Skade

K.J.Taylor

Chapter One

Hatchings

It had been a tradition amongst the elves of Ellesméra, every year, for those who were at the right age to come to a certain building where an old female elf lived. Her name was Einás, and she was a solitary woman. Few ever visited her, respecting her right to enjoy her solitude, though her wisdom was much admired as she was one of the oldest elves in Alagaësia. She was also respected for her station in life, which was one much envied by many of her fellows. Einás was guardian of the eggs.

In her home, packed neatly into a box full of straw, were the handful of dragon eggs entrusted to the elvish race by the wild dragons, and they lay silent for years on end, awaiting their time to hatch. The infant dragons inside them were fully aware of their surroundings, and would hatch when they chose. In the wild, a dragon egg would hatch when its occupant sensed that it was safe enough and that there was sufficient food, and many would hatch immediately, although it was not unknown for them to lie dormant during times of famine, only emerging once food was plentiful again. These eggs, though, would not hatch until the dragons inside sensed the presence of an elf or a human whom they wished to bond with. And so, every year, hopeful young elves would come to see Einás and look over the eggs, all longing to be chosen and so join the most respected people in Alagaësia – the dragon-riders, the Shur'tugal.

Einás herself had never been chosen, but as protector of the eggs she was viewed with as much respect as any of the riders themselves. Indeed, most of the land's most prominent riders looked to her as a mentor and role model, remembering the day when she had guided them to find their dragons and become what they were.

Now, once again, it was the time of year for the chosen to come to Einás' home and be tested. Einás was awaiting them outside her house, clad in a green robe embroidered with gold. Around her neck she wore an elaborate necklace with an amulet on it in the shape of an egg held in a pair of cupped hand – the emblem of the egg guardian. Her hair had turned white with time, but her eyes were still dark and keen. She watched the little group of chosen people coming, accompanied by a pair of guides. They were of both sexes, all teenagers a few years shy of adulthood. Most of them were elves, but there were a handful of humans among them, too. These had been sent by their leaders, selected for their good qualities of courage, wisdom or kindness. Once the elves, naturally proud and aloof, had disdained the idea of humans becoming riders, but it was a good way to maintain peace between the two races, and besides, even the most disdainful of the elvish people had to admit that some humans at least were worthy of the honour.

Einás waited until the group was closer to her, and raised her hand in salutation. Their excited chatter died down at once, and they bowed their heads respectfully. The two elves who had brought them smiled and departed, leaving Einás to take charge.

'Well now,' she smiled. 'Welcome to my home. My name is Einás Egg-Guardian, as you all know, and I am pleased to meet you. Before we begin, I would like you to give me your names. You first.'

She nodded to one of the young humans at the front, a dark-eyed, fresh-faced young man with an easy smile.

'My name is Brom, Egg-Guardian,' he replied, bowing.

'Good, and you?' said Einás, looking at the second of the humans, who was next to Brom.

'Morzan,' this one replied. He was thick-set and powerful looking in spite of his youth, and had pale grey eyes.

'And you?' said Einás, to the third and last of the human candidates.

'My name is Galbatorix,' he replied. He was dark and intense, and his eyes glittered with intelligence.

Einás frowned; there was something about Galbatorix's direct stare that unsettled her. But she said nothing and invited the elvish candidates to speak.

'My name is Arya,' said one of them, a beautiful girl with green eyes and dark hair and slanted eyebrows.

'But of course,' Einás smiled – she knew Arya already; she was the daughter of Islanzadí, the queen of Ellesméra, and much loved by its inhabitants for her quick mind and bold nature. Einás hoped that one of the eggs would hatch for her – she was a worthy elf, young though she was.

The other elves introduced themselves, more as a formality than anything else, since Einás already knew most of them. Some of them had come from other elvish settlements, though, and were new to her. Once the naming was done, Einás said; 'As most of you know, my father Eragon was the first of the riders. And when he defeated the evil Taranis and his black dragon he established the riders as a force for good in the world. You are chosen to carry on that great tradition. Even if you are not bonded to a dragon today, you are still good and gifted people, for you were thought worthy of coming here today. Now I shall bring out the eggs, and be quiet and respectful, for many of them are older than you are.'

Einás smiled again and retreated into her home. The candidates waited in silence, their hearts pounding. All of them had awaited this day for years, hoping with all their might that they would be chosen, and by tonight all of them would know whether their waiting had been in vain. It was a moment none would forget.

Einás returned, carrying a large ornate chest in her arms. She placed it on a low table in front of the candidates, and reverently opened the lid. Inside were the eggs, nestled in soft dry grass, though dragon's eggs are unbreakable and don't really need padding. This had been done more as a mark of respect to them. The candidates let out low gasps and sounds of awe at the sight of the eggs, which were big and smoothly polished, each one shining a different jewel-like colour. There were red eggs, yellow, blue, green, purple, white, brown… every colour of the rainbow.

Einás motioned for the first candidate to came forward. This was Arya, who stepped toward the table and the box with slow, reverent footsteps, as if she were in a temple.

'Pick up each of the eggs in turn,' said Einás. 'Feel them, and let them feel you. If the egg contains your dragon, it will stir and you will know it. Take your time.'

Arya nodded, and picked up the first of the eggs. She held it, turning it over gently in her delicate hands. When the egg did not respond, the young elf put it back and tried another. One by one she picked up the eggs, trying each one in turn, straining with all her senses to pick up something, some movement that indicated a hatching about to begin.

But none of the eggs responded. Try as she might, she could not find one that would choose her. When she finally placed the last one back in the box, Einás caught her eye and silently shook her head. Arya returned to sit among her fellow candidates, her eyes downcast.

'Next,' said Einás, hiding her own disappointment.

The next one to come forward was another elf, but one whom Einás did not recognise.

He was blonde and brown-eyed, very handsome and lithe. This elf came to the box and picked up an egg. This one did not respond, so he picked up another. And then another. The fourth one he chose was gold in colour – the only gold egg there was. When the elf held it, it shifted in his hands.

'It moved!' he cried, forgetting decorum in his excitement. 'Einás, it moved!'

'Wonderful,' said Einás, smiling. 'Congratulations, you've been chosen. Sit with the egg and wait for it to hatch. We shall watch.'

The elf nodded, practically delirious with joy, and sat cross-legged with the egg on the ground in front of him. The other candidates leant forward to watch, wide-eyed. Even Arya forgot her disappointment in the wonder of the moment. The elf sat still, holding his hands out over the egg as if trying to guide the dragon into the world without actually touching it. The egg moved again, rocking from side-to-side. Little squeaks and chirps came from inside as the baby dragon found its voice. The shell began to crack and flake, and the rocking grew more violent. The egg almost rolled away, but the candidate caught it and gently pulled it back. The hatching took a surprisingly short time, and, abruptly, the shell split and disgorged its contents onto the flagstones. The dragon lay, gasping and squeaking, covered in slime. It was gold as its egg had been, and perfectly formed. It looked around and saw the one it had hatched for, and began to crawl toward him.

'Touch him,' Einás whispered to the elf. 'Forge the bond.'

The candidate held out his hand, palm-first. The dragon raised its head, and touched his palm with the point of its snout. As soon as elf and dragon met, the elf gasped and cried out. Crackling energy moved over his body and mind, earthing itself in every pore and fibre of his being, making itself a part of his very existence. Einás made no move to help him; this was a moment between elf and dragon, and crucial to the rest of their lives together. The candidate, breathing heavily, looked at his hand. On the palm, a silver circle was slowly rising to the surface, glowing with magic. This was the gedwëy ignasia, the shining hand, the mark of a dragon rider. He stared at it for a time, and then scooped the dragon up in his arms, hugging it. The dragon cooed and rubbed its head against his cheek.

'Care for him well,' said Einás. 'He is your partner, bonded to your soul. With him at your side you will go on to do great things.'

The new rider nodded, eyes shining, and returned to his seat near Brom. Then Einás called the next candidate forward, and the process began once again. Two more eggs hatched after that, and two more bonds were made. The next couple of candidates were not chosen, but Morzan was, and was joined to a red female dragon. Several more elvish candidates came next, and of them three were chosen. The whole process took hours, but it was unthinkable to rush it. Then Galbatorix's turn came, and he was chosen by the solitary white dragon.

'A white dragon is among the most powerful,' Einás told him. 'You are fortunate, Galbatorix.'

Galbatorix smiled and returned to his place in the group where he was congratulated by Brom and Morzan.

More than half the group had now been tested, and after two more elves had come forward and one been selected there was only one left, and that was Brom. He walked to the table, his heart hammering in his chest. His friend Morzan was now a rider, and Brom was certain that he would be one too. Not that he knew about the future. It was just that, well… he just had to find a dragon of his own. So he eagerly picked up the first egg and waited for it to move. It didn't. He moved on to the next, and the next, his movements becoming increasingly desperate as the number of untried eggs dwindled.

None of them would respond. Brom began to try again with the ones he had already touched, but it was useless. Not one egg would hatch for him. 'No!' he cried. 'No, this can't happen!'

'I'm sorry, Brom,' said Einás in her gentlest voice. 'You are not chosen. Go back and sit down.'

Brom cast a desperate look at her, but though she looked back compassionately her word was final. The young man trudged back to sit with his friends, trying hard not to cry. Morzan patted him on the shoulder, and his dragon nosed gently at his hand, bright-eyed and compassionate. Brom stroked her head and sighed. That was it, then. Game over.

The hatchings were over for this year, and Einás closed the box of eggs and took it back into her house. Then she returned and made her usual speech. 'To all of those who have come and been disappointed, I am sorry,' she said. 'And to those who have become riders, let joy reign in your hearts, for from this day you are more than mere men or elves. Go back to your homes and begin your new lives; soon your training in the ways of the riders will begin.' She bowed her head and spoke a blessing in the ancient language, and dragons and riders alike raised their eyes to the sky and dreamed of glories to come.

Only Brom didn't look up. He had taken his disappointment much harder than Arya and the rest had. Jealousy and despair was what reigned in his heart, and neither Morzan nor his dragon could cheer him up. When the group of young people departed he walked slowly in the rear, head low and eyes swimming with tears.

As if in answer to his misery, it rained heavily that night.

Sitting comfortably in her home by a bright fire, Einás sipped a mug of tea and mulled over the events of the day. She felt sorry for Brom, as she felt toward all those who had been overlooked. She was in a good position to understand how they felt; she had secretly handled every egg she guarded, hoping that one would hatch for her, but it had never happened. Both of her siblings had become riders, and they had always made her feel alone when they came home to visit their odd-one-out sister. Both had died years ago, and Einás couldn't help but sense the irony of the fact that, though she had never found a dragon of her own, she had outlived so many riders. But, then, their lives were fraught a lot of the time and she had never seen the kind of fighting they had, so perhaps it made a kind of sense. Einás glanced out of the window. It really was raining hard outside, and she saw white lightning snake along the horizon. This was what dragons called a cursed day; the ones she had spoken to had told her that no dragon would fly in a storm, although legend did speak of one who had…

There was a loud thump on the door. Einás looked around sharply. The thump was followed by several more, until the noise of them melded together and became a continuous hammering. Einás went to open it. Outside was Brom, soaking wet and exhausted. Einás stared at him in surprise for a moment, and then hustled him inside.

'Come in, quickly,' she told him, 'You're sodden! What were you doing out there?'

'I want to try the eggs again,' said Brom, shivering.

Einás shut the door and led him to the fireside. 'It won't do you any good, Brom,' she said. 'The dragons have decided.' She sat him down in her chair, and fetched a blanket which she put around his shoulders. The young man huddled in the warmth, rubbing his arms, water dripping off him onto the floor.

'I'll make you some tea,' said Einás.

While she poured the hot water and crushed the herbs, Brom said; 'I still want to try again, Egg-Guardian. There must have been some mistake… if the dragons see how determined I am… I thought…' his voice died away hopelessly. There was such a pitiful look on his face that Einás forgot her usual reserve.

'I know how you feel, if it's any consolation,' she said. 'I have been disappointed many times over hundreds of years. None of the eggs I keep have hatched for me, and I am reminded of my situation every year when the new riders are chosen. When I was younger I would have given anything to become a rider and never be alone again, but now I am resigned to the fact that it will never happen. But there are other things in life than being a rider, you know.'

'I know,' said Brom. 'But I don't want those things. I want to be a rider.'

'Many do,' said Einás. 'I am sorry, Brom, I feel for you, but… there's nothing I can do.'

'Are you sure?' said Brom. 'Truly? Are there no other eggs I might try?'

'No, none,' said Einás. 'Here, drink this; it will warm you.'

Brom accepted the mug of tea she offered him, and sipped it miserably. Einás, watching him, wished there was something she could do for him. She liked this young man; he had a spirit and a courage that appealed to her. Many teenagers – humans especially – were stubborn, but this was more than just sullen persistence. This was something hard and brave, for all that it was surrounded by impulsiveness and naïveté. And he was naïve, really, to think that she could somehow reverse the decision which the unhatched dragons had made.

'Are you sure?' Brom persisted.

Einás opened her mouth to say 'yes'… but hesitated. He was looking at her expectantly; he hadn't missed her hesitation and what it might mean. Einás scratched her ear thoughtfully. 'Well,' she said. 'I… there is something else we could try.'

'What? What is it?' said Brom, eagerly.

'It's only a slim chance,' said Einás. 'I have two more eggs which I didn't bring out. You could try them, I suppose, but the odds are…'

'Why didn't you bring them out?' said Brom.

Einás held up a hand to silence him, and went into the next room, which was her sleeping chamber. There she dug out a much smaller box from beneath a heap of old scrolls, and brought it out. She put it on a low table by the fire, and blew the dust off it. 'The eggs in here are two of the oldest in the world,' she said. 'I've had them my whole life. I understand that they were laid when my father was a young man. Dragon's eggs can lie unhatched for a long time as you know, but these have stayed that way for more than five hundred years. Most people think the dragons inside are dead. I don't know where my father got them, but it was before there were any riders other than himself and Taranis.'

'What was your father like?' said Brom, taking a mouthful of tea and eyeing the box.

Einás paused, and smiled. 'You remind me of him, in a way,' she said. 'He was always very impulsive. He could be quick-tempered, too. He was always a little distant since he lost all of his brothers and his father during the dragon wars, but the love he gave his dragon, Sunlight… well, it always made people happy to see it. They'd been together so long they were more like one person than two. Anyway… when I became egg guardian, he gave me these eggs. He said he'd owned them for years but didn't think they would ever hatch. And so far he's been right. Thousands of people have held them, literally thousands, but they wouldn't respond to a single one of them. I think my father thought they were bad luck in some way, because he told me he hoped they would never hatch at all. Still, these are the only two you haven't tried, so you may as well.'

Einás opened the box. Inside, coated in thin layers of dust, were two eggs. One was bright blue, and the other was silver.

'The only silver egg I've ever seen,' Einás noted.

Brom reached out eagerly for the silver egg. He picked it up and held it, stroking it with his fingers. It chimed softly when he tapped the shell with his fingernails, and he admired its glittering colour. Still, it did not move. He shook his head and put it back in the box. He hesitated before picking up the next one. This was it; the last egg he would ever try. If this one didn't hatch for him, none ever would. He screwed up his courage and lifted it into his grasp. The dust fell away from its shell, revealing the true richness of the colour beneath. It was the bluest blue he had ever seen, bluer than the brightest sky, chased with pale veins. He had never seen anything so beautiful.

But this egg, too, remained motionless under his touch. He put it down on the table and slumped back in his seat, his hands over his eyes. Einás sighed. It had been a vain hope anyway, and she berated herself for getting his hopes up. What had she been thinking? These eggs were dead, good for nothing but decorations and as a memorial of her father. She wondered if Brom would start to cry; humans were all too emotional sometimes. But he sat back resignedly and drank the last of his tea.

'I'm sorry, Brom,' said Einás.

Brom said nothing. They sat in silence for a time, listening to the thunder outside. And then, quite suddenly, a chirp broke the silence. They looked around sharply. The chirp sounded again.

'Look!' said Brom.

The blue egg was moving. It jerked and was still, then jerked again more violently. The chirping was coming from inside the shell, and getting louder. Before either Brom or Einás could move, the egg rolled straight off the table and landed with a loud ringing thud on the floor in front of the hearth. There it continued to move, more and more vigorously, and cracks spread over its shell. Brom let out a cry of joy and dropped to his knees by the blue orb. The rain beat down harder on the roof, and wind began to howl, but Brom was oblivious. The egg cracked and broke, and out fell the hatchling; female, blue, and perfect. Einás looked on, speechless, and Brom reached out to claim the rider's legacy. The dragon looked around at him, bright eyed, and tapped his hand playfully with her claws. Brom yelped as the power entered him, and sat back sharply, clutching his hand. The gedwëy ignasia came to light on his palm, and just as it had happened so many times before, a new rider was born. The dragon chirped and wrapped her forelegs around his wrist, hugging it. Brom lifted her into his arms and held her close, tears streaming down his face.

Einás' astonishment faded slowly, and she smiled. 'Well, Brom,' she said in a motherly way, 'It would seem your determination served you well. You have my congratulations.'

'What shall I call her?' said Brom, standing up with the dragon in his arms. She climbed onto his shoulder and perched there, wrapping her tail around herself contentedly.

'She will tell you her name when she's ready,' said Einás.

'But how does she know it if she's just a baby?' said Brom.

'She's older than I am, Brom,' said Einás. 'The dragon is aware inside the egg. After the laying, the dragon's parents whisper a name to every egg so the hatchling inside will know it is theirs. Given how long she has been waiting for you, she may have learnt all manner of things. She had nothing to do inside the shell but listen. She will be the only living creature in the world apart from myself who has heard my father's voice.' The old elf's eyes wandered over to the other egg, the silver one, and she added; 'If her egg was not dead, perhaps this one is not either. I shall offer it to the candidates next year, and maybe it will hatch for one of them.'

As she spoke she did not know – could not know – that Brom and his dragon were not the only ones who were listening. Inside the silver egg, another pair of ears was taking in the conversation, and a partly-formed mind understood the gist of it. Outside, thunder sounded yet again and lightning brought daylight for a split second. The storm gathered its power.

Chapter Two

Skade

The next day dawned bright and cold. Rain was still drizzling, but the storm was over. Einás woke up suddenly at around the time when the sun was rising. Her eyes snapped open. For a while she lay still and stared at the ceiling, wondering what it was that had awoken her, and then she heard an alien sound coming from the next room. It was a scratching, scuffling sound, not very loud, but distinct, and more than enough to alert her. Probably some animal had found its way into her house and was trying to get out again. Einás decided to do the kind thing and go and help it. She got up, yawning, and donned a warm robe before shuffling out into the next room. The place was in a mess. Things had been knocked off the table, a chair had been tipped over, and in front of the fireplace the box with the silver egg in it was lying on its side with the velvet lining hanging out.

'Oh, damn and blast,' said Einás, 'What did this?'

Puffy-eyed and muttering, she picked her way through the debris searching for the creature that had woken her up. Whatever it was it was quite fast; as soon as she reached the fireplace she saw it streak past her, too quickly for her to see it. It appeared to be quite small, no bigger than a cat, but beyond that… Einás went in the vague direction it had taken, checking under the furniture in case it was hiding there. She lifted the blanket which Brom had left on the floor, and immediately the creature shot out from under it and rushed past her. It reached the door and began hurling itself against the solid wood, again and again, making a loud and rather distressing thumping sound. Einás hurried over, still uncertain as to what the thing was. It wasn't something she could immediately identify, mostly because it wouldn't stop moving. But before she reached it it stopped to rest, rubbing its head, which it had just bumped. Einás froze.

There, crouched panting in front of her front door, was a dragon hatchling. It was bright silver in colour, and shone with a metallic sheen in the light from the windows. Two thoughts occurred to Einás in that moment. The second egg had hatched. And secondly, it had hatched by itself. It had not hatched in response to someone's touch – only herself and Brom had touched it, and he already had a dragon. And then something else occurred to her. Einás' eyes lit up, and her internal voice said; Is this… my dragon? Am I to become a rider at last?

There was only one way to find out. She approached the dragon, which was now scratching at the door with its little claws, a determined expression on its face. It paid no further attention to her, being so bent on making its escape from the house. Einás reached out toward its flank. In a split second, the dragon spun around and bit her hand. Einás pulled back with a cry, clutching her hand. The dragon resumed its scrabbling at the door, growling deep in its throat. Einás examined her hand, shocked. It was bleeding from two small puncture-marks, inflicted by the dragon's most prominent upper fangs, which jutted slightly over its lower lip. But aside from the pain, that was all. There was no tingle, no magic, nothing. No sign of the gedwëy ignasia lighting her palm as she had seen happen so many times before. Her disappointment was tempered with shock. She had never seen a dragon hatchling vicious enough to actually attack someone, and nor had she seen one so obviously determined to run away. Dragon youngsters only had rudimentary intelligence when they first hatched, but they were naturally trusting and friendly toward elves and humans, and all the ones she saw hatched knew the sound of her voice and remembered her caring for them while still in the egg. She had also never seen one hatch while nobody was around. What did it all mean? She remembered her father's words about the two ancient eggs, spoken so long ago. He hadn't told her much, but the little he had revealed had been tantalising and mysterious.

'These eggs aren't like the other ones you have,' he'd said. 'I got them a long time ago, while Sunlight and me were very young. I'm not proud of how they came into my possession, but it's too late to undo it.'

'How did you get them?' she'd asked, curious as the young often are.

Eragon had shaken his head and said; 'That doesn't matter; it's ancient history and I prefer not to think about the past. Suffice to say that I have tried many times to rid myself of them, but I cannot bring myself to destroy them. I think they are unlucky in some way; they have brought me nothing but trouble. Look after them, Einás, as you do all your eggs. I doubt they will hatch, but… I promised I would keep them safe once, and I want you to help keep that promise after I'm gone.'

Einás loved her father, and she had agreed to do as he asked. And now one egg had hatched into a perfectly normal dragon, and the other was… the other had become this.

'If you are not my dragon,' she said aloud, 'What are you?'

The silver dragon paused in its scratching at this. It turned around and regarded her. Its eyes were golden, and disconcertingly intelligent. Now it was facing her, Einás cold see that it had a dark, jagged mark on the side of its neck. It was not unknown for dragons to have markings like this, but they were unusual, and this one was much larger than any she'd seen. It looked a little like a scar, but it was jet black. Unlike the surrounding scales it did not shine. The elf and dragon watched each other for a time, and wild though the dragon was it did not have the hunched, frightened look of a cornered animal.

And then the dragon delivered the greatest surprise of all. It looked Einás in the eye and said; 'Want father.'

The words were in elvish, and clumsily formed, but they were plainly recogniseable for what they were, and Einás was thunderstruck. 'What did you say?' she said.

'Want father,' the dragon repeated. 'Want mother.'

Einás tried to speak, but could only stammer. She sat down heavily on a table, clutching her heart with a trembling hand. She had been shocked before, but this was something else. Dragons could speak aloud if they wanted, though they usually chose to use telepathy and rarely spoke to anyone aside from their own rider. But a new-hatched dragon was incapable of any type of speech, telepathic or spoken. Its mind just wasn't sufficiently advanced for it.

The dragon eyed Einás, and bizarre though it seemed she could read an expression of impatience on its face. It waddled closer to her, and said; 'Who you?'

'Me? M-me?' Einás stammered. 'I'm – Einás. I am the egg-guardian.'

'You elf?' said the dragon.

'Y-yes,' said Einás.

The dragon growled. 'Not like elf,' it said.

'What? Why not?' said Einás, recovering a little. 'How can you speak?'

'I learn. Listen for long time,' said the dragon. Its voice was harsh and guttural, lacking the elegance of one who had spoken for longer.

'Yes, I suppose you did,' Einás said weakly. 'Who did you hatch for?'

The dragon looked puzzled. 'Not understand,' it said.

'Dragon eggs hatch when the right person holds them,' said Einás. 'So that person can become a rider. Did you sense the person for you, and hatch for them?'

'I did not hatch for anyone,' said the dragon, its speech improving slightly, as if it were gaining confidence with practise. 'I hatch for me. My sister gone. Must find her.'

'Your sister was the blue egg?' said Einás. 'The one that hatched last night?'

'Yes,' said the dragon. 'We together a long time. We have touched… minds. Did not want her to hatch, but she did. Me – I want find her.'

'Oh,' said Einás, trying desperately to comprehend all this information. 'Well, your sister won't have left Ellesméra yet. I can get Brom to bring her back here so you can talk to her. Does she know how to speak, too?'

'Don't know,' said the dragon.

'Where are you trying to get to?' said Einás, nodding at the door, which was badly scratched.

'Want to find my mother,' said the dragon. 'My father. Not hear them for a long time. Want them.'

'What were their names?' said Einás.

'Mother Silarae,' the dragon replied. 'Father Ravana.'

Silarae… Einás' brows furrowed. She was sure she'd heard that name before somewhere, but she couldn't remember where. 'And what is your name?' she asked.

'Named Skade,' said the dragon.

Just then there was a knock at the door. Skade started and ran to hide under a cabinet, and Einás went to answer the door. It was Brom, holding his dragon and panting. 'Einás!' he cried as soon as the door opened. 'It's amazing-!'

'Calm down,' said Einás. 'Here, come in.'

She ushered him inside, and closed the door. Brom eyed the mess Skade had made. 'What happened in here?' he asked.

'A few things,' said Einás. 'Now, what's all the excitement about?'

'It's my dragon!' said Brom, touching the hatchling's head. 'She's talking! Out loud, in Elvish! She told me her name… say hello to her, Saphira.'

The blue dragon looked at Einás. 'Hello,' she said. 'You Einás?'

'I am,' said Einás, shock rifling through her once more. 'And you are… Saphira?'

'Yes,' said the blue hatchling.

'Isn't it amazing?' said Brom, sitting down with Saphira in his lap. 'I thought new-hatched dragons couldn't speak, but Saphira and I have been chatting all night.'

'I thought so too, but I've been learning a lot this morning,' said Einás, righting the fallen chair and sitting down heavily. 'Now then, Brom, can you keep a secret?'

'Uh… if it's the sort of secret I can keep,' said Brom in a hesitating kind of way.

'Normally I wouldn't entrust a secret to a human, let alone one I hardly know,' said Einás. 'But I like you, and I think I can rely on you. This isn't a dangerous secret, I think, but I don't know what other people will think of it. Some time last night, after you had left, the other egg hatched. The silver one. I found the hatchling out here this morning, trying to escape from my house. It's talking just like Saphira, and it's not like any dragon I know.'

'Where is it?' said Brom.

Einás looked around at the cabinet. Sure enough, Skade was there, peering out cautiously. When she saw Brom looking at her she withdrew into her hiding place at once. 'You sister is here, Skade,' Einás called to her.

At that the silver hatchling came out into the open and ran toward Brom. Saphira saw her and let out a joyful chirp. She leapt off Brom's lap and rushed to meet her sister. The two dragons touched noses, whistling and cooing to each other like a pair of otter cubs. They eyed each other shyly for a time, and then Saphira reached out with a small forepaw. Skade reached out in return, and they touched palms. Then they leapt, wrapping their wings around each other, whooping and squeaking. It was a poignant moment. They had known each other for centuries, but never met face-to-face. Even Brom, taken aback though he was, could sense this, helped partly by the connection he had to Saphira's mind. Now the hatchlings were tussling on the floor, rolling over and kicking playfully, squealing in their high young voices.

'This is weird,' said Brom, watching them. 'Who did the silver one hatch for?'

'No-one, that's the thing that puzzles me,' said Einás. 'I thought…' she paused, looking at the floor. She looked up again with an effort. 'I thought,' she said again, much embarrassed, 'I thought maybe she had hatched for me.'

'How do you know she didn't?' said Brom.

'Because… well, look at you and Saphira,' said Einás. 'There's a love and trust between you already. There was at the very moment you met. But this one… Skade… doesn't seem to trust me at all. Anyway, when I tried to touch her and forge the bond… she bit me.' The old elf held up her hand, showing Brom the tooth marks.

'Ouch,' said Brom.

'Yes,' said Einás. 'It was foolish of me, but… I suppose you know what I was thinking.'

'I think I do,' said Brom. 'You thought that if Saphira hatched for me after so long, maybe… Skade hatched for you.'

'Yes,' said Einás. 'Seems you know me better than I know myself, Brom.'

Brom looked down bashfully. 'So what does this mean?' he resumed, watching Saphira and Skade as they continued to play. 'If Skade isn't your dragon, whose is she? And why did she hatch all by herself?'

'That's just it; I don't know,' said Einás, opening her palms to the ceiling in a gesture of bewilderment. 'I've never seen anything like this. There's more; when I found her she was trying to get out through the door – see the scratches on it? When I talked to her I asked where she was trying to go, and she said she wanted her parents.'

'But they can't be around here, can they?' said Brom. 'If they're even still alive.'

'All I know are their names,' said Einás. 'Ravana and Silarae.'

'Silarae?' said Brom, frowning. 'But… that was the name of Taranis' dragon, wasn't it?'

Einás gasped. 'Of course!' she exclaimed. 'I knew I'd heard that name before. But… it can't possibly be the same dragon… can it? I mean…' she trailed off, various expressions of alarm and confusion passing over her face as she thought on the implications. If Skade's mother really was the infamous black dragon, Silarae, then that would explain a few things. Why her father had said the eggs were bad luck. The grim way he had always looked at them. And the time-frame was right – Silarae had been alive while her father was young. He had always been reluctant to speak of those times, though, and the other sources were sketchy since her people had not yet begun the practise of formal record-keeping at the time. Einás had not known that Silarae had a mate. She didn't recognise the name of Ravana at all.

Brom was looking at her expectantly. 'Maybe there was more than one dragon with that name,' Einás said rather lamely.

Brom looked unconvinced, but all he said was; 'Do you know what you're going to do with it?'

'No, not really,' said Einás. 'I can't just let her go, though. It would be too dangerous for a hatchling on her own.'

'You could look after her,' said Brom.

'I'd like to, but… I don't know,' said Einás unhappily.

Saphira and Skade had broken apart, and Saphira was walking back to Brom, her tail raised like a cat's. Skade followed her reluctantly, casting suspicious glances at Einás and Brom. When Brom held out his hand toward Saphira, Skade leapt back immediately, her tail lashing. Saphira, though, nuzzled Brom's hand affectionately. He picked her up and she settled down on his lap, making contented little noises. Skade watched indecisively; clearly she wanted to be with her sister, but she did not trust Brom or Einás.

'It's all right,' Brom told her softly, holding his hand out toward her as he had with Saphira. She glared at him. He kept still, trying not to scare her, and eventually she came forward a little way and sniffed his fingers. Einás and Brom kept as still as they could. Slowly, very slowly, Brom lifted his hand. Skade jerked a little at that, but relaxed eventually. Once he was certain she was calm, Brom gently put his hand on her forehead. He could feel her trembling in fright, but again he waited and let her get used to it. She blinked at him, her look still reserved but not as fearful as before.

'It's okay,' he whispered to her, in Elvish. In his lap, Saphira hooted softly.

Skade watched him as he spoke, and said; 'I am Skade. What is your name?'

'My name is Brom,' said Brom.

'You elf?' said Skade.

'No, I'm human,' said Brom.

'Like Taranis?' said Skade.

Brom kept very still, though with an effort. 'You knew Taranis?' he said.

'Hear his name,' said Skade. 'Hear Eragon speak of him. Taranis… evil.'

'Yes, he was evil,' said Brom.

'Eragon evil,' said Skade.

Einás started. Brom withdrew his hand. 'Eragon was evil?' he said. This declaration was so completely out of the blue that he just didn't know what to say.

'Yes,' said Skade. 'Skade hate him.'

'Saphira hate Eragon,' Saphira put in.

'Why?' said Brom.

The two hatchlings eyed each other, their expressions a little confused. Then Saphira said; 'Hard to remember. Eragon… do bad things.'

'Like what?' said Einás.

'Skade remember,' said Skade sharply. 'Eragon take us away. Eragon kill mother. Hear it.'

'Ah.' Einás shifted uneasily. It was indeed true that Eragon had killed Silarae, at least indirectly. His dragon, Sunlight, had fought and defeated her in the sky, and when Eragon slew Taranis in hard-fought combat the shock of his demise had killed Silarae as well. But this other thing was news to her. 'Eragon… took you away?' she said.

'Stole us,' said Skade. 'Took us from father and mother.'

'I remember,' said Saphira. 'Heard them… mother, father, wanted us back. Eragon not listen.'

Einás sat back. If this was true, it explained everything. 'I'm sorry about that,' she said, glancing at Brom. She hoped he wouldn't tell them that Eragon was her father – she wasn't sure how the two hatchlings would take it.

'If Eragon stole you from your parents, that was a bad thing,' said Brom. 'I don't think he was evil, but…'

'Riders evil!' Skade screeched suddenly, pointing her foreclaw at Saphira. 'Why you hatch for him, Saphira? We not slaves!'

'Not slave,' Saphira retorted. 'Brom kind, nice… felt it. Like him.'

Skade snorted. 'Two-legged things bad,' she said. 'I go look for parents. Want you to come.'

Saphira whimpered. 'Want parents, but want stay with Brom,' she said. 'Love Brom.'

'Brom kind to Skade,' the silver hatchling admitted grudgingly. 'But riders cruel, liars. Eragon liar. Brom lie too.'

'I wouldn't lie to you,' Brom assurred her. 'You can't lie in this language anyway.'

Skade sighed, suddenly losing some of her poised, trembling energy. She subsided onto her belly, muttering; 'Skade hungry. Want food.'

'Oh…' said Einás. 'I'm sorry, I never thought of that. Brom, can you help me?'

Elves are vegetarians, and so Einás didn't have any meat to feed the dragon.

'I've got some dried meat in my pocket,' Brom volunteered. 'I brought it for Saphira.' He pulled some out and offered it to Skade. She took it with a quick snatching motion of the head, and settled down to eat it, growling under her breath. Einás couldn't help but smile at this; Skade might be odd, but she ate just as ravenously as any of the other hatchlings she'd known.

Saphira watched her sister, her look concerned. Brom scratched her ears and said; 'Einás, what do you think about all this? Do you think she's telling the truth?'

'It makes sense,' said Einás. 'My father always said he wasn't proud of how he got those eggs, and, well…' she trailed off, uncomfortably.

'I refuse to believe that he'd steal someone's children,' said Brom. 'I mean… Eragon was…'

'Was a person,' Einás cut in. 'He might have been a hero, but he wasn't perfect. He made mistakes, just like anyone else. But if he did steal these dragons from their parents… well, it's my duty to try and put it right.'

'How?' said Brom. 'They can't still be alive.'

He didn't dare articulate the rest, but Einás knew what he meant. 'I know, but I should do what I can,' she said. 'I should at least find some answers for them.'

'You help Skade?' said Skade, looking up from her meal.

'If I can, yes,' said Einás. She looked at Saphira. 'Saphira, what about you? Do you want me to help you find your parents?'

Saphira shook her head. 'I go with Brom,' she said. 'Parents gone.'

'Are you sure?' Brom asked her. 'I don't mind if you want to find them. I'll help too.'

'You rider,' said Saphira. 'I help you now.'

'All right then,' said Einás. 'And you, Skade? Will you let me help you?'

Skade scratched her face with her claws. 'You help me,' she said. 'But Skade not trust you. I bite you again if you touch me.'

Einás nodded. 'I understand,' she said. 'I think I know what to do now. I'll look after you here – bring you food and keep you safe. But secretly. The others might be… unhappy if they find out I'm raising a dragon when I'm not a rider. It's not taboo, because the idea that it could happen never occurred to anyone. So I want you to swear never to tell anyone, Brom.'

'On my honour as a rider,' Brom smiled.

Chapter Three

A Strange Upbringing

So Skade stayed with Einás, though it was an uncomfortable relationship at first. Brom, along with all the other new riders, departed to begin his training, and of course Saphira went with him, though Brom brought her back to Einás' home to say a last goodbye to her sister. Skade was sullen and angry toward the other dragon, apparently still resentful of her decision to take a human as a partner and become what Skade thought of as a slave.

Others in Ellesméra had thought it a little odd that Brom spent so much of his time with the old egg-guardian, but they saw nothing suspicious about it; the other candidates recalled her sympathetic treatment of him following his initial disappointment. Of much greater interest was the sudden appearance of Saphira. The story Brom told them was simply that he had gone back and begged for another try, and that one of the eggs had hatched after he tried handling it again. They accepted this, though it was much talked about. Nobody had ever heard of an unhatched dragon changing its mind about whether to hatch. Then again, nobody had ever been accepted as a candidate more than once. It meant that Brom gained a fair bit of notoriety, which he accepted gracefully. Saphira wisely avoided speaking except when they were alone, and that was the end of it.

As for Skade, she stayed hidden in Einás' home. For the first few days it seemed she was little more than the elf's prisoner, as she bolted for the door every time it was opened and Einás had to keep the windows closed to stop her climbing out of them. Skade still acted nervously and suspiciously toward her host, hissing if she came too close and only resting when she was hidden in some inaccessible spot under a heavy piece of furniture.

Einás, though, was old, and age brought patience. She did not try and force the dragon to trust her, but let her keep her distance and simply made sure she had food and water whenever she needed it. Otherwise she simply went about her life as normal, hoping that Skade would get used to her. In time the silver dragon did grow a little calmer, and stopped starting whenever Einás entered the room. She absolutely refused to let Einás touch her, though, and the painful fang-marks on her hand were sufficient to stop her from trying it. The little dragon was vocal, though. At first her words were mostly threats and demands, but as she settled into her new home she began using her precocious ability for other purposes. Einás talked back, and in time the two began conversing regularly. Skade's speech improved with practise; in fact it did so so quickly that Einás deduced the dragon knew all the words but simply found it hard to use them properly at first.

Unsurprisingly, more or less the first thing Skade spoke of was her just-remembered parents. Once she had come to trust Einás a little, she recounted the story of her abduction in full, her phrasing clumsy and juvenile but still able to convey a terrible sense of fear and loss. There was anger in her words, too; more anger than Einás had imagined such a young creature could contain. But, as she reminded herself again and again, this dragon was a lot older than she looked.

True to her promise, Einás began to do what she could to find out more about Skade's parents. Searching for Silarae was pointless; she had heard her own father's eyewitness account of her death. That only left the father, this… Ravana. Not wanting to make anyone else suspicious, Einás didn't mention the name to anyone else. Instead she turned to her collection of books on dragons, leafing through them in the hopes of finding some clue. The trouble was that none of the books had indexes, and that the only way to find anything in them was to just flip through the pages in the hopes of spotting something. It was long, tedious work, but sometimes interesting. Einás owned so many books that she had not read all of them from cover to cover, and she rather enjoyed doing so now. It was nice to sit in a comfortable chair and savour the writings of elves and humans long gone. Some of the books had even been written by dwarves. Einás would devote her evenings to reading, and would sometimes read passages aloud for Skade's benefit.

'Look at this one,' she said one day. 'It's rather silly… it claims it can tell you what a dragon's personality is like based on their colour. Says here… "gold dragons are wise and patient; very gifted teachers for young riders or other dragons. The most well-known gold dragon in the world is Glaedr, partner to a powerful elven rider called Oromis". This is nonsense; whoever wrote this was just talking about what Glaedr is like. Ah… here's silver. It says; "Silver dragons are mysterious and somewhat dreamy; they like twilight best of all. There have been no silver dragons paired with riders; for some reason wild dragons have never entrusted silver eggs to anyone". How odd.' Einás flipped through the pages, shaking her head. 'This is ridiculous… mere vanity. Who in their right mind would want to read it? Can't even remember where I got it from. Probably a present from some well-meaning person…' Muttering in this vein, the old elf skimmed the rest of the book in the hopes of finding something more useful in it. There wasn't; the rest of the volume consisted of more entries of a similar kind, each one with a generic drawing of a dragon and a short, fanciful spiel about what such a dragon's nature would be. But, toward the end of the book, one particular picture caught her eye. It was of another dragon, and this one was black. Unlike the other dragon drawings, who were depicted in lush natural settings of mountains and forests, this one was standing against a dramatic backdrop of lightning and rain. Its eyes were an eerie yellow, and its expression menacing. Not thinking, Einás read aloud the text that went with it. '"Black dragons are vicious and evil-tempered, prone to violent and destructive behaviour; they are not to be trusted under any circumstances. The only rider known to ride such a dragon was the notorious and evil Taranis, whose steed Silarae was bravely slain by the famous Eragon and his own dragon, Sunlight."' Einás trailed off, looking around nervously at Skade. The small dragon stared levelly back.

'There's more,' said Einás, scanning the rest of the text. 'It says "only one other black dragon is known to have ever existed; a wild male known only as the Night Dragon. Thought to have been Silarae's mate, he disappeared many centuries ago and his eventual fate is unknown". I think we could be on to something here, Skade.'

'Night Dragon…' said Skade.

'Do you know that name?' said Einás.

'No… not sure,' said Skade.

'I'll see if I can find out more about him, then,' said Einás.

But, after this tantalising lead, the trail went cold. Einás could find no more mentions of such a dragon in her books, search as she might. Frustrated, she sent for more books from the nearby cities. In the meantime, she slowly built up a trust with Skade. It took a long time and much effort, but by the end of their first six months together the silver dragon had stopped hiding and threatening and trying to escape. She had decided that Einás was a friend. The dragon grew very fast during this time, as dragon hatchlings do; after the first three months or so she came up to Einás' knee, and after four she had to struggle to get out through the door. However, though she could probably have made her escape then, she chose to stay. Einás had impressed upon her the importance of staying hidden, and began letting her go out at night. Once Skade became too large to fit inside the house she took up residence in a small grove out the back. Einás would sit out there on an old stump and talk to her, and sometimes the two would go walking together. At other times Skade would take to the air, though cautiously, at night or when it was cloudy.

This time with Skade was one of the happiest in Einás' life so far, though she didn't realise it at the time. Now she had the company she had unconciously longed for her whole life, and it was exactly the right kind. Skade was a reserved creature who never chattered needlessly, and Einás, accustomed to solitude, was comfortable with the silver dragon's silence. As for Skade, she grew to like the old elf very much, though she kept her feelings hidden. She still did not trust any of the other elves, and was more than happy to keep hidden from them. Einás wasn't particularly worried about what might happen if her guest was discovered, but she disliked the idea of the attention that Skade's presence would attract and so kept up the secrecy which, in the end, became more like a habit than a necessity.

The new books arrived in due time, and Einás carried the choicest of them out to the copse to share them with Skade. 'Here we go,' she said. 'There's Famous Dragons of History, and An Account of the Dragons of the Wild. They could help…'

A shout came from around the front of the house. 'Einás! My lady Einás, are you there?'

Einás sighed. 'Excuse me,' she said, and went to find out what was going on. She walked serenely around to the front of the house, and there found a male elf waiting for her.

'My lady Einás!' he said on seeing her.

'Hello, what's all the shouting about?' said Einás.

'Queen Islanzadí requests your presence,' said the messenger, bowing respectfully.

'I see,' said Einás. 'Very well; lead the way.'

The messenger nodded and set off, and Einás followed him patiently through Ellesméra's rich forest to a particularly grand garden where Islanzadí was waiting. The Queen of the elves was tending to some plants, her beautiful face perfectly calm. Einás approached her, feeling an irrational fear that she was in trouble for something. Islanzadí turned to face her when she got close enough. She was even more beautiful than her daughter, if that was possible.

'Ah, Einás,' she said. 'Welcome. Are you well?'

'I am,' said Einás. 'And yourself?'

'I am in excellent health, thankyou,' said Islanzadí. She was always slightly uncomfortable around Einás, who despite her inferior position was in some ways more respected than herself.

'Why did you ask to see me, Your Majesty?' said Einás.

'It would seem… that is, some people are wondering what exactly you have been doing recently,' said Islanzadí, choosing her words with delicacy.

'Why would they find it necessary to pry into my affairs?' said Einás, polite but cool.

'You have been keeping to yourself more than is normal,' said Islanzadí. 'And there have been mysterious sightings recently in your area. Some people have sensed an unfamiliar presence. Sounds have been heard. Now tell me – what is going on?'

Her voice had taken on a slightly hard edge: this wasn't a question, it was a command.

'Forgive me, Your Majesty,' said Einás. 'I have been negligent. Something mysterious has indeed happened, but it was not of my doing. I have kept it secret because I am uncertain how others will deal with it. I should have told you sooner, but I was unsure of myself.'

'Tell me now then,' said Islanzadí, immediately interested.

Einás did.

Some time later, Einás returned to her home and went around to the copse. Skade was there, dozing with her head on her foreclaws. She stirred when Einás came close, and looked at her curiously through her golden eyes.

'Our time alone is over, Skade,' Einás told her. 'The Queen has discovered my secret.'

'Is she angry?' said Skade.

'A little,' said Einás. 'But not very. She says she understands why I kept you hidden. But she commands that I not keep on doing it. You must come before the council of elders, so that they can decide whether you can stay here or not.'

Skade growled. 'Do I need approval to live?' she asked scathingly.

'If you want to live here, yes,' said Einás. 'This is our land, our territory, and outsiders are only allowed to stay if they have permission to. But don't worry; we elves honour dragons very much, and the elders would probably consider it a privilege to have you stay here.'

Skade grunted. 'I won't stay here much longer,' she said.

'I'd like it if you did,' said Einás. 'I… I've enjoyed your company.'

'You are a kind elf,' said Skade. 'I like you. But other elves… I don't trust them.'

'They're all right,' said Einás. 'They'd never hurt you.'

'All right,' said Skade. 'I will go and see these elders, but only if you come with me.'

Einás nodded. 'Thankyou,' she said. 'We'll go tonight.'

That night, the council of elders gathered in their grand hall. There were twelve of them, of both sexes, all chosen for their age and wisdom. Einás had once had a place on the council, but had retired from it to enjoy a quieter lifestyle.

Now the elders sat in a half-circle on chairs woven from living wood, talking gravely amongst themselves. Islanzadí was in the middle, in the highest position, her hands folded demurely in her lap.

When Einás came in, a hush fell in the council hall. The ancient elf walked slowly, and Skade was beside her. The silver dragon was now the size of a horse, and powerful too. Her scales shone brightly in the lantern-light, and her eyes were dark and fierce. The assembled elders rose from their chairs as she came to stand in the circle, and she regarded them impassively.

'Wise elders,' said Einás. 'I present Skade, who is my friend. I vouch for her.'

The formal introduction over, Islanzadí said; 'Now then, Skade, what do you have to say to us?'

Skade watched her carefully while she spoke, and said; 'I am Skade. Einás here has helped me, but I do not wish to stay here in Ellesméra for long. I have things to do.'

'Tradition dictates that only a dragon bonded to a rider may stay with us,' said Islanzadí, apparently displeased by Skade's direct speech. 'However, if you swear to abide by our laws you may stay…'

Skade shook her head. 'Your laws mean nothing to me,' she said. 'And I don't wish to stay. Einás here is my friend, but I consider the rest of her kind to be my enemies.'

'We are not enemies,' said Islanzadí, definitely unhappy with how this was going. 'Peace was made between elves and dragons many centuries ago, and the riders are the symbol of this peace. I ask you to respect this peace, or-,'

Skade rose onto her hind legs, spreading her wings for balance, and pointed an accusing foreclaw at the Queen. 'You are fair and know much, but I do not trust your kind,' she said. 'One you revere, Eragon by name, stole me from my parents while I was in the egg. Now I have lost them and my three nest-mates, and it was all because of him. Your kind kept me captive in a box as if I were a treasure to be hoarded. I have not forgotten this. Like my father before me, I am your enemy. I will find him if it takes me a hundred years, and I will tell him that Eragon murdered my mother. That is all I have to say to you.'

This said, Skade dropped back onto her forelegs and began grooming her wings, completely unflustered.

For a long time Islanzadí said nothing, but her furious gaze fell on Einás, who was horrified. 'Your Majesty,' she said hastily. 'Skade is impetuous and has not learnt about courtesy. Forgive me… I will take her back to my home now.'

Without waiting for permission to go, the old elf hustled Skade out of the council hall, horribly aware of the stares of the elders on her back. Skade went with her, refusing to let herself be hurried.

As soon as they reached Einás' home and the relative shelter of the copse out the back, Einás sat down sharply on her stump, her head in her hands. Skade settled down calmly in her usual spot by a tree, and lay down with a sigh. Einás was silent for a time, but she soon raised her head and looked at Skade. And, after a few seconds, she started speaking.

'I hope you know what you just did, Skade.'

'Told the truth,' said Skade, nibbling at an itch on her foreleg.

'"Told the truth"?' Einás repeated. 'Told the truth? I'll tell you what you just did – you just soundly insulted the Queen of Ellesméra, not to mention the entire council of elders, and made me look extremely bad into the bargain! That's what you just did! What were you thinking?'

'I told them what I was thinking,' said Skade, unmoved. 'You were listening, so you know.'

'Skade, this is insane,' said Einás. 'You have to give up this quest. You must see that your father can't possibly still be alive. You should start a life of your own, and forget all this talk of enemies and revenge.'

'My father is alive,' said Skade, raising her head and looking the elf in the eye. 'He needs me and I need him. I won't stay here.'

'I wouldn't be surprised if they threw you out after that performance,' said Einás. 'They must think I'm mad for taking you in at all.'

'I am a dragon,' said Skade more gently. 'I belong with other dragons, not with elves. And you may be kind and good, but I cannot trust your kind after what they did to me and my family.'

Einás' face softened. 'I suppose you have a right to hate us,' she said. 'I can't imagine what it must be like to be stolen like that. But I know what it's like to lose a family.'

'You lost yours?' said Skade.

'Yes,' said Einás. 'My brother and sister have both died. My father… he and his dragon set out to explore the lands beyond Alagaësia. They were never seen again.'

'Perhaps they are still alive, like my father,' said Skade.

Einás shook her head. 'No,' she said. 'Not after all these years. And if they were still living they would have come back.'

'People come back,' said Skade. 'One day I will prove it.'

Chapter Four

Night Flight

During the days following Skade's appearance before the council, word quickly spread amongst the inhabitants of Ellesméra. Soon every elf was talking about this wild dragon and the insolent speech she had made, and they had not missed the accusations she had made either. There was fascination and more than a little anger in what the elves said amongst themselves. None of them could believe that this dragon could have been stolen from her parents – by the famous Eragon no less – and many were calling her a liar. The result of that was that Skade quickly became an unpopular figure in the elven settlement. She was rude, they said, and did not respect the pact between elves and dragons. She had insulted the memory of the great Eragon, not to mention all the other riders. When others went to Einás' home to find out the truth of all this, Skade met them with bared teeth and savage shouts and hisses. Though Einás tried to restrain her, the dragon drove away anyone who tried to come near.

Inevitably, this meant that Einás' reputation suffered a great deal. Rumours spread that she was senile, or foolish, and had raised the dragon deliberately to be like this. If she hadn't taught Skade to hate all elves, she had still cared for this untamed, vicious creature and brought her to the council in the first place, and that made her culpable. More talk arose from this, and it was much more dangerous than before. If Einás could not control her charge, and refused to send her away, she was breaking the laws of Ellesméra by threatening its peace and security. It was an idea that had not escaped either the council or the Queen. Einás was aware of that, and continually pleaded with Skade to apologise and start learning some manners. But Skade would not, and Einás didn't have the heart to make her leave. The silver dragon was preparing to do so, though, spending much of her time in flight, honing her inbuilt skills, and sharpening her claws on the trees in the copse. Sometimes she would test her strength, too, challenging herself to break thick branches with her claws or her jaws. She had not yet begun to breathe fire, which was a skill young dragons didn't develop straight away, but she was becoming powerful in her body. She was growing larger, too, and if she had had a rider then he or she would have begun attempting to ride her in the air. But she did not, and though Einás summoned up the courage to ask for that privilege Skade's answer was a firm and decisive no.

'I am not a beast of burden,' the dragon said, and Einás had to be content with that.

Two months after Skade's encounter with the council, Einás was dozing in by the fireplace and was awoken by a knock at the door. She got up and went nervously to answer it.

Standing on the doorstep was Queen Islanzadí herself, stone-faced and accompanied by two tough fighters.

'Einás Egg-Guardian,' she said as soon as the door opened. 'I have come to deliver you an ultimatum.'

'Yes?' said Einás, her heart pounding.

'I do not wish to do this,' said Islanzadí. 'But you leave me no choice. Either you send this dragon away, or you will both be banished. You have until tonight to decide.'

'But Your Majesty-,' Einás began.

Islanzadí merely bowed coldly and departed.

Einás closed the door, her head low, and went to speak with Skade. The dragon was waiting for her in the copse, eating a bird she had caught.

'Skade,' said Einás.

'Yes?' said Skade, looking up and spitting out a feather.

'The Queen just came to see me,' said Einás. 'She says you must leave before tonight.'

'But I'm not ready,' said Skade. 'I need to know more about my father.'

'I know,' said Einás. 'It's the Queen's order, and if I don't make you go then she'll banish both of us. Skade, I don't want to be banished. This is my home. Please.'

Skade growled. 'They have no right to send you away,' she said. 'I will fight them if I have to.'

'No!' said Einás. 'Skade, you mustn't. Please be reasonable. I care about what happens to you, but these are my people and I can't make myself their enemy just because you think you have to be one. Haven't I taught you anything?'

'Some things,' said Skade. She watched the anxious elf in silence for a time, and then said; 'If you care about them so much, then I will do as you ask. In return for your help I will go. I can search for my father alone.'

'Thankyou,' said Einás. She sighed and sat back on her stump, and added; 'We have the rest of today. We can check through the last of those books before you go. Who knows? Maybe we'll find what we're looking for at last.'

Skade nodded her agreement, and Einás went to fetch the books. They were still in their cloth wrappings, and she pulled those off and opened the first of the books. They spent the rest of that day flicking through the stack, searching for references to the dragon called Ravana. They found nothing. Or next to nothing. There was a brief mention of a pair of black dragons who had ravaged an ancient city on the coast, reducing it to rubble. Supposedly, they had used some magic to summon a violent storm which had aided their rampage. The book noted that the ability to call up wild weather was one completely unknown in the rest of the world; nobody, elf, dragon, human or otherwise, had ever been able to do this. For some reason this made Einás recall the storm that had raged on the night Skade and Saphira hatched. But she dismissed this as a coincidence.

She had taught Skade the basics of reading, and the silver dragon, having learnt how to recognise her father's name in writing, clumsily turned the pages of one of the bigger and more robust books, looking for it. Conscious of how their time was running out, the elf and dragon worked as fast as they could, not stopping to rest or eat. By the time evening came, both were exhausted. Einás put down the last book and yawned. 'Ah, my eyes are burning from dryness,' she said, sitting back against the stump where the books they'd already read were stacked and closing them. A minute later, not even realising what had happened, she started to snore quietly. Skade watched her friend dozing, and decided to rest before leaving. So she laid her head on her foreclaws and sighed deeply. Shortly afterward, she too was asleep.

Darkness came while Einás and Skade slept, and the deadline passed while they were oblivious. And, from the trees, they were watched by a pair of alien eyes. Their owner waited cautiously. Were they truly sleeping, or would they wake up at the sound of her approach? It paid to be careful… the two of them together could make a formidable team. The stranger delayed a little longer and, certain the time was right, began to approach.

But the instant she set foot out from behind the tree that hid her, she was startled by a loud thumping and shouting coming from the other side of the house. The intruder hissed and retreated into the shadows.

Einás was awakened by the noise, starting upright with a shout of; 'Oh no!'

Skade jerked awake at the sound, and then Einás was there by her, saying; 'It's past the time, Skade. You have to go, now! Quickly, before-,'

But before she finished speaking the shouting stopped, and then Islanzadí was there, her face full of fury and her two strong guards by her side.

'So this is your answer, is it?' said the Queen in her most powerful voice. 'You defy my orders and keep this creature here? Well if that is your answer, so be it. You are banished, Einás Egg-Guardian, and you, Skade, are banished as well. If either of you returns here, you will be arrested and stand trial for high treason.'

'No, no, let me explain-!' said Einás. 'It's not our fault, we fell asleep-,'

'Don't lie to me,' Islanzadí snapped. 'I will not listen to lame excuses. Now go, before I have you imprisoned.'

'But Ellesméra is my home,' Einás almost wailed. 'Please, Your Majesty…'

Islanzadí growled. 'If you will not leave,' she said. 'You two, seize them!'

The guards advanced, drawing their weapons. Einás held up her hands in surrender, tears shining in her eyes. But then Skade acted.

She threw herself in front of the elf, roaring aloud, and knocked the guards aside.

'Skade, no!' Einás shouted.

Skade ignored her. She advanced on Queen Islanzadí, who held out a defiant hand. 'Do not attack me, dragon,' she threatened. 'The penalty for that is death.'

'You shall not hurt my friend,' Skade snarled, and lashed out with a powerful foreleg. Her claws cut into Islanzadí's midriff, tearing the Queen's robes and leaving deep gashes in her body before flinging her violently to the ground. The injured elf shouted to her guards to stop the dragon, but Skade shook them off like fleas. They, realising they couldn't fight the dragon alone, hurried to the Queen's side and carried her to safety. Elsewhere, other elves had seen the fight and were yelling to each other. More guards were rushing to the scene. Skade stood upright, spreading her wings as before, and bellowed defiance back.

Einás acted quickly. She ran inside her home and returned holding an ancient sword and a small bag in one arm. She went straight to Skade's side. The dragon swung around as if to attack her, but she did not.

'Come,' Einás told her. 'Now. We have to get out of here. They'll kill you for this. I'll help you escape, but-,'

But it was already too late. Already guards had surrounded the pair, and now they advanced, holding nets and spears. Einás saw them, and bowed her head, eyes closed, waiting for death to come.

Skade growled at the oncoming guards. One of them threw his net, but she dodged it and leapt into the air. Thrashing her wings, she rose higher until she was out of their reach. They hurled their spears at her, and one of them stuck itself in her belly. Skade screamed and wrenched it out, and flew up and away, over the mountain and into the clouds.

Back at her home, Einás looked up and saw the guards. They had lost Skade, but now they were coming for her. She raised her hands over her head, saying; 'Please don't kill me. I surrender.'

The guards only glared at her. One of them raised his sword.

'No!' said Einás. 'You mustn't!'

'We are sorry, Einás,' said the leader of the guards. 'But the penalty for your treason is death.'

'Well you won't take me without a fight,' Einás rasped back. She snatched up her sword from the ground, and prepared to go down fighting.

But before the first blow could be struck, there was a rushing of air and a great shriek like an eagle. Skade came shooting down from the heavens, and at the lowest part of her swoop she grabbed Einás in her claws and bore her away.

The guards on the ground shouted in rage and surprise, but they were too late. They stood and watched as the silver dragon carried her guardian away over Ellesméra, struggling a little with the weight but still flying strongly. Some of them fired arrows after the pair, but they all missed and soon they were out of sight.

A little way away, Islanzadí struggled to sit up. Her robe was bloodied, but she was not seriously injured. 'Let them go,' she gasped. 'They are banished. But if they come back, kill them both.'

Somewhere in the forests of Du Weldenvarden, Skade came in to land in a clearing. She did so clumsily, dropping Einás as gently as she could before landing heavily nearby, panting and holding one hind leg off the ground.

Einás landed safely enough on a heap of leaves, but lay still on her back for a time, just staring at the sky in stunned silence. Her sword and her bag were on the ground next to her, and she groped around vaguely for them, found them, and clutched them tightly to herself for comfort. Skade came limping over to her after a moment, and carefully prodded her arm with her claws.

'Are you all right, Einás?' she asked.

Einás turned her head and stared at the dragon through glassy eyes. 'What have we done?' she murmured. 'Skade, what have we done?'

'Defended ourselves,' said Skade. 'Are you injured?'

'No, I don't think so,' said Einás. 'But… banished? No, no, this can't be happening, not to…' Suddenly the elf was sitting up, her belongings falling unheeded to the ground. She pointed at Skade. 'You!' she screamed. 'You did this! Why did I ever trust you? You've lost me my home, and my friends, and for what? A stupid grudge toward people who died centuries ago!'

'I'm your friend,' said Skade.

Einás sighed. 'If I'm your friend, you should treat me more like one,' she said. 'You should have listened to my advice. Why didn't you wake me up? Why did you let me sleep?'

'I was sleeping as well,' said Skade. 'I didn't mean to… I just closed my eyes and it was nighttime when I opened them.'

'This is strange,' said Einás, frowning. 'Why would we just both fall asleep like that? I am prone to do that a little these days, but you're young. You shouldn't be dozing off just like that. Had you eaten something – some herb that made you drowsy?'

'No,' said Skade. 'But I remember… before I fell asleep, I remember feeling weak and drowsy all of a sudden.'

Einás got up a little unsteadily and began pacing around the clearing, deep in thought. 'That sounds like a spell,' she said. 'But who would have cast one on us like that? Did someone in Ellesméra have a grudge against me? It doesn't make sense…'

Skade's head went up. 'I smell something, Einás,' she said, narrowing her eyes.

'What is it?' said Einás.

Skade sniffed carefully. 'I'm not sure,' she said. 'I can't catch it any more… perhaps I imagined it.'

'Well, we can't stay here much longer,' said Einás. 'We should move on. There are places we could go… I have friends outside Ellesméra.'

Skade nodded. 'Climb onto my back,' she said.

'Are you sure?' said Einás. 'I'm not your rider…'

'No, you are my friend,' said Skade. 'I owe you for your help. Carrying you is the least I can do.'

'Thankyou,' said Einás, bowing. She gathered her belongings and seated herself on Skade's back, in the hollow over her shoulderblades where there were no spikes. Skade took off, with more difficulty than usual, and the two of them set out.

In the trees below, the shadow that had watched them in Ellesméra came out into the clearing and watched them go. Her weird eyes narrowed. She muttered something under her breath, and began to follow them as fast as she could go.

Einás and Skade flew on and out of Du Weldenvarden. It was the first time Einás had flown on a dragon's back in the conventional way, though once her father had allowed her to sit behind him on Sunlight when she was a child. In spite of the trauma of that day, and the ache of loss in her heart, she found a fierce joy in the experience. At last she was flying on a dragon's back just as a rider did, and though they were not linked it was the closest she had ever come to being what she had always longed to be. As for Skade, she found that she didn't mind carrying the elf and in fact felt glad to be helping her. Before, she had refused to even contemplate the idea – to carry someone like a horse would mean becoming a servant, at least in her eyes. But now she had changed her mind she found it didn't feel demeaning at all. Instead it felt like what it was – helping a friend. She also found she was glad that Einás was with her. Once she'd wanted nothing more than to go out into the wild and fend for herself, but she had grown to love Einás and her kindness and wisdom. The elf had taught her a lot about the world and shared her own feelings and memories, and Skade sensed that this was not something that should be taken lightly. She had thought of leaving her to her fate when the guards had attacked, but the thought of betraying her in this way became repellent almost as soon as she thought of it. So she had saved her life. And now, to her shock, she found she was feeling guilty for what she had done. Inexperienced though she was, Skade sensed that she should try and do something to make it right again. But no apology felt adequate to repair such a powerful and lasting blow, and so she kept her silence.

Eventually Einás said; 'We need to decide where we're going. We can go to Ilirea, where Brom is, or to Teirm. I have a friend there.'

'I want to see Saphira again,' said Skade.

'Yes, but will she be able to help us?' said Einás.

'Could,' said Skade, with a touch of her old childish mode of speech.

'Well, it's your choice,' Einás sighed. 'I'm too worn out to argue.'

'To Ilirea, then,' said Skade. 'Which way is it?'

'South-west. That way,' Einás mumbled, indicating the direction before slumping forward, her head resting on Skade's neck.

Skade leant sideways, turning on one wing, and began to head for Ilirea with slow, steady wingbeats.

Chapter Five

Devadatta

The journey to Ilirea was a long one. For days Skade and Einás travelled together, spending all day flying and sheltering wherever they could at night. During those days they learnt how to survive in the wilderness, and Skade discovered many of her innate talents, including one for hunting. She'd caught a few animals in the past, but this was hunting for survival rather than fun. She was always bewildered by Einás' vegetarianism, and one evening said; 'Meat tastes good, Einás. Will you try some of this?'

The silver dragon offered up the deer she'd caught.

Einás hesitated. 'I shouldn't,' she said.

'Why?' said Skade, genuinely bewildered. 'It's food. Why would you not eat food?'

Einás paused, and then said; 'Ah, to blazes with it. Yes, I'll take some.'

She cut off some meat from the deer's leg, and spitted it over the fire to cook, and once it was ready she ate it. 'Aahh,' said the old elf. 'That tastes good. I haven't eaten meat in centuries.'

'Why not?' said Skade.

'It's the custom among elves to not eat meat,' said Einás. 'It wasn't always like that. When I was young we ate meat just like humans do. But then Queen Islanzadí's predecessor decided we should stop. He thought it would make us purer somehow… I personally didn't believe it.'

'Purer?' said Skade. 'What does that mean?'

'It means better, in a way,' said Einás, sighing. 'The humans, you see. After humans started becoming Riders, elves became jealous… thought they were taking on too many of our powers and abilities. So they looked for ways to make us seem better than them. Stupid, really. They invented a set of morals we suddenly had to live by, instead of just doing as we pleased. We had to become "refined"… I wasn't happy with it because it felt unreal – forced. But I went along with it because I wanted to live in peace. Anyway, it's over now. I can do what I like again.'

She said this with a twisted, bitter half-smile on her face, and Skade listened with fascination.

'You elves are so strange,' the dragon said with wonder in her voice. 'You go against your true natures over a matter of pride, as if that mattered.'

Einás sighed. 'You're right, really,' she said. 'First that, and now Islanzadí banishes me just like that… we never act so hastily. I think the elves are declining in some way, Skade. Somehow, in some way I can't see, we're losing ourselves. And I have a horrible feeling that the world will decline with us.'

'The world is fine, Einás,' said Skade, tearing into her food. 'And I prefer to think about the here and now.'

'Yes, I suppose so,' Einás mumbled, sitting back.

The two of them sat companionably by the fire for a while, and then Skade suddenly looked up. Her golden eyes narrowed and she sniffed, making a loud blast of air disturb the silence.

'What is it?' said Einás.

'Something is nearby,' said Skade. 'I can smell it. Not a scent I know. Wait…'

Einás waited, listening intently. She thought she heard a rustling somewhere, but wasn't certain. She was about to ask for more information, but then Skade moved. The dragon leapt forward and upward in an instant, half-opening her wings. She launched herself straight at the branches of a large tree, and when she reached it she swung around, breaking several branches and knocking something dark and moving into the clearing where they were camped. The thing, the creature, streaked through the campsite toward Einás, but Skade was faster. She landed, turned and pounced, pinning the thing down with her foreclaws. Einás had stood up very fast, and now hurried over to see.

'What the-?' she exclaimed.

Under Skade's foreclaws, hissing and struggling, was a very large cat.

'Let me go, cursed lizard!' it shouted.

Skade growled loudly in return, but said nothing.

'Skade,' said Einás. 'Let it go.'

'Why?' said Skade. 'It was spying on us.'

'No, Skade, you don't understand,' said Einás. 'That's a werecat.'

'A what?' said Skade, glaring at the cat, which was lying still and glaring at her.

'A werecat,' said Einás. 'They're dangerous to offend. And this one might be a friend.'

'Are you?' said Skade, to the cat.

'Maybe, maybe not,' said the cat. 'But your friend is correct. Let me up.'

Skade glanced at Einás, who nodded quickly. 'All right then,' said the dragon reluctantly, and lifted her claws.

The cat was upright in a flash, scuffling backward away from Skade as fast as it could go. It was much larger than an ordinary cat, and had short, glossy golden fur trimmed with a white stomach and jowls and black-tipped ears.

'I congratulate you,' it said to Skade, its tail lashing. 'You caught me off-guard. Not many could do that.'

'Thankyou,' said Skade.

'I'm sorry about that,' said Einás. 'Skade is impetuous. Are you hurt?'

'I am fine,' said the cat, sitting back and wrapping its tail neatly around its paws.

'Now then,' said Einás. 'Who are you? My name is Einás Egg-Guardian. I am from Ellesméra.'

'I am called Devadatta,' said the cat. 'And you, dragon?'

'My name is Skade,' said Skade.

'Pleased to meet you, I'm sure,' said the cat coolly.

'Why were you spying on us?' said Skade.

'You're very direct,' said Devadatta.

Skade just stared at her. Einás shifted uncomfortably.

'I have been following you for some time,' said Devadatta after a silence. 'Watching you and listening to you talk.'

'Oh? Why?' Einás cut in.

'Simply out of caution,' said Devadatta. 'I wanted to find out about you, Skade. To see if you were like… never mind. I am satisfied that you are not dangerous to us. I have been sent to talk to you by my people. We need your help.'

'Help?' said Einás, blinking.

'Yes, help,' said Devadatta. 'From Skade, but if you will help also, Einás, we would be very grateful. We werecats are being menaced by a Shade.'

Einás breathed in sharply. A Shade…

'Indeed,' said Devadatta. 'Her name is Rangda, and she stole something very valuable from us. We need to have it back, but we cannot fight her alone. We need your power, Skade.'

'Why should I help you?' said Skade.

'Are you afraid?' said Devadatta.

'No,' said Skade. 'But I have things of my own to do, and I won't help you unless there's a reason to do it. So tell me… why should I help you?'

'Because what the Shade stole was a dragon's egg,' said Devadatta. 'That egg was one of three taken from Silarae, the black dragon, by Eragon the first Rider. He entrusted it to the werecats, and kept the other two himself. I was sent to find out what had happened to the other two, and I found you. So, Skade, will you help us rescue your sibling or will you not?'

'There was another?' said Einás, stunned. 'Another egg?'

'Yes,' said Devadatta. 'It was orange. I saw it with my own eyes.'

'Are you sure that egg came from my clutch?' said Skade. 'Are you sure?'

'I am,' said Devadatta.

'Then I will help fight this thing, this… Shade,' said Skade. 'But tell me… why did you keep my sibling's egg?'

'We had hoped that one day we could make a werecat Rider,' said Devadatta. 'But the egg would not hatch.'

'Then it is my sibling,' said Skade, with a touch of pride. 'None of us would hatch and become slaves.'

'Except for your sister,' Einás reminded her sharply.

'Saphira is misguided,' said Skade. 'But it was her own choice and I cannot stop her. But I will rescue my sibling, and we will find our father together.'

'Your father?' said Devadatta. 'You mean Ravana?'

'You've heard of him?' said Skade.

'Yes,' said Devadatta. 'We call him the Night Dragon.'

'What do you know about him?' said Skade.

'Only that he was Silarae's mate, and that he was black like her,' said Devadatta. 'But my great-uncle told me that he once met him. He refused to say much about him, but perhaps he would tell you more if you asked him.'

'What was your great-uncle's name?' said Skade.

'His name is Solembum,' said Devadatta. 'But he doesn't live with us, he lives in the city. I can tell you where to find him once you've helped us.'

Skade nodded. 'Agreed,' she said.

'Agreed,' said Devadatta. 'And you, Einás?'

Einás rubbed her face with her hands. 'I'll help,' she said.

It was painful to turn away from their path toward Ilirea when they were so close to it, but turn away they had to. Devadatta perched daintily on Skade's head and gave directions, ignoring the dragon's irritation. And, two days later, they were in the territory of the werecats. It was a forest of silver birch trees in a mountainous area, a wild and peaceful place. Skade landed in a clear area on a heap of rocks, and allowed Einás to climb down from her back. The elf landed lightly, her sword on her back. Almost immediately other werecats appeared, padding delicately out from among the trees and bushes. They had all different coats – tabby, spotted, black, white and grey, and their eyes gleamed gold, green, yellow and silver in the misty gloom. That wasn't all – among them were what appeared to be several human children, boys and girls, all ragged and wild-looking, and many wearing nothing but bare, dirty skin. They gathered around Skade, all wary and proud.

Skade looked back curiously at them, careful to make no more. Devadatta jumped down from her seat and went to meet her people. One large cat came forward and said; 'Welcome back, Devadatta. So you found what you were seeking?'

'I have,' said Devadatta. 'This is Skade. She hatched recently for this elf, Einás.'

Einás coughed. Devadatta looked around at her, and the elf shook her head slightly.

'You mean you are not this dragon's rider?' the werecat asked.

'No,' Skade interrupted. 'Einás has cared for me, but she is my friend, not my rider.'

She finished by glaring sternly at the assembled werecats, who murmured in surprise. They looked at Einás for confirmation, and she held up the palms of her hands, showing that there was indeed no gedwëy ignasia there.

'And what of the other egg?' asked a different, white-furred werecat.

'The blue egg hatched for a young human,' said Devadatta. 'She is now a rider's dragon.' She glanced uncertainly at Einás and Skade, who nodded.

'My sister was wrong to accept a life of bondage,' said Skade. 'But if we ask her she will help us rescue our sibling. Now tell me; what do you know about this thing, this Shade? I demand that you tell me all you know.'

Einás cringed. The werecats stared at Skade. She stared back. Devadatta started grooming herself as embarrassed cats will, and then a large black werecat said; 'We know some things that may interest you. The stolen egg is orange. We have communicated with the hatchling inside and we know he is male. His name is Kullervo, and he told us his parents were Ravana and Silarae.'

'What else did he tell you?' said Skade.

'That he was taken from them by an elf called Eragon and a human female called Angela, and a werecat called Solembum,' said the black cat. 'We already knew that… it was Eragon and the sorceress Angela who entrusted us with him in the first place.'

'I don't understand something here,' said Einás. 'Why would they take the eggs in the first place? And why go to so much trouble to protect them? Why not give them back to the wild dragons, or destroy them?'

'It was Eragon's idea,' said the black werecat. 'He wanted revenge on Ravana for killing his brothers during the war. If he had had his way, the eggs would indeed have been destroyed. But his dragon, Sunlight, and Angela, persuaded him otherwise. They wanted you, Skade, and your siblings, to grow up well, and they knew that if left with your parents you would have been a threat to the peace between dragons and elves. So they took you, and all three took oaths in the ancient language to do all they could to keep you safe. Eragon took the silver egg – you, Skade – and Angela took the blue one. Later she gave it back to the elves, and Eragon looked after both of them.'

'And later he gave them to his daughter,' Einás finished. 'Me.'

'So you are Eragon's daughter,' said the black cat with renewed respect. 'Welcome to our home, daughter of Angela.'

'Angela?' Skade repeated.

Einás sighed. 'Yes, Angela was my mother,' she said. 'She and my father paired for a while. Half humans like me are rare, and they never fully accepted me back h – in Ellesméra. It's also why I never took well to the new ways. I was never as graceful or patient, either… but it doesn't matter,' she added a little fiercely.

'Either way,' the spokescat resumed, 'We are in danger of breaking our vows if anything happens to Kullervo.'

'I will die to save him,' said Skade, bowing her head. 'But I need to know – what is a Shade, and how can I fight it?'

'Very well,' said the werecat. 'A Shade begins as a human magic user. If he or she dabbles in the manipulation of spirits, he or she risks summoning something too powerful. That is what happened to this one. The spirits she was trying to use conquered her, and now they are using her. She is a monster now – a creature not bound by earthly laws. Her magic is more powerful than that of most riders. We have tried everything to fight her, but we are not strong enough. After Devadatta's mother was killed, she offered to look for help. Which she has brought.' The black werecat dipped his head politely toward Devadatta, who purred.

'How do I kill the Shade?' said Skade.

'It's said a Shade can only be killed by a direct and powerful blow to the heart,' said the werecat. 'But other injuries can stop it for a short while.'

'And where can I find her?' said Skade.

'In a cave not far from here,' said the black werecat. 'I will show you the way. But first you should rest.'

'No,' said Skade. 'I will go now.'

'I will-,' Einás began.

'No,' said Skade again. 'I shall go alone. This is my fight.'

'I swore I'd help you,' Einás reminded her.

'Yes, and it got you banished,' said Skade. 'You have already done too much for me. And besides, it was your parents who hurt me, not you. No, Einás,' she said again, more gently. 'You were mother and father to me. I want you to be safe. Don't be afraid for me.'

Einás sighed. 'If you insist, I won't argue,' she said. 'But I wish you weren't so stubborn.'

Skade chuckled, making a deep, hacking sound in her chest. 'I'll be safe enough,' she said. 'But I would like to ask you a favour.'

'I'm listening,' said Einás at once.

'If I die,' said Skade, 'And you find my father without me… tell him I loved him and wanted to find him more than anything else in the world. And tell him I died well, as I hope I will.'

'I shall,' said Einás, with reverence.

'Then I thank you,' said Skade. She turned to the black werecat. 'I am ready,' she told him.

The werecat nodded, and left the clearing. 'Wait for me,' Skade told Einás, and followed him.

In the Shade's cave, a fire was burning brightly. The Shade was sitting by it, holding Kullervo's egg in her long-fingered hands. She looked more or less like the human she had once been, but her skin was translucently pale and both hair and eyes had turned ghostly silver. Since she wore white, it made her look like an ancient spectre of some kind. Around her neck she wore a necklace of werecat teeth and claws, and her fingers were decorated with silver rings. She was talking to the egg, her voice low and hypnotic.

'I know you can hear me,' she told it. 'Listen to me. Just listen. What harm can that do? I think you have stayed in that egg long enough. Don't you want to run free? See the sky? Breathe in the air, and make it into fire? All those things could be yours if you could find the courage to take them. And you could make history, too. Imagine that. A Shade dragon-rider… there has never been such a thing before. Think how much it would amaze the world. Everyone would remember your name. Everyone. And you could be powerful, too – I could teach you so much…'

The Shade fell silent, waiting expectantly. But the orange egg didn't stir. At that, the Shade lost her temper. 'If you won't listen to reason,' she snarled, snatching it up, 'Then perhaps you will listen to something a little more primal.'

With that, she thrust the egg into the fire, burying it in hot coals. Then she sat back to watch, cold-eyed and curious. A few minutes later the egg's shell, unbreakable to anyone but a dragon, began to glow with heat. A high-pitched squealing came from inside, and the egg began to move. It rocked violently from side to side, just as Saphira's had done, and while the Shade watched greedily it rolled out of the fire and onto the cool stone floor beside it. Once there, it stopped moving. The Shade howled with rage, and at that moment Skade appeared in the entrance. The Shade froze, hand still outstretched toward the egg.

'Stay away from it,' Skade growled.

The Shade withdrew her hand. She looked at Skade, and began to smile. Here was a dragon far more worthy of her attention. Female like herself, and silver too – the colour she liked best.

'Very well,' she said. 'Welcome to my cave, dragon. My name is Rangda. And yours?'

'I am Skade,' said Skade. 'I have come to fight you for my brother's freedom.'

Rangda breathed in sharply, her mind already weighing this new information. 'So this egg has your brother inside it?' she said. 'Well, you don't need to fight if you want him. You just have to do something for me in return.'

'Do what?' said Skade, narrowing her eyes.

'Allow me to become your rider,' said Rangda.

'Never,' said Skade.

'Choose,' said Ranga, picking up the egg and holding it over the fire.

Skade suddenly reared onto her hind legs and let out a deafening roar. It shook the cave walls, making dust and small stones fall from the ceiling. The firelight threw her shadow onto the wall, so it looked as if a huge dark dragon was standing behind her, its wings spread protectively. Thunder rumbled in the sky outside, melding with Skade's roar, and in that moment the silver dragon shed the last of her childhood forever.

But Rangda was not intimidated. She tucked the egg into her clothes and lashed out at Skade with her magic. Skade felt some force strike her hard in the chest, forcing the wind out of her. She fell forward, catching herself with her forelegs, but she wasn't easily defeated either. As soon as she landed she charged straight at the Shade, still roaring as loudly as she could. That did surprise Rangda; she didn't have time to use her magic, and instead tried to move out of the way. She was too late, and Skade struck her in the torso, claws first. They tore into the Shade, inflicting terrible wounds. But Rangda did not cry out as a human would have. She fell, blood pouring out of her. Skade leapt on top of her, mouth open wide and fangs gleaming. Rangda rolled out of the way and blasted Skade with magic again. The spell caught the dragon on the hind leg, and immediately the limb went cold and numb and refused to move. Skade hobbled around to face the Shade, dragging her leg and snarling. Rangda scrabbled upright, showing no sign of having been slowed down by her injury. Skade went after her, but her paralysed leg made her clumsy. Rangda grinned and cast the same spell again, this time on the other hind leg. Skade howled and collapsed, trying vainly to drag herself over the floor with her forelegs. Rangda sat down just out of reach, her breathing perfectly calm.

'You fought well,' she said. 'I congratulate you. Clearly, you have the spirit of a warrior. Now, I make my offer again. Will you agree to bond with me? You have seen my power. I am a worthy rider. If you say yes, I will let your brother go.'

'You are a liar,' Skade rasped.

'No,' said the Shade. 'Listen.' She spoke in the ancient language, saying; 'I swear that if you choose me as your rider, I will give your brother his freedom.'

Einás had taught Skade about the language's power, and the silver dragon knew that the Shade's oath was now unbreakable.

'Then I agree,' she said, knowing it was the only way to save Kullervo.

'Say it again in the ancient language,' said Rangda, taking out the egg and holding it up in one cold hand.

Skade tried again to get up, but her hind legs slid out from under her. She lay back, wishing she had let Einás come with her. Now, more than ever, she needed the elf's help. Her pride had been her downfall. But at least, she thought, at least Kullervo would be safe. And perhaps having a rider wouldn't be so bad after all.

'You'll have to tell me which words to say,' she said. 'I don't know the ancient language well enough.'

'As you wish,' said Rangda. She began reciting the words, one by one, and Skade repeated them until she knew them by heart. Once she was ready she began to say them in sequence, slowly and carefully so as to get them right. As she did, she could feel a tingle of magic moving over her scales, binding her to her word. Once she had said the last one, she would be trapped by them for the rest of her life.

But it was at that crucial moment that Einás charged into the cave, shouting an elvish battle-cry, her sword in her hand. Before Rangda could react to this, the old elf reached her and swung the sword. Its worn blade cut through the Shade's arm, sending both egg and limb flying. Einás kicked Rangda in the face and hurled herself across the cave, catching the egg before it hit the floor. Rangda screamed and turned about, her remaining hand moving to the hilt of her own sword. But then Skade moved too. She lurched forward clumsily, opening her mouth wide to bite. A plume of bright silver fire came from her throat, and engulfed the Shade. For a time Rangda could still be seen, thrashing helplessly, but when the flame disappeared she too was gone. Only her sword was left behind, glowing orange with heat.

With the Shade's disappearance, Skade found she could move her legs again. She got up, a little awkwardly, and went to help Einás.

The half-elf was lying on her side, breathing heavily. Her sword was beside her on the floor, and she was holding the egg tightly in both hands, hugging it to her chest. When she saw Skade looking down at her she rolled over onto her back, staring vaguely at the dragon.

'Did – it work?' she gasped.

'It did,' said Skade. 'Are you hurt?'

'Fine,' said Einás, still breathless. 'I was winded by the landing. Here.' She held out the egg. Skade took it, closing her eyes and sighing at the reassuring, smooth weight of it in her claws. They had done it. She helped Einás up with her free paw. The elf stood, rubbing her back 'I hadn't used that sword in years,' she muttered. 'Ouch. Still, it was worth it. And you, Skade? Are you all right?'

'Yes,' said Skade, holding out her foreleg so her friend could lean on it.

'Thankyou,' said Einás, shaking her shoulders to loosen them and taking the proffered limb.

'You broke your promise,' said Skade.

'Of course I did,' said Einás, rather crabbily. 'I cared too much about you to stay behind for long.'

'You were right to come,' said Skade. 'I should never have asked you not to. Forgive me, Einás, for my arrogance.'

Einás shook her head. 'I know why you did it,' she said. 'And I understand.'

'Thankyou for saving me,' said Skade.

'You're welcome,' said Einás. 'Now, let's get out of here.'

Skade nodded. She held out the egg and said; 'Carry it for me, Einás. I trust you with him.'

Einás took it. The hard, smooth shell brought back many different memories, and she sighed. She picked up her sword, and followed the silver dragon out of the cave.

Chapter Six

Hero's Reward

Later, they sat around a large fire and celebrated with the werecats. Skade had presented the black-furred chieftain with the Shade's sword, and now the tribe was caught up in the wild and primal festivities of their kind. Various werecats, including Devadatta, brought instruments – flutes, harps and drums – and began to play, their music joyful and unrestrained and animal. Skade in particular enjoyed this, and swayed to the beat, humming deep in her throat. She and Einás had the place of honour by the fire, and were brought all manner of strange dishes – fruits even Einás had never seen, edible leaves and meat in the form of small rodents and birds, which were served raw and with the fur and feathers still on. Skade was more than happy to eat those, though Einás inexplicably decided to invoke the elvish custom of vegetarianism.

And all through the night the celebrations went on. Various werecats came forward to tell stories and sing songs, and Einás was invited to do the same, and recited a poem about her father's fight with a powerful Urgal chief. Skade had no poems or stories or songs, and so when she was asked to join in she said; 'I know no poems of words, but I can make a song in the sky. Watch!'

She took off, her scales shining in the firelight, and began to fly around just above the treetops, turning and looping, her wings closing and fanning open by turns, her silver scales shining in the starlight. Skade was nowhere near as experienced as most other dragons in the world, and had none of the training she would have had if she had been a rider's dragon. But she was naturally gifted in the air, and her acrobatics impressed the werecats, who cheered loudly in response, awed by the spectacle. Skade came in to land neatly by Einás, panting and grinning.

Later, when the food was all gone and the party was beginning to wind down, Einás and Skade talked.

'What are you going to do?' said Einás. She indicated the egg, which lay between them, protected by Skade's big front paws. 'I'm sure the werecats will let you take him, but what are you going to do now you have him?'

Skade scratched her head-spikes with a claw. 'I still want to find our father,' she said, yawning a little. 'I'm sure Kullervo will want to help us if he hatches.'

'And if he doesn't?' said Einás. She picked up the egg and examined it, admiring its rich orange shell.

'He will,' said Skade. 'Here.' She took the egg from her friend as politely as she could, and stroked it with her claws, whispering; 'Can you hear me Kullervo? This is your sister, Skade. I've got you. You're safe. You can come out now. I'll protect you. It's Skade, Kullervo. Our parents were Ravana and Silarae. I'm trying to find our father. If you hatch now, we can find him together. It's all right now, Kullervo. It's safe now.'

Her voice was soft, almost motherly. She put the egg down once the words ran out, and said; 'Now all we have to do is wait for him to decide.'

'I hope the Shade hasn't hurt him,' said Einás.

'He's my brother,' said Skade, with some pride. 'He's strong.'

'For sure,' Einás smiled.

They waited for some time, until the fire burnt down and most of the werecats had reverted to cat form and begun dozing on the warm ground. Eventually the moon rose. Skade was half-sleeping herself when the egg finally moved. It shook from side to side, and high piping calls came from inside. Skade lifted her head sharply at the sound, and nudged Einás. The half-elf woke up with a start, her eyes immediately turning toward the egg, which began to move more vigorously. Skade folded her legs under her body and watched in silence.

Flakes of shell came away from the egg, which moved and was still, and then moved again. Finally, beneath the excited eyes of elf and dragon, the egg split open and disgorged its contents onto the ashes by the fire. The dragon hatchling, who was of course the same flame-orange colour as his shell had been, lay on his stomach, gasping for breath. Skade and Einás both sighed in relief. The hatchling rested for a few seconds, and then made an attempt to get up. But his legs were wobbly and wouldn't support him, and he flopped back into the pool of egg-slime, much as his sister had fallen in the Shade's cave only a few hours ago.

Einás chuckled compassionately. 'Here, let me help you, poor little thing,' she said, reaching out to lift the hatchling onto his feet.

But as soon as she made contact with his scales she cried out and fell backward, clutching at her hand as if she had been stung.

'Einás!' said Skade, catching the elf and supporting her with a gentle claw. 'What's wrong?'

Einás pulled herself back into a sitting position, and stared at the palm of her hand. 'No,' she said. 'No, it can't be that…'

But no matter how much she denied it, she could not stop it. Silver light gathered under her skin, rising from inside her like a leaf rising to the surface of a pool. It glowed like moonlight, and then faded, leaving behind the perfect shape of a circle.

For a long time both Skade and Einás just stared at the elf's hand, not even noticing the orange hatchling who crouched so near. Then Skade looked at her newly-hatched brother, her golden eyes wide. He finally managed to stand up, and waddled toward Einás. She looked as him as if she had no idea what she was seeing. She was so shocked that her eyes had gone slightly glazed. The orange dragon touched her leg and looked up at her face. His own eyes were dewy bright, the same fiery gold colour as Skade's were.

Einás looked back at him, and rational thought slowly trickled back. That's not just any dragon, she thought. It's mine. My hatchling. I'm a rider.

A rider. She, Einás Egg-Guardian, daughter of Eragon, was a rider. After living for so long alone and then losing everything she had, she had been given her heart's desire. But even as she reached out to touch her new partner, she hesitated. She hadn't forgotten Skade's reaction to Saphira's joining with Brom, and now she turned toward the silver dragon, afraid of what she might do.

Skade didn't look angry; she was looking at the hatchling and the half-elf, her expression utterly bewildered.

'Skade,' said Einás in her kindest voice. 'I don't know why this happened. It's never… I mean, he chose me. I didn't mean for this to happen. Skade?'

Little Kullervo watched this, all innocent curiosity, and wandered over to his sister. He nudged Skade's paw, which was bigger than he was, and chirped.

'Skade!'

Skade started. 'You too?' she said.

'Skade Kullervo's sister?' said Kullervo.

'Yes, Kullervo, I am,' said Skade, with a tenderness in her voice which Einás had never heard before.

Kullervo grinned, and Einás noticed that, unusually among dragons, two of his lower fangs peeked over his upper lip, instead of the other way around. The orange dragon came to her, and she stroked his head with her fingers, still tensely waiting for Skade's reaction.

The silver dragon heaved a deep sigh, and finally said; 'Einás, you are the first person I ever spoke to, and the only one I ever fully trusted. You are also the only living creature apart from my parents and siblings that I truly feel love for. If I ever had to choose the best person to care for my brother and be his friend, it would be you.'

Einás could hardly believe it. 'So… I have your blessing?'

'You both do,' said Skade. 'I know now that I was wrong. Riders are not evil. I saw how much Brom cared for Saphira, and I know you well enough to be sure that you will treat Kullervo as he should be treated. I trust you with my brother's life.'

Einás looked into Skade's fierce eyes, and then wrapped her arms around the dragon's neck, hugging her tightly.

'Thankyou,' the old half-elf whispered. 'Thankyou so much, Skade.'

Skade submitted to the hug, somewhat embarrassed, and Einás let go. She sat down again, and lifted Kullervo onto her lap.

'You saved my life,' Skade told her. 'And you saved his. Your father's vow is fulfilled. You are free to go wherever you choose. I can take you to Ilirea so you can join the other riders… whatever you ask.'

Einás shook her head. 'We'll go with you,' she said.

'The vow-,' Skade began.

'Forget the vow,' said Einás. 'I'm going with you because I'm your friend.'

'You mean that?' said Skade.

'On my honour as a rider,' said Einás, and then she suddenly burst out laughing.

Skade watched, bemused, as the half-elf laughed and laughed, finally leaning back against the silver dragon's shoulder, her own shoulders shaking with mirth. The noise woke up the nearest werecats, and they gathered around curiously, much surprised and pleased when they saw Kullervo.

'Look,' said Einás, holding out her hand. When the werecats saw the silver mark, they let out a great shout. Others came to investigate, and they found Einás standing proudly with Kullervo perched on her shoulder, holding out her palm for them to see. Even Skade felt happy to see it. As for the werecats, they were every bit as jubilant as they'd been when Skade had told them the Shade was defeated. The celebrations began again under the silver moon, and the werecats took on their childlike forms and sang a new song, one that told of the coming of a rider.

That night, Einás slept against Skade's warm flank, with Kullervo by her side. The dreams that came to her were different than the ones she had dreamt before. Now, no matter where she roamed in sleep, Kullervo was by her side. She dreamt of her father, riding between Sunlight's massive yellow shoulders. But now she was flying beside him, carried by a much older Kullervo, a Kullervo at least as big as Sunlight was. Einás smiled in her sleep, reaching out to touch the orange hatchling. Kullervo sighed and rested his head on her hand, and the two of them slept on, sharing their dreams.

Next morning they were woken up by Skade. The silver dragon's were unusually bright; Einás sensed she was feeling happy.

'Are you ready to go on?' Skade asked.

'I am,' said Einás, yawning. The werecats had quietly vanished sometime during the night. Kullervo stirred, and Einás scooped him up in her arms. 'I've had an idea about where to go,' the old half-elf added. 'There are two people in Alagaësia whom we can go to for help.'

'I'm listening,' said Skade.

'Kullervo happy!' Kullervo declared suddenly.

'Me too, Kullervo,' said Einás, hugging him. 'Now then. The people we can go to are the dragon leader Thornessa, and an elf called Vrael.'

'Who is this elf?' said Skade.

'He's the leader of the riders,' said Einás. 'And nearly as old as I am. Nobody knows more about the ways of the riders. I suppose,' she added, 'Now I'm a rider I should swear allegiance to him.'

'But you'd prefer not to?' said Skade.

'Well, it would feel a bit odd,' Einás mumbled. 'Besides, I am an exile. Vrael may well have been asked to arrest me. Still, I think we can trust him.'

'Why?' said Skade.

'For one thing, he's my nephew,' said Einás.

Skade smiled. What an odd thing family was. 'And for another?' she prompted.

'Vrael!' said Kullervo cheerfully.

'Also, he's a rider,' said Einás. 'And every rider respects me because I was the one who united them with their dragons in the first place. And I'm a rider too now,' she added with some pride. 'We're above the laws of elvish, dwarvish and human rulers. So Vrael can ignore Islanzadí's commands if he wants to. He might not want to make him angry with her, though… we'll have to be careful.'

'And what about this dragon?' said Skade.

'Thornessa,' said Einás. 'She leads the wild dragons. I've never seen her, but every three years she send a messenger with eggs for me to care for. At least, she used to,' she added rather sadly. 'Anyway… technically she's your ruler. She refuses to allow anyone but another wild dragon to see her, so Kullervo and I can't go. I'll tell you where to find her, and you can go alone.'

Skade shuffled her wings. If she went to see this dragon, it would be her first long period of time away from Einás. 'Do you think,' she said. 'That we should separate? That you should go to Vrael, and I should go to the dragons?'

'Absolutely not,' said Einás. 'If we separate, we'll be weakened. And it's too dangerous for us to do that. I can't afford to lose touch with you, especially while Kullervo is still small. No, we'll go together to see Vrael, and then we'll go to the mountains where the wild dragons are. Kullervo and I will wait at the edge of their territory for you.'

Skade nodded, feeling much happier. Though once the idea would have horrified her, she didn't want to be parted any more than Einás did. 'Then we'll go to Vrael,' she agreed. 'Where is he?'

'Riders travel a lot,' said Einás. 'But he's probably in Ilirea, which is lucky. We can be there in a few days.'

'We can see Brom and Saphira, too,' said Skade.

'If they're there, yes,' said Einás.

Skade crouched and held out her leg for her friend to climb up. Einás picked up her pack and sword, pausing when she found Rangda's own weapon by the dead fire. 'It's a good sword,' she said. 'I suppose we can keep it as a trophy.' She tucked both swords into her belt and climbed onto Skade's back, lifting Kullervo up with her and seating him in her lap. Then Skade took to the air, and their journey resumed.

Over the next few days the three of them travelled together, and it was a very different journey than the one that had led them to the werecats' forest. The sense of desperation had left them, and now they travelled with a new feeling of purpose and resolve. Skade was almost deliriously happy at the presence of her small brother, and the two dragons quickly developed a special relationship. They talked together for hours at a time, with Kullervo's speech improving steadily. She taught him about flying and hunting, and told him stories about her early life. Soon he was able to fly just behind her, his small orange wings flickering wildly but with growing confidence.

But the biggest change was in Einás. In those first, wondrous days following her bonding with Kullervo, the old half-elf shed centuries like an old set of clothes. Her walk lost its tired shuffle, and her eyes became bright. She stopped dozing off. Various aches and pains disappeared. More mysteriously, her white hair slowly began to change back to its former rich honey-brown. Her personality changed too. She said less and laughed more, and developed a new appreciation for living. She also lost her anger over the injustice of her banishment, though the sadness for her lost home remained.

Later, all three would look back on those days as some of the happiest in their lives. When Ilirea finally came in sight, it seemed all too soon.

Kullervo, flitting ahead, was the first to see it. He flew back and landed on Skade's head, holding onto her horns for balance.

'There's spikes ahead,' he announced.

'Spikes?' said Einás, puzzled.

'Like these,' said Kullervo, patting the backward-pointing spikes which crowned Skade's head. 'Six. All long and white and pointy.'

'The towers of Ilirea!' Einás exclaimed. 'We've made it, Kullervo.' She patted Skade's neck. 'Did you hear that, Skade? We're there!'

Skade laughed a booming laugh, and rolled playfully to the side, forcing Einás to hold on tightly.

'Skade!' the half-elf shouted. 'I asked you not to do that!'

'What are you afraid of?' Skade teased. 'That I might do… this?' She lurched upward, then executed a neat barrel roll in the air. Kullervo yelped and fell off, catching himself with his wings. Einás yelled, hanging on for dear life, but Skade nudged her back into place with her elbow and flew on, her laughter drowning out her friend's complaints.

Soon afterwards, the towers of Ilirea were plainly visible to all three of them. They were indeed white, and thrust up into the sky like the spikes on a dragon's head. The city was a high one, designed specifically for dragons and their riders. Closer to, the towers were revealed to be not smooth, but honeycombed with openings big enough to admit a large dragon. Those higher up were the biggest, intended for the gigantic steeds of senior riders. Multicoloured banners, decorated with twisting dragon designs, fluttered from the walls, and every stone of every wall sparkled. More wonderfully, though, there were dragons. They circled lazily around the towers, and more were perched on the outer walls. They were in every different colour, and their scales shone in the sun. Every single one had a rider. Occasionally one would twist lazily in mid-flight, wings flicking like giant fans. They were the first adult dragons Skade had ever seen, and she cooed in delight, sounding much younger all of a sudden.

'Skade, would you land here before we enter?' said Einás unexpectedly, only just audible above the wind.

Skade reluctantly began her descent, asking; 'Why?'

'We should prepare ourselves before we enter the city,' said Einás.

They landed, Skade hitting the ground with a thud and Kullervo alighting on a tree branch. There Einás set about collecting herbs from among the trees, while the two dragons waited patiently. Skade settled down to groom her wings and claws, and Kullervo hopped from branch to branch, chasing a squirrel.

Eventually Einás returned, carrying several sprigs of different plants. Skade watched silently as the half-elf crushed the herbs using a pair of flat stones, adding some water from a flask in her bag. She ended up with a strange pink-brown paste. She scooped some of it into the palm of her right hand, and rubbed it in with her thumb, covering the gedwëy ignasia. When she washed of the paste with some more water, it left behind a faint brown stain, making her hand look slightly grubby but otherwise unmarked.

'Why did you do that?' said Skade.

'Best nobody knows I'm a rider unless I decide to tell them,' said Einás. 'You'll keep it secret, yes?'

'I will,' said Skade.

'And you, Kullervo?'

'Kullervo won't tell,' Kullervo promised.

'Thankyou,' said Einás. 'Now… just a few more things left to do…'

She took a clean robe from her bag and put it on, demurely going behind a bush to do so, put the Shade's sword in her bag along with her old torn robe, and hid the bag in some undergrowth. This done, she sat down by Skade and combed her hair.

'Can't demand an audience with Vrael without looking neat,' she muttered.

Skade yawned. 'Your grooming is strange.'

'I suppose it is, really,' Einás conceded. 'I'm ready to go now.'

She put her sword back into her belt and held out her arm for Kullervo. He landed on it, and Einás returned to Skade's back. The silver dragon took off, and they resumed their approach toward Ilirea. They were spotted by the sentries almost straight away, and two dragons, one red and one green, flew out to meet them.

'Identify yourself!' one rider shouted.

'I am Einás Egg-Guardian, here to see Lord Vrael,' Einás shouted back.

That appeared to puzzle the two riders. Their dragons hovered uncertainly for a while, and then the red dragon's rider said; 'Very well. Fly to the lowest entrance of the tallest tower. There will be people there to receive you.'

'Thankyou, young man,' said Einás politely. 'Let's go, Skade.'

Skade nodded and flew on over the walls, flanked by the two sentries. Kullervo shifted nervously on Einás' arm. 'I have a bad feeling about this,' he mumbled.

'It's all right, Kullervo,' said Einás. 'And Skade, please try and be polite while we're here. The riders are wise, but they're fierce too. Will you do that for me? After what you did in Ellesméra, our position is dangerous enough already.'

Skade snorted. 'If they are like Islanzadí, they don't deserve my respect,' she said. 'But if you ask me to, I will.'

'Thankyou,' said Einás, much relieved.

They had reached the tower now, and Skade entered its lowest opening as instructed, folding her wings to avoid hitting the sides. The two sentries peeled away just before she did so, and returned to their posts. The space beyond the entrance was large and cavernous, more than big enough for Skade to fit. She landed on the polished white stone floor, already on the lookout for danger.

Several riders entered the cave from the numerous human-sized doors at its far side. They appeared to be quite agitated, but they greeted Einás warmly enough.

'Welcome to Ilirea, Egg-Guardian,' said their apparent leader.

Einás squinted at his face. 'Ah, I remember you,' she said. 'You came to me about ten years ago, I think. Your dragon is brown, yes?'

'Yes, Egg-Guardian,' the rider admitted, sagging a little. He looked at Skade and at Kullervo, who was crouched by his sister's forepaw. 'And who are these dragons? Who are their riders?'

'They have none,' said Einás, which was true in a way, since Kullervo was too small to be ridden. 'This is Skade, and her brother Kullervo.'

'But if the silver one is wild, why does she let you ride her?' said the rider. He sounded bewildered.

'Because I am her friend,' said Einás. 'I saved her life, and the life of her brother. I have come here to ask Lord Vrael for help on their behalf.'

'And what help is that, may I ask?'

'They are trying to find their father,' said Einás.

'Why is that important enough to come here for?' one of the other riders asked.

Einás smiled. 'That is something for Vrael to know,' she said.

'Well, he's on his way here now,' the rider told her nervously. 'He would come to see you anyway.'

'I would certainly expect it,' said Einás primly, though her eyes had remained alert and wary during this exchange of pleasantries.

They waited for a few minutes longer, and then another dragon flew in through the cavern entrance. This one was so large it could barely get in through the entrance. Its scales were snowy white, and one its back was an elf nearly as old as Einás. He climbed down from his partner's back, and ran toward her.

'Einás!' he exclaimed. 'What are you doing here?'

'I came to see you,' she said. 'Hello, Vrael. You look well. How are you?'

'Fine and better,' he answered, hugging her briefly. 'And you?'

'I'm well,' said Einás, looking him up and down. Vrael looked strikingly similar to his aunt, though his hair and eyes were black.

'Now,' said Vrael. 'What did you come to see me for?' He nodded to the other riders, who left at once.

'I came for these dragons,' said Einás, indicating Skade and Kullervo.

Vrael went to them. 'Welcome to Ilirea, both of you,' he said. 'I am Vrael, and this is my partner, Nöst.'

Nöst, the white dragon, lowered his head to sniff at the two newcomers, causing Kullervo to scurry behind his sister. Vrael chuckled pleasantly, but his look was still slightly reserved. He returned to his aunt, saying; 'So who are these dragons, and why are they so important?'

'Their names are Kullervo and Skade,' said Einás.

'Ah,' said Vrael, uncomfortably. 'And why are you with them? You're not…?'

'No, no,' said Einás. 'Nothing of the sort. I'm their friend. I'm trying to help them find someone important to them, and we thought you could help.'

'Oh? How?' said Vrael.

'Have you ever heard of a dragon called Ravana?' said Einás.

'Ravana?' said Vrael. 'Of course. He was the wild dragon one of our ancestors killed. It started the elf and dragon war.'

'No, I'm referring to a different Ravana,' said Einás. 'This one was black. They called him the Night Dragon.'

'Oh,' said Vrael. 'I see.'

'So have you heard of him?' Einás pressed.

'I have, but why are you interested in him?' said Vrael.

Einás hesitated. 'Because he was the father of these two dragons,' she said. 'And I swore an oath that I would reunite them if I could.'

Vrael's face darkened. 'This is evil work, Egg-Guardian,' he said. 'I have received word of what the silver dragon did in Ellesméra. And I know that you allowed her to stay there without permission. You stand accused of treason against Queen Islanzadí.'

'So what are you going to do?' said Einás. She sounded quite calm.

'I'm afraid it's my duty to arrest you,' said Vrael.

'If you want to, do so,' said Einás at once. 'But I suspect I will be pardoned.'

'Why?' said Vrael, raising his eyebrows.

'Because I have brought you the dangerous dragon who attacked the Queen,' said Einás, smoothing down her robes with a fastidious hand. 'The apprehension of an important criminal erases all but the worst of crimes, if I remember correctly.'

'You mean you brought them here for that reason?' said Vrael.

'Of course,' said Einás. 'I was wrong to keep the silver one, but I underestimated her ferocity. Now I have seen the error of my ways, and I trust you to bring her to justice.'

Skade had been listening to all this with growing alarm, and now she roared in fury and rushed at Einás. But Nöst pounced on the silver dragon, pinning her down with one huge forepaw. Struggling wildly, Skade screamed; 'Traitor! Liar!'

Kullervo made a brave attempt to attack the white dragon, but was easily knocked aside. He ran whimpering to Einás, who picked him up and did her best to comfort him.

Vrael shrugged. 'We'll chain her up,' he said. 'As for you, you will be imprisoned until your trial. If your judges accept your explanation they may let you go free, but until then you must be locked away and your sword taken from you. I'm sorry about all this, but it's my duty.'

Einás nodded. 'Very well,' she said. 'But will you please keep Kullervo with his sister? They'll be happier if they're together, and he isn't dangerous.'

Vrael nodded. 'As a favour to you.' He called for the rider-guards, and they returned, swords at the ready. 'Take her to the cells,' he told them, indicating Einás. 'But treat her well.' He looked around at the still-fighting Skade. 'As for the dragon, put the paralysis spell on her and chain her up in one of the store-rooms. Put the little one in with her – you won't need to restrain him.'

As Einás was led away, she did her best to avoid Skade's accusing eyes. It hurt too much to see them. Her guards took away her sword and escorted her down into the lower levels of the tower. There was a small block of cells down there. They opened a barred door and gently pushed her through it, then locked her in and walked away, leaving her with nothing to do but wait and think about what she had done.

Chapter Seven

Dragon Dance

Hours later, while the sun sank over the horizon in a blaze of red and gold glory, Skade lay on her belly in the cramped store-room and stared vacantly at the wall. The paralysis spell had taken a long time to wear off, more than long enough for her captors to take her to this place. They'd weighted down her limbs, tail and head with heavy chains, and had poured some sweet liquid down her throat. Now, though the paralysis was gone, she felt drowsy and weak. A tired rage still burnt behind her eyes, but the drug ate away at her will to express it. Somewhere deep inside she wanted to thrash and to scream, and to blast the wall with fire, but she had no energy for it. No matter how many times she thought of getting up and doing it, all she found herself able to do was lie and stare, and blink, and sigh from time to time. Kullervo was curled up beside her just out of sight; she could hear him whimpering.

The drug didn't just affect her strength – it also squashed her thoughts. She was unable to think about what had happened or about Einás' betrayal, or even about her situation. Every thought came with agonising slowness, and her powers of reason refused to work. She could remember everything that had happened, but she was unable to analyse it.

The night advanced, and the drug slowly started to wear off. But though her mind started to clear her body was still weak. She kept still, and became aware that Kullervo wasn't by her side any more. He was over by the door, sniffing the crack at the bottom. The floor in the storeroom was dirt, since it was underground, and Kullervo began to scratch at it. He stuck a claw in the soil and watched it crumble under its sharp point, and then he turned his attention back to the door. Though he desperately wanted to go back to his sister and the warm comfort of her flank, something inside him urged him on. He started to dig. While Skade lay and moaned softly in her distress, the little orange dragon clawed industriously at the floor, slowly building a heap of dirt. His claws were sharp and the soil was dry, and he made steady progress. Soon he had a shallow trench at the base of the door, and without stopping to rest he started to make it bigger.

It took about half an hour for Kullervo to dig his way under the door, but he managed it in the end. Once the hole was big enough, he squeezed through it and found himself on the other side. Outside was a dark and musty corridor, with a few torches burning on the walls. A guard was standing by the door, but he was staring boredly at the wall and didn't notice the small dragon standing by his boot. Kullervo scented the air, his nostrils twitching like a rat's, more or less ignoring the guard. He wanted to go back to Skade, but he couldn't. There was a voice in his head, and it wouldn't let him rest.

'I'm outside the door,' he thought back to it. 'What do I do now?'

'Come up to the next level,' the voice answered. 'I will give you directions.'

'But how can I trust you?' Kullervo asked. 'You betrayed Skade!'

'I'm your friend, Kullervo,' said the voice, which was Einás'. 'You can trust me. We have to be together; we're a team. Skade will be all right. Now come, hurry – the night won't last forever.'

Kullervo whimpered, but the voice was insistent. He hesitated a little longer, and finally set out along the corridor.

It was the longest journey he'd ever made on his own, and he didn't enjoy it. There was something new and threatening waiting for him at every turn, and dozens of times he had to hide until yet another big pair of boots had stomped past. But all the while he could hear Einás' voice in his head and feel her looking out through his eyes. He was conflicted inside, painfully so. He was more than intelligent enough to know that the old half-elf had betrayed his sister, but it was more complicated than that. His joining with Einás hadn't been an accident or a fluke – he had chosen her, reaching out to her mind from inside his egg. He'd felt something in her that he liked, and some sense he could not identify had told him that she was special in some way. So he had hatched and gone looking for her, and when she had touched him he had felt their souls merge. Skade would never fully understand it, but the bond between rider and dragon was an extremely powerful one, and at a deep, primal level. Even separated from her, he could feel what his partner felt. He knew she was anxious, afraid, and guilt-ridden. And no matter what she had done, he loved her too much to abandon her. So though he was afraid he moved as fast as he could, an urgent desire to be with her burning behind his eyes.

At long last, and after several near misses, he arrived in the cellblock. Whimpering under his breath, the orange hatchling pattered along the passage, his claws clicking on the cold stone, until he found the one occupied cell. Einás was there, waiting for him on the other side of a barred door, and her face lit up when she saw him.

'Kullervo!' her voice cried in his head. 'There you are!'

'Einás,' said Kullervo. He easily climbed through the bars, and wrapped his forelegs around her leg. She picked him up and hugged him, tears leaking from her eyes.

'Oh, Kullervo,' her voice said in his head. 'What have I done? Is Skade all right?'

'She's… sick,' said Kullervo. 'They chained her up. She won't do anything but lie there. Will she die, Einás?'

'They must have drugged her,' said Einás. 'She'll be well enough for the time being. But they will probably kill her for attacking the Queen.'

'Einás,' said Kullervo, looking up at her. 'Why did you bring us here? I thought you were Skade's friend, but you said-,'

'I lied,' said Einás. 'I had to. Since they don't know I'm a rider and they think I brought Skade to them on purpose, they underestimated me. I asked them to put you with Skade so you could tell me where she was. If they knew…' she paused, and chuckled a little. 'If they knew what I've become, they would have kept me under guard and drugged me to stop me using my magic. Now I'm here, I can easily get out of this cell. But I needed you with me first.'

'So we can save Skade?' said Kullervo.

'No,' said Einás. 'So we can save ourselves.'

'But Skade-,'

'I want to get her out of here too,' said Einás. 'But we can't do that… Even drugged she could be very dangerous, and the riders know that. We can't get her out of here without having to fight her guards, and I don't want to shed innocent blood, even if it is for her. And I'm not a trained warrior. I would probably lose.'

'So what can we do?' Kullervo said unhappily, snuggling into the crook of her arm for comfort.

'We have no choice,' said Einás. 'We have to get out of here before they probe my mind and find out the truth. We're lucky they haven't done it already, but Vrael trusts me.'

'But how can we leave Skade here?' said Kullervo.

'Once we're free, we can think of another way to help her,' said Einás. 'You have to trust me, Kullervo.'

'I trust you,' said Kullervo. 'We are one, Einás. But I don't like it.'

'That we are one?' said Einás.

'No. That we have to abandon my sister.'

Einás sighed. 'I will die to save her if I have to,' she said. 'Now let's go. We can talk later.'

The old half-elf lifted Kullervo onto her shoulder, and held out her palm toward the door. She had never been able to use magic in her old life, but the truth was that she didn't really need training in the art. A life as long as hers meant all the time in the world to spend learning, and though she had never used it she knew more about magic than many of those who had. Now that her joining with Kullervo had given her that gift, she could finally put her knowledge to the test. She paused to gather her strength, and bent her will over the lock. She probed it with her mind, seeking to understand its nature and how it worked. She let herself become one with the metal, and once she was certain she grasped, paused, and twisted. The gedwëy ignasia glowed on her palm, and the lock clicked open. Einás smiled a little, triumphant smile, and opened her eyes. She pushed the door, and it swung open without a sound.

'Let's go, Kullervo,' she said, and with that the half-elf slipped out of her cell and away into the tower.

Up on the walls outside, a dragon perched on the ramparts. She was young, only about eight months old, but still much bigger than any other animal. Her scales glimmered in the moonlight as she shifted restlessly, her claws digging into the stone and leaving deep grooves in it. Beside her sat a young man, brown-haired and bright eyed, humming softly and scanning the trees outside the city for any sign of movement.

It was clear the two were rider and dragon – they moved as one, not needing to glance at each other to know they were both present and well. They weren't particularly tense; keeping guard was more of a tradition than a necessity these days. After all, what could pose a threat to the power of the riders? There hadn't been any serious conflict for years, and nearly all of their more dangerous enemies had been brought to justice or faded away. Things had never been better. It was, indeed, a great time to be alive.

The dragon sighed peacefully. 'A quiet night,' she thought to her rider.

'It certainly is,' he answered. 'Quiet day, too. Aside from that scuffle in the third tower before… I wonder what it was about?'

'I think one of the dragons was misbehaving,' said the dragon. 'Silly thing.'

'It must have been a strong one,' said the man. 'I saw Nöst himself go down there.'

'Shocking,' said the dragon, shaking her head.

The man smiled at her, and she chuckled and ruffled his hair with the end of her snout. The rider patted his partner's leg, and the two of them returned to watching the forest.

A few minutes later, the dragon heard an odd noise – the flickering of small wings. She looked around, and saw an orange dragon, no more than a few days old, flying up toward her. She watched him curiously as he rose to the top of the wall, and when he was closest to her she spoke aloud, saying; 'Hello, little one. What are you doing here?'

The hatchling looked around at her, and landed somewhat clumsily beside her. 'Hello,' he said, also aloud. 'What's your name?' his voice was young, childish, but perfectly understandable.

The young man heard the voices, and came over to see what was going on. 'What are you doing here?' he asked the hatchling.

'My name's Kullervo,' said the hatchling. 'I came to see the moon.'

'It's certainly very pretty tonight,' the adult dragon agreed, glancing up at the silver orb which hung over the treetops.

'You're pretty too,' Kullervo told her shyly. 'I never saw a dragon like you before.'

'Why, thankyou,' said the female, unable to resist preening herself a little. 'You're a very sweet little dragon to say so, Kullervo.'

Kullervo giggled and shuffled his wings. 'I can dance, you know,' he said. 'Do you want to see me dance?'

'Sure,' said the man, smiling. 'Why not?'

'It's great!' Kullervo squeaked enthusiastically. 'It's called the Moonlight Dance! Watch me!'

He lowered his head and raised his tail, and started shuffling back and forth over the stone, his wings spread for balance, occasionally kicking a leg or flicking his tail. To complete the effect, he twittered a little tune at the same time and clicked his teeth to make a rhythm. The dragon and rider burst out laughing at the hatchling's antics and, encouraged, Kullervo danced on, inventing new moves on the fly. Eventually he stood up on his hind legs, and hopped and twirled on the spot, holding his tail up like a banner. Then he strutted backward, sliding his back paws on the stone before he lifted them and dipping his head and tail up and down.

The two guards laughed even harder when he did this, so much so that the human had to sit down and his dragon put her claws over her face, her deep chest shaking with mirth. Kullervo grinned and leapt forward onto his forelegs, then did the backwards walk again, this time upside-down with his hind legs in the air and his head scraping on the ground. However, that one proved a little too much, and he flopped over onto his belly and lay there, panting for a few seconds before he quickly got up and took a bow.

The rider clapped enthusiastically, and his dragon hooted and stamped her forelegs.

'A wonderful dance,' she said, trying not to laugh.

'Yes, very good indeed,' said her rider. 'I liked it how you walked backward.'

'It's called the Walk of the Moon,' Kullervo told him proudly. 'I made it up. It's hard.'

'It looks hard,' the dragon admitted. 'You're very agile, aren't you Kullervo?'

Kullervo nodded. 'But one day I'll be big and strong like you,' he said.

The rider chuckled and patted his partner. 'I think he likes you, Saphira,' he said.

Kullervo froze. His mouth was half-open, and his eyes went wide and bulging. It looked so comical that the guards laughed again.

'What's wrong with you, Kullervo?' said the dragon. 'You look like you just swallowed a firefly.'

Kullervo swallowed. 'Is your name Saphira?' he said.

'Yes, it is,' said the dragon. 'And this is Brom, my friend.'

Kullervo sat down sharply. 'Saphira and Brom,' he repeated. 'Oh.'

'What's so surprising about that?' said Brom. 'Everyone has to have a name. Even if it's a silly name like Kullervo.'

'My name is not silly!' said Kullervo indignantly, pulling himself together. 'Yours is silly! You sound like something people clean floors with.'

'Why you little-!' Brom began, but Saphira pushed him back into a sitting position with a heavy paw.

'Now then, Kullervo,' she said kindly. 'Why are you so surprised about our names? Have you heard them before?'

Kullervo hesitated. He reached out mentally for Einás, yelling silently; 'They're called Saphira and Brom! It's them! What should I do?'

'Tell them who you are,' she answered after an interval. 'They can help us.'

'Are you sure?' said Kullervo.

'Yes!' Einás called back.

'Are you over?' said Kullervo.

'Yes. You did well.'

Kullervo blinked nervously. Saphira and Brom were still looking at him curiously. They suddenly looked very big in the moonlight. 'Well,' he said, scratching the stone under his claws. 'Well… Saphira. I mean… um…'

'Go on,' said Saphira, looking at him with a kindness he recognised seeing in Skade.

'Well,' he said yet again. 'I'm your brother, Saphira.'

Saphira looked blank. 'You can't be,' she said. 'I only have a sister. I have no brothers.'

'Yes you do!' said Kullervo, suddenly on the verge of tears. 'Your sister's called Skade, and she's my sister too, but now they've got her locked up and they're going to kill her, and I-,' he ran out of words at this point, and sagged onto his belly, covering his eyes with his claws as sobs took control.

Saphira didn't let him cry alone. She reached out and lifted him in her claws, holding him to her huge blue chest. 'Oh, Kullervo,' she said tenderly. 'It's all right, Kullervo, it's all right. Did you say Skade?'

'Yes,' said Kullervo, shivering miserably. 'She's here. I mean, she's in the tower, but I'm scared they're going to kill her.'

'Why?' said Brom, coming over to look at the little dragon. 'What did she do?'

'I don't know,' Kullervo sniffed. 'They hate us. I want to go home.'

'But how did you get here?' said Saphira. 'Are you really my brother?'

'Yes,' said Kullervo. 'They told me… they said I had a sister called Saphira, and she had a rider called Brom. Skade said you were blue. She didn't want you to be with Brom, but Einás said-,'

'Einás?' said Brom. 'Is she here?'

'Yes,' said Kullervo. 'She's near us. She told me to say who I was because you would help us.'

'Of course we will,' said Brom. He glanced at Saphira. 'He's got to be telling the truth, Saphira. Who else knows what Skade said about us?'

Saphira nodded. 'Where is Einás, Kullervo?' she asked. 'We can take you to her.'

'She's down there in the forest,' said Kullervo, pointing a claw. 'I had to stop you from seeing her going over the wall.'

'You did a good job,' said Brom. 'Let's go.'

He climbed onto Saphira's back, and she dropped from the wall, catching herself with her wings. She landed on three legs on the ground below, and put Kullervo down. He walked beside his sister, and led them a short way to where Einás was waiting for them. She looked pale and strained, but her worn face split into a great smile when she saw them coming. 'Brom! Saphira! It really is you!' she said. 'And Kullervo, too.'

Kullervo ran over to her, and she lifted him onto her shoulder again. Brom went to meet her, and the man and the half-elf embraced warmly. Saphira held out her snout, and Einás patted it. 'You've grown, Saphira. And what a fine dragon you've grown into. And you, Brom… how are you both?'

'We're well enough,' said Brom. 'But what are you doing here, Einás? There were terrible rumours – that you tried to kill Queen Islanzadí and were banished.'

'We never believed it,' Saphira added hastily. 'Never.'

'No, certainly not,' said Brom. 'You'd never do something like that. Now, what really happened? And how did you find Kullervo?'

'And what happened to Skade?' said Saphira.

Einás sighed. 'We should probably go somewhere a little more sheltered first,' she said.

Saphira and Brom glanced at each other, and nodded their agreement. Einás led the way into the forest for some distance, until they were back in the clearing where she'd landed before with Skade. There Einás dug out her bag from its hiding place and checked the contents. They were all still there, so she announced they would settle here. Brom gathered some wood, and Saphira lit it with a small well-aimed blue fireball. Once the fire was well lit, the four of them sat around it and Einás began her story. She described how Skade grew up in secrecy in Ellesméra, how the two of them became friends, and Islanzadí's disapproval when the silver dragon's presence was discovered.

'She didn't mind that Skade was there, but she was angry with me for hiding her,' Einás explained. 'She demanded I bring her to see the council so she could swear to abide by our laws.'

'And did she?' said Saphira.

'No,' said Einás, sighing, but unable to hide a slight smile. 'Instead, she gave the council a lecture. She told them she didn't trust them and wouldn't do what they said, and she waved her claws at Islanzadí… naturally I wasn't pleased about it, but she was very rude. Islanzadí was already displeased with her for hiding away, and after that she told me I had to send Skade away or I'd be banished. She and I never got on very well… I suppose they thought I'd overstepped the line with that little stunt. But I never told them about you and Saphira, Brom, so they won't suspect you of helping me.'

'Then what happened?' said Brom.

'Well, Skade and I decided to made one last effort to find out about her father – I'd just got some more books that could help us. We set to reading those, and then… I dozed off.' The half-elf looked rather embarrassed. 'I really don't know how it happened. I should have been much too tense for that. But I did, and Skade did too. Perhaps it was something in the air. I did wonder if it was a spell of some kind, too…'

'But who would do that?' said Brom.

Einás shrugged. 'Not everyone in Ellesméra liked me,' she said. 'Some felt I shouldn't have been named Egg-Guardian.'

'Why?' said Saphira.

'Because I'm half-human,' said Einás, prodding the fire.

'You are?' said Brom, unable to hide his astonishment.

'Yes,' said Einás. 'People weren't happy when my father took a human for a mate, either. But he never expected to father a child by her. Humans are more fertile than elves. It was supposed to be just a short pairing, but then I came along… quite a scandal, that was. Anyway, you know what elves are like.'

'They don't like humans much,' said Brom.

'Yes, I suppose that's true,' said Einás. 'Since I'm female, many assumed I'd inherited my nature from my mother. Which is true, in a way. I know for a fact there were several elves in Ellesméra who wanted to be Egg-Guardian, so it's possible one of them whispered in Islanzadí's ear and then cast some kind of soporific spell over me and Skade. In any case, that's what happened. And when we woke up, Islanzadí was there.'

Brom winced. 'I take it she wasn't happy.'

'You are correct,' said Einás. 'In fact, I've never seen her so angry in my life. Elves aren't usually quick to passion, but Islanzadí broke that rule. She ordered her guards to arrest me – she wouldn't listen to reason. But Skade, well… she and I were very close by then, and she distrusted Islanzadí already. I wasn't about to try and resist arrest, but Skade decided to interfere. She attacked the Queen.'

Saphira and Brom gasped. 'No!' said Brom. 'She can't have done that!'

'She did,' said Einás. 'She didn't hurt her too badly, but nobody will have forgotten it. She left claw-marks right across the Queen's middle, and those will have left scars unless she had them healed magically, which I doubt she did. She likes to hold grudges, and keeping the scars would act as a reminder. The guards attacked Skade, but she flew away.'

'She just left you to the guards?' said Saphira.

'For a moment, yes,' said Einás. 'But she came back. She carried me away with her, out of Ellesméra. After that, we were exiles.'

'I'm surprised you stayed with Skade, after what she did,' said Brom.

'So am I, in a way,' said Einás. 'But after what happened we only had each other. And Skade did save my life. So then we decided to come here, to ask for your help, Saphira. But then we met-,'

Einás talked on, telling them about Devadatta, about the journey to the werecats' forest, and finally about the battle with the Shade and the rescuing of Kullervo's egg. Saphira and Brom listened in amazement to this story, and when Einás finished describing the fight Brom said; 'You actually fought a Shade?'

'Yes,' said Einás. 'And won, too. But we may not have killed her… she might be back one day. Still, with a dragon on your side you don't have much to be afraid of. Even a Shade. If you don't believe me, look at this.'

She reached into her bag, and pulled out a long silver sword, which she put next to the fire for them to see. 'The Shade's sword,' she said. 'A fine weapon, isn't it?'

Brom picked it up and tested the edge with his thumb. 'It certainly is,' he said. 'Very sharp. Good, hard steel too. Nearly as good as a rider's sword.'

He pulled out his own weapon and showed it to his friend. It was indeed a rider's sword; more or less the same shape as the Shade's, but with an unbreakable blade whose metal was bright, swirling blue, the same colour as Saphira's scales.

'I had this made in Ellesméra,' Brom said proudly. 'Every inch a rider's weapon.'

'Don't boast, Brom,' said Saphira.

'Sorry,' said Brom, putting it away again. 'But what happened next, Einás?'

'We rescued the egg,' said Einás. 'And we went back to the werecats to tell them what happened. And while we were celebrating with them, Kullervo hatched. And he chose me as his rider.'

Einás smiled shyly and held out her hand. She'd cleaned the dye off it, and the gedwëy ignasia gleamed silver in the firelight. Brom and Saphira stared at it, thunderstruck.

'For you?' said Brom. 'You're a rider?'

'I am,' said Einás, nodding.

'She is,' said Kullervo, climbing down her arm and putting his small claws on the rider's mark. 'I chose her.'

'I take it Skade was unhappy about that?' said Saphira.

'I was afraid of how she'd react,' said Einás. 'But she didn't get angry. I think she's changed her mind about riders. Remember what she said in my house the day after she hatched?'

Saphira nodded. 'She said I'd made myself a slave,' she said. 'For a while, I was afraid she could be right. But not for long.' She smiled affectionately at Brom, who chuckled and invited Einás to go on with the story.

She did so, but there wasn't much left to tell. She told them about the journey to Ilirea, and how she'd decided to conceal her identity as a rider.

'Which turned out to be a good idea,' she finished. 'Vrael had been asked to arrest me for treason against Islanzadí. So I…' the old half-elf looked down, shame-faced. 'So I pretended I'd brought Skade to them on purpose so she could be brought to justice. They believed me, and locked us both up. But since they didn't know I was a rider, they only put me in a cell, and didn't bother with any guards. So I escaped, with Kullervo's help.'

'And now you need ours so you can rescue Skade,' Saphira finished.

'Yes,' said Einás. 'Although I didn't know you'd be out here on guard duty. I asked Kullervo to distract you while I climbed over the wall. And he did a good job, didn't you, Kullervo?'

'He definitely did,' said Brom. 'And he's a good dancer, too.'

The little group smiled at this, but only briefly.

'I'm surprised you decided to come here in the first place, Einás,' said Saphira. 'I mean, didn't you realise that Vrael would have heard about what Skade did?'

'Of course I did,' said Einás. 'But I was hoping he'd hesitate over turning me in, since I'm his aunt. I was thinking of telling him I'm a rider now in the hopes that he'd give me protection, but all riders have to swear allegiance to him in the ancient language, and then I would have been forced to spend the rest of my life doing what he told me.'

'What's wrong with that?' said Brom.

'Because if that happened I'd have no more time for this search of ours,' said Einás. 'And I never liked authority much… I'm set in my ways, young rider. I'm used to doing what I choose, and I'd rather not give it up now.'

'So what are we going to do about Skade?' said Saphira. 'Can't we go in there and rescue her now?'

'Not without fighting the guards, and probably killing some of them,' said Einás. 'I'm sure you don't want to do that any more than I do. Am I correct, Brom?'

Brom nodded. 'They're fellow riders,' he said. 'Some of them are my friends. No, I don't want to have to fight them.'

'Then what?' said Kullervo. 'What do we do?'

'We wait until they take her outside,' said Einás. 'They'll have to if they want to take her to the elders. But it will have to be carefully planned. Has anyone got any ideas?'

'I have,' said Brom.

'And me,' said Saphira.

Chapter Eight

Skade's Curse

The sun rose over Ilirea the following morning, its pale rays casting only a slight glow over the white towers. And, within those towers, things were beginning to happen. Vrael, seated on Nöst, who was perched precariously at the tip of the tallest tower, gave orders for Skade and Einás to be brought to the elders' chamber, which was just below him. His subordinates promptly left to get the prisoners, and the lord of dragon riders sat and watched the elders begin to gather. There were five of them, all old and experienced like himself, chosen for their wisdom. Their names are revered to this day: there was the elf Oromis and his golden dragon, Glaedr, the human Yansan and his brown dragon Raluvimbha, Saraswati, another human, and her yellow dragon, Vandana, the elf Lachesis and her grey dragon, Atropos, and finally the elf Menulis and his dark blue dragon, Nyx.

Once the last of this great assembly had entered the elders' chamber, Nöst launched himself heavily off the top of the tower and flew in through its vast entrance to join them. The elder chamber was the biggest space in the city. It had to be, in order to accommodate the six senior dragons who used it. Nöst was the largest, of course, but many of the others, most notably the female Nyx, weren't much smaller. Dragons never stop growing in their lives, which can last forever, and the great age of these ones was easy to deduce. The dragons crouched in a semicircle in the chamber, which was a nondescript cavelike thing, with Vrael and Nöst at their head. Unlike with an ordinary gathering, which would have been full of chatter between its members, this one was almost completely silent. Not because the elders believed silence was golden, but because they and their dragons preferred to communicate telepathically. Most bonded dragons are enormously proud and protective toward their riders, and refuse to communicate any other way, often asking their riders to translate their speech rather than simply addressing someone directly.

The elders waited patiently for the prisoners to be brought in. Eventually a much smaller dragon flew into the chamber, a red female. She landed at the centre of the circle, and her rider jumped off and knelt in front of Vrael.

'Lord Vrael,' he said breathlessly.

'Speak,' said Vrael.

'The elf, Einás, has disappeared,' said the young rider.

'What?' said Vrael. 'Escaped? How?'

'We don't know,' said the rider. 'Her cell door was open, and she was gone. Nobody has found any trace of her so far.'

'Did you search her for lockpicks?' said Vrael.

'Of course, Lord,' said the rider. 'There was no way she could have unlocked it herself. Someone must have let her out. There are riders here who are sympathetic to her.'

'But most of them shouldn't have known she was here,' said Vrael.

'Yes, Lord,' said the rider. 'Someone must have not been able to keep the secret.'

Vrael swore. 'What about the dragon?'

'The orange one got away,' said the young rider. 'We know how that happened – he dug his way under the door, and the guard was too lazy to be watching out for that so he never saw him.'

Vrael shrugged. 'It doesn't matter,' he said. 'The little one is innocent. I'm only concerned that he might get hurt if he wanders off on his own. Still, that's his problem. So we still have the silver one?'

'Yes, Lord,' said the young rider. 'She's still securely chained up, though the drug is wearing off.'

'Good,' said Vrael. 'She has to be coherent when we question her. Bring her up here, then.'

'Yes, Lord,' said the rider.

Vrael smiled a little. 'Well done, Morzan. You may go.'

Morzan bowed, and left.

The elders waited patiently, and in time they heard the wingbeats of dragons outside. Three large adults flew in through the entrance, but they did so slowly and heavily. They were holding ropes in their claws, and Skade dangled below them, still chained. The elders watched silently, and the three dragons deposited their prisoner in the middle of their circle. That was where everyone who spoke to the elders had to stand. The guard dragons took up station around their charge, and bowed their heads respectfully.

'Remove the chains,' Vrael commanded.

The rider of the red guard dragon, who was of course Morzan, jumped down from his seat and roughly pulled them off. Skade immediately brought her head around and tried to bite him, but he was too fast for her and leapt out of the way. The three guard-dragons leapt on Skade, pinning her down with their claws, and though she struggled and snarled they were too strong for her.

'I will kill you all!' she screamed, froth dripping from her jaws.

Nöst suddenly roared, starting forward, his voice shaking the floor.

Everyone in the chamber, even the other senior dragons, flinched at the sound. Skade sat still, and glared at the white dragon. Nöst walked up to her, his tail making a dry rustling sound on the floor and his great paws thudding. Vrael walked beside him, and the two of them stared down at the silver dragon, their eyes dark and condemning.

'You will be still and let us speak,' Nöst said, projecting his thoughts to everyone in the room. 'You have committed a crime, and you must be judged. If you will not behave yourself, you will be paralysed.'

Skade glared back at them, but they didn't look away and, after a few moments of silent mental combat the silver dragon looked down. Without saying anything, she sat back on her haunches and closed her wings.

'That's better,' said Vrael, aloud. He turned to look at the other elders, and began to speak. 'My fellow elders… this dragon here is called Skade. Her parents were two dragons whose names live in infamy, and we have already seen that she has inherited their nature. Skade's heritage is an evil one. Her mother was Silarae, the dragon who was bonded to Taranis, the mortal enemy of Eragon, the first rider. Her father was Ravana, the Night Dragon. Both of these dragons were black, and both were evil. Between them they destroyed entire cities and killed their innocent inhabitants. They served Taranis and fought against Eragon's friends and relatives. After the dragon war ended, they ignored the peace treaty and killed dozens of noble elvish warriors. And these dragons were Skade's parents. After she hatched, Skade did just the same as her parents did. She ignored the rules of conduct and spoke insolently to the council of Ellesméra, refused to acknowledge the rules of simple courtesy, and set herself against all elves. Even after she was granted clemency for this, she refused to obey Queen Islanzadí and leave the area. But then this dragon committed a crime which cannot be dismissed so lightly: she attacked the Queen of the elves.'

There was a muttering from the other elders, who already knew about this, but the guards, who didn't, let out cries of outrage.

'Yes, this dragon committed the worst form of treason,' Vrael went on, raising his voice above the noise. 'She attacked Queen Islanzadí, viciously and with intent to kill. I have seen the Queen since then, and she has shown me the scars. She has demanded that her attacker be brought to justice, and I am prepared to listen. However-,' he turned to face Skade once again – 'You will be given a chance to speak before we pass sentence, and possibly to redeem yourself. Now then, Skade. I must ask you: are you sorry for what you did, and will you beg forgiveness from the Queen?'

He waited for the silver dragon to answer. She looked up at him, then at the elders, her expression inscrutable. They looked back incuriously, waiting for her answer. Eventually she said; 'No.'

'You refuse our offer?' said Vrael.

'Yes,' said Skade, looking the elf straight in the eye.

'Do you deny that you attacked the ruler of the elves?' said Vrael.

'No,' said Skade. 'I did it, and I'm glad I did it. I would do it again.'

'May I ask why?' said Vrael, to angry mutterings from the elders and the guards, who had moved away to block the entrance in case of escape.

'You want to know why?' said Skade, slowly rising from her abject crouch. 'I will tell you why. Because…' she paused, looking around at the elvish members of the council, and her eyes narrowed. 'Because I do not owe the race of elves anything except my hatred. Because you are all scum.'

Several of the elders cried out at this, and one of the guard-dragons advanced to hit Skade for her rudeness. But Vrael gestured at him to stay away, and allowed Skade to continue.

She span around, pointing an accusing talon at him and his fellow elders, and her speech went on.

'Scum!' she roared, mad-eyed. 'All of you! You are intelligent and you make writings and learn about the world, but you are a low race and I hate every one of you and shall do until I die. You killed my parents. You stole me from them before I hatched. You kept me a prisoner. You lie, you cheat, you scheme, you hurt, you kill. I attacked Islanzadí because she was threatening someone I thought of as a friend. I was wrong. That friend lied to me and betrayed me to you. I had begun to change my mind about you, but now I see I was right to think of you as my enemies. You are. Then, now and forever. I will not apologise, and I will not obey your laws. I am wild and free. I will only listen to myself and trust my own senses. And if I can, I will fight and kill you to avenge my parents.'

She finished speaking, and spat a fireball straight at Vrael. He deflected it with a shielding spell, and the silver dragon charged, teeth bared. Another elder, Oromis, shouted some words of power, and Skade fell, twitching helplessly on the floor. Even then she did not give up, but kept up her attempts to rise and attack the elders, every one of them. 'Cowards!' she howled.

Vrael recovered himself quickly. He stood over Skade, his face calm but his eyes blazing with rage. 'If that is your answer, then we have no choice but to punish you,' he said. 'A mad dragon like you is a danger to the peace and stability of Alagaësia. Do you all agree?' he added, looking around at the other elders. The riders nodded, and their dragons stamped the ground to indicate their approval.

'Then we are agreed,' said Vrael. 'Skade, daughter of Silarae, your judges hereby find you guilty of breaching the peace between elves and dragons. All that remains is for your punishment to be carried out.'

'I would have her executed,' said Menulis.

'So would Queen Islanzadí,' said Vrael. 'However, I don't agree. It is not our way to deal in death. Life is sacred. That is what we teach our apprentices. No, we cannot kill this dragon. I, and elder Oromis, discussed this last night. And I have come up with a better idea. This dragon will be cursed, cursed by our magic. I will cast the spell, but I will need all of you to feed some of your energy into me.'

'What curse is this?' asked Yansan.

Vrael projected the answer into the minds of the other elders, keeping it hidden from Skade and the guards.

'Do you agree?' he asked, aloud, once this was done.

The other elders considered awhile, and then nodded. 'A good idea,' said Menulis. 'If it is not to be death, this will do as well.'

'I agree,' said Lachesis. 'Others will see her and know of our power and our mercy.'

'They will indeed,' said Vrael. 'Then it's settled.'

He looked at Skade, with no trace of pity in his face. She looked back, fearful but trying to hide it. Vrael pointed at her with one gauntleted hand, much as she herself had pointed at him while she made her declaration, and recited; 'Vér feiknstafr Skade in eiga teh líki shí leiđr untr dauđadagr!'

She felt the power of the words moving over her scales, and cried out, thrashing helplessly as the magic took her in its terrible grip. Vrael stood stock still, eyes closed, feeling his energy flowing out of him in a tide. He was helpless and close to blacking out, but then the other elders poured their own force into him, and their dragons did likewise, and their combined power completed the spell. Skade did not know what was happening. Her scales burnt and cracked, sending pain right through her body, and she felt an awful pressure on her bones and flesh, twisting and warping them, bending every nerve and tendon. Her voice died in her throat and her vision faded to nothing, plunging her world into blackness. But she could still hear. Somewhere far away, she heard thunder crash. The guard dragons by the entrance saw the lightning and started nervously, for every rider and dragon fears a storm. But the elders didn't notice, so caught up were they in weaving the spell which Vrael had spoken. They held out their hands, palm-first, so the gedwëy ignaesias could be seen glowing in the gloom of the cavern, while their dragons moaned softly deep in their throats, putting forth their energy with as much force as they dared. Those who kept their eyes open could see their prisoner's thrashing stop, and when she became still they ceased their concentration. It was over; the spell had been cast.

Vrael opened his eyes, gasping a little with exhaustion, and looked at Skade. Was she still alive?

Skade felt the surface beneath her. It felt cold and hard, and she tried vaguely to remember where she was. There had been… something?

Her senses came back slowly and sluggishly. She heard a low, excited chattering from somewhere behind her, and the rumble of deeper voices from in front and to both sides. She groaned and eased her eyes open. Her vision was blurred. Everything doubled itself and wavered unpleasantly back and forth in front of her. But she remembered what had happened in a moment or two, and raised her head with a burst of energy. She saw the elders, towering over her like statues, big and powerful and dignified.

At the sight of them, Skade's anger returned. She got up rather shakily, and growled at them. The elders only looked at her, all calm and cold. Vrael came forward once more, looking a little pale.

'Skade, daughter of Silarae, your punishment is complete,' he said. 'You will now be allowed to go free. We will give you supplies. But you will never find acceptance amongst the race of elves or dragons. You are outcast. That is your punishment. And, perhaps, your path to wisdom.'

'You are a fool for letting me live,' Skade retorted. 'I will find my father, and he will help me have my revenge.'

Vrael shook his head sadly, saying nothing. But Nöst said; 'Your search has been in vain, young dragon. The black dragon is dead.'

'Take her away,' said Vrael to the guards.

Skade tried to launch fire at him. Nothing happened. The guards chuckled a little at that. They came toward her, suddenly seeming a lot bigger than before. She did her best to resist when they took hold of her, but her strength had gone from her and this time it only took one rider to overpower her. He took her to his dragon, which was a red female. This dragon lifted Skade easily in one forepaw, and took off, carrying her out of the chamber and away, down the side of the tower. Skade hung helplessly in the dragon's grip, sick and bewildered. She was taken out of the city, over the wall and into the forest. There they landed, and the red dragon dropped her on the hard ground. The rider, a young human, jumped down beside her and waited, his grey eyes fixed impassively on her face.

Skade tried to stand, but her limbs refused to move properly. Had they crippled her? She lay still, desperately angry but afraid as well now.

The young guard-rider stayed by her for a time, and then a gate opened in the city wall and two other humans emerged. They were carrying a heavy bag, which they dumped beside her.

'These are some things for you,' the rider told her. 'Take them and be grateful. But never return here. Goodbye, Skade.'

He climbed back on his dragon and the two of them flew up and away. The other two humans retreated back into the city, and Skade was alone. Her first feeling was relief, but it was still mixed with anger and fear. Anger at the humiliation of being helpless before her enemies, and fear at what they had done to her. Would she be like this forever, unable to stand up on her own four paws? Well, she could only try again.

While she struggled with her unco-operative limbs, still able to hear the thunder; the voice of the gathering storm. The storm-! Skade lifted herself off the ground with a mighty effort. Her forelegs were fine, but her hind legs weren't. They wouldn't bend as they should, and refused to gather themselves under her. When she tried putting her weight on them, she rocked backward and nearly fell over again. She made another attempt, and this time she really did fall over. But she didn't land on her back. She found herself sitting upright, but in a way she'd never done before. Skade shuddered. She decided to try her wings. They wouldn't move. No matter what she did, they didn't respond. There was no feeling in them at all. She looked around to see what was wrong with them, but she couldn't see them. She reached back for them with her forelegs, but found nothing. And then she glanced down at her paws.

For a long time she sat and stared, simply unable to comprehend what she was seeing. 'These aren't-,' she mumbled. 'These are – I –,'

She shook her head. No, it was ridiculous. Wanting to distract herself, she turned her attention to the bag. It was very large, and strapped to the outside was a short sword in a sheath. Skade drew it, somewhat clumsily, and looked at the blade. It was made of some dark metal, and shone like obsidian. Skade looked at her reflection, and found herself looking at the thing she hated most. There, in the black depths of the polished steel, the face of an elf stared back.

Chapter Nine

Alliance

For a long time Skade stared at her new face, not quite able to comprehend what she was seeing. This wasn't her. This was… one of her enemies. This was an elf. But when she looked at her forepaws she saw a pair of long-fingered hands instead. She touched her face, and felt soft skin where there should have been hard scales. Was this a dream? Some hallucination the elders had brought over her? It had to be, surely… no-one could change a dragon into an elf…

But even though she tried to assure herself that it couldn't be true, inside she knew that it was. She had become what she hated. This was the punishment of the riders. Skade looked at her new face, then flung down the sword and let out an unearthly howl. If there had been anything alive nearby, she would have attacked it – as it was, she hurled herself at a tree, slashing at it with her fingernails, screaming, throwing her slim elvish body against the solid trunk, heedless of the pain, welcoming the pain, wanting to die. In the end she fell down at the tree's base, exhausted.

Later, when she was calmer, she picked up the sword again and looked at herself. Her new face was thin and pointed, angular but not unattractive. The slanted eyes were still fiery gold, and her long, ragged hair was pale grey. There was a silver sheen to her skin, and when she opened her mouth she found her teeth were sharp and the upper and lower canines had stayed as long fangs, with the upper ones protruding slightly over the lower lip. But these vestigial dragonish features only made her despise this new visage all the more. Looking away from her reflection, she saw the treetrunk she had assaulted. There were deep slash-marks in the bark, and when she looked at her hands she saw the nails were long, curved and sharp. Skade drew them over her face, gasping as they cut into the soft flesh, again and again. Soon red blood was dripping from her chin, and she contemptuously wiped it off onto the silver robe which her new form wore.

Thunder crashed again overhead, and she looked up. The sky had gone silver, just like her scales had once been, and as she looked the rain began to fall. It hit her face, washing away the blood, mingling with her tears, soaking into her. There was something about a storm that had special meaning for her. Perhaps it was the fact that there had been a storm on the night she hatched. But more likely it was because of the way storms attached themselves to her father in every tale she heard about him. What was it said about him – that he alone dared to fly in a storm, that he could use lightning like an extension of his claws and teeth…? Perhaps there was some hint of him in this storm now. She remembered how one had begun to gather on the night she fought the Shade, but how it had faded away after the fight was won, as if knowing it would not be needed. Thinking of this, and feeling the fury of the sky, Skade's resolve hardened. She would not let the curse of the riders stop her. She did not believe their claim that her father was dead. Now, unburdened by Einás' treacherous company, she could find him. And when she did, she would tell him everything that had happened. He would be old by now, and wise, and he would know a way to change her back.

'But how to find him?' she said aloud. 'How?'

What had Einás said? There were two people they had planned to consult – Vrael and the leader of the wild dragons… Thornessa, that was the name. But had the elf been lying? After all, she'd lied about everything else. But Thornessa was another dragon. She would surely know about her father. And while she knew that elves couldn't be trusted there was no reason to not trust other dragons. They were her own kind, and if she asked politely they might help her. It was worth a try, at least. But it would be a long walk to the mountains…

Skade sat down with her back to the tree, ignoring the chilly wetness of the rain, and that was where she was discovered by someone else. By a tall figure that stepped out of the trees, all self-assurance and cool curiosity. It came to stand over Skade, and she looked up at it vaguely.

'Hello,' said the figure. 'What are you doing here?'

Skade's eyes narrowed. 'I know you,' she said. '…Don't I…?'

'I don't think I know you,' said the other. 'What is your name?'

Skade hesitated. 'I don't have a name any more,' she said.

'Why not?' said the stranger.

'It was taken away from me,' said Skade.

'By who?'

'By the riders,' said Skade. 'They… who are you?'

'Just someone like you who has nowhere to go,' said the stranger. 'Tell me about yourself. What happened to your face?'

'It's not my face,' said Skade, lowering her head.

The stranger sighed. 'You elves are so strange,' she said.

Skade leapt upright at that, so suddenly that it took the stranger by surprise. She grabbed her by the collar. 'I am not an elf,' she snarled.

The stranger shook her off. 'You look like one,' she said coolly.

'Well I'm not,' said Skade, her rage draining away again. 'I'm a dragon.'

The stranger just stared at her.

Skade turned and pointed at the towers of Ilirea. 'The riders,' she said. 'The ones living in there. They turned me into an elf. I don't know how they did it. It was… punishment for something I did.'

The stranger sighed. 'I hate the riders,' she said. 'And even more so if what you say is true. To change a magnificent creature like a dragon into a mere elf… it's obscene.'

'I know,' said Skade. 'I want revenge on them, but how can I? I don't know anything about them, or how to fight in this body.'

'Maybe I can help you,' said the stranger. 'I have a grudge against the riders as well.'

'Why?' said Skade.

'Because they want me dead,' said the stranger. 'Every time I show my face, they come in dozens to try and kill me. It's lost me more homes than I care to count.'

'But why?' Skade persisted. 'Did you do something?'

'Yes,' said the stranger. 'I was born. Sometimes, you see, a person's entry into the world is an ill-fated one. Sometimes, if you come into being in a certain way, others will hate you for it. Even though you have no control over what you are, they will do all they can to destroy you. You and I aren't the only ones. The urgals have the same trouble, but they're lucky… at least they have their families and friends. You and I have nothing.'

'But why would they hate you for that?' said Skade.

'Because I'm a Shade,' said the stranger.

Skade's eyes widened. She backed away. 'Rangda!' she gasped. 'It is you!'

'Yes, I'm Rangda,' said the Shade. 'How do you know that name?'

'It's me,' said Skade. 'Skade.'

Rangda raised her eyebrows. 'Skade?' she said. She examined the elf more closely, and added, 'Skade. Of course. I recognise you now. Why did you come here?'

'To ask the riders if they knew where my father is,' said Skade. 'But… how can you be here? I killed you.'

'No,' said Rangda. 'You didn't kill me. You only banished me. Temporarily. I'm back now. And I must compliment you on how you fought. You were brave, even if you didn't manage to kill me.'

'I should kill you now,' Skade growled.

'Why?' said Rangda.

Skade hesitated. 'Because you're evil.'

'Am I?' said Rangda. 'How do you know?'

'You were trying to force my brother to hatch for you,' said Skade. 'You tried to make me serve you.'

'And because that elf told you I was,' said Rangda. 'She did, didn't she?'

'Yes,' said Skade.

'Well, then,' said Rangda. 'How do you know she was telling the truth? Has she lied to you before?'

Skade's eyes narrowed. 'Yes, she has,' she admitted. 'But why were you trying to hurt my brother?'

'I wasn't,' said Rangda. 'I knew the fire wouldn't hurt him. I wanted him to hatch because I desperately needed his help. After you came, I tried to get you to help instead. And you nearly agreed, didn't you?'

'Only because you blackmailed me,' Skade retorted.

Rangda shrugged. 'Desperate times call for desperate measures,' she said. 'However, now I have a better offer for you. Agree to help me, and I can help you in return.'

'How?' said Skade.

'With my magic, of course,' said Rangda. 'If you promise to help me find what I'm looking for, I can change you back into a dragon.'

'You can?' said Skade. 'Truly?'

'Yes,' said Rangda. 'I swear it. It would be a small price to pay.'

'First tell me what you're so desperate to find,' said Skade. 'And say it in the ancient language.'

'Very well,' said Rangda. She switched to the ancient language, and said; 'I am looking for something which lies outside Alagaësia, and so I need a dragon to help me. You are the only dragon who will listen to me, so it will have to be you.'

'And what are you looking for?' said Skade.

'I'm looking for a dragon who left Alagaësia a long time ago,' said Rangda. 'It is said that he was very powerful, and that he still lives over the sea somewhere. If I can find him, he will be able to teach me secrets I long to know.'

'Do you know his name?' said Skade.

'Yes,' said Rangda. 'His name is Ravana. Other dragons call him the Night Dragon. Have you heard of him?'

'Yes,' said Skade quietly. 'I have.'

Rangda nodded. 'I thought you probably had,' she said, reverting to normal speech. 'I have been suspecting it… he was your father, wasn't he?'

Skade nodded mutely.

Rangda smiled a small, satisfied smile. 'So you've gone halfway across the country trying to find him,' she said. 'But the riders betrayed you. Now do you know what it's like to be me?'

'You mean they already knew?' said Skade.

'Of course,' said Rangda. 'Why do you think they were so quick to condemn you? The Queen of Ellesméra knew it too. That was why she demanded to have you thrown out of her domain. They fear you, Skade. They fear what you may have inherited from your parents. What you might be capable of. They believe that one like you is better off dead. Riders… elves… in the end they're not dissimilar from each other. Both are arrogant. Both are so convinced of their superiority that they would do anything to keep their power, and feel no guilt. You're lucky they haven't killed you, but they believe they are above such a simple solution. Whether you want it or not, they are your mortal enemies. They were your father's too. Do you know why they hate him so much?'

'Because he was black,' said Skade.

'Yes,' said Rangda. 'Because of a mere difference in colour. Something he did not choose. A petty thing which they believed meant his soul was also dark. And even though you are not black yourself, they find you guilty simply because you carry his blood. That is the nature of these people, Skade, and it is the same with humans and dwarves. Cruel. Judgemental. Stupid. But I have seen much more of the world than they have, and I know better than they. I know that your father was a great dragon. Possibly the greatest ever to live. I know he survived against all the odds, and that he must have suffered appalling grief to have lost you. I want to find him because I hope he can share some of his knowledge with me. And if I reunite him with his daughter, he will be more interested in helping me. Our goal is the same, Skade. Will you join me?'

'Will you change me back before we go?' said Skade.

'I'll try,' said Rangda. 'But swear you won't betray me first. We both know that suspicion is purely logical, don't we?'

Skade nodded bitterly. 'I will swear,' she said. And she did, once Rangda had taught her the words. 'Ir heit sem Ir vili sitja hollr til ykkr ulr vér finna au ófölr fađir – I swear that I will remain loyal to you until we find the dark father.'

Once she had done, Rangda nodded in satisfaction. 'Waíse heill,' she murmured, and the cuts on Skade's face healed. 'Now,' she said. 'Let's go somewhere a little safer.'

'A good idea,' said Skade.

Rangda picked up the short sword from where Skade had dropped it. 'Quite a nice weapon,' she remarked. 'I'll keep it, since that cursed elf took my other one.'

She also picked up the bag the riders had left, and the two of them walked off into the forest. Skade was unsteady on her new legs, but Rangda, who wasn't showing any sign of discomfort from carrying the heavy bag, kindly supported her. They walked slowly away through the trees, avoiding all the obvious paths, both ignoring the storm still raging around them. Rangda was immune to the normal discomforts of the flesh, and Skade was past caring about such things. They came to a halt only once Ilirea was well out of sight, though the storm showed no sign of abating. Rangda helped Skade to the relative shelter of a stand of pine trees, and there they settled down. Rangda put the bag down and thrust the sword into the tree-trunk at head-height, then told Skade to stand in front of her.

Skade did so, and the Shade paused briefly, considering what words to use. Once she was certain she said; 'Very well. I think I know what words to use. It will take a lot of energy. I'm stronger than a rider by a lot, but I may have to draw on your energy to help me complete the spell. You'll feel yourself weaken a little, but don't panic. Trust me.'

Skade nodded. 'Do it,' she said. 'Do it quickly. I can't stand this.'

Rangda nodded. She held out her hands and said; 'Flytja au álfr líki frïi Skade!'

The magic enveloped the silver-haired elf, and she stood stock still, letting it move over her skin and into her body. Time ticked away, almost imperceptibly, and Rangda began to draw on Skade's own internal energy as she'd said she might. Sweat beaded on her impassive face, the only sign of mental effort that she gave.

Skade could feel her new body warping and changing around her, but it did so slowly and painfully rather than with the speed that it had when the elders laid their curse on it. She freely shared her strength with Rangda, not caring if it weakened her. She could feel it working.

Thunder growled overhead, and Rangda suddenly stopped concentrating. The magic dissipated, and elf and Shade both sagged tiredly where they stood.

'Is it over?' Skade croaked. 'Did it work?'

'No,' said Rangda, sighing. 'We failed. We're not strong enough to reverse it.'

'What?' said Skade. 'We – I… what will we do?'

'Don't despair,' said Rangda. 'There is someone we can go to for help.'

'Who?' said Skade.

'A close friend of mine,' said Rangda. 'He'll help us if we ask. And with his power added to ours, we'll be sure to succeed.'

'But who is he, Rangda?' said Skade.

'His name is Durza,' said Rangda. 'He's a Shade like me. If we can make contact with him, we can easily remove the curse.'

'Will it take long to find him?' said Skade.

'It shouldn't take too long,' said Rangda. 'We have special methods of speaking to each other, we Shades. Once I've rested I will use my magic to contact him. For the time being, we should make camp somewhere.'

Skade sighed. 'If we must.'

Rangda shrugged. 'We must.'

They didn't go far before they settled down for the night; both were too exhausted from the strains of the day to go further. Rangda selected a sheltered spot under some large bushes, and there they settled down, after the Shade had stretched her cloak between the branches overhead to protect their camp from the rain. She lit a fire, muttering a word over a heap of damp wood, which caught nonetheless and burnt slowly and without much heat. Skade lay back against a log and dozed, sliding into a dream without even realising it.

While she was asleep, Rangda settled down and meditated, gathering more power from the spirits lodged inside her. Shades never truly sleep, and this waking slumber was the closest she ever came to it. She felt her strength slowly rebuilding, and after a few hours had passed she felt ready to awaken. She opened her eyes, and the silver glow in them had become bright once more. Satisfied, she held out a hand. A drop of rainwater landed on her palm, and she held it up to her face, whispering; 'Draumr kôpa.'

At once the droplet began to glow with soft light, and then a void formed inside it, ready to fill itself. Rangda murmured Durza's name, concentrating on him, and before long an image grew in the window of the water. It was of a face, thin and pale and angular like her own. The eyes were maroon, the hair a violent crimson, and the forehead marked with black tattoos. For human or elven magicians, scrying someone was a common enough thing. But for Shades it was different.

The face in the water blinked and looked back at Rangda. Rangda, it said, the voice a faint echo in the air.

'Durza,' said Rangda. 'Are you well?'

I am, said the voice. and you? where are you?

'Near Ilirea,' said Rangda. 'I need your help.'

help to do what? asked the distant voice of Durza.

'I have found a dragon who will help me,' said Rangda.

you are still pursuing that ridiculous dream?

'Yes,' said Rangda, unembarrassed. 'And now it may come true. But the rider elders have cursed the dragon with the form of an elf. I need your help to release her from it.'

anything for you, said Durza.

Rangda smiled. 'Where can I find you?'

I'm near the Spine, said Durza. close to a small village… I think it is called Carvavhall.

'I can be there in a few weeks,' said Rangda. 'Will you wait?'

I will wait, said Durza, and the face faded away from her hand.

Chapter Ten

The Spell of the Shades

So for the next few weeks Skade and Rangda travelled together, bent on finding Durza at all costs. During that time, the Shade taught the elf-dragon a great deal about the world and about magic. Skade learnt about spells so powerful that only the power-hungry Shades would ever dare experiment with them, and about others so dark that their use had been forbidden by the riders. It was from Rangda that she learnt the full story of how the riders had come into being, and about her father. It was said among Shades, she said, that the black dragon had possessed a type of magic no living creature could begin to imagine, and that his legendary ability to summon storms had merely been part of it.

'Power,' was how Rangda put it. 'Can you imagine it? The ability to go against natural law like that has never been seen before and never will again, I am sure. Life has no meaning, it's said… but there are things that make life worthwhile, and power is one of them. That is what I seek. What do you seek, Skade?'

'My father,' Skade replied.

'But why?' Rangda persisted. 'Why do you seek him?'

'Because he needs me,' said Skade. 'And I need him.'

That was all she said, and Rangda didn't press her further.

It took a long time for Skade to become accustomed to her new body, which she was forced to do in order to live in it for the month it took for them to reach Carvahall. Learning to balance on two legs was hard enough, but she got the hang of it in the end and could eventually walk without help. She also found that she could no longer survive on one feeding every week or so – this new body insisted on eating several times every day. Not that Skade paid attention to its need. She ignored the persistent hunger pangs and refused to tend to any injuries she collected, intent on punishing this body which she hated. She grew gaunt and thin, and even paler than before, and dark shadows formed around her eyes. Rangda did little to stop her, though she forced her to eat and drink often enough that she didn't die outright from starvation or thirst. She knew that Skade was depressed, but there was nothing she could do but assure her that it wouldn't last forever. And Skade believed it. She had no choice but to believe it. It was that or death from despair.

But, among everything that happened during that time, the most surprising was that Rangda and Skade became friends. Not of the most demonstrative kind, which was only to be expected, but still they came to trust each other and to enjoy being in each others' company. And while Rangda taught Skade, she learnt many things in her turn. Skade told her about what she'd learnt of the ways of elves and of riders, and a fair amount of it was new to the Shade. They also talked of their hopes and dreams, of which both had many, and that was a sharing that taught them about each other.

Their journey was uneventful for the most part – they avoided other people, knowing that if they did not attack Rangda they would spread word of her whereabouts to the riders. By the end of it they had reached Carvahall, which was a small and insignificant farming settlement in a valley called Palancar, backed up against the mist-filled mountains of the Spine, which was where the wild dragons lived and where Ravana himself had been born. The two of them skirted around the buildings, moving at night to avoid detection, and in a cave at the very edge of the Spine they found Durza waiting for them.

The other Shade was sitting by a large fire, his long slim frame hunched like a gargoyle in its flickering light. He looked up when they entered, and his cold eyes brightened when he saw Rangda.

'Rangda,' he said, standing and coming toward her.

'Durza,' said Rangda, her own eyes aglow.

The two Shades embraced and kissed passionately. Skade watched them curiously. She had never seen this sort of thing before, but she sensed it was some kind of intimate gesture. She smiled a little; quite frankly, it looked ridiculous.

Rangda and Durza parted, and he looked around at Skade, who had remained in the doorway. She saw the same blank power in his face as was in Rangda's. They looked something alike, as well, but the male Shade was taller. Both, though, were as graceful as an elf. 'So this is the dragon,' said Durza.

'I am,' said Skade boldly. 'And you're Durza.'

Durza chuckled. 'You're brave,' he said. 'Not many people would speak so directly to me.'

Skade shrugged. 'I'm not afraid,' she said. 'I'm a dragon.'

'Not in body,' said Durza. 'But certainly in spirit. Where did you find her, Rangda?'

'Just outside the walls of Ilirea,' said Rangda. 'After the riders threw her out. But you should have seen her while she was still a dragon. She was beautiful. Her scales shone like moonlight, and her wings were the colour of storm clouds. She can't live in this form, Durza. Look at her. She's sick. She would have starved herself to death if I hadn't made her eat. We must change her back.'

Durza rubbed his pale hands together. 'And we shall,' he said. 'But first, let's talk. I would like to hear the full story of how you met.'

Rangda nodded. 'And I would like to hear about what you've been doing since we last met,' she said. 'Besides, I will need a while to rest and so will Skade.'

'I can wait,' said Skade resignedly.

'Come, sit with me,' said Durza, gesturing at the fire.

Rangda and Skade sat down gratefully in its halo, and let the warmth caress their tired limbs.

'Why do we have to wait?' Skade complained. 'I have been waiting too long already.'

'Skade, this spell will be very powerful and very dangerous,' Rangda told her. 'You must be in full health to survive it. So you will have to rest and eat. Don't be afraid. Now we are with Durza, there is no way the spell won't work.'

She glanced at Durza, who nodded once. Skade sighed and said nothing more. While the two Shades talked, she looked around the cave, more for something to do than for any other reason. There wasn't much there. Some food and a few blankets, several large jars stacked against one wall, and a bundle of ragged cloth lying in one corner. At least, she thought it was cloth. But then she saw it move.

Durza saw her looking and said; 'Ah, you've noticed my friend.'

He got up and went over to the bundle, and Skade and Rangda went with him, curious. The bundle turned over, and revealed itself to be a young man. His face was freckled and pale, very pale. Black curls of hair lay damply over his forehead and he moaned softly. But it was the eyes that Skade noticed the most. They were dark and deep and lost, and in them there was an agony so deep that she felt she would fall into it herself. They weren't just pained, she realised. They were mad.

'Durza, who is he?' said Rangda.

Durza pointed silently at the boy's right hand, which lay curled on the blankets near his face. The fingers moved slightly, and they saw the silver mark on the palm.

'A rider?' said Rangda. 'Where is his dragon?'

'Dead,' said Durza. 'She was killed by urgals. Now he is an outcast like ourselves. I found him wandering alone not long before you contacted me. I think you, Skade, will sympathise with him. The elder council of the riders refused him another dragon when he went to them to plead for one, and they banished him from the city.'

Skade looked at the boy's face. There was so much pain there that its normal good looks were barely noticeable. And, though he was one of the riders she despised, her heart went out to him.

'What is his name?' she asked.

Durza pulled the blanket up so it covered the boy's chest. 'His name is Galbatorix,' he said.

Afterwards, as agreed, Skade and Rangda stayed with Durza in the cave. The two Shades spent most of their time together, often leaving the cave for long periods. They were both pleasant enough to Skade, but had little time for her; she knew that, for the time being at least, Rangda only had eyes for the other Shade. Lacking anything else to do, she took over the task of caring for Galbatorix. The young man wasn't in much condition to speak with her a lot of the time; it was plain he was very ill, for his skin was hot and damp and he often muttered and cried out in his sleep. Skade looked after him in the ways which Rangda and Durza suggested, bathing his forehead to cool him down and feeding him as gently as she could. It felt oddly fulfilling to be helping someone like this, as if she were some sort of guardian spirit. And she felt sympathetic toward this man who, like her, had been punished and rejected by the elders for superficial reasons. She hoped that he would recover enough to speak to her, and three days after her arrival he did.

That day came, and Galbatorix opened his eyes and saw a face looking down at him. It was the face of an elf… the most beautiful elf he had ever seen. Her skin was pale and had a silvery sheen to it, and her eyes were a fierce and fiery gold. Her long silver hair hung to her waist, and the moment he saw her he was enchanted.

'Who are you?' he rasped.

'I'm Skade,' she answered. 'How are you?'

'I feel weak,' he said. 'But I think I'm better now… my name's Galbatorix.'

'I know,' said Skade. 'I've been looking after you.'

'How did you find me?' said Galbatorix.

'I didn't,' said Skade. 'Durza did. But I'm his friend. He asked me to care for you.'

'Good,' Galbatorix murmured, lying back. 'Good…'

Over the next few days while both Skade and Galbatorix recovered their strength, the elf and the human talked together a lot. Whenever Rangda and Durza were away, they would share their stories freely, both glad to discover someone close to their own age at least in terms of experience, in whom they could confide.

When Galbatorix learnt that Skade was really a dragon he was fascinated rather than repulsed, and his infatuation with her only increased. As for Skade, she was confused. There was something about the way he looked at her, particularly when he didn't know she could see him doing it. It was a hungry, intense look, mixed with terrible longing. When he looked like that he often spoke of his own dragon and how she had died in his arms, beyond the help of his magic.

'I loved her,' he said frankly. 'She wasn't just a friend. She was a part of my own soul. You don't know what it feels like… to have a part of your very self torn away like that…'

'But I know what it's like to lose yourself,' Skade responded, tentatively touching his hand. Galbatorix gripped her hand in his and held it tightly, his eyes glittering. Skade tried to pull away at first, but she found she liked the feeling and held on.

'I like you,' she said shyly. 'You have… something in you that I feel too.'

'And you do as well,' said Galbatorix, bolder than her, and a little wild. 'I know what it is. Do you?'

Skade shook her head.

'It's darkness,' said Galbatorix with an odd smile. 'Both of us have shadows on our souls… oh yes. And the only way to be comforted if you are like us is to seek out others who understand.'

'Yes,' said Skade, closing her eyes blissfully. 'Yes…'

'Darkness,' said Galbatorix again, warming to his theme. 'There's so much of it in the world, Skade… I never realised it before. But after my dragon died, I saw that it was everywhere. In everyone, everything that exists. When I was in training with Lachesis, she taught me about life. Said it was sacred. Said it should be nurtured and protected. But my dragon died… Skade. She died. And now she's dead she's gone forever. They told me the soul dies with the body. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine that, when you die, you'll be gone, with nothing left of you but a corpse? I can't… it's terrible. I believed it, but it was a counsel of despair. What's left to comfort me now? If my dragon's soul is dead then her existence was pointless, and I have nothing to comfort me. No hope that we might be reunited some day.'

Skade shivered. 'They really believe that?'

Galbatorix nodded. 'I only hope… I hope they're wrong,' he said. 'They have to be wrong. Otherwise…'

'Otherwise we may as well die right now,' said Skade. She shook her head, and her eyes hardened. 'The riders are vile,' she said. 'They smile and they lie and they destroy lives.'

'Lives like ours,' Galbatorix agreed.

'And they are hypocrites,' Skade added. 'Telling that life is sacred, but teaching that it is also pointless.'

'I would destroy them all if I could,' said Galbatorix. 'They took everything from me… left me with nothing.'

'If you decide to go for revenge on them, I could help you,' said Skade. 'They did the same to me. They took my mother, my father, my sister and my brother. Every last member of my family… gone.'

It was he first time she'd admitted it to herself, and on the word 'gone' her eyes stung and she looked away, vision blurred by tears.

Galbatorix noticed this, and hugged her to his thin chest with surprising strength. Skade sobbed softly in his arms, embarrassed but unable to stop it, and he stroked her hair and murmured to comfort her.

But from that day forth there was a special bond between them, and though he kept it to himself Galbatorix began to wish for Skade to stay as an elf. He was torn – he wanted her to be healed and, perhaps, to use her dragon's powers to help him have his revenge, but if she were to stay an elf then she would remain beautiful in the way he wanted her to. He didn't know what to do, and he was uncertain of whether he should mention it to her. In a way it was not dissimilar to the agony many young males feel when they believe they are in love, but Galbatorix was not one to simply mope around. He was a man who believed in action, and though he was uncertain he refused to do nothing. And so, the following morning, he invited Skade to walk in the forest with him.

Elf and human strolled together among the trees, hand in hand, admiring the mist that whisped palely over the great mountains above. Skade enjoyed the scenery, and the company, and talked cheerfully enough about nothing in particular. Galbatorix remained quiet, as was his way, and, glancing at him, Skade decided that she felt comforted by his dark, brooding presence. He had a strength that reminded of her of her father, or the little she could remember of him… she remembered feeling his great form looming over her, and how it had made her feel safe rather than afraid. She and her siblings had lain between their mother's front paws, watched over by her and her mate. It had been the only time when they were together, and though it had been brief she had never forgotten it. Now, thinking of that, she smiled toward her friend and squeezed his hand to remind him she was there.

Galbatorix, though, was unresponsive and seemed troubled.

'What's wrong?' she asked him.

Galbatorix looked her in the face for the first time since they'd left. He was stronger than he'd been before, but still pale. 'Nothing,' he half-lied. 'But… I'm uncertain. I don't know what to say,' he added honestly, though it only confused Skade further.

'Say what you're thinking,' she said. 'I trust you.'

'You do?' said Galbatorix.

'Yes,' said Skade. 'You're my friend.'

Galbatorix did smile at that, a little. 'Did I tell you that you're beautiful?' he asked.

'No,' said Skade. 'And it would have been a lie if you had. I'm ugly.' She bowed her head, shame in her voice. 'The riders cursed me with this hideous form,' she said. 'But as a dragon… I was beautiful. My scales were brightest silver, and my talons were ivory white. I was proud to be a dragon. That is why I am so desperate to be again.'

'But you're beautiful in this form too,' said Galbatorix.

'I am?' said Skade, looking up.

'To me you are,' said Galbatorix. 'I have… admired you since the first time I saw your face. You have a beautiful heart, and a face that goes with it. On you, no form would be ugly. Believe me.'

But Skade shook her head.

'I thought you said you trusted me,' said Galbatorix, pretending to be hurt.

'I do,' said Skade. 'But… you really mean it?'

'Of course I do,' said Galbatorix. 'I would never lie to you.'

Skade smiled again, her sharp teeth gleaming. 'Thankyou,' she said. 'It's… comforting to me to know at least one person thinks I am worth knowing.'

'It is to be expected,' said Galbatorix. 'You are.'

'And you are, too,' said Skade, emboldened. 'You remind me of my father. You are brave and dark, just like he was, and you make me feel safe.'

Galbatorix smiled shyly. He touched Skade's face with a gentle hand, brushing a strand of hair away from her forehead. Then he kissed her.

Skade pulled back, looking at him with shock. 'What was that?' she asked.

Galbatorix laughed out loud. 'It's called a kiss,' he said. 'Humans and elves use them to show they love each other.'

'Love,' said Skade, trying the unfamiliar word. 'Like the love I have for my father?'

'Like it,' said Galbatorix. 'But different. You didn't mind it, did you?'

'I'm not sure,' said Skade coyly. 'Try it again.'

He did so. 'Let me try it,' said Skade. She kissed him back, on the cheek, somewhat clumsily. It made him laugh again.

'Tell me, Skade,' he said. 'Did you ever have a mate while you were a dragon?'

'No,' said Skade. 'I felt the instinct, but there were no adult males around.'

'If I were a dragon, would you have chosen me?' Galbatorix asked boldly.

'Yes,' said Skade, after only a short hesitation.

'And would you choose me now?' Galbatorix persisted.

'I do not know how elves and humans choose mates,' said Skade, shaking her head.

'It isn't much different from how dragons do,' said Galbatorix. 'We… complicate things. But we have the same needs. And I need you, Skade.'

Skade's heart was pounding; she felt hot all over. She knew perfectly well what he meant by this. Some part of her told her to refuse him, since after all she knew nothing about it – this was uncharted ground to her. But another, stronger part urged her to throw caution to the winds. In the end, before Galbatorix's gaze, it was the part that won. She cast aside her doubts and said; 'I need you as well, Galbatorix. But I will need your help too.'

'And I will give it,' said Galbatorix, his eyes aglow.

After this, Skade's return to full health suddenly sped up, as if she'd found a new zeal for living. Galbatorix too began to recover with surprising speed. There was new life in his eyes now, especially when they were turned toward Skade, and Rangda and Durza could hardly have missed it. They smirked knowingly when they saw the two of them sitting close together, and though neither said anything both were highly amused.

'It may cause problems when the times comes, however,' Rangda couldn't help but add in an undertone to her lover. Durza merely shrugged and said they would deal with it when the time came.

But Rangda was impatient to be off, and after waiting for a further week after Galbatorix had made his declaration of love she announced it was time for herself and Durza to attempt the reversing spell. It was evening when she did so, and all four of them were seated around the fire.

'Skade, it's time,' said Rangda. 'Durza and I think you're strong enough now.'

'For what?' said Skade distractedly.

'For us to try and change you back,' said Rangda.

'Oh,' said Skade.

It wasn't the response she would have given a week ago. Beside the silver elf, Galbatorix's jaw tightened.

'Well?' said Rangda, irritated. 'Shall we proceed? I think Durza is ready.'

'I am,' said Durza.

Skade glanced at Galbatorix. He looked unhappy, but said nothing.

'I'm ready,' said Skade. She stood up with evident reluctance, and took her place on the other side of the fire, opposite the two Shades. They glanced at each other, nodded, and said in unison: 'Flytja au álfr líki frïi Skade!'

Skade closed her eyes, letting the magic come into her in a way that was by now very familiar. This time, though, it was many times more powerful. Her skin burnt and warped just as it had in Ilirea before the elders, and she cried out, half in fear and half in exultation. This time there was no faltering, no drawing on her strength. The magic came entirely from Rangda and Durza. She forced her eyes open and saw the two Shades, still and silent, cold-eyed with concentration. She saw Galbatorix, too, his expression full of wonder. The forces working on her body suddenly increased, and she closed her eyes again, thrashing on the floor, utterly helpless in the spell's grasp. She heard Galbatorix shout something, and then she blacked out.

Chapter Eleven

Departure

Skade woke up mere minutes after passing out, and the first thing she saw was Galbatorix. He was stroking her head with his hand, his face concerned.

Skade groaned. Somewhere far away she heard Galbatorix say; 'She's all right.'

Footsteps sounded on the stone floor, and then Rangda was there.

'Skade,' said the Shade. 'Do you feel well?'

'I ache,' Skade mumbled. 'Did – it work?'

'Yes,' said Rangda, after what felt like an interminable pause. 'It worked. You are a dragon again.'

'And every bit as beautiful as I imagined,' Galbatorix added.

Skade raised her head very quickly when she heard that, and sure enough she saw her dragon forepaws resting on the floor in front of her. She sniffed at them. They were hers, all right – big, silver-scaled, equipped with curved talons. She rubbed her face with them, and found it was long and muzzled once more, and crowned by six long horns. She was a dragon again. Skade laughed a hacking, booming laugh, and stood up on her four paws, her tail lashing. She spread her wings, and saw the great shadow they cast over the cave walls. A fierce joy rushed through her like hot blood, and she roared as loudly as she could, enjoying the respect that the other three showed in response.

'Yes!' she howled. 'Yes!'

Without waiting for any of the others to speak, she rushed out of the cave. Once she was out in the open she spread her wings and leapt into the air. She was clumsy in flight at first, but memory soon came rushing back and before long, as she rose higher and higher, her old grace and confidence returned. She circled around the mountains as fast as she could go, glorying in the sensation of taking to the air after so long on the ground. This, she knew, was something she could never take for granted again. To be a dragon… she would take pleasure in it forever. She opened her mouth and spat silver fire into the air, roared aloud and flexed her talons, and made a memory that would stay with her for the rest of her life.

But, inevitably, the time came when she knew she had to go back. She flew to the cave, more slowly this time, and found Durza, Rangda and Galbatorix waiting for her. Rangda looked triumphant, Galbatorix nervous, and Durza was as cool and collected as always. Skade landed in front of the three, and growled a greeting. 'Rangda, Durza,' she said, bowing her head to the two Shades. 'I owe you a great favour. You have saved me in a way I can never express. Thankyou.'

'A promise is a promise,' said Rangda, smiling. 'All that I ask in return is that you fulfil your own.'

'No,' said Galbatorix suddenly, coming forward and putting his hand on Skade's shoulder. 'Skade, I want you to be my new dragon. Agree to be my partner, and we can have our revenge on the riders together.'

'Galbatorix, I can't,' said Skade, touching his head with the end of her snout. 'You know that. I have already sworn to take Rangda to my father, and the oath is unbreakable.'

'But I need you,' said Galbatorix, full of that vulnerability that she loved. 'Skade, how can we be apart?'

Skade sighed. 'I don't want to be parted from you either,' she said. 'Will you come with us?'

Galbatorix shook his head. 'I can't leave Alagaësia,' he said. 'My place is here, and you can't carry both Rangda and me. And if I left, I might never be able to return.'

'But I swear that I will,' said Skade. 'Before I go I will do what I can to help you, and I shall come back to you. No matter what happens, I shall return.' She caressed him as gently as she could, nearly engulfing him with her paw, and repeated those final words in the ancient language.

'And I swear that I will never forget our time together, nor forget that I love you,' said Galbatorix, saying it again in the ancient language as Skade had done.

Skade smiled and growled deep in her throat. 'You are a special man, Galbatorix,' she said. 'You have the spirit of a wild dragon. I shall not forget either, and there is no need to swear that I will. If I were not bound by my oath I would gladly carry you as your dragon would have. But don't despair. You can find another dragon to help you. I'm sure of it. And there are bound to be others in the world who feel as we do… if you can find them, they will help you. Rangda, before we go, can I take Galbatorix where he wants to go?'

'You may,' said Rangda. 'But swear you will return.'

Skade nodded. 'Galbatorix… where shall I take you?'

'To Ilirea,' said Galbatorix, narrow-eyed. 'I will find people to help me there. And I will find another dragon to help me fight.'

'You sound very certain,' Rangda commented.

'I am,' said Galbatorix.

High in the sky over Ilirea, two dragons were circling slowly around the towers. They were on aerial surveillance duty, and while the dragons kept an eye out their riders conversed.

'So what happened to her?' one of them asked.

'I'm not supposed to tell you,' the second replied.

'Come on,' said the first. 'Please?'

'Well…' said the second. He was trying to sound officious, but his expression was smug.

'I won't tell anyone you told me,' the first rider persisted. 'I promise.'

The second rider gave an exaggerated shrug. 'I suppose I could tell you,' he said.

The first rider patted the neck of his dragon, which was a blue female. 'Saphira and I promise we'll keep it a secret,' he said.

'Certainly,' the dragon agreed.

'Then if you insist,' said the second rider. His dragon, red-scaled and female, sniggered.

The first rider, who was of course Brom, waited impatiently while the other pretended to consider the suggestion, enjoying his power over his friend.

Eventually the red dragon's rider said; 'All right. The elders didn't kill her. They decided to punish her with magic.'

'How?' said Brom, stiffening slightly in the saddle. 'Not torture, surely?'

'No,' said his friend. 'Of course not. This dragon was wilder than any I've seen. Very rude, too,' he added self-righteously. 'She refused to co-operate with the elders, and wouldn't even listen to them. Instead she threatened and screamed and we had to restrain her.' He paused, and grinned. 'Seems the elders have a taste for ironic punishment. She'd come to hate the elves, for some reason. Went on about how vile they are and so on… totally mad.'

'So what did they do?' said Brom. 'Morzan, what did they do?'

'They cursed her with their magic,' said Morzan. He was deliberately drawing out his tale, relishing the desperation in Brom's face.

'How?' said Brom. 'How?'

'They turned her into an elf,' said Morzan at last, in an undertone.

'What?' said Brom, sitting bolt upright. 'That's impossible!'

'Nothing's impossible to the elders,' said Morzan, smirking. 'I'm telling the truth, Brom. That dragon was punished with becoming what she hated. I saw it happen with my own eyes.'

'So where is she now?' said Brom.

Morzan shrugged. 'Idün and I carried her out of the city,' he said. 'We left her outside the walls with a bag of supplies. She's outcast now, and probably gone forever. There, I told you. Are you satisfied now?'

'What? Oh… yes,' said Brom distractedly. 'Saphira and I will keep it to ourselves.'

'Isn't it amazing, though?' said Morzan. 'I never knew that anyone could do something like that. Magic can do anything, of course, but that the elders would be able to summon the power for it… they had to do it all working together. I could feel the magic in the air. I tell you, Brom… I'd give anything to be that powerful. Imagine if we became elders one day. Wouldn't that be amazing?'

'Hmm,' said Brom.

'It's my dream, anyway,' said Morzan, glancing at his friend. It irritated him when Brom didn't hang on his every word as he usually did. This time, though, Brom didn't notice Morzan's temper. He sat uneasily on Saphira's back as she flew between two of the tallest towers, and said nothing more until night came and their shift was over.

Then, instead of returning to their quarters as usual, the two of them left the city, telling Morzan and Idün that they fancied a relaxing ride over the forest before bed.

But, of course, it was not to do that that they left; as soon as they were certain no-one was watching they flew straight to that secret place on a hillside where Einás and Kullervo were waiting for them. The old half-elf and the orange dragon had gone into hiding since the day of Skade's trial, when they had been forced to take shelter for fear of the lightning, which is lethal to dragons on the wing. Brom and Saphira had brought them food and news every so often, but until now they'd been unable to find out exactly what had happened to Skade, since Morzan and his fellow guards had been ordered to keep it secret.

Kullervo had tripled in size over the last two months, and was now the size of a large dog. He came out to meet his sister when she landed outside his shelter, with Einás just behind him. 'Hello,' she said. 'What news?'

'We've found out what happened to Skade,' said Brom, jumping down from Saphira's back.

'What is it, Brom?' said Kullervo, seeing how troubled the young man looked. 'Is she alive?'

'Yes,' said Brom. 'But I have no idea where she is.'

Unlike Morzan he didn't beat about the bush, but told his two friends exactly what he'd learnt, in a low voice and using quick, precise words. They listened closely, and when he'd done their reactions were more or less what he expected.

'No!' said Kullervo.

'Impossible!' said Einás.

Brom shook his head. 'It's possible, and it's true,' he said. 'Skade is an outcast now, and even if we find her we won't recognise her. She's gone, Einás. Gone forever.'

Einás sat down on a log, her face in her hands. 'This is all my fault,' she said. 'And don't say it isn't,' she added sharply, pointing an accusing finger at Brom.

'I didn't say anything,' said Brom, raising his hands defensively. 'But-,' he sat down next to her. '-What are we going to do? You can't stay here much longer; we're already running a risk by letting you stay so close to the city.'

'We have to find her,' said Kullervo at once.

'But how?' said Brom. 'She could have gone anywhere. And even if we find her, we'll never be able to change her back. It took all of the elders working together to complete the spell in the first place – where would we find that sort of power? Well?' he had gone a little wild by this time, and finished by stabbing his forefinger in the air as if it were a dagger.

'I don't know,' said Kullervo, lowering his head. 'But what else can we do? Do you know, Einás?' he looked at her hopefully.

Einás took her hands away from her face. 'No, Kullervo,' she said. 'I don't know. I don't know what to do. I'm out of ideas.'

Kullervo looked miserable. 'But you always know what to do,' he said.

'Not any more,' said Einás.

'Cheer up,' said Saphira. 'We'll think of something. In the meantime, Brom and I had better be getting back.'

She looked meaningfully at Brom, who sighed and returned to her side. 'Yes, we'd better be off,' he said. 'I'm… sorry it turned out this way, Einás. Truly.'

He climbed onto Saphira's back, and the blue dragon flew away with a soft flick of her wings. Left alone, Einás and Kullervo sat and thought, their expressions troubled. Kullervo went to Einás' side, and she rubbed his head with her hand, not saying anything.

'How could they do that to Skade?' the small dragon asked, his voice bewildered. 'How?'

'I don't know, Kullervo,' said Einás.

They sat wordlessly for a time, neither able to think properly about what to do, such was the enormity of what they had just learnt. They were so troubled and unhappy that they failed to realise they were being watched. Two figures were in the shadows, one tall and thin and the other short and heavy-set. Behind them loomed the outline of a fully-grown dragon.

There was silence then, as the strangers watched the half-elf and the small dragon and listened to their talk, such as it was, and finally the taller of the two murmured to his companion, saying; 'Stay here. I have work to do.'

This said, he stepped out into the clearing and confronted Einás and Kullervo. They looked up sharply, and saw a young man. Pale-faced, freckled, with long, curly black hair. His clothes were shabby rags but had once been black, and on his back he wore a long sword with a white blade.

'Who are you?' Einás demanded, her hand moving to the hilt of her own sword.

'Einás Egg-Guardian,' said the man in a cool, amused voice. 'Don't you recognise me?'

'Should I?' said Einás.

'Perhaps not,' said the man. 'Not many people would recognise me now. So much has changed. And you elves don't bother to remember the names and faces of mere humans like myself, do you?'

Einás stared at the man's face, but she wasn't bluffing. She had no idea who he was.

The man looked back at her with hatred. 'Betrayer,' he breathed. 'I know what you did.'

'I'm no betrayer,' said Einás indignantly, standing up and drawing her sword. 'And you'd better tell me what you're doing here, or there will be trouble.'

The man laughed. 'Trouble?' he said. 'Very amusing. You sound like my mother, betrayer. Don't lie to me. I know what you did. You betrayed someone who thought you were her friend. You gave her to her enemies for punishment, and in doing that you destroyed everything she cared about. I have seen her, and heard her story.'

'Skade!' said Einás, wide-eyed. 'You've seen her?'

'What's left of her,' said the man. 'Yes, I have. She told me her story, and yours. She wants revenge on you, and she deserves to have it.'

'Who are you?' said Einás again.

'My name is Galbatorix,' said Galbatorix impassively. 'I was once a rider, but like Skade I was betrayed by those whom I trusted more than any other in the world. Now I am nobody, just as she is. But I love her, Einás, and she loves me. That is why I'm here.'

'Love?' said Einás. 'Love? What have you done to her, Galbatorix? Where is she?'

Galbatorix grinned horribly. He pulled out his own sword from its scabbard on his back, and the white blade gleamed in the moonlight like Skade's scales. 'That's not for you to know,' he said. 'But since she's not here and I am, I shall do her a service and take her revenge for her.'

'You can try,' said Einás, lifting her sword.

Galbatorix raised an eyebrow. 'If you want to, so be it,' he said. 'A duel to the death. No magic. And your dragon will not interfere.'

Einás nodded, her eyes cold.

'Say it in the ancient language,' said Galbatorix.

'A duel to the death,' said Einás, switching to that language. 'No magic, and Kullervo will do nothing.'

Kullervo nodded, stepping away fearfully. In his mind, he was screaming. He didn't want this to happen. What was wrong with Einás, accepting a challenge like this? Had she gone mad?

Einás ignored his doubts. She had looked into Galbatorix's eyes, and seen what lay within – seen the passion, the rage, the hatred and the controlled violence. There would be no bargaining with this man. Even without his dragon he was still dangerous. She'd heard his story from Brom, and knew that he was perilous to meddle with. Even before his fall from grace, he had had a reputation for ruthlessness. And she was tired. Tired of hiding, tired of being afraid, tired of worrying about Skade, tired of being tormented by guilt. So she held her sword ready and accepted the challenge, and felt no fear.

Galbatorix didn't hesitate. He rushed at Einás, a sudden move that had served him well in the past. She was ready for him, and the two swords crashed together with a ring of steel like the tolling of a death-bell. Kullervo cried out and ran to hide behind a tree, hardly daring to look out and see what was happening.

Einás and Galbatorix began to fight. They moved fast and gracefully, circling around each other with raised swords, darting in and out to strike and to block. For a while this strange dance went on, and then they slammed together again with a mutual roar of rage. Their swords locked, and they shoved at each other with all their strength, each one seeking to push the other over. Einás backed out of this with speed, and swung her sword low and then up, aiming for Galbatorix's face. He deflected the strike with his own weapon, and struck back fast and wickedly, catching Einás on the chest. She howled and lashed out with her free hand, punching him on the chin. Galbatorix's head snapped back, and the old half-elf rushed in to take advantage, bringing her sword down toward his throat. Galbatorix flicked his head sideways, ducking under the silver blade, and in that same motion he swung his sword toward her, hitting her in the side and inflicting another injury. From behind his tree, Kullervo howled in pain, and Einás glanced around instinctively at him even as she recovered her balance, and Galbatorix took advantage of her distraction to wound her again, this time on the arm. Einás screamed and hurled herself at him, her sword flashing. It got Galbatorix on the wrist, and blood began to flow down his arm to his elbow, soaking into the remains of his dark robe. His other hand lashed out, and grabbed Einás by the throat. The half-elf yelled and whipped her sword upwards again, cutting his arm and making him let go. Galbatorix kicked her in the leg, and when she staggered he struck downward, cutting her across the midriff again, this time creating a more serious injury. Einás only just managed not to fall over, and cried out again, now in very real distress. It was plain she was losing, and the only reason she hadn't died yet was because Galbatorix was holding himself back. Kullervo, watching through a haze of shared pain, saw the horrible, calculating look on the man's face. He was enjoying himself, inflicting suffering on Einás deliberately instead of finishing her off, making it so for the purpose of some misguided vengeance. Every fibre of his being urged him to go to his partner's aid, but the words of the ancient language bound him to do nothing, and all he could do was stare, and suffer, and hope.

Einás sensed his thoughts and renewed her attack, realising that if she didn't do all she could to keep her opponent busy he would kill her. She inflicted several more cuts on him after that, but none were sufficient to slow him down, and she knew she was outclassed. She was no warrior; she had never learnt more than the basic moves, and had never really been in a battle before. Whereas Galbatorix was a rider through and through, trained in the most subtle and brutal arts of swordplay. If she fought on, she was doomed.

'Stop!' she shouted in desperation. 'Stop! I surrender! You win! Spare me!'

Galbatorix laughed out loud and cut her again, this time on the leg. 'So a traitor's blade really is weak,' he said. 'What a shame. I was hoping for a challenge.'

'I'm no traitor!' Einás shouted back, trying to block his blade. 'It was a trick – necessary, to save her!'

But in her heart she knew it was useless to protest. Galbatorix would not listen, and nor would he believe her. He sneered in the face of her cries and said; 'Even if you were telling the truth, you are still one of my enemies, and for that you must pay.'

He knocked her down with one easy blow, kicking away her sword and pinning her down with a foot on her chest. While she lay there, helpless, he called out; 'Morzan! Come here!'

Morzan emerged from the shadows, sword at the ready. 'So this is the traitor,' he said, seeing Einás' bloodied, desperate face. 'The one we've been searching for.'

'Yes,' said Galbatorix. 'I've caught her for you.'

'Should we take her back to the city?' said Morzan.

'Why?' said Galbatorix. 'You know the elders, Morzan. They're weak. Too weak to do what must be done. We've talked about this already. Don't you agree with me?'

'Of course I do,' said Morzan.

'Well then,' said Galbatorix. 'I'm sure you won't mind doing the honours.'

Morzan hesitated. 'I'm no executioner,' he said.

Galbatorix snorted. 'If you want to do justice, then you must do some things that you don't like,' he said. 'And besides, I thought you were better than them. Well? Are you, Morzan?'

Morzan nodded hastily. 'I am,' he said. He glanced at his sword, a beautiful, red-bladed weapon, and then he hesitated no longer. The sword's blade went down, point-first, and took away forever the life of Einás Egg-Guardian, daughter of Eragon.

Einás made no sound when she died; only went rigid and then slumped back, her eyes half-open. But in the trees not far away Kullervo screamed. Morzan and Galbatorix looked around at him, and saw the orange dragon thrashing in agony, his claws clutched to his heart. They expected him to die, which was what normally happened to a dragon whose rider was killed, but when he went limp and silent they could still see his sides moving up and down. He was alive.

Morzan pulled his sword out of Einás' body, and cleaned it by stabbing it into the soil at his feet. Then he returned it to its sheath. 'What shall we do with the dragon?' he asked Galbatorix.

The other man was looking speculatively at Kullervo. He approached the orange dragon and crouched beside him, examining him. He was unconscious. Galbatorix muttered the healing spell over him, and a few seconds later Kullervo opened his eyes. He looked up at the man blankly.

'Hello,' said Galbatorix. 'How do you feel?'

Kullervo said nothing. He stared at Galbatorix, his golden eyes crazed.

'I'm sorry,' said Galbatorix softly. 'Truly. But what I did was necessary. I have set you free.' When he received no answer he went on; 'I know you have a sister called Skade. She told me about you. You have the same eyes as her.'

'Skade,' Kullervo mumbled, saying it as a word and not a name.

'Yes, Skade,' said Galbatorix, encouraged. 'She's a silver dragon. A beautiful silver dragon with golden eyes. She told me to find you if I could, and I have. And I have set you free. Now you can go back to her.'

'Skade,' said Kullervo again, his eyes glazed.

'You can trust me,' Galbatorix went on, sounding almost fatherly. 'Skade does. Skade loves me. I am her… her mate. The one she loves. And I love her back. That's why I came here to kill the elf who betrayed her, and set you free from her influence. Well, Kullervo? Can you hear me?'

Galbatorix waited in silence, his piece said. Kullervo remained unresponsive. Perhaps it would be necessary to wait a few days. He remembered all too well what it was like to lose a bonded partner. 'I know how it feels, Kullervo,' he whispered. 'I know how it feels. I was once a rider, but my dragon was murdered. I know the pain you're feeling. But believe me, it won't last. You will recover, I promise you. I did; you will too. Kullervo?'

For some reason it was those words that galvanised Kullervo into action. The small dragon lifted his head and tried to stand up. Galbatorix helped him, murmuring encouragement, ignoring Morzan, who was watching quietly over his shoulder. Kullervo was very weak, for as soon as Galbatorix took his hands away he staggered and fell sideways. Galbatorix caught him and let him lean on his arm, feeling the dragon's body trembling all over as if he had grown old before his time.

'It's all right, Kullervo,' he soothed. 'Now listen to me.'

Kullervo looked around at Galbatorix, rheumy-eyed and moaning softly in his throat.

'Listen,' said Galbatorix. 'You and I, Kullervo, are the same now. I lost my dragon, and you lost your rider. Now tell me… do you want to punish the ones who hurt your sister? Because I do. And I know how we can do it.'

Kullervo blinked slowly, but said nothing.

'Join with me,' said Galbatorix in a low, intense voice. 'Become my partner. Choose me as your rider. Together, we can destroy the riders and be rid of their cruelty and their vanity forever, and Alagaësia will be free. What do you say? Kullervo? What do you say?'

Kullervo looked at him, and slowly eased his weight off the man's arm, forcing his shaking legs to support his body.

'That's the way,' said Galbatorix. 'Wonderful! You're so strong, aren't you?'

Kullervo looked around vaguely, as if unaware of Galbatorix's presence. Then, slowly and haltingly, he began to walk. Galbatorix let him go, standing up in order to follow him. Kullervo stumbled back into the clearing, ignoring Morzan, and finally reached Einás' body. He nosed at it, nudging one cold hand to try and wake her up. The hand merely flopped back to the ground, its fingers curling outward and revealing the gleaming gedwëy ignaesia. Kullervo touched that with his snout, and then went to Einás' head and touched her pale cheek with his claws. He got no response.

Galbatorix watched this pathetic sight, and felt a wave of ghastly, overwhelming agony move inside him, blotting out all rational thought. A scream rose in his throat and died away unexpressed, for after all, what was the point? He remembered the day when his dragon died, how he cradled her head in his arms, whispering to her to try and keep her awake, and how in spite of all she had to live for her eyes had closed. He remembered feeling a part of his very self die inside him. He remembered the agony, that maddening pain, that void of despair that had nearly claimed him. Galbatorix closed his eyes and, beyond caring what Morzan would think, allowed slow tears to leak from under the lids.

But common sense and his all-important goal recalled him to himself. He crouched by Kullervo again, touching the dragon's shoulder. 'She's gone, Kullervo,' he said. 'It's over. Nothing remains of her now but her body. That's how it is with everything. The world did this to you, Kullervo. It took away your parents and your sister, and now it's taken away your rider. All you have left to live for is revenge. Join with me, and I will show you the way. I will teach you how to fight. Our pain is great, but together we can ease it. What do you say?'

Kullervo's head came around, and he looked into Galbatorix's eyes. The expression in both pairs was almost identical. Galbatorix reached out to touch the orange dragon's snout, but paused before he made contact with the scales, waiting on edge for a response to his offer. Kullervo looked at him, breaking eye contact to take in first his features and then his hand, which was spotted with Einás' blood. He sniffed the hand, nostrils flaring. Then he bit it.

Galbatorix cried out and pulled it away, totally shocked. Kullervo growled a deep, menacing growl and then, spreading his wings, took to the air. Morzan moved to stop him, but Galbatorix held him back, and the two of them stood and watched as the orange dragon flew up over the treetops and away.

Far away from all of this, a large silver dragon was perched on a clifftop, looking with wonder at the grey, heaving mass of the sea.

'So this is it,' she said to the slim figure seated between her shoulders.

'It is, Skade,' was the reply. 'It's beautiful, isn't it?'

'It is,' said the dragon. 'It's the same colour as a stormy sky.'

'And over it is your father,' said Rangda. 'Are you ready?'

'Yes,' said Skade. 'I'm ready.' She looked up at the dim grey sky. 'It's time,' she whispered, and then she took flight, her silver wings strong and sure, catching the sea breezes and allowing them to bear her away from Alagaësia.

Chapter Twelve

Black Dragons

Two nights after Einás' death and Kullervo's disappearance, a silver half-moon drifted slowly over the towers of Ilirea. And, at the base of the westward wall, a bulky figure crept between two storage buildings. It carried something in one hand, and kept a furtive eye out as it went along. Reaching the wall without incident, it unbolted and then opened the little door at its base. On the other side, someone else was waiting.

'Well?' it said. 'Did you get it?'

'Yes,' said the bulky one. 'Here it is.' He handed over a small bundle of cloth, then retreated, saying; 'Good luck with it.'

'Thanks,' said the one standing in the doorway. He tucked the object into his clothes and disappeared into the trees like a shadow. Once he was gone, the bulky one closed the door and re-bolted it, then hurried back to where he was supposed to be.

Outside the city, the tall figure of the one who'd accepted the parcel came to a halt under a large oak tree. There he removed his hood, revealing his pale, scarred face and dark eyes. There was a glitter of triumph in them now. He unwrapped the bundle with eager hands, and there it was. A dragon's egg, jet-black, its shell chased with white veins. The instant the egg was exposed to the open air, darkness suddenly fell. Galbatorix glanced up, and saw clouds massing between himself and the moon. Thunder cracked the heavens, its sound a sudden violence in the peaceful night.

Galbatorix grinned, the reflection of the stormy sky moving over his bottomless eyes like a veil. 'The storm of the black dragon,' he whispered.

He stroked the shell of he egg with his fingertips, his face full of joy mingled with greed. 'Here is the egg I was truly destined for,' he said. 'Here is my birthright. Little dragon, I know you can hear me. My name is Galbatorix, and I am your true-born friend and partner.'

He reached out with his mind, and contacted the dragon inside the shell. It responded, tentatively touching on his consciousness with a claw of thought. 'Who are you?' it asked.

'I am Galbatorix,' said Galbatorix. 'And your name?'

'I'm Shruikan,' said the hatchling. 'Son of Ravana and Silarae.'

'I know you are,' said Galbatorix. 'Listen to me, Shruikan. It's time to come out of the egg. I have come for you, and now I have found you at last. You are my birthright.'

'What is a birthright?' said Shruikan's silent voice.

'Something which a man or dragon owns by right from the moment he is born,' said Galbatorix. 'You are my birthright, and I am yours.'

'Why?' said Shruikan.

'Because you belong to my family,' said Galbatorix. 'You are my inheritance. As my great ancestor Taranis claimed you for his own, so you have rightfully been the property of his descendants. I am the last of his line.'

'Taranis…' said Shruikan. 'I don't know that name.'

'Still,' said Galbatorix. 'He is the one who cared for you after you were laid. Now it is time to hatch, Shruikan. I command it. There is work to do, and you can't stay in there forever.'

Shruikan was silent. Galbatorix waited patiently, running his hands over the eggshell and listening to the thunder. Lightning flashed, and in that moment the egg began to move. Galbatorix held onto it, cupping it in his palms, and watched it, his heart pounding.

The egg cracked, thin lines appearing on it in echo of the forked lightning which crackled about the towers of Ilirea, forcing the guarding dragons to take cover. Thunder sounded again, and Galbatorix could faintly hear the hatching dragon piping from inside its shell.

'Yes,' he whispered, eyes aglow. 'Yes!'

The storm increased in ferocity, and the hatching continued. The egg rocked from side to side in Galbatorix's grasp, and his heart pounded sickeningly in his chest. He saw the dragon's snout poke through the shell, and then the egg split apart. Flakes of black shell fell between his fingertips, and the hatchling was there, sprawled in the hands of the man he had emerged for. He was black as his egg had been, but his wings, hanging limply over Galbatorix's palms, had white membranes.

'Shruikan,' said Galbatorix. 'Welcome to the world.'

Shruikan looked up weakly, and saw the face of the man who had spoken to him. 'Galbatorix,' he rasped.

'Yes,' said Galbatorix, eyes alight. 'I'm Galbatorix. So you can speak already?'

'Shruikan listen,' said Shruikan, slowly and carefully. 'Shruikan learn.'

'You've been in that egg a long time,' Galbatorix admitted. 'There must have been plenty of time to listen. Now I have new words to teach you. Will you listen?'

'Yes,' said Shruikan, recovering a little and beginning to clean the slime from his wings and face.

'Good,' said Galbatorix. 'Listen carefully and say each word as I say it.'

'I listen,' said Shruikan.

Galbatorix nodded, and began to speak, sounding out each word so that the dragon could hear them properly. 'Sjálfr heita réttr hollri ath fjọrlag, eđa þjóna ykkr au eth vnr eđa félagi,' the two of them recited.

'Well done,' said Galbatorix once they were done. He held his right hand out over the dragon, fingers spread, and said; 'Binda sjá skulblaka sál eth minn eiga.'

The magic flowed forth from him, directed by the words, and man and dragon closed their eyes involuntarily, feeling the strange tingling as it worked changes over them. Galbatorix knew he was taking a risk, but he didn't care. He would go to the very edge of his strength to see it done if he had to. He didn't draw on Shruikan's strength; the dragon was too weak from hatching. Still the magic flowed, and Galbatorix gasped as blackness began to close over him. His heartbeat slowed and weakened, his vision faded. He began to panic. The only thing he could still feel with clarity, aside from the force moving through him and into Shruikan and back, were the claws of the black dragon digging into his skin. That kept him awake, for a time at least. But Galbatorix still refused to give in. He drew on his deepest reserves, straining with all his might not to lose his grip on life.

At long last, the magic stopped coming. The spell was complete. Galbatorix sighed a deep, exhausted sigh, and fell to the ground in a dead faint.

Over the sea, far, far away from Ilirea and Galbatorix and her two brothers, Skade was still flying steadily. She had been flying continuously for three days, only stopping to rest once, on the second day, when she had found a small island. But apart from that it had been nonstop toil. Dragons can indeed fly for days at a stretch, but it was a very dangerous thing to do, especially when there was nowhere to land. Skade had stopped talking by the end of the first day, wanting to conserve all her energy for her wings. Rangda too was quiet. She'd thrown her belongings into the sea, keeping only the sword, to lighten the load as much as she could. From time to time she would probe Skade's mind, checking to see how fatigued she was. When the strain became dangerously high, the Shade fed a little of her energy into the dragon to give her a boost. In this way they travelled, with nothing but the sky above and the sea below, both unchanging and impersonal.

It may have been a monotonous journey, but it was not a peaceful one. Though neither said anything, both were aware – and both afraid – that if they didn't find land within a couple of days then they were done for. Even now it was too late to turn back. All there was left to do was to carry on and stay hopeful.

Another day passed in this way. And then another. And still Skade flew on, and still there was no sign of land. Rangda had to lend her strength to her partner more and more frequently, and in consequence she too began to tire. She didn't dare meditate, lest Skade failed while she was unprepared for it, and she kept a mental link with her now at all times. If the Shade's magic had not been so strong, they may well have failed already. By the dawn of the sixth day, Skade was flying low, her wingbeats unsteady and her breath coming in gasps. Rangda's silver eyes had dimmed, and she sat hunched on the dragon's back, staring at the reflection of the clouds in the scales of Skade's neck. Looking up, she saw how the clouds got thicker on the horizon. There was a large white smudge there. It was a shame the clouds weren't thicker immediately overhead, because that would have shielded them from the sun. But, of course, really big clouds didn't usually appear over the sea. Ones like that only appeared over…

'Land!' Rangda shouted suddenly. 'Skade, there's land ahead! Look!'

She pointed a long-nailed finger, and when Skade didn't respond she repeated herself. 'Look, Skade, look! It's there! See that white smudge ahead? That's land, for certain. Skade? Can you hear me?'

Skade looked ahead, and sure enough she saw a pale smear marring the blueness where sky and sea met. '…land?' she rasped.

'Yes, yes,' said Rangda. 'Only a few more hours and we'll be there. It's over, Skade. We've made it.'

'Hours,' said Skade, closing her eyes.

'Just keep it up a little longer,' said Rangda, lending her a bit more energy. 'Just a little longer. By tonight, we'll be there. And your father will be waiting. I'm sure of it.'

Skade flew on, a little more strongly than before, eyes fixed on the smudge. But an hour crept by and it seemed to get no closer, and just as Galbatorix had felt his strength flow out of him so Skade felt weakness come into her body. Every nerve, muscle and bone burnt, and redness flickered before her eyes. 'Rangda,' she whispered. 'I can't… go on.'

'You must!' said Rangda, leaning forward. 'Skade, you can't give up! What would your father think if you did?'

Skade couldn't hear her. All she could do was fly painfully on, her eyesight dimming and a high-pitched hum sounding in her ears. On her back, Rangda looked forward desperately toward the horizon, and saw that the white smudge was darkening. A faint rumble issued from it, and it seemed to suddenly grow larger. As Skade flew on toward it, the wind began to increase. Overhead, the sky darkened abruptly.

'Skade,' said Rangda. 'Skade, there's a storm – Skade!'

And then it was on them, with terrifying swiftness. Skade caught the wind with her wings and used it to glide for a time, and their progress sped up. Ahead, the bank of cloud finally got closer, and now they could see that there was indeed land beneath it. Lightning crackled around the hovering presence of the cloud, and they saw more cloud coming toward them from it. The wind increased abruptly, pulling at Skade's wings until she had to strain to resist it. The sea below them became rough and its waters turned-slate grey and foaming.

'Skade, be careful!' Rangda shouted over the howling wind.

Skade said nothing. With a great effort she thrashed her wings and tried to fly higher, but the wind would not allow it. It was pushing her forwards and downwards, forcing her to keep level. Tiredness had nothing to do with it now – the storm was taking them into its grip, and though Skade was barely beating her wings now she was being held up by its force alone.

'Skade, the lightning – !' said Rangda. 'Beware of the-,'

Thunder crashed. It came from all around them, deafeningly loud, drowning out the last of the Shade's words. Lightning flashed again afterwards, and it was in that instant that Skade realised that something within herself had changed. She gasped and tried again to pull out of the wind's force, but it was stronger than her and it would not let her go. There was lightning all around, crackling along the edges of her wings and darting between her claws, almost as if it were toying with her. If she stayed in the air any longer, she would be hit and would die.

'What are we going to do?' Rangda yelled.

'Hold on!' Skade shouted back. She took a deep breath, and dived. Straight downward she went, holding her legs and wings close to her sides. Rangda wrapped her arms around the dragon's neck and braced herself, and then they hit the sea in an explosion of white water.

The sea was very cold, and as soon as they landed in it they began to sink. But Skade kicked her legs and pushed downward with her wings, keeping herself afloat. Rangda, submerged up to her waist, loosened her grip slightly and checked to see if her sword was still in her belt. It was, and she patted Skade on the neck to comfort her. The dragon said nothing, but began to swim, thrashing her tail to propel herself. Here they were out of the worst of the wind, though the lightning was still a danger. And now there were currents to deal with. These, too, sucked them toward the land, which was getting closer all the time. Skade folded her wings now and rested, letting the sea carry them. Her great chest was heaving, and she closed her eyes and dozed for a few seconds, her energy utterly spent. Overhead, the storm gathered its power. The waves all around them grew taller and taller, smacking back into the sea like collapsing buildings. The land ahead was closer and closer still. They could see a beach, and cliffs, and a forest of green trees. Skade, floating in the heaving sea, saw it and knew her journey, which had begun on the day she had hatched, was nearly over. But whether she would survive it was still to be seen.

For a fraction of a second, she had the wild impulse to simply give in and drown, and let the sea take her. She imagined herself sinking slowly into its depths, all limp and relaxed, not needing to struggle any more. But as quickly as it had come the impulse died away, and she was swimming on as powerfully as she could, her eyes narrowed against the spray. Up and down she went, lifted by each wave and then dropped back into the sea. The motion got more and more violent, until with each down she could no longer see the land ahead, but whenever she went up it was right there in front of her, getting bigger all the time, until it loomed overhead.

'Hold on!' she screamed. 'We're going to hit it soon!'

Rangda said nothing, but tightened her grip on the dragon's neck. Skade's swimming strokes had slowed; there was nothing she could do against this current. The up and down motion became still more extreme, until she was close to being airborne whenever an upwards-moving wave let her go. Rangda, hanging on for dear life, realised that when they reached the truly shallow water they would be dashed against the sand. Skade had realised that too. And now the land was no longer approaching. It was there, right in front of them, almost within a tail's length. A great wave lifted them once more, bearing them inevitably up onto that beach and the painful hardness of land. At its very peak, Skade spread her wings and beat them as strongly as she could, lifting herself out of the water and launching her exhausted frame up and over and onto the wet dunes, where she landed on her belly with a thump and suddenly the two of them were lying sprawled amongst the grinding wetness of the sand and the journey was over.

Rangda picked herself up and tried to clean the sand off her clothes. Her legs were stiff from such a long period sitting down, but otherwise she was physically fine, and Shades do not feel pain as humans or elves do. Skade remained lying deathly still on the ground, too tired even to close her eyes. Rangda ran her ring-laden fingers over the dragon's brow, murmuring; 'It's all right now, Skade. We've made it.'

Skade groaned and rolled over onto her side, her wings splayed over the sand as limply as sheets of wet cloth. Her great sides were heaving, and she mumbled something unintelligible. Still, she was alive, and they had made it. Above them the storm still raged, but it was decreasing in power by the minute, drifting away inland to leave them in peace at last. Rangda sat down by her friend's side, patting her vaguely on the shoulder.

For a long time Skade said nothing, as she slept a sleep that was more of a swoon than a doze. Sometimes exhaustion overcomes even true sleep.

Eventually the dragon opened her eyes and looked up at her friend. 'Is – it over?' she whispered.

'Yes, it's over, Skade,' said Rangda. 'You did magnificently well.'

'Rangda,' said Skade, her eyes closing. 'I realised something while we were flying.'

'What is it?' said Rangda.

'Rangda,' said Skade again. 'Rangda, I'm going to lay eggs.'

'I know,' said Rangda.

Far, far away from this, Galbatorix and Shruikan were walking together through the trees. The black hatchling sat on the man's shoulder, and the two of them talked in low voices.

'…so you see,' Galbatorix was saying, 'That's how the riders betrayed me. They have everyone in this land working for them. Even the mightiest kings and queens bow down to them. And it's not because they're better or wiser than anyone else, but because they're more powerful. It's wrong to hold people in thrall using the threat of force. Nobody will admit it, but the reason the riders go unchallenged is because everyone fears them. Look what they did to your sister, who dared to rebel. And look what they did to me. I did nothing wrong. I was suffering, Shruikan. I never knew there was so much pain in the world until those days and nights came to me. But how did the riders respond? Did they comfort me? Did they help me? No. They threw me out. They took away my home and everything I had left that I cared about.'

'They must be evil,' said Shruikan.

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'Not evil. Just arrogant and callous. They need to be punished for what they've done. It's time their reign ended. You and I can bring that about.'

'But we are just two,' said Shruikan.

'Not two,' said Galbatorix. 'We are one. Our souls are joined. And when two become one, they are more powerful than all the armies in the world. Morzan will help us, and there are others I can persuade to do the same. It will be hard and dangerous; I won't lie to you about that. But if we stay strong and don't falter, and remember our cause is just, we will win.'

'And I will help you,' said Shruikan. 'When I grow up, I will fight for you.'

'I know you will, Shruikan,' said Galbatorix gravely.

On the shores of the new land, Skade recovered enough to lift her head. She was in time to see the clouds part, and for a new sun to shine through, caressing her worn face with its searing warmth. She sighed long and deep, and joyfully too. She had made it, and the nightmare journey was over. Now at last she was safe, beyond the reach of the riders and the elves forever. She looked around for Rangda, but she wasn't there. Skade got up, a little unsteadily, and saw the Shade approaching.

'Rangda,' she said. 'There you are. Are you all right?'

'Fine,' said Rangda. 'But I've found something you should see.'

'What is it?' said Skade.

'I'll let it speak for itself,' said Rangda. 'Follow me.'

She turned and walked back the way she had come. Skade followed, dragging her wings and tail in the sand and leaving a rough trail behind her as she went. Rangda only led her a short way, up over the dunes and to the darker, grittier sand that lay there.

There, right on the fringe of the trees, was the vast skeleton of a dragon.

The huge skull lay in front of a heap of collapsed ribs and vertebrae, its eye-sockets empty and staring, the mouth full of chipped and broken fangs. They could see the curved bones of its front talons, half-buried in the debris-laden sand, but many of the smaller bones were missing, probably taken by scavengers.

'No,' Skade whispered. 'No. Father…'

'I'm sorry, Skade,' said Rangda in a low voice.

Skade trudged over to the skeleton, her face suddenly child-like, eyes big and lost. She touched the skull with her talons, the sharp points clicking on its damp brown bone. Rangda came to stand by her, impressed by the sheer size of the remains. Many of the bones were larger than she was, and none were thinner than her upper leg.

'He must have been at least a thousand years old,' the Shade murmured.

'I'm too late,' said Skade, not listening. 'I came too late. He's dead. It was all…' her mind flicked back to the past, to all that she had done to get this far. All the fights, all the escapes, the betrayals, all those desperate nights when she wondered if she would ever get to where she was going, and finally the flight across the sea that had nearly claimed her life. All done, all of it, in vain. Her father was dead. The thing she had strived for her whole life was gone, and now there was nothing.

'Look at this,' said Rangda.

Skade glanced at her, feeling irrationally angry that the Shade should be daring to talk while she was in the midst of despair. Rangda held up what she had found. It was the darkened, grinning skull of a human.

'It was lying beside the dragon skeleton,' she said. 'See, there's some more of it.' She pointed, and Skade saw a few slim ribs and a couple of vertebrae lying scattered beside her father's remains.

'Who could it have been?' said Rangda. 'There must be humans here too, but why would one have died here beside…' she left out the name, and went on lamely, 'Died here? And not been touched except by predators?'

Skade said nothing. She lay down on her belly and put her head over her father's skull, her golden eyes swimming with tears.

Rangda was digging around among the bones of the smaller skeleton, and her hand found something buried under the sand beside it. She probed further, scooping the sand out of the way, uprooting the small plants that had taken root over the top. Soon she had unearthed it. Her hand came up holding a long sword. Incredibly, in spite of all the time it had been exposed to the elements, it was undamaged and untouched by rust. Its blade was straight and tapering, the hilt gold and the blade a strange swirling yellow. Rangda ran her thumb along its edge, immediately cutting herself. Ignoring the blood dripping from her hand, she showed the sword to Skade. 'Look at this,' she said. 'It must have belonged to whoever it was. But this doesn't make any sense.'

Skade looked at the sword with dull eyes, and confusion arose in her mind. She had seen swords like it before.

'This is a rider's sword,' said Rangda. 'And that means that these bones must have belonged to one of them.'

Skade raised her head, pulling away from the dead dragon. She stared wide-eyed at Rangda, as a new possibility dawned on them both. Only a rider would lie down and die beside a dragon like this. And even then, only if the dragon was special to them. Very special.

'This isn't your father,' said Rangda, voicing what they were both thinking. 'This is a rider's dragon, and the rider too. Your father was riderless. And even if he had a rider, that rider's sword would be black, not yellow. But who could it be?'

Skade stood up, joy fluttering in her chest. This skeleton was not her father but some other dragon. He could still be alive – no, he was still alive. Had to be still alive. Alive and still to be found. She looked again at the sword, then at the two skeletons which lay so close together on the sand, and a memory came back to her.

'I know who they are,' she said.

'Who?' said Rangda.

'These are Eragon and his dragon Sunlight,' said Skade. 'It has to be. Einás told me. She said her father left Alagaësia years ago, and she told me that his dragon had yellow scales.'

'She must have died of exhaustion,' said Rangda, examining the dragon's skeleton again, the sword still in her hand.

'And then Eragon died with her,' said Skade. She imagined the great yellow dragon lying on the beach, her eyes glazing with death, and imagined Eragon lying down beside her and simply giving up, his body turning to bones as the centuries went by, his sword slowly sinking into the sand and being lost to the world, seemingly forever.

'So this is what became of the first rider,' said Rangda. 'After all the stories, this is what became of him. He found a new land, and the search killed him.'

'But why would he just die like that?' said Skade. 'Why would he just lie down and die?'

Rangda put the skull back down beside the bones it had once been joined to. 'The bond between rider and dragon is very strong,' she said. 'Very strong indeed. If you were bonded to a rider, you would understand it. If either a dragon or her rider dies, it nearly always results in the death of the other. They feel each other's pain, sense each other's emotions, and share their deaths. That is what killed your mother Silarae. Her rider, Taranis, was killed in battle, and the shock killed her as well. So your father was saved by his lack of a rider, in a way, because if he had had one he or she would probably have been killed by Eragon just as Taranis was.'

Skade, looking at the two skeletons and hearing these words, thought of Galbatorix and how he had spoken of his lost dragon with love, and remembered how Einás and Kullervo had been together, how absolute their harmony had been, how close their trust and how great their love for each other. It was something she had half-feared and half-envied, but now, seeing this stark, tragic reminder of just how close riders and dragons were really linked, she felt she could respect at least some of them.

Inevitably these thoughts passed, and the silver dragon said; 'We should find shelter and rest. Somewhere on this island my father is waiting for us.'

Rangda nodded. She put Eragon's sword into her belt, and the two of them walked slowly up toward the trees. There they took shelter under the canopy, both bewildered but enchanted by the strange plant life of this place. The trees were tall and had skinny white trunks, and their leaves were elongated and tough, their colour a dark bluish green. The still-sandy ground beneath their feet was littered with dead brown leaves and dry branches, and further on ahead there were ferns. The calls of unfamiliar birds were in the air, along with the odd, spicy scent which the trees gave off and the buzzing of insects.

But though it was strange it was also peaceful, and Skade decided that she liked it very much. She chose a spot beneath a large tree, and curled up at its roots, falling asleep almost immediately.

Morning came warm and damp, with the scent of the sea carried on a cool breeze from down on the beach. Skade woke up feeling refreshed, though she ached all over from the stresses of the previous day. She got up rather stiffly, and found Rangda only a short distance away, meditating in a clearing. The Shade got up at the dragon's approach, saying; 'Are you better this morning?'

'I am,' said Skade, smiling broadly. 'I'm ready now.'

'Excellent,' said Rangda. 'Let's go.'

They walked out of the trees and back onto the beach, where the skeletons of Eragon and Sunlight lay. There was blue sky overhead now, a sharp contrast to the previous day, and white birds circled against its backdrop, calling harshly to each other.

'A beautiful morning,' Rangda commented.

'It certainly is,' said Skade. 'I like this place.'

'So it won't matter if we must stay here forever,' said Rangda.

'It will to me,' said Skade. 'I swore I would go back to Galbatorix.'

Rangda shrugged. 'I know how such promises can be undone,' she said. 'But it doesn't matter now.' She climbed back onto Skade's shoulders, and the silver dragon took to the air, wincing at the pain in her wings. Still, they bore her upwards just as before, and she flew high to get a good view of this new land.

It quickly transpired that this was not just an island but a continent; the land stretched away as far as they could see, all mountainous and covered in trees. It was also plain that it was undeveloped, for there was no sign of cities or villages anywhere, and no hilltop had a castle on it. Skade was glad about that. No people meant no trouble.

'The search may take a while,' said Rangda. 'If your father's here, he will have had plenty of time to move inland. He may even have gone all the way on to the other side of this land.'

'We'll find him,' said Skade confidently. 'I have a feeling that he's close.'

She circled around, examining the beach and forest they had already visited. There were cliffs just behind the forest, and from the top of them someone could have a good view of the beach. Skade tightened her wings to her side and flew down toward them.

When they were close to the cliffs – very close – they saw it. Skade landed on the clifftop and looked upward, her expression full of amazement. It was there, above them, coming toward them, so huge and so terrifying that it gave them both the urge to run and they had to fight it off. Rangda cowered in her seat. Even Skade lay low, wide-eyed and staring as she saw a dragon approach – a dragon so large it blotted out the sun. It was male, obviously ancient. And its scales were black as night.

Chapter Thirteen

The Fall

Skade and Rangda watched, paralysed, as the black dragon came down to land. It did so, hitting the cliffside in front of them with a deafening thud, so close to them that they ended up standing between two massive forepaws. The talons on those paws, each one as big as Rangda's whole body, dug into the stone, easily crumbling it into sand. Rangda thought quickly, and leapt off Skade's shoulders, taking shelter just behind the silver dragon's wing so she would possibly escape notice.

Skade, trembling from head to claw, looked up at the face of the black dragon. It was huge and brutal, having a savage, angular beauty to it that reminded her a little of Galbatorix. The eyes were deep gold, the same colour as her own, and the enormous lower fangs jutted over the top lip just as Kullervo's did. She also noticed something else: long, ragged scars marred the black dragon's face from his forehead and down over his cheek. She could hear his deep, rumbling breaths coming from inside his chest, so loud it sounded like a miniature earthquake.

For a long time she looked at the black dragon and he looked back at her, his expression unreadable. Then Skade lowered her head respectfully to him. 'Father,' she whispered.

The black dragon looked at her. He probably hadn't heard what she'd said. After a long, tense silence, she heard a voice in her head.

'Who are you?' it said. The voice was deep and growling, full of pent-up power and aggression.

'I am Skade,' Skade replied in her mind. Galbatorix had taught her about telepathic speech, but she'd never used it before.

'Skade?' said the voice of the black dragon. It sounded bewildered. 'Skade?'

'Yes,' said Skade. 'And you are Ravana.'

'I am,' said the black dragon, still through the mind. 'But… Skade? You cannot be Skade.'

'I am,' said Skade. 'Father, it's me. I've found you.'

The black dragon's response to that was very violent, but it was not verbal. He put his head down toward her and roared. His teeth were the size of tree-trunks, all sharp and jagged and ivory white, and the roar was so loud it shook the ground. Behind Skade, Rangda lay flat to the ground, covering her head with her hands. But Skade stood her ground and did not flinch.

Ravana closed his mouth and fell silent, glaring suspiciously at her. 'I had a daughter called Skade once,' his voice said. 'But she died long ago, along with her siblings.'

'No,' said Skade. 'I did not die. We are all still alive. Listen to me, Father, and believe me. I am your daughter.'

'No,' said Ravana. 'You cannot be her. She is dead.'

'I am alive,' said Skade. 'So are my brother and my sister. I shall prove it to you. Your mate and my mother was called Silarae. She was black like yourself. I have one brother and one sister. Their names are Saphira and Kullervo.'

'Saphira… Kullervo…' Ravana whispered. 'Those were my children. But what about the fourth? There were four eggs.'

'I never knew that,' said Skade.

'The fourth egg was black,' said Ravana. 'We named him Shruikan.'

'I don't know what happened to him,' said Skade. 'But Saphira and I hatched among the elves in Ellesméra.'

'Eragon told me he had destroyed all of my eggs,' said Ravana. 'He told me they were dead.'

'He lied,' said Skade. 'He kept two of us, and the werecats took the third. His daughter raised me, but she betrayed me to the riders.'

'There was only one rider before,' said Ravana.

'Now there are many,' said Skade. 'Father, I…'

'What happened to your brother? Your sister?' said Ravana.

'Father, I did not want them to do it,' said Skade. 'I argued with Saphira, but she would not listen.'

'What did they do?' said Ravana in a terrible voice.

'They chose to bind themselves to riders,' said Skade. 'Kullervo joined with an elf called Einás. Saphira chose a human.'

Ravana roared again when he heard this, raising his head to the sky and letting forth an anguished howl. 'How could they?' he screamed mentally. 'How could they betray me like this?'

'They did not know,' said Skade. 'Father, they did not know about you. Both the human and the elf treated us with kindness, and the elf saved Kullervo's life. They felt compelled. But I did not. I stayed apart.' She stood up a little higher on her claws, and her mental voice took on a note of pride. 'I would not take on a rider. I allowed the elf to ride on my back, but I refused to bond with her. Later, when she betrayed me, I saw that she and her kind were not to be trusted. I learnt what you learnt, Father, and I chose a life apart.'

'You lie!' Ravana bellowed. He struck Skade with one huge paw, knocking her down and exposing Rangda, who looked up at him with undisguised fear. Ravana snarled at the sight of her, and drew back his paw for a fatal strike. But Skade threw herself in front of him, shielding Rangda with her body. Ravana diverted his blow, growling in rage and splitting a tree into pieces with his claws. 'Get out of the way,' he commanded.

'No,' said Skade. 'Listen to me. This one is not my rider. I brought her here because I swore that I would, not because we are bonded.'

'Why?' Ravana demanded, still perilously angry.

'She did me a great favour,' said Skade. 'Without it I would never have made it this far. Her name is Rangda and she is a Shade.'

Ravana stared suspiciously at Rangda, who got up and bowed to him.

'What favour was this?' he asked the Shade.

'Be calm, great dragon,' she replied. 'Sit with us here and we will tell you our story.'

Ravana relaxed a little. 'Very well,' he growled, and lay down on his belly, curling his tail around him. 'Speak,' he commanded them. 'And don't lie.'

So Skade and Rangda spoke, standing side by side in front of the dragon they had come so far to find. Skade began the story, telling of her hatching. She related her upbringing under Einás' care, the attitude of the Queen, the attack and the escape. Then she told of how they had rescued Kullervo from Rangda, skewing the account so it would not sound as if the Shade had been truly threatening him. Then came the tale of Kullervo's hatching and the journey to Ilirea, and Einás' betrayal. Ravana growled a rumbling, thunderous growl when he heard this part, but said nothing. Then Skade told him about the punishment of the elders, about the meeting with Rangda, and about their pact. After that it was a brief summary of their time together, the meeting with Durza and Galbatorix, the undoing of the elders' spell and the terrible journey across the sea.

'I saw you arrive,' said Ravana once this was done. 'From up here. I thought my storm had killed you, but you were too strong for it, weren't you, my daughter? But from what you have told me, I see that you have always been strong.'

He looked on Skade, with open and sincere pride. She smiled shyly in return, and the black dragon looked at Rangda. 'And you,' he said. 'Normally I would call you my enemy, but you are a Shade and not a human, and you have helped my daughter. Since you did these things, you may stay here in my territory.'

'Thankyou,' said Rangda. 'I have great respect for you, Night Dragon.'

Ravana chuckled deeply. 'So they remembered that name,' he said.

'They did, and they remembered your storm as well,' said Rangda.

'My storm,' said Ravana, looking up at the sky, where a few white clouds threaded innocently over sapphire blue. 'It's been with me since I was born. Now it protects me.'

'So you sent it to stop us from getting here?' said Skade.

'I knew someone was coming,' said Ravana. 'My storm was intended to drive them away. It's done so before. Ships have tried to land here, but the storm blew them in a different direction. And when my enemies found me here, it killed them.'

'You mean Eragon?' said Skade.

'Yes, Eragon,' Ravana growled, saying the name with hatred. 'The one who killed my mate and took my young away from me. If it were not for him, Kullervo and Saphira would not have been duped into thinking they should serve humans and elves, and Shruikan would not be lost. And Silarae would still be alive.' He looked at the silver dragon, and his eyes softened. 'I am proud of you, Skade,' he said. 'You found me here against all the odds, and refused to give in despite everything. You did not succumb to the lies of the riders or the elves. Out of all your siblings you were the one to find me, and it is because you are exceptional. You survived my storm because you have the power to direct it just as I do.'

'I do?' said Skade, surprised.

'Yes,' said Ravana. 'If it had been any other dragon than you, you would have been killed. That is what happened to Sunlight.'

'How did she and Eragon die?' asked Rangda.

'They were struck by lightning,' said Ravana coldly. 'I saw it happen; I was flying above them. Sunlight did not die immediately. She dragged herself up onto the beach toward the trees, and died there. Eragon died a few hours later beside her. I saw you find their bones.'

'How long have they been lying there?' said Rangda.

'At least five hundred years,' said Ravana. 'The magic in them helped preserve them. I see you took the elf's sword.'

'It's a fine blade,' said Rangda. 'It could serve me well.'

'Keep it if you want to,' said Ravana briefly. 'It's useless to me. Now, Skade, you can live here with me. I will pass on my knowledge to you, and teach you how to control the storm.'

'Father, I have good news,' said Skade. 'I am going to lay eggs of my own.'

Ravana's eyes widened. 'Eggs,' he said. 'That's… wonderful, Skade. We can raise your youngsters here as dragons should be raised. They will not be deprived of parents as you were. Who was the father?'

Skade hesitated. 'He was dark and strong as you are,' she said at length. 'You would have liked him. He had a passionate spirit.'

'If he was your choice, then he was right for you,' said Ravana, and didn't press her further.

'If you'll let me stay here,' Rangda broke in, 'I won't bother you. Shades are solitary by nature. I will find somewhere else on this continent to live.'

'You may, and will be welcome to,' Ravana rumbled. 'I owe you a debt for saving my daughter, and I have no doubt that if you had been able to you would have brought me my son as well.'

'There is something I would like to ask you to do for me,' said Rangda boldly.

'Speak,' said Ravana.

'Storm Dragon,' said Rangda. 'I want to learn what you know of magic.'

'Magic is magic,' said Ravana rather dismissively. 'I prefer to do things as they should be done. But if you want to learn then I will teach you what I know.'

'Thankyou,' said Rangda, her respect genuine.

'Now,' said Ravana. 'We will leave the clifftop. There's so much to show you both. Will you fly with me, Skade?'

'Of course, Father,' said Skade.

Many months after this, another black dragon flew in a storm-rent sky. This one was much smaller than Ravana, but already he was a mirror image of his father. His eyes were gold, his lower fangs jutted over his upper lip, and every scale on his body was black as night. But his wing membranes were white, and on his back was something that had never been seen on Ravana's back and never would be – a rider.

Shruikan saw the smoke and the clouds glowing red, and let out a savage, bellowing roar. On his back, Galbatorix laughed a laugh that was no less ferocious, shouting; 'Let it burn! Let it all burn! Let revenge be ours!'

Shruikan laughed too. 'This is for my sister,' he roared. 'For my sister, and my father and my mother. Hear their names, you pathetic scum, hear their names!'

Then the black dragon flew forward with a powerful flick of his wings, circling around the crumbling towers of the once-great city, glorying in the flames that belched from every window, seeing the charred bodies of men and dragons lying scattered all about. That was the night when Ilirea burnt, and none in Alagaësia would forget it. None would or could ever forget how the prophecy had come true. Of how there would come a dragon whose scales were black, and how this dragon would join with a man just as evil and bring misery and suffering to all races.

Above where Shruikan and Galbatorix flew there were other dragons, including one who was red and female. Morzan and Idün had done their work well, and so had the other riders who had joined with them. They gathered around the hovering black dragon, and heard their lord and master speak.

'This is our night!' Galbatorix shouted, pointing a mailed fist at the falling city. 'This is the night that none will ever forget – the night when the elders lose their power and the vain, prideful riders fall into the abyss forever. Never again will they dominate the world. Their time has passed, and now our time is beginning. You have done this, so be proud of your accomplishment. My friends, remember this night, and be proud!'

The other riders yelled their approval, holding up their fists with their swords grasped in them, each blade matching the dragons they rode. The dragons roared along with them, and Shruikan as well. This was indeed their hour. Their night. The start of a new and glorious age in the history of Alagaësia. And though many enemy riders still remained, they would soon be vanquished. The time of the elders had passed.

It was night in Ravana's territory, and stars dotted the sky. Gentle breezes blew in from the sea. It was a complete contrast to the chaos then just beginning to sweep over Alagaësia's once peaceful lands. It was on that night, nearly six months before the fall of Ilirea, that Skade found a quiet spot on a mountainside and there laid her eggs, those eggs that had so strangely been fathered by Galbatorix but carried over into her true form and so made into dragons.

There were five eggs. One of them was silver like their mother, one midnight blue, and the remaining three were black.

When Ravana saw them he became very emotional, much to Skade's surprise.

'Three black dragons,' he said. 'Three. I thought I would be the last.'

'And Shruikan, if he's still alive,' said Skade.

Ravana sighed. 'One day,' he said. 'One day I will go back and search for him, and his siblings.'

'And I will go with you,' said Skade.

Ravana nodded. He looked down at the eggs, a massive, guarding shadow against the starry sky. 'Will you name them now?' he asked.

'Yes,' said Skade. She touched the silver egg with her snout, nudging it gently. 'This one is male,' she said. 'I will call him Skirnir.' Then she sniffed at the blue one. 'This one is female,' she said. 'I will call her… Lifrasir.' The first of the black eggs was male. 'This one will be called Vidar,' she said. The second black egg was female. 'Katana,' said Skade. And the last was also female. 'Balisong,' said Skade.

'My grandchildren,' said Ravana. 'I will teach them all I know.'

'And I will as well,' said Skade.

As she looked over her offspring with a mother's pride in her golden eyes, she was thinking; One day I'll tell them. When the time comes, I'll tell them who their father was. And on that day I'll be ready to go back to him.

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