sloan asked sharply.

'Why would I waste my time?' asked Galbatorix. 'I told you – I'm leaving. I have more important things to think of than acts of petty revenge. But what would you care? Your daughter isn't hurt.'

'How do you know that?' Silver asked immediately. 'If you weren't there…'

'Because if anything had happened to her, we wouldn't be having a nice civil conversation, would we?' said Galbatorix. 'The first thing you would have said would have been "did you kill my daughter, you monster?". Since you never even mentioned her, I take it she's fine.'

'Clever bastard,' Sloan said grudgingly.

'I do my best,' said Galbatorix. 'Listen,' he added. 'Those people were rebels. Usurpers. You know they made enemies – people have been trying to kill them repeatedly for the last five years. It should hardly be surprising that someone finally succeeded. Without Eragon to protect them, they were vulnerable. When he finds out what happened to them, he'll realise what a big mistake he made in leaving. I wouldn't be surprised if the guilt alone drove him mad.' He said that last part with some obvious and rather nasty satisfaction. 'Few things are as painful as knowing you failed a loved one – don't you agree, Sloan?'

'Aye…' Sloan could not hide his grief from Galbatorix.

'Well then, unless you want to fail Katrina when she needs you as badly as she does now, I suggest you keep to our plan,' said Galbatorix. 'Do you remember the words of the spell?'

'I do,' said Sloan, his determination hardening again.

'Then be ready,' said Galbatorix. 'It won't be long now.'

With that, his presence faded out of Sloan's mind and the real world came back into focus. The sun had all but sunk by now, and the horizon had turned pink and gold. And there, where the sky met the sea… there was a dot.

Silver had already spotted it. 'They're coming! I can see them!'

A quick flash of what the dragon could see appeared in Sloan's mind, and his heart thumped. Sure enough, there was the tiny shape of another dragon flying toward them from over the sea.

Sloan stood up. 'They're coming,' he said aloud.

The crowd stirred. Those who had stayed this long, who included all the former citizens of Carvahall now living in Teirm, stood up too. Many of them moved closer to the water's edge, holding up torches and lanterns in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their hero. But the oncoming shape of Saphira remained visible only to Silver for at least an hour after that, and the people gradually relaxed again, muttering amongst themselves in their disappointment.

Sloan, however, stayed on his feet. He kept his eyes fixed on the spot where he knew Saphira was, and he was the first of the humans to see her: a blue glimmer on the waves, like a star. Silently, he pointed toward it, and people slowly got to their feet again and came to stand beside himself and Silver. They quickly saw what Sloan had seen, and an excited murmuring began.

When Saphira arrived, everyone quickly moved back to make room for her. Only Sloan and Silver remained, holding their ground, though Sloan felt a thrill of fear when he looked up at the blue dragon, now almost directly above them. She was much bigger than Silver – at least twice his size, and much brighter, her scales sparkling in a dozen different shades of blue.

She landed neatly just at the water's edge, bright blue eyes fixed on Silver. He looked back, and Sloan felt his curiosity and wonder at seeing another dragon for the first time. But Sloan's attention was not on Saphira at all, though he had never seen her before. All his attention was on the man climbing down from her back and coming forward to meet him.

Eragon.

The young Rider looked more or less just as Sloan remembered him – he didn't seem to have aged at all since the last time they had met in Ellesmera. But he was very different from the boy he had known in Carvahall. There he'd been ordinary enough; average height, not particularly muscular, his hair blond and tousled. But when Sloan had seen him again five years ago, he had changed. His ears were pointed now, his features smooth and elegant, his skin flawless and almost glowing. He looked like an elf now, or almost so. But one thing had not changed, and that was the eyes. The vague, haughty disinterest in the way he looked at the ecstatic people on the shore, the arrogant disdain hiding behind a façade of friendliness as he raised a hand to wave to them – all of it was the same. A magnificent blue-bladed sword hung on his back, matching Saphira's scales.

The moment Sloan laid eyes on him, all his hatred and resentment bubbled back to the surface. His fists clenched, and Silver growled softly, deep in his chest, as he shared the vile memories Sloan gave him.

Eragon looked at Silver, then at Sloan, and stiffened. 'Sloan?' His voice was thick with disbelief.

Sloan couldn't hold back a smirk. 'Aye, Sloan,' he said. 'I'm surprised you even remembered my name, boy. After all, you forgot me before. But you'll not be forgetting me now, I think.'

Eragon looked him up and down, and then looked at Silver again. 'You're a Rider.'

'So I am,' said Sloan. 'This is Silver.'

Silver lowered his snout toward Eragon. 'Greetings, Shadeslayer,' he said politely. 'And you, Saphira Brightscales. I'm honoured.'

Saphira raised her snout to touch his. 'I'm pleased to meet you too,' she said, but she sounded cautious. No doubt she wasn't quite willing to trust any dragon prepared to bond himself to Sloan.

Sloan coughed. 'Eragon,' he said, careful to sound polite. 'I know why you came back.'

'You know about Galbatorix?' Eragon said immediately.

'Aye, I do,' said Sloan. 'And I'm here to help you fight him. But…'

'But?' Eragon's eyes narrowed.

Sloan paused – he knew he had to do this properly. He had to be as convincing as possible, or the whole plan would fall apart. He took a deep breath. 'I know what I did was wrong,' he said. 'And I was punished for it. I deserved it. But please… Roran is dead. Katrina needs me now. Please, lift your curse on me. It's all I ask in return for helping you now.'

Eragon gave a short, dismissive laugh. 'You think I'll undo your punishment, Sloan?' he said. 'You were a traitor and a murderer – you sold your own village to the Empire. The curse I laid on you was just; you should be grateful I spared your life.'

Sloan gritted his teeth. 'Please,' he said again, resisting the urge within him which screamed at him to forget the plan and attack Eragon; to use his magic and throw fire in that sneering, elegant face. 'Please…' His words failed him, and he trailed off. He'd never been much of a talker, and now, consumed by anger and confusion, he didn't know what to say.

But then Silver spoke up. 'Forgive my Rider, Shadeslayer,' he said in his young, gentle voice. 'I know his mistakes, and I feel his pain. He has suffered over these last years, from a pain you should understand. You lost your family, as Sloan has lost his. You too have made mistakes. Have you not killed in the name of those you love? You cursed Sloan never to see his daughter or his grandchildren, but what about them? Do you not think Katrina feels the pain of knowing her father is gone? Your own father died, and you had no chance to say goodbye. Would you not give anything to have that chance? And if that does not convince you, then think of this: you need our help to destroy Galbatorix. We know a spell, which we learned from an elf who we met deep in Du Weldenvarden – a hermit who trained us. It is the only thing which can destroy Galbatorix at last, and we can teach it to you, if only you will lift your curse.' Silver's tail slowly slid over the pier, scales rustling against the wood. 'Defeating Galbatorix and avenging the murders he has committed is more important than you, or I, or anything else. I beg you – put your differences with Sloan aside. Help him, so he will be willing to help you. I cannot persuade him otherwise.'

Silence followed. Sloan stared at Silver, astonished. Not once in all the time he had known the dragon had he imagined that he could be this eloquent. It was far more than he, who was at least a hundred times older, could ever have come up with.

'I did my best,' Silver told him privately, sharing a feeling of modest pride.

'Silver's right,' Sloan said to Eragon. 'You need us. I don't ask for much in return for my help. Let us put the past behind us.'

Saphira stirred, and Eragon slowly relaxed. Perhaps she had said something to him – advised him to listen. Either way, Eragon said; 'Very well.' He recited a string of words in the Ancient Language, and Sloan felt a faint tingling over his skin as the curse dissolved. He sagged slightly on the spot, fighting back unexpected tears.

'It's done,' said Eragon.

Sloan angrily wiped his eyes on the back of his sleeve. 'Thankyou,' he said. 'Now I'll tell you what I know.' He paused, smiled to himself, and continued. 'Galbatorix is waiting outside the city walls; he expects you to come to him. But he thinks you'll fight him the same way you fought the imposter. He has wards to protect him against every spell but one. Only you have the strength to cast it. I can tell you what it is now.'

Eragon nodded. 'Tell us.'

Slowly, carefully, Sloan recited the spell. It was surprisingly short, considering the sheer scale of what it would accomplish. Eragon and Saphira both listened closely.

'So this spell will destroy him?' asked Saphira.

'Aye, it will,' said Sloan. 'If you feel ready, let Silver and I show you the way to him now.'

Eragon reached up to touch the hilt of his sword. 'Take us to him.'

He climbed up onto Saphira's back, without so much as a word to the people of his old village, and Sloan got back onto Silver. The grey dragon took off with a quick beat of his wings, nearly flattening some of the people on the ground, and flew up and over Teirm with Saphira just behind him.

'We did it,' Sloan said while they flew. 'We did it…'

Disbelief gripped him. It was over. No matter what happened now, he had done what he had set out to do. The curse was gone. He almost told Silver to forget Galbatorix and simply fly away, off to find Katrina.

Only his hatred held him back. The curse was gone, but the man who had inflicted it was still here, and if the confrontation with Galbatorix wounded him, so much the better. At the very least it would rid them all of Galbatorix, and Sloan would be happy enough to see the back of him. But, to his surprise, even though he knew it was still possible that Galbatorix had murdered Roran and Nasuada, he found that his hatred for Eragon still far outweighed any suspicion or resentment he might hold toward the former King. He might not like or trust Galbatorix, but the man had led him this far, and it was thanks to him that the curse was gone, and Sloan couldn't help but feel gratitude for that.

Galbatorix hadn't exactly made it difficult for them to find him. Silver had barely reached the outskirts of the city before he and Sloan both spotted the light at the base of the cliffs where they had left their companion. Sloan reached out with his mind, and almost immediately he felt Galbatorix's presence.

'So you're on your way back?'

'We're bringing him,' Sloan answered.

'Good,' said Galbatorix. 'Keep well back.'

'We will,' said Silver.

He landed at the clifftop in the same spot he had perched before, and Sloan dismounted. Below them Galbatorix had lit a large fire – a magical one, whose flames were silvery white. Galbatorix himself stood beside it, black eyes glittering. He was unarmed and looked completely unafraid, waiting coolly for Eragon and Saphira to reach him.

Saphira landed at the base of the cliffs, just beyond the edge of the firelight, and Eragon leapt from her back. He emerged into the light, sword in his hands, and Sloan saw him start when he laid eyes on Galbatorix.

Galbatorix only smiled in return – a slow, sinister smile. 'Welcome home, Shadeslayer.'

Eragon stopped, gripping his sword. 'You,' he said. 'It truly is you.'

'Oh yes,' said Galbatorix, speaking the Ancient Language. 'I, Galbatorix, King of Alagaësia.' He smirked. 'You poor fool. Did you really think you could defeat me that easily? I knew you were coming – every young idiot who fancies himself a hero tries to take me down. I left a decoy for you to fight, and as soon as you defeated him you thought you were safe. You left Alagaësia – and with you gone, your friends were completely defenceless. Killing them was far too easy. And you have no-one to blame for it but yourself.'

Eragon's knuckles whitened on the sword hilt. 'You murdered them.'

'So I did,' said Galbatorix. 'I believe death is the standard punishment for the crime of treason. It was only just.'

'Treason!' Eragon roared. 'You killed the Riders – you took over Alagaësia! You were the traitor!'

Galbatorix laughed humourlessly. 'My gods, you truly are as ignorant as I've heard.' He paused, and his expression hardened. 'Didn't you think it was strange that, after I lost my dragon, the Riders did nothing to help me? They cast me aside as if I were nothing, simply because my dragon was dead. They left me to suffer. I wasn't a Rider any more, and that meant I was nothing to them. And didn't you think it was odd that your people had no gods – none at all? Nothing to give them comfort on their deathbeds? The Riders suppressed the gods of your ancestors. They set themselves up as the new gods. They were corrupt; arrogant and selfish. They deserved to be overthrown. Yes, I'm a monster. But sometimes a man like me is necessary.'

'Liar!' said Eragon.

Galbatorix laughed again. 'You think you have the right to stand in judgement over me? After what you've done?'

'I set Alagaësia free,' said Eragon. 'I destroyed your tyranny.'

'You?' said Galbatorix. He sneered. 'You truly are blind.' He pointed up at Sloan. 'That man there loved his daughter before anything else. He committed a terrible crime, just to try and protect her. For his mistake he was tortured, blinded, and almost killed. You… you found him, and took it upon yourself to punish him even further. You appointed yourself his judge and executioner, then called yourself noble for sparing his life – and what gave you that authority? You cry over the death of an ant, yet you slaughtered hundreds of human beings in the war without so much as a flicker of remorse. You, Eragon… you are a monster every bit as vile as I am. But I have one advantage over you: I admit that I'm a monster. You hide away in fantasies of heroism, pretending your heart is as pure as the driven snow. But let me tell you now: it isn't. You're a bully and a tyrant, and you have no right to judge me, or anyone else.'

'I'm no monster,' said Eragon, face twitching.

'Aren't you?' said Galbatorix, voice soft and insinuating. 'Aren't you, Eragon?'

'He is,' Sloan muttered internally.

With a yell of frustration, Eragon charged forward to attack, sword raised. Galbatorix watched his approach without moving a muscle. At the last moment he muttered a spell, and Eragon fell back, sword falling from his hands. He sprang upright with superhuman speed and began to attack with magic, hurling spell after spell. But every single one bounced off Galbatorix without doing any harm at all.

Galbatorix snickered. 'Do you really think any of that will work?' he asked mockingly. 'Go ahead and exhaust yourself – my wards protect me against anything you can throw at me.'

Eragon paused, casting a quick glance up at Sloan. His eyes shone eerily in the firelight.

'Do it!' Sloan shouted down at him. 'Do it now!'

For a moment it looked as if Eragon were going to ignore him – but then he raised his hands, braced himself, and recited the spell Sloan had taught him. It was surprisingly simple.

'"Let the way to the banishment of the tyrant be opened!"'

Immediately, a blaze of light appeared in midair between Eragon and Galbatorix. Eragon stood stock still as the spell drained the energy from both himself and Saphira, and the light grew brighter and brighter. It formed a strange shape; oval with two small bulges at either end, like some kind of fruit. It was bright yellow, and as it formed it gave off a scent – a sharp, clean smell mixed with a mustiness, like feathers or fur.

Too late, Eragon realised his mistake. He looked sharply back over his shoulder as Saphira groaned and fell onto her belly. He cried out her name and ran to her, but in midstep his strength faltered and he too collapsed.

The door remained where it had appeared, hanging in the air, about as tall as a man. Exhausted, his strength completely drained by the effort of summoning it, Eragon managed to drag himself to Saphira's side. Galbatorix glanced dismissively at him, then strode over to where the sword had landed and picked it up.

He rested the point against Eragon's neck. 'I should have mentioned,' he said. 'I have one other advantage over you: you're an idiot.'

Eragon made a feeble attempt to push the sword away, but his hand fell back. Feebly, he looked up at Sloan. 'Sloan… help me,' he rasped.

Sloan looked down on him, stomach fluttering. He could feel Silver's fear and sympathy, and despite everything Sloan felt the impulse to do something, say something… but as he hesitated there on the clifftop, a memory came back to him. He remembered a blind man lying at Eragon's feet, hurt and confused, reaching out for someone, anyone, who could help him. And he remembered the cold, cruel judgement that man had received in return.

'No.'

'Oh dear,' said Galbatorix. 'It looks as if that little mistake has come back to haunt you – who would have thought it? Oh, and by the way… Queen Arya is dead as well. I took care of her shortly before I recruited my friend here. It would seem I'm not the only one in Alagaësia with a score to settle.'

Sloan froze. Another memory came back to him – the confusion of shouting he had heard in Ellesmera on the day he had left. He'd assumed it was because the elves had discovered Silver's egg missing, but had it been something else…?

A sob escaped from Eragon. 'No…!'

'Well, well,' said Galbatorix. 'So you do care about something other than yourself. Never mind, I won't leave you to suffer – I'm not a sadist like you. Goodbye, Eragon Shadeslayer.'

He lifted the sword, and brought it down in a single, ruthless blow.

In the moment that Eragon died, Saphira let out a terrible, anguished roar. Sloan and Silver both recoiled from it, and Silver's horror slammed through Sloan's mind.

But Saphira's agony did not last long. For a moment she writhed on the ground, her thrashing body breaking the trees around her into pieces, and then she slumped down, wings sagging, her eyes fading as she died.

Nearby, Galbatorix idly wiped the sword clean and then walked over to the glowing doorway. He looked up at Sloan and Silver. 'Come down and join me, why don't you? It's safe now.'

Sloan climbed onto Silver's back, and the dragon leapt down from the clifftop. As soon as he touched ground, Sloan dismounted and cautiously approached Galbatorix. 'You didn't say you were going to kill them.'

'I didn't say I wouldn't, either,' said Galbatorix. He paused. 'I fail to see why you would be upset about that.'

Sloan looked over at Eragon's body. 'Why did you do it?'

Galbatorix smiled – and this time it wasn't a smirk, or a sneer, but a real smile, touched with sadness. 'You asked me before why I killed the Riders,' he said. 'Do you see the answer now?'

Silence followed. Sloan looked past Eragon to Saphira, and felt the comfort of Silver's mind linked to his.

'I killed them because they were like him,' said Galbatorix, and as he said it, everything made sense to Sloan at last.

He nodded slowly. 'I understand.'

Galbatorix's smile softened. Now, for the first time, he looked like a normal man – a man twisted by life and circumstances, but a man all the same, in some ways no different from Sloan. He held out the sword. 'Here,' he said. 'You can keep it.'

Sloan took the weapon with some distaste, but he couldn't help but see the beauty of the blade. He put it aside.

Galbatorix stepped toward the glowing doorway. 'Thankyou, Sloan, and you, Silver,' he said. 'I couldn't have done this without you. Now we can both have what we want.' Standing just at the threshold, he looked back at them both. 'Will you come with me?'

Sloan shook his head. 'Go on,' he said. 'Go to your new world.'

Galbatorix nodded and smiled, and turned back to face the door. Sloan couldn't see anything on the other side – all there was was light. But then he heard a voice speaking, whispering from somewhere beyond. 'Come,' it said. 'Come to me, my Dark Lord. I need you.'

Galbatorix stood up a little straighter. 'Who's there?'

The voice laughed. It was a woman's voice, somewhat cultured and with an accent unlike anything Sloan had heard before. 'I am your way to a new world,' it said. 'Come to me, and I will stitch you into my great tapestry.'

'As you wish,' said Galbatorix. He looked back at Sloan again, bright-eyed. He almost looked innocent. 'A new world,' he said. 'A new life. And this time I'll be staying far away from politics. Once was enough. Goodbye, Sloan.' He stepped into the light, and in an instant he was gone, as if he had never existed at all.

The door remained, its glow enticing, and a moment later the voice spoke again – this time to Sloan and Silver. 'Will you come to me?' it asked. 'A new world, a new life. Come to me, and I will find a place for you. Both of you.'

'No,' said Sloan.

'Are you sure?'

'I am,' said Sloan. 'Silver?'

'My place is with my Rider,' said Silver.

The voice laughed. 'Well… I will remember you. If you ever change your minds, I will be waiting.'

'I'm done with this,' Sloan said brusquely. 'Go away.'

'All right.' The voice faded, and the door went with it.

Tentatively, Sloan picked up Eragon's sword. He was a Rider now, so he supposed he needed a blade of his own. 'I prefer a good cleaver.'

'But you can learn to use this sword,' said Silver.

Sloan looked up at him with gratitude. He'd been so determined to chase Silver away when they had first met, but now it seemed to him that the dragon was the most normal thing in his life – something solid and dependable, there to keep him grounded when everything else had gone mad. His partner. His friend.

Silver, of course, sensed Sloan's feelings, and he sent back a feeling of deep affection. 'I know we make a strange pair,' he said. 'But I don't care. I hatched for you, and I have no regrets for it. You are the only Rider I could ever want, Sloan of Carvahall. And now our quest is done…'

'Aye,' said Sloan. 'Now it's over, there's only one thing left to do.'

And he stood there, sword in hand, Silver by his side, picturing his Katrina and imagining the astonishment on her face when she saw him again, alive, coming back to care for her as he had done when she was a child. And then, at last, for the first time in so many years, the man the elves called the Weeping Man sat down and began to cry. But they were not tears of sorrow now, the tears that he had held trapped inside himself for so many years. These were tears of joy.