Black Dragon

Chapter One

Defeat

The city of Urû'baen stood against the blue sky, a hunched, menacing shape in an otherwise pristine landscape. For a hundred years it had stood there, a symbol of oppression to all who lived in Alagaësia. Though its shape was elegant, made of grey stone and featuring many great towers, the evil associated with it had somehow corrupted its grace and added a darkness and danger to it. Urû'baen, home of King Galbatorix, the self-styled ruler of the entire continent. Once there had been a different city there, a long time before; that city had been Ilirea, home of the dragon riders. They had been the greatest warriors in the land, the greatest sorcerers and the most powerful people in Alagaësia. But they had fallen, and their city had fallen with them. Now only three riders were left. One was Galbatorix, the second his unwilling servant Murtagh, and the third was Eragon, the only remaining rider who opposed Galbatorix's rule.

This morning was one that would have a great impact on the future of Alagaësia and its people. It was that morning that the rebel army, led by Eragon himself, came to the gates of Urû'baen, intent on challenging Galbatorix.

From the top of one of the towers, they were watched by the tall figure of a man. The man was slim and powerful-looking, clad in a long dark robe which was open at the front to reveal a white shirt and trousers underneath. His hair was black and curly and lay over his shoulders like a mane, and his chin was covered by a short, bristling beard. The man leant on the low wall in front of him, and surveyed the ground in front of the city. He could see a great army approaching from the distance, its weapons glinting in the sunlight. He could also hear it, hear the thump of many feet and the low rumble of voices. The army looked to be hundreds strong, perhaps thousands, and walking at its head was a large blue dragon with a man seated on its back.

The man up on the tower stroked his beard thoughtfully with a pale hand. His face was young; pointed and angular, handsome in a childlike way, though it was plain he was not a child. The eyes were dark and deep, and shrewd, and the faint creases around them hinted at great age, though it was impossible to tell how great.

Below, among the ground-level buildings of the city, there was a great deal of action. Men and women ran everywhere, carrying armloads of rocks to the ramparts, collecting and distributing arms and armour and readying siege weapons and other supplies for war. The man watched them from his vantage point on the tower, pleased to see them working hard. He was certain they would win this fight, but much hinged on how complete their victory was.

While the man stood and thought, someone else came to join him. This was a much younger man, dark-haired and dark-eyed, handsome and slender. His demeanour, however, was subdued.

'My lord,' he said. 'You sent for me.'

The first man turned his head a little to look. 'Ah, Murtagh,' he said. 'Good morning. Did you sleep well?'

'Yes, my lord,' said the younger man.

'Good,' said the first man. 'We have work to do today. Are you and Thorn ready to fight?'

'We are,' said Murtagh, touching the hilt of his sword.

'Good,' said the first man again. 'Myself and Shruikan will be joining you.'

'You will?' said Murtagh, surprised.

'Yes,' said the first man, sounding cheerful. 'We haven't fought in a long time, and we fancy some action. Besides… you failed to capture this boy before, didn't you? I think you may need some help this time.'

Murtagh mumbled uncomfortably, not looking his master in the eye.

'I beg your pardon?'

'I said yes, my lord,' said Murtagh.

His master sighed a little sadly, still watching the oncoming army. 'Perhaps,' he added thoughtfully, 'Perhaps it's time that Shruikan unleashed his power on them. We have been too lenient toward them, and further destruction and disobedience should not be allowed.'

'Yes, my lord,' said Murtagh dutifully.

'Murtagh,' said his master, finally looking the younger man in the face. 'Murtagh, I wish you weren't so resentful toward me. Look what I've given you. A dragon, a home, a status that millions envy… I can't help but feel you're ungrateful. Or is it simply that you don't like being constrained by your duties?'

'I do as you command,' Murtagh answered woodenly.

'Ah,' said his master, who was of course Galbatorix himself. 'Duties. Well, we all have them, myself included. Be glad, Murtagh, that riders are immortal. Otherwise you might face the prospect of finding out just how much harder my responsibilities are than yours.'

Murtagh said nothing.

'Or perhaps you're unhappy with being forced to fight against people you regard as your friends,' Galbatorix pressed. 'I understand that it must be hard. Before I became King, I had to fight against men and women I knew, and some of them I liked. Those were dark days and nights, and I can't look back on them now without shuddering. But you must understand, my friend, that things are different now. We are not ordinary men now. Riders or not, we are faced with the task of ruling a land and its people. Sentimentality is something that must be put aside, and occasionally it is necessary to show ruthlessness in the face of opposition. Do you understand me?'

'Yes, my lord,' said Murtagh.

'And rest assured,' said Galbatorix, 'We will not kill more of them than we have to. Any who surrender will be spared, and your brother will not be hurt. I will do my best to persuade him to join us… no doubt the elves have poisoned his mind, the self-righteous idiots that they are, but I can be very persuasive… can't I, Murtagh?'

'You can be, my lord,' said Murtagh, wincing a little.

Galbatorix chuckled. 'No doubt if you'd admitted that you joined me of your own free will, they wouldn't have believed you,' he said. 'But minds can be closed to the truth, especially those of the elves. Don't be fooled by how they look, young rider. They are just as vain and judgemental as humans can be. They looked on me coldly just because I seemed dark to them, and they have been just as quick to condemn with many others in the past.'

'I know that many of the Varden condemned me for being Morzan's son,' said Murtagh.

'Exactly!' said Galbatorix. 'You know what I mean now. People can't be trusted. I know you didn't like living here because of how your father treated you, but I assure you that wasn't my fault.'

'I know,' said Murtagh. 'I don't blame you, my lord.'

'Good,' said Galbatorix, nodding. He glanced at the army, which was still a fair distance away. There was time. 'Tell me,' he said. 'Have you ever heard the tale of the black dragon?'

'No, my lord,' said Murtagh. 'Is it about Shruikan?'

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'It's about his father. Listen. Once, a long time ago, before the first rider ever found his dragon, the mate of one of the royal dragons – the dragons had kings in those days – laid an egg which was black. That egg was laid on a stormy night, which dragons consider to be an unlucky time for a laying to take place. Not much is known about that night, and the names of the parents are lost. But most likely they attempted to destroy the egg. Somehow it escaped unscathed, and it hatched into a black hatchling. The hatchling lived alone in the wild, growing to adulthood without care or company or even seeing another dragon. He named himself Ravana, and in time he became lonely and went to look for friends and family. But he never found those things. No matter where he went or who he spoke to, he was rejected and attacked everywhere he went. Not because of something he had done, but because of what he looked like, what he was. Because his scales were black, every creature, dragon, elf, human or otherwise, regarded him as evil and dangerous. And because they assumed he was evil, he nearly became evil himself. Evil or not, he made himself an enemy of dragons and elves, and left the Spine where he had grown up in the hopes of finding somewhere more peaceful and safe to live. What he found was a man by the name of Taranis and another dragon. This dragon was also black, and female. These two accepted Ravana and gave him a home. And, in time, the dragon took him as her mate. They were very happy together, and for a while at least Ravana had peace. But his peace did not last. War came to the lands where he lived now; a rebellion against the king whom Taranis served. Ravana and his mate, Silarae, were called upon to help in the fighting, which they did. But just when it seemed the war would be ended, they found that the elves had joined with the rebels, just as is happening now. Those elves were led by one called… Eragon.'

'The first rider,' Murtagh breathed.

'The very same,' said Galbatorix. 'This Eragon had been persuaded that if he helped the rebels take over the coast, they would be his allies. Whereas the rightful king of that land had refused to sign a treaty with the elves, and was considered too intractable to bargain with. That's how the elves work; if someone won't obey them, they feel they must take away his life or his power, or both. Taranis, who was Silarae's rider and absolutely loyal to his king, fought Eragon himself but was defeated. Eragon killed him, and Silarae died as well. Ravana had lost the only thing left that he cared for that day, because the night before Eragon had stolen the eggs he had fathered by Silarae. Only one was left behind, and that was sent back to Taranis' home city and, eventually, to Ilirea, which is where I came across it. That egg hatched into Shruikan.'

'So what happened to Ravana?' said Murtagh.

Galbatorix shrugged. 'After the theft of his young and the murder of his mate, he had nothing left to live for here,' he said. 'He left Alagaësia, never to return. That dragon's life was destroyed by mentalities like those of the rebels and their elvish friends. And that is why we must stop them.'

'And you promise something better?' said Murtagh suddenly, turning boldly toward his lord and master.

'I hope so,' said Galbatorix. 'But consider this – would the riders of old have ever allowed urgals to live in peace as we do? And would they have drawn on the knowledge of a Shade and treated him as an equal, as I did for Durza? Never. They would have seen them as evil, and killed them sooner than make treaties with them. I like you, Murtagh,' he added unexpectedly. 'You have a quick and bold mind. Not like your father at all. This Eragon, however, appears to be just as dim and pig-headed as Morzan ever was. Odd to think of, really… Did you like my story?'

'It was very… interesting,' said Murtagh. 'I never heard it before.'

'Not many remember it now,' said Galbatorix. 'It was a tragedy made worse by the fact that it did not need to have happened. If those present at the time had only allowed themselves to look beyond what they saw, then it could well have played out very differently. Only Taranis did that, which is ironic since he was not a kind man. Have you heard his name before, Murtagh?'

'Once, I think,' said Murtagh. 'But I can't remember what was said about him.'

'He was my ancestor,' said Galbatorix, smiling slightly. 'It's said his dark hair runs in the family.'

He curled a lock of his own hair around his forefinger, his look both amused and pensive. Below, the army was within striking distance. Soldiers were readying the ballistae to strike at it. It was almost time for the two riders to go forth and fight.

Galbatorix turned suddenly to look Murtagh directly in the face. 'Murtagh,' he said again in a low voice. 'I know you don't like me. But believe me when I say that I have no hostile feelings toward you. If I thought there was any chance that it could happen, I would ask you to be my friend, but these things can't be demanded. Still, remember that I respect you and want you to be happy. Now, let's go. It's time for us to fight. Good luck, Murtagh.'

'Good luck, my lord,' said Murtagh.

Just outside the city, another rider was giving a very different speech, to a very different audience. Seated on his dragon's back, he brandished a long blue sword over his head and shouted out to those who followed him.

'My friends!' he cried. 'Today is the day of reckoning! Today we fight to destroy Galbatorix and end his reign of terror for good! Today we struggle to bring back peace to Alagaësia! If we fail, all hope will be lost! If we succeed, freedom will return to our people! But no matter what we do today, our names will be remembered forever!'

The army roared its approval, and the rider's blue dragon roared as well, heartening all those who heard it, including her rider.

'Now, let's go!' the rider shouted, pointing his sword at the brooding presence of Urû'baen.

The blue dragon walked on, her claws digging deep into the soil, and the army marched behind and around her, their faces hard and determined and their weapons sure and firm in their hands. This was a day all of them had feared and hoped would come, the day when they finally challenged Galbatorix's power directly. Their time of hiding in the shadows was over. Now was the time to fight, or to die, and though they were afraid they looked to the shining flanks of the blue dragon and took heart. Seated between his partner's shoulders, the rider clutched his sword tightly in his hand and tried to steady his breathing. It had been a month since the battle on the Burning Plains. A month since his discovery – his terrible discovery – of his true parentage, and his true brother. Since then there had been many skirmishes in different parts of the country, but none were conclusive enough to satisfy the rebel leaders. Finally, tired of fights which ended with either minor defeat or minor victory, he had argued for a hard and direct strike at the capital city of the hated Empire in order, as he put it, to end it once and for all. There had been opponents to his suggestion, as always happened in politics, but in the end nobody dared to argue too strongly with someone as powerful and respected as he was. It had been a proud day for him; he was perfectly aware that now he was joint leader of the rebels in all but name. And only his great respect for and oath of loyalty to the original leader, Nasuada, had prevented him from becoming full leader. Now, his former reluctance to lead had faded out of necessity. He had realised that, without his guidance, the rebels would fail in their quest to destroy Galbatorix. As the last of the free dragon riders and heir to the mighty Vrael, it was his purpose in life to oppose evil and vanquish it. And though it was a difficult and dangerous task it was one he swore to face without flinching.

'Are you nervous, little one?' his dragon asked, using the mental speech all dragons used to communicate with their riders.

'Yes,' he answered briefly. 'Of course.'

'I am as well,' she admitted. 'Eragon, are you sure we're ready for this?'

'As sure as I'll ever be,' he said. 'All we can do is our best, Saphira.'

'That's all we could ever do,' Saphira agreed.

Now Urû'baen was looming overhead, the first arrows were being fired, and the battle began. Saphira took to the air, rising up over the towers, ready to begin dive-bombing the defenders on the walls. It was in that moment that the sky, previously a clear powder-blue, began to darken. Seemingly out of nowhere, slate-grey clouds gathered. And, rising from the centre of the city with lightning crackling over its wings, there came a huge black dragon. The black dragon's wing membranes were white, but had been painted with lightning and flame designs.

'Shruikan,' Saphira whispered, her mental voice full of fear.

And, immediately following the black dragon, was a much smaller, red-scaled one.

'Thorn,' said Saphira.

'Murtagh,' said Eragon.

And, as the storm began to descend on the rebel army, battle was joined.

When they saw Shruikan and Thorn heading for them, Saphira and Eragon nearly panicked and fled. Two dragons, one much larger than Saphira, and two riders, one of whom had already proven himself much more powerful in magic than Eragon… if both attacked the pair right now, they would be doomed.

Saphira recovered her senses and thrashed her wings, straining with all her might to reach a higher altitude than the two males, but the stormy winds beat her downward. Looking up, she and Eragon could see the horrible shape of the black dragon bearing down on them, coming toward them, coming to destroy them, and they knew a fear more terrible than any they had felt before in their lives. But the moment passed, and Shruikan was flying over them, his dark shape blocking the sun, his long black claws pointing down toward them. Then he flew on, paying no attention to the blue dragon and her rider, and bore down on the rebel army. Eragon urged Saphira to go after him and do what she could to protect their friends, but before she had even made the manoeuvre they were struck side-on by Thorn. The red dragon hit Saphira, claws-first, tearing deep gashes in her flank. She screamed and swung around, biting him on the neck. But Murtagh drew his sword and hacked at her head, cracking one of her horns and forcing her to let go. Dazed, the blue dragon flew in a wide circle over the city while her rider launched magic at his enemy counterpart. But Murtagh had duelled magically with Eragon before, and knew that he outclassed his younger brother. He easily deflected the other rider's attacks, and instructed Thorn to attack Saphira again. The red dragon did so, hurling himself forward with a powerful flick of his wings. He hit the female dragon side on once again, bowling her over so that she rolled in the sky, her wings and legs flailing. On her back, Eragon held on as tightly as he could, screaming at the top of his lungs. Too late, he realised his mistake. Too late he reached for the straps on the saddle that should have been holding him in place. The violent motion knocked him from his seat and he went flying, his sword falling out of his hand. Saphira roared and dived to catch him, only to be assaulted once again by Thorn. Eragon, turning slowly in midair, saw her fighting for her life against the male dragon, panic-stricken, wounded, unable to come to his aid.

Then he fell.

Chapter Two

Aftermath

A long way away from Urû'baen, on the coast by the city of Teirm, another storm had blown up just out to sea. The city's inhabitants could see it from the streets and from the upper windows of the buildings, and those out on the beach could see it best of all. A huge, dark mass of cloud had gathered over the water, churning it into white foam and turning the rest slate-grey. The people pointed to the lightning that flickered amongst those clouds, talking among themselves with worried voices. If the storm reached their city, it could be devastating. Inside the city, those rich enough to own boats were already hurrying out and preparing to drag them out of the water and into the boathouses kept for that very purpose. The larger ships, which could not be brought ashore, had their sails and masts taken down and all valuable items aboard were taken inside. Elsewhere, other people took down washing and shuttered their windows, and put covers over their gardens to protect the plants.

Having done all they could, they retreated indoors, making sure their children were safe, and waited nervously for the storm to come or to fade.

Outside the city by the sea, the storm drew closer, its clouds drifting over the blue sky with the inevitable speed and grace of icebergs. It grew closer and closer to Teirm, where the people began to brace themselves for the worst and the guards up on the walls surreptitiously retreated into their guardhouses and took down their banners for fear of losing them. What none of them knew – or could know – was what lay at the heart of this storm.

Somewhere amongst the crackling whiteness of the lightning, an eye opened, the lid sliding back over a shining yellow eyeball with a slitted pupil. At first the eye appeared to be simply hanging in midair, framed by nothing but cloud, but then it blinked and moved up and down slightly, and part of the storm's shape moved and showed itself to be a separate entity. It was a dragon, a dragon flying in the storm. The dragon looked ahead and saw land approaching fast. He grinned and flew upwards, allowing the howling wind to lift him, which it did, taking him exactly where he wanted to go. The dragon flew out of the midst of the patch of wild weather and off into blue sky and white cloud, leaving the storm behind to do as it would. Behind him, the wind descended on the city of Teirm, stripping tiles from rooftops and sending them crashing onto the streets below, where pottery shards were soon joined by grey, lashing rain. Down in the bay, the exposed fleet of merchant ships began to bob violently up and down, tipping perilously in the suddenly rough surf. The storm closed in.

Meanwhile, the dragon set out over Alagaësia. Just like the storm-clouds that had carried him to its shores, he was black. Jet-black from nose to tail, with black claws and dark-grey wing membranes that were almost black as well. Only the horns on his head and the spines on his back were white, and so were the fangs that jutted from his lower jaw over his top lip. His eyes were dark golden-yellow, and stared keenly at the ground below him. So this was Alagaësia. This was the home of the dragon riders. The land he'd come so far to find. The dragon felt his heart pounding with anticipation.

He kept above the clouds, where he wouldn't be easily seen, and set out Eastwards. He wasn't particularly interested in humans, elves or dwarves. The dragon set out too look for other dragons. There had to be some here…

Back at Urû'baen, Shruikan's storm was beginning to die down. Its ending also signalled the end of the battle. From his partner's back, Galbatorix watched as the rebel army fled, pursued by some of his troops. They left hundreds of dead behind, many lying scattered around dark, scorched patches of earth. That was where Shruikan had directed his lightning to strike, and it had devastated the attackers.

'We taught them a lesson they won't forget,' Shruikan crowed, spitting a contemptuous fireball after the limping survivors.

Galbatorix said nothing. The black dragon hovered on the spot, growling deep in his chest. Then, quite suddenly, something shot past them, taking both by surprise. It was Saphira, and she was riderless. Thorn was pursuing her, and both dragons were flying with as much speed as they could summon. Shruikan snorted and went after the blue dragon, but though he and Thorn both chased her doggedly she was the fastest, and she soon vanished into the clouds and sky and was gone.

Shruikan flew back to the city, Thorn following. They alighted on the ground just in front of the gates, both panting from their exertions. Looking around at the red dragon, Galbatorix realised that he, too, was without his rider. 'Where's Murtagh, Thorn?' he asked.

'Inside the city, Master,' said Thorn, nodding toward it. 'He's coming.'

Sure enough the young man soon appeared, exiting through the front gates, which had been opened to let the army out. He jogged toward them, his sword still in his hand, and came to a stop in front of Shruikan. 'My lord,' he said, bowing.

'Murtagh,' said Galbatorix, climbing down from Shruikan's back. 'What were you doing?'

'Saphira got away,' said Murtagh apologetically.

'I know,' said Galbatorix. 'Why did you send Thorn to chase her alone?'

'I was busy,' said Murtagh. 'Master, I'm sorry we lost Saphira. I did my best.'

'So did Thorn and Shruikan,' said Galbatorix. 'What about Eragon?'

'We have him, my lord,' said Murtagh. 'I got Thorn to drop me off, and I found the boy down in the city. He used magic to survive his fall, but I fought him into submission. He's in the dungeons now.'

'Excellent,' said Galbatorix. 'Well done, Murtagh. Now we have the boy, his dragon won't be able to stay away long.'

'No, my lord,' said Murtagh. 'And the rebels?'

'Shruikan dealt with them as I said he would,' said Galbatorix. 'They ran away. I think we killed about half of them… perhaps that will teach them a lesson about who is in charge here.' He smiled grimly, and patted Shruikan's foreleg. 'Now, about the boy,' he added, his voice taking on an efficient tone which Murtagh knew well. 'Have you drugged him?'

'No, my lord,' said Murtagh. 'I used a spell to put him into a coma. He's fully conscious, but he can't move or access his magic.'

'Ah!' said Galbatorix. 'That's one I taught you, isn't it? Very well done indeed, much better than just using a drug. I was planning to ask you to do that, but you've already gone one better than I expected. You will be rewarded for this night's work.'

Murtagh smiled slightly. 'Thankyou, my lord,' he said.

'Now,' said Galbatorix. 'Let's get to work. The boy can wait; for now we have a city to repair and casualties to tend to. Murtagh, go and see the commander and get a report from him. Tell him to send people to retrieve the dead from out here. Then you can go and tend to the injured – heal them if you can, and if they're beyond help put them out of their misery. Thorn, you can help to shift some of the rubble that's too large for humans to deal with. Be sure to listen to what they have to say, and don't go out of Murtagh's range so he can draw on your strength if he needs to. Understood?'

'Yes, Master,' said Thorn.

'Yes, my lord,' said Murtagh, and the two of them departed.

Left alone with his partner, Galbatorix sighed and took off his helmet, wiping the sweat off his forehead. 'I hoped we'd done with fighting a long time ago, Shruikan,' he muttered. 'But still we find ourselves here in the midst of all this… all this pointless chaos. If the rebels would just listen to me…'

'They'd never listen,' Shruikan rumbled. 'They're fools.'

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'Not fools, not really. They're idealists. They think they know best, all the time. Well, perhaps this young fool can be persuaded otherwise. I'll talk to him tonight, and try and get the measure of him.'

Shruikan chuckled. 'You'll have a hard job ahead of you,' he said. 'This boy is said to be very stubborn.'

'He's also said to be stupid,' said Galbatorix. 'And dull minds prefer simple explanations. I know how to appeal to idiots, Shruikan. Trust me on this.'

Up in the clouds that were her natural habitat, Saphira flew. One wing was slightly ragged and she was breathing like a bellows, but still she flew with all her might. Never had she flown with so much desperation or so much pain, and all the while her heart sang a song of agonising guilt. But though her internal voice screamed out for her to go back, she did not obey it: to go back now was death. Not death of the body, but death of liberty and, eventually, the spirit. So she flew. Beyond pain, beyond guilt, beyond exhaustion, away from Urû'baen with all the speed and skill she had. In time, when she felt safer, she dipped below the clouds and saw the rebel army marching slowly and wearily below her. When they saw the blue dragon they let out a ragged cheer, and Saphira roared back to encourage them.

'Follow me,' she called to them mentally. 'Let me lead you to safety.'

And they followed her. North, they went, up and away from Urû'baen, barely stopping to rest for fear of pursuit. On and on that desperate march went, all eyes fixed on the weary shape of the blue dragon, on and over and finally into the blessed shelter of the forests of Du Weldenvarden. There they finally came to a halt, and Saphira left them to fly ahead and inform the elves that they were back. Two days after her departure they were met by a large group of elves, who brought medicine and other supplies and accompanied them back to Ellesméra.

There, a week after what had been a catastrophic defeat for the rebels, who called themselves the Varden, a meeting was held between the remaining leaders. They met in the councillor's chamber along with Islanzadí, elderly Queen of the elves, and her council of elders. Nasuada, the original leader of the Varden, a slender woman with extraordinary brown-black skin, was first to speak.

'My friends,' she said. 'This is a disaster. Eragon is lost, either dead or a prisoner of the King. The official number of dead so far is in the hundreds, we've lost Jörmundur and Trianna, and several other important fighters and wizards. We have to make plans; decide what must be done next. Does anyone have any suggestions?'

Arya, the graceful daughter of Islanzadí, spoke up. 'We should rescue Eragon, and quickly,' she said.

'I agree,' said Islanzadí. 'Without him, we're lost.'

'But how?' said Nasuada, holding out her hands. 'How? It would be near impossible. Not only is he being held in the strongest fortress in the land, but he'll be guarded day and night. Galbatorix will be expecting rescue missions. I wouldn't be surprised if he had Murtagh and Thorn watching over the city himself. Galbatorix may even decide to guard Eragon himself. A prisoner that valuable they couldn't afford to lose. And may I remind you that there is no way we would be strong enough for another assault on the city. Nor do we have anyone who can sneak into a place so inaccessible, let alone fight two powerful riders.'

There was gloomy silence in the council chamber. Everyone there knew that Nasuada spoke the truth, harsh though it was.

'This is all Eragon's fault,' one man said suddenly. 'Truly. He brought this on himself.'

The councillors muttered among themselves, but nobody spoke up to deny it; it was true.

Islanzadí shook her head. 'The boy was always passionate,' she said. 'And much too rash for his own good. We should have tried to restrain him more strongly that we did, but who would argue with a dragon rider, let alone one so determined?'

'But we should have tried,' said Nasauada. 'We should have forced him to reconsider. Still, I won't deny it… he persuaded me.'

'He persuaded all of us,' said Arya, which was also true.

Ever since the death of his mentor, Oromis, at the hands of one of Galbatorix's spies, the young rider had been different. His former nervousness and reserve had gone. His rage at the loss of the only rider not under the King's thrall had put an end to all self-doubt, and sent him into a furious and savage fervour. Thereafter, ignoring all advice to the contrary, he had single-handedly planned and orchestrated the attack on Urû'baen, talking relentlessly to the other leaders of the Varden until he had them convinced it would work.

'The time for hiding and hesitating it over,' he'd said to Nasuada. 'The time has come for us to strike, and strike hard. We can't give Galbatorix the opportunity to recover from what happened at the Burning Plains. We must attack, and now.'

In the end, discovering a gift for leadership that had never been there before, he had succeeded. And this was the price.

There was an awkward pause, during which not one councillor was free of mingled guilt and anger, which was only partly directed toward the lost Eragon. Eventually Roran, the tough, bearded man who had only recently been appointed to the council, said; 'Let's go outside. Maybe the clear air will help us think.'

The others nodded their agreement, and the council rose from its various seats. They left the hall and emerged into the night air of Ellesméra. A few stars gleamed overhead, threaded with silver clouds, and a great, watchful silence lay over the forest.

'Look,' said Roran, pointing.

They looked, and on the mountaintop above them they saw the hunched silhouette of Saphira. The dragon was crouched with her head resting on her forepaws and her wings hanging by her sides, unmoving. The councillors watched her and frowned, some shaking their heads and murmuring sympathetically.

While they walked among the nighttime flowers of Ellesméra, the shape above them moved. They stopped, and Saphira flew down to them, landing lightly amongst some bushes with her wings still spread.

'Hello, Saphira,' said Islanzadí politely, bowing slightly to the dragon.

'Islanzadí,' said Saphira, projecting her thoughts to everyone there. 'Councillors.'

The councillors all greeted the dragon, their words and faces all respectful.

'Thankyou,' said Saphira, a little stiffly. 'Now… I have been thinking.'

'So have we,' said Elessari, one of the female councillors, not realising she was being rude. 'But we-,'

'I have been thinking,' said Saphira again, putting more emphasis on her words and looking meaningfully at Elessari, who went silent. 'Councillors… I am sorry.'

'Saphira, there's no need to apologise,' said Nasuada at once.

'Nevertheless,' said Saphira. 'I am sorry for not fighting harder, and for not reminding Eragon to fasten the straps on the saddle. If I had he wouldn't have fallen. I'm sorry I didn't go back and tear that city down to rescue him. And, most of all, I'm sorry I let him do what he did. He led you all into danger because he decided to think with his sword-arm instead of with his head. I should have talked him out of it, but I was mourning Oromis and Glaedr and at the time I agreed with him… there is no excuse for my failure.'

It was plain she had thought long and hard about this, and the councillors, recognising the fact, didn't argue. In fact they looked at her with new respect, knowing how difficult it must have been to admit to her feelings of guilt, in spite of how much she must be afraid for her friend and partner.

'My will has been weak,' said Saphira, bowing her head. 'But no more. I have come to a decision.'

'Whatever you do, we will honour,' said Nasuada at once.

'I hope so,' said Saphira, with the hint of a twinkle in her bright blue eyes. 'From now on, I will lead you as Eragon would have. I will take his place on the council and help with the running of the Varden.'

'Normally it would be expected for you to ask for that,' said Islanzadí, rather stiffly.

'Normally, perhaps, for some people,' said Saphira, unmoved. 'But remember that I am not just an animal. I am half of Eragon's soul, and his position was as much mine as it was his. I am sure that if he were able he would have asked me to act on his behalf. As it is, I look upon this as a duty rather than a privilege.'

'A duty we shall give you,' said Nasuada at once, glancing at Islanzadí. 'We recognise your wisdom and determination, and your courage as well. As leader of the Varden, I will gladly share my power with you.'

'Thankyou,' said Saphira, bowing her head. 'Now continue your discussion. I would like to be alone for a while, but I will join whichever meeting comes after this one.'

With that, the blue dragon took flight once again, flattening the undergrowth with the blast of air from her wings. The councillors watched her go, and though some were slightly irritated at her presumption all were moved and impressed by what she had said. It was clear she had a stronger character than some had thought, and her proactivity was exactly what they needed in this hour of crisis.

'A brave creature,' Elessari remarked.

'She's as great a warrior as Eragon is,' said Nasuada. 'We're lucky to still have her.'

'Indeed,' said Islanzadí.

Back on her mountaintop, Saphira crouched and tended cautiously to her injured wings. Without Eragon there was nobody to magically heal them, and though she could have asked to be tended to by one of the lesser magicians she decided to let the wounds heal of their own accord. The scars they left would be a reminder; a reminder of her failure and, hopefully, a warning to her in the future. She wondered if the rough, direct course she'd taken with the council had been the right one. Once she could have asked Eragon or Glaedr, but not now. No, not now…

Saphira's head drooped, and slow, tired tears flowed down her snout. She missed Glaedr, and Oromis. And old Brom, who had shared more of himself with her than she'd ever admitted to anyone. But most of all she missed Eragon. Only young, even for a human, often foolish and impetuous, but good-hearted and brave all the same. For as long as she could remember he'd been beside her, trusting her no matter what the mood or circumstance. They had saved each other's lives many times, and had shared their thoughts every day since their bonding, learning more about each other and their spiritual link all the time. And, though she'd been doubtful, she'd gone along with his plan to attack Urû'baen. He'd spoken of it as a great battle, a last rush toward hope and freedom, a lasting and memorable blow to the Empire's death-grip on the country. He'd discovered a way with words that he had lacked before and, caught up by it, she had believed that his mad scheme could work.

But he had been wrong, and in trusting him she had been wrong too. And that was the truth of all this, she saw now. There were no hopeless last-minute victories against all the odds. Taking terrible risks meant losing everything as often as it meant winning the day. And charging into battle, more often than not, meant death and not glory. And, though she did her best to keep hope alive inside her, she saw cold, harsh reality beyond the daydreams of youth: the Empire had won. Even if they managed to rescue Eragon, there was now no hope of ever winning this war. Galbatorix was simply too strong for them. His dragon, Shruikan, had a power she felt she could never hope to understand, let alone defeat. She was only young, but the dread black dragon had strength, size and experience beyond anything she could ever achieve. And, worse, they had Murtagh and the savage Thorn working for them as well.

Saphira sighed and covered her head with her wings, utterly depressed. We're doomed, she thought. Doomed.

Chapter Three

Visitor

Over the next few days after his arrival, the black dragon flew over Alagaësia. He progressed with steady, tireless wingbeats, only descending every so often to sleep and once to hunt. He only flew at night, unlike other dragons who preferred daylight, and his black hide kept him camouflaged and so hidden from all eyes. Nobody was aware that he was in the country, and that was how he preferred it to be. He hadn't forgotten the warnings he'd been given before he left.

'Travel at night,' they'd said. 'Always travel at night. Don't let anyone see you if they're not a dragon. People will fear a black dragon. The best way to avoid trouble is to avoid them. Never forget that.'

The black dragon was determined not to, so he kept up the secrecy and flew on over the Hadarac desert, still searching for any sign of dragons. But he found none. Nothing. Not a sign. The only other things in the sky were birds and bats, and on the ground he only saw humans and other small animals. He started to feel rather depressed. He hadn't spoken to anyone in over a week, and this place felt lonely and bleak without other dragons in it. Where were they all? Perhaps he was looking in the wrong places. While he flew over the barren waste of the desert, he thought it over. Where would dragons be? Mountainous areas, most likely. He'd had a brief search over the range just inland from where he'd arrived, but had seen nothing. But there was high land off to his right side, so he resolved to look there.

On reaching the Beor Mountains on the following day, the dragon flew among its peaks for an hour, scanning the skies for any sight or scent of others. Nothing. Still nothing. Feeling tired and somewhat discouraged, he alighted on a handy ledge and roared. The noise echoed amongst the stones, a message of challenge to other males and attraction to females. The black dragon waited a while to see if his call would be answered. Nothing. Only silence, and the wind moaning among the high crags and chasms.

The black dragon grunted and put his head on his forepaws, his shoulders sagging. After so much hard work, his search was still fruitless. Where were they all? Where? How could an entire race have become undetectable even to one of their own kind? Were the dragons of this continent so different from the ones he knew that they wouldn't respond to a simple roar? Or didn't they live in mountains after all? He had no way of knowing. But it was clear that, if they were anything like the dragons he had grown up among, he would have seen some sign of their presence by now. These mountains were obviously deserted; if they were inhabited he must have encroached on at least one other territory, but no dragon had shown itself in order to drive him away. No, this place was a waste of time. He must find other places to search. Accordingly, once he had rested, he set out once again, this time heading North.

Out of the mountains and back through the desert, unsure of exactly where he was heading, he flew until he saw something that interested him: trees. There was a large expanse of forest just ahead, and at the sight of it his interest renewed. Maybe the dragons of Alagaësia lived in forests…? It was worth a try, and in any case he liked forests. His birthplace had been largely covered in trees, and though these were very different they were still trees, and he liked the look of them above. More mountains, these a lot smaller, protruded here and there up ahead. This was more like it: a nearly-familiar landscape like this would be a great place to live for a time. And, if he found what he was after, he would be happy to stay for as long as he needed to.

Feeling slightly more cheerful, the black dragon glided over the forest's green carpet at a leisurely pace. As soon as he reached the first of the mountains, he perched on its top and roared again, and then again, as loudly as he could. Still, no reply, and so he flew on, heading for the very heart of the greenness.

Crouched on the plateau which had become her residence since Eragon's capture, Saphira dug her claws into the stone and tried to find some way, some thought that would lead her out of her misery. But there was nothing. Eragon wasn't there to comfort her, and nor were Oromis or Glaedr, and she couldn't summon the energy to find someone else to confide in. Instead, staring vaguely at nothing, she turned her thoughts to the past. The distant past, before she had hatched. She had never seen the time when Alagaësia's wild dragons were still alive, before Galbatorix and his followers, the Forsworn, had wiped them out. Now there were only four dragons left alive in the world, and she was the only female. Her only hope of bringing her race back from the brink of extinction was to free the last remaining egg from Galbatorix's clutches and hope that the male dragon it contained would be a worthy mate for her. But that was why Galbatorix hadn't dared to kill Eragon, and why she believed he would keep him alive. The ruler of Alagaësia wasn't interested in Eragon at all: what he wanted was his dragon. If they managed to capture her, they would force her to pair with Thorn, or with Shruikan, so that they could use her offspring to create more riders – riders obedient to Galbatorix. If the council suggested that she lead another assault on Urû'baen, she would have to oppose it. Though she would take any risk to free Eragon, she knew perfectly well that he was being kept as a hostage to bring her back. If she were to be taken into captivity, it would spell the end of their last remaining hope. And her life would not be worth living any longer from that point.

Saphira hated that; hated the responsibility that rested on her shoulders, hated the loneliness, hated the pain, and most of all she hated Galbatorix for bringing it all about. He had destroyed her kind, and now he wanted her to bring them back as a race of slaves. And now he had taken Eragon from her, he who was the closest thing to a family she had ever had. Saphira growled under her breath, wishing that Galbatorix was in front of her so she could tear him apart.

That was when, quite suddenly, she heard something that made her heart leap into her mouth. It was the roar of an adult male dragon, not close but unmistakeable. Saphira raised her head, listening intently. The roar sounded again. Saphira stood up sharply, half-opening her wings in readiness. Her sapphire eyes scanned the sky for any sign of movement, though she saw nothing for the time being. Silence followed the roar, but she was certain she'd heard it for real. Her instincts helped her identify it, and to her puzzlement she realised that it wasn't a combative roar. This was the drawn-out bellow a dragon used to signal his or her presence, and wasn't a challenge, as such. It was just a sound that said 'here I am, and I'm strong'. Saphira's subconscious urged her to call back, but she fought it down. With a sinking heart, she thought that it had to be either Thorn or Shruikan calling. Perhaps they were hoping she'd call back and give away her location. Well, they were out of luck if they expected her to fall for it. So far Galbatorix hadn't discovered the location of Ellesméra, and if he did it would spell disaster for the rebels. Their former base had long since been discovered, and now Ellesméra and the small country of Surda were their last strongholds, and Ellesméra was the only hidden one.

The roar came again, closer this time. Saphira turned around on her seat and projected an urgent thought to all those below her: 'Prepare for attack!'

They had heard the roar already, and Saphira's message galvanised them into action. She watched them rush off frantically to find weapons and organise troops, but quickly lifted her head to the sky once more. She was tempted to fly upward and see what was going on from above, but if she was seen in the sky it would immediately betray her position. All she could do was stay where she was and watch. If she saw them fly overhead, she would have to attack. But until then… better to sit still and hope they passed the spot by.

Time passed, agonisingly slowly. Down below her, the fighters were ready and scouts had been sent to watch out for approaching soldiers in every direction. Once the preparations were done, the initial desperate rush slowly gave way to unbearable tension. As heartbeats and breathing slowed, hands gripped weapons tightly and faces went pale. Somewhere the children and other non-fighters were being escorted to a secure place for their protection. Saphira, digging her claws deep into the ground, continued to scan the sky, her mouth half-open and fangs exposed. She suddenly felt horribly vulnerable. It was fortunate that it was evening; in daylight she would have been instantly spotted from the sky. As it was, there was a chance she would be missed.

Then, from somewhere off to the left, there came a rush of wings. And a huge, dark shape moved overhead, blotting out the stars. Saphira tensed, not daring to move a muscle. The dragon flew on, straight over her, and for a moment she hoped it would continue on over the valley. But then it turned around in the sky and flew back toward her, more slowly this time. She could hear it breathing, the sound a deep rumbling and sighing, and it struck terror into her heart. Against this dragon, who was more than twice her size, she would stand no chance. All she could do was stay still and will for it to leave, hoping and hoping with all her might.

But her wish was not granted. The dragon circled overhead once more and then flew lower, raising hushed cries of fear from the elves and humans below. Saphira readied herself to fight, and then the dragon landed on an outcrop just in front of her, so close she could have reached out and touched him. He extended his neck toward her, and in the light of the rising moon she could easily make him out. Black scales, dark yellow eyes, long lower fangs… she knew this face all too well.

'Shruikan,' she whispered, accidentally sending the thought straight to him.

The dragon blinked. Below them, the fighters were watching fearfully. None of them dared to attack the strange dragon, nor could they shoot at that distance or climb up that high. This was Saphira's fight.

Before the black dragon spoke, Saphira noticed something strange and, to her, ominous. There was no rider on his back. Nor was there a saddle.

The black dragon regarded her, looking her up and down with his unreadable yellow eyes. He was impressed with what he saw. This female was a lot smaller than him, obviously much younger, but he congratulated himself on finding one so attractive. She the colour of a summer sky, with matching eyes and wings, and her body was slim and shapely. The black dragon could see the fear in her eyes, and knew he must be intimidating to her, given that he was many times her size.

'Don't be afraid,' he said, his voice deep and growling. 'My name is Vidar. What is yours?'

The blue dragon stared at him, fear edged aside by puzzlement. 'Shruikan, where is your rider?' she demanded, still using telepathy.

'I have no rider,' said the black dragon. 'And my name is Vidar, not Shruikan. Who is Shruikan?'

The blue dragon said nothing. She cautiously probed at his mind, seeking information. Vidar let her see some things. He showed her some brief images of his mother and his siblings, and his journey over the sea, and confirmation that his name was Vidar. When she saw that, she relaxed a little.

'So you're not Shruikan,' her voice concluded in his head.

'No,' said Vidar. Unlike her he spoke aloud, using a slightly outdated form of Elvish, which she understood well enough, though he sensed that she was a little shocked that he should break the unwritten rule that dragons should only use their minds to communicate.

'Well then… my name is Saphira,' said the blue female.

'Saphira?' said Vidar, surprised. 'My mother's sister was called Saphira. A beautiful name for a beautiful dragon,' he added.

Despite herself, Saphira preened. 'Thankyou, Vidar,' she said. 'Now tell me… where have you come from? I know you can't be Shruikan.' She was looking more closely at him now, and had realised that his wing membranes were dark grey rather than white, and that he lacked certain scars and other markings that her enemy had.

'I came from another land, over the sea,' said Vidar. 'Is this Alagaësia?'

'It is,' said Saphira. Her blue eyes were wide and wondering. It had never occurred to her that there might be other dragons outside Alagaësia. Then… she was not the last, after all.

'I like it,' said Vidar. 'It's very different than my home, but beautiful. But where are all the other dragons? You're the first I found.'

'There are no others,' said Saphira, bowing her head. 'I am the last female dragon in Alagaësia. All the others are dead.'

'Dead?' said Vidar. 'My mother told me there were hundreds here once. She came from here. How can they all be dead?'

'They were wiped out by traitors,' said Saphira.

'An entire race?' said Vidar blankly. 'Dragons? But there must have been hundreds of them. Impossible.'

'Nevertheless,' said Saphira.

Vidar sighed and rustled his wings. 'If Alagaësia needs to be repopulated with dragons, then it's just as well I found you,' he said.

'How do you mean?' said Saphira.

Vidar tapped her on the head with his claws in a slightly patronising way. 'Our eggs can start to bring them back,' he said.

'Our eggs?' said Saphira, shocked. 'You want me to be your mate?'

'Of course,' said Vidar. 'If there are no other male dragons for you to choose, it's only logical that you should choose me.'

Saphira's eyes moved slowly upward, taking in the black dragon's features. His face was sharp and angular, elegant but in a way that was cold and brutal. He was many times larger than her, his body long and well-muscled with wide wings and strong talons. He did not have the natural benevolence of Glaedr, and though he had grace it was of a threatening, dangerous kind. He was not the mate she had hoped to find, and nor did she feel she could trust him. That and the fact that he looked uncomfortably similar to Shruikan, whom she hated.

'I will… think about it,' she said lamely after the silence got too uncomfortable.

Vidar grunted. 'Think all you want,' he said. 'But don't keep me waiting too long or I'll be bored and move on. There could be other females further inland.'

He turned to fly away.

'Wait,' Saphira blurted.

Vidar turned back, looking at her expectantly.

'Could you… I mean… will you help us?' said Saphira.

'"Us"?' said Vidar. 'There are others with you?'

'Yes,' said Saphira, indicating the Varden members down below. 'Those people down there are my allies.'

'You're friends with elves and humans?' said Vidar, his eyes narrowing.

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'They are the Varden.'

'The Varden?' said Vidar.

'Rebels against the Empire,' said Saphira. 'They are fighting to free Alagaësia from tyranny.'

'Tyranny against who?' said Vidar.

'All the races of this land,' said Saphira.

'Elves and humans,' Vidar summarised.

'And dwarves,' Saphira added.

Vidar snorted. 'I don't care what they choose to do among themselves,' he said. 'It's none of my business and none of my concern either. I'm surprised you're so worried about them.'

'Vidar,' said Saphira sharply. 'The Empire's founders were the ones who destroyed the dragons. It's all of our concern.'

Vidar growled. 'Who are they, then?' he asked. 'These traitors? And how did they destroy the dragons?'

'I don't know how they did it,' said Saphira. 'But after they began their war to take power the wild dragons disappeared. Many were found dead, but most were never seen again. But their old habitats have been searched, and no trace of them was found.'

'But who are the traitors?' said Vidar.

'Most of them are dead by now,' said Saphira. 'But their leader is still alive. His name is Galbatorix.'

Vidar's eyes widened. 'Galbatorix?' he said. 'A dragon did this?'

'What?' said Saphira. 'No, Galbatorix is a man. Human. He rides a black dragon called Shruikan who looks almost exactly the same as you. That's why you frightened me – I thought you were him.'

'A human?' said Vidar, settling down. 'Human. Hm. A rider, you say?'

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'Once this land was ruled by riders. But Galbatorix killed them all and made himself King over all Alagaësia. No doubt he wiped out our race because they opposed him.'

'And now you want to remove him,' said Vidar.

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'But we're not strong enough. I'm the only dragon on the side of the Varden. If you helped us, we could win.'

'But why should I help you?' said Vidar. 'If this man is killed, will it bring back the dragons?'

'No,' Saphira admitted. 'But our race should be avenged.'

'So you want revenge,' said Vidar.

'That is one my main reasons to fight,' said Saphira.

'Then you can fight alone,' said Vidar. 'Revenge doesn't interest me.'

'But justice-,' said Saphira.

'Justice!' said Vidar, tossing his head. 'Justice is a pathetic ideal which people use to inflict needless suffering on each other. And don't talk to me of revenge, young dragon. My mother and my grandfather are very wise dragons, and they taught me about what happens when people are motivated by revenge. But I'm interested… why did this man decide to kill the former rulers of this land?'

'For revenge,' said Saphira, with a pang of unexpected guilt. 'They refused to give him another dragon after his first was killed, and banished him from their city. He wanted to make them pay for his suffering.'

'And that brought all this about,' Vidar finished. He made a hacking, growling sound in his throat and turned his back on her before flying away.

'Wait!' Saphira called, but the black dragon ignored her. Left alone once more, Saphira found that there were tears on her face. She wiped them away with her claws, and turned almost angrily to look down at the assembled Varden. Humans, elves and dwarves were all staring up at her with undisguised fear and bewilderment. Clearly they were hoping for some explanation of what had just happened, but Saphira was in no mood for it. Full of pain, she lifted her head to the half-moon and bellowed, the sound anguished and lost. Above her, hovering amongst the silver clouds, Vidar heard the sound and blinked. 'So much passion in one so young,' he muttered, and flew on and away from Ellesméra, looking for prey.

Chapter Four

Pacts and Passions

It was dark in the cell. So very dark. Eragon lay on a stone bench, utterly relaxed. At least, his body lay there. His mind was still in it, but only by the slenderest of slender ties. And, although his body was doing nothing, his mind was screaming. Everything was still there – his memories were intact, he could think about things and his personality was still dominant. But he could do absolutely nothing. There was no feeling in his body – it may as well have not existed at all. It was idling away, not giving him the normal sensations of sight, smell, hearing or pain. He didn't even know whether it was still breathing, and that was one reason why his mind was screaming its mental scream. The other reason was much more obvious. It was only a matter of time before someone came. Only a matter of time until the torture began. And when it did, he didn't know if he would be able to stay silent. He knew all too well what had happened to Arya when she was in the clutches of Durza, one of Galbatorix's most powerful henchmen. They had beaten her, branded her, poisoned her and finally handed her over to the guards for their enjoyment. The agonies he had suffered from his back injury had been bad enough, but he knew with absolute certainty that Galbatorix could make him suffer worse pain.

He did his best to remind himself of who he was – did his best to remember that he was no ordinary human. He was a dragon rider. There was no sword and no magic in the world that was stronger than his. He had killed Durza, thus becoming one of only three people in history who had managed to defeat a Shade. He was the last hope of his friends and followers. He had to be brave, he had to be strong.

But in spite of these assurances, which he made to himself over and over again, almost feverishly, the thought did no good. Here, in this place where his worst fears were painted by shadows on the wall, the warrior he had thought he was faded away and all that was left was terror. And guilt, which didn't exactly make him feel better. The attempt had failed. His friends had been led into unspeakable danger, and he was the one who had led them. The naysayers had been right. The mess he was in now was his own fault, and his alone. The Varden had depended on him, but he had failed them.

And so he lay and thought these miserable thoughts, for how long he never knew, until his mental voice was intruded upon by another. Not Saphira's. This was a dark, cool voice, one that lacked the love which hers held. It said, 'Eragon.'

'Stay away from me!' he shouted back, using his mental voice since none other was available to him.

'Eragon,' said the voice again. 'Would you like to see my face?'

'I would like to spit on it,' Eragon snarled back.

The voice laughed briefly and without much humour. 'I will give you back your sight,' it said. 'So that we can talk face-to-face.'

Light bloomed in Eragon's mind, and suddenly he was in his body again. He could see, and his eyes moved and blinked on his command. Everything else, however, was still locked away. He was deaf, and dumb, and paralysed. And what was worse was the man standing over him. The man was clad in black, and had a pale face. His hair was long, black and curly, and he had a short black beard. His eyes, too, were black and impossible to read, just like the rest of his face. Looking at him made Eragon shiver. He knew with absolute certainty that he was looking into the face of his enemy.

'Hello, Eragon, said the voice in his head. 'As you no doubt have guessed, I am Galbatorix.'

'I guessed that you were filth,' Eragon shot back.

Galbatorix's voice sighed. 'Did you now,' he said. 'I take it the elves taught you your manners as well as everything else.'

'The elves taught me how to fight,' said Eragon. 'Let me out of here and I'll show you.'

Galbatorix raised his elegant eyebrows. 'Just like Morzan you prefer to think with your sword,' he said. 'Murtagh was right – you are like him.'

'Morzan and I are nothing alike,' Eragon snarled.

'How do you know?' said Galbatorix. 'You never met him. I did. He was a worthy friend, but not the best conversationalist. Now, do you have anything useful to say? I was hoping we could have a reasonable discussion, but all you can seem to do is hurl unimpressive insults.'

Eragon said nothing. Galbatorix waited politely for him to reply, and the silence stretched out for a good three minutes.

Finally, Eragon could bear it no longer. 'Where's Saphira?' he asked in a rush. 'Is she all right?'

'Your dragon escaped,' said Galbatorix. 'But I imagine she'll be back soon enough. She couldn't bear to leave you in captivity.'

Eragon did his best to hold back, but couldn't help letting out a sigh of relief.

Galbatorix smiled. 'You care about her,' he said. 'I know how it is. If anything were to happen to Shruikan, I would die to save him.'

Eragon didn't believe that. Everyone knew that Galbatorix wasn't Shruikan's true rider, and that he had forced the dragon to serve him using black magic.

'Now then,' said Galbatorix. 'I'll get to the point of why you're here. You're here because I need your help.'

'You mean you want me to become your slave like Murtagh is,' said Eragon.

'Slave?' said Galbatorix. 'Young rider, Murtagh chose to serve me of his own free will. And I don't want you to serve me unless you choose to, either. No, I need you to help me end this war.'

'How?' said Eragon, suspiciously.

'Be my ambassador,' said Galbatorix. 'Help me negotiate a truce with the Varden. They'll listen to you, Eragon.'

'Truce?' Eragon repeated, dumbfounded. 'Truce? You want a truce?'

'That's what I said,' said Galbatorix, sounding slightly irritated. 'I'm not interested in war. I want to make peace with these rebels.'

'There can be no peace with you,' said Eragon, finding his mental footing again. 'You're evil and there's no truce with evil.'

'Evil. That's rather strong,' said Galbatorix. Suddenly the dark man was much closer, his eyes menacing. 'Listen to me, my lad,' he hissed. 'I have had enough of this nonsense. I don't know what those so-called friends of yours have been teaching you, but I find it somewhat hard to believe that you can look me in the face and call me evil with so much certainty in your voice. I've done more in my life for people than you can ever hope to achieve, and if you ever manage to do half as much then perhaps you'll be in a position to judge me.'

'I call you evil because you are evil,' Eragon retorted. 'You're a tyrant.'

'Only according to my enemies,' said Galbatorix. 'I am the ruler of Alagaësia, and I have been for a hundred years. And everything was going well until the Varden started trying to depose me.'

'They're fighting for freedom,' said Eragon.

'Hah. What a romantic you are,' said Galbatorix. 'They're fighting because they want power and control, boy. That's what lies at the heart of all this. Not some romantic ideal of freedom and happiness. Do you really think people – with all their inherent faults – could ever be as pure and noble as you seem to think these rebels are? I have a revelation to share with you – they're not.'

'They would still be better rulers than you are,' said Eragon.

Galbatorix snorted. 'And they're so certain that they'd slaughter thousands for a chance to prove it,' he said. 'Have you any idea of how much suffering this war of yours is causing? I doubt it. Why should you? You're Eragon Shadeslayer, the mighty warrior and noble. People like you don't trouble yourselves over what happens among those they command.'

'I don't condone inhumanity, but some suffering is necessary,' said Eragon.

'That's all very well for you to say,' said Galbatorix. 'You aren't the one who feels the pain. But let me assure you – if I ever got my hands on some of the people on your side, I would have to execute them for their crimes.'

'And your hands are clean, are they?' said Eragon. 'I know what you've done. You slaughtered the inhabitants of Yazuac. Even the children. I saw it.'

'That wasn't done on my orders,' said Galbatorix. 'Some of the urgals working for me got out of control. Those responsible have been punished. I won't tolerate that sort of behaviour amongst my command. Why should I have had them massacred?' he added, sensing Eragon's suspicion. 'Honestly… why? They had done nothing wrong. Any leader with half a brain knows that committing crimes like that against his followers would weaken his position.'

'You had Arya tortured,' said Eragon. 'Wasn't that a crime?'

'Ah,' said Galbatorix. 'Yes… I admit that, yes, that was done with my approval. This is war, child. The Varden has done the same to my own people, and worse.'

'Well… if you really want peace, why haven't you tried to negotiate before?' said Eragon. Despite himself he found he was actually listening to this cold, intense man he hated so much.

'I have,' said Galbatorix. 'Would you like to meet the last diplomat I sent to the Varden?'

Without waiting for an answer, he took a small box from the bench beside Eragon's limp form and opened it. Eragon looked at the contents and felt sick to his stomach.

'In a way, this one was lucky,' said Galbatorix. 'With the three before him we never got anything back at all.'

'But how could the Varden do this?' said Eragon, unable to hide his horror.

'Perhaps because they believe there is no truce with me,' said Galbatorix.

He let the silence draw out for a time, tense as a bowstring, and then began to speak on. 'Durza was my friend, you know. He saved my life once, when I was no older than you are now. Once I would be tempted to kill you to avenge him. But not any more. I've learnt better. The wish for revenge made terrible things happen in the past, and it still does. Can you guess what I mean by that?'

'The riders?' said Eragon.

'Yes, the riders,' said Galbatorix. 'They are all dead and gone now because of a young, stupid man who could not let go of the past and refused to control his passions. Now all that's left is you and Murtagh. And myself, of course.'

'Are you saying you regret what you did?' said Eragon, hardly believing what he was hearing.

'I am,' said Galbatorix, bowing his head. 'Not a day goes by that I don't regret it. My punishment has lasted a hundred years.'

'Punishment? What punishment? You've been ruling the Empire!' said Eragon.

'My punishment has been a century of hard work and heavy responsibility, mingled with terrible loneliness,' said Galbatorix, looking up again. 'My friends were all killed by the forerunners of the Varden, or killed themselves because they could not bear their guilt. I felt the temptation, but I held back because I knew that if I died Alagaësia would fall into chaos. You see, after the riders were all gone, I knew that I had no choice but to finish what I started and take their place as leader of Alagaësia. I never wanted to rule, but I realised that I would have to undo some of the damage I'd done by at least bringing back some stability. I never wanted to kill them all; I never planned to. I just wanted revenge. I was young and stupid, and my madness brought down a powerful and noble people.'

Eragon listened. Was this a trick of some kind? It couldn't possibly be true.

'They were my people too, Eragon,' said Galbatorix in a low voice. 'Do you think I don't miss them? I do.'

Eragon was silent for a time after this, thinking. Eventually he said; 'Perhaps we could negotiate a truce with you.'

'Good! I'm glad you've finally seen sense,' said Galbatorix.

'But only on the condition that you agree to step down,' said Eragon.

'And who would replace me?' said Galbatorix.

'I don't know,' Eragon admitted. 'But we cannot allow you to lead any longer.'

'You are a remarkably arrogant young man, Eragon,' said Galbatorix. 'If you could only look beyond the narrow view which you so blindly have of the world, you wouldn't persist in seeing things in shades of black and white. I have been ruling Alagaësia for a hundred years. A hundred years, Eragon. More than five times the years you've been alive. And during that time we have had no significant conflicts. Crime in the large cities has decreased. Outbreaks of disease are controlled and cures for them found before they become plagues. Relations with the urgals have never been better. I wouldn't call myself the greatest king there has ever been, but I have been doing at least as good a job as the rider elders before me did.'

'Liar!' Eragon screamed.

'Fool!' Galbatorix snapped back. 'Who solidified the trade routes between Teirm and Dras-Leona? I did. Who paid for the rebuilding of the granary in Gil'ead after it burnt down? I did. Who hunted down and punished Artorh the Bloodmonger? I did. Who commissioned the building of the dam at Petrovya? I did. And who has left you unharmed in spite of all you did to hurt him? I have. I will leave you to think about that.'

Galbatorix turned and walked away with a swish of his dark robe, locking the cell door behind him. The instant it closed, Eragon realised he had heard the thud. His senses rushed back, and he could move his limbs again. He sat up clumsily and rubbed some life back into his legs. That was when he realised there were tears on his face.

The moon shone over Ellesméra, outlining the shape of the big dragon perched on a mountaintop above it, his horns spiking into the sky like the turrets of a castle. And, below, a heated discussion was taking place.

The Varden's leaders had met in the open air since Saphira wouldn't fit inside their hall, and so they all – elves, humans, and Orik, the new king of the dwarves – sat in some chairs that had been placed in a rough circle amongst some flowering shrubs. Most of them felt slightly foolish holding an all-important meeting as if it were some sort of garden party, but they kept it to themselves and only cast embarrassed glances at each other every so often. Saphira, looming behind Nasuada and Arya like a guardian statue, listened to Elessari speak. 'Saphira, something must be done,' the woman was saying in exasperated tones. 'Is this dragon on our side or not? Well?' she added before Saphira had a chance to speak.

'Elessari, I would prefer for you to be more polite to Saphira,' said Islanzadí in her most prim and proper voice.

'I have told you already,' Saphira broke in. 'I don't know whose side he is on. But I don't think he's interested in taking sides unless he sees profit in it for him.'

'A mercenary, is he?' said Elessari with distaste.

'In a manner of speaking, you could be right,' said Saphira.

'Well then give him what he wants,' said Elessari. 'We can't afford to have him join the enemy.'

'I don't know if he would listen to me,' said Saphira. 'To him, I am just a hatchling. And what do I know about the world but what Eragon taught me? I feel… inadequate.'

It was most unlike the dragon to bare her feelings like this, and the other councillors, including even Elessari, shifted uncomfortably and muttered amongst themselves.

'But you should at least try to persuade him again,' said Arya softly. 'For Eragon's sake, if for no other reason.'

Saphira growled. 'Don't think I'm unwilling to try,' she said. 'All I meant by it was that I fear he may not listen. I will still try.'

'Try your hardest, then,' Arya urged. 'You're our last hope, Saphira.'

Saphira nodded gravely. It had been several days since Vidar's arrival, and during that time she'd taken up her councillor's seat and worked her very hardest to be the leader they needed. She knew that Elessari, at least, still opposed her position, though others, including Arya and Nasuada, were on her side. They had stuck by her through it all, and she was intensely grateful to them. Arya in particular would come and talk to her at night, and keep her company. Inevitably they talked about Eragon a lot during this time, and Saphira had found that the elf's fondness for him ran deeper than she'd revealed to him. She'd been a mute and often exasperated witness during Eragon's training, when he had persisted in trying to make Arya return his infatuation with her and more often than not make himself look foolish into the bargain. Arya had given him no encouragement, but he hadn't needed much.

Still, Saphira was grateful to have her help now. 'I will try again,' she said. 'But first I must think… I will have to come up with an argument to sway him.'

'It had better be a good one,' said Elessari in an undertone.

Quite unexpectedly, Saphira swung around toward the woman, her neck arching over the heads of Arya and Nasuada, and her white fangs snapped shut a hair's breadth away from Elessari's face. Elessari fell backwards off her chair with a yelp, and Saphira withdrew, blinking serenely. 'I will go now, if I may,' she said, and without waiting for an answer she loped away from them, her claws digging deep into the dirt before she took off.

For the next few hours and into the following morning, the blue dragon kept to herself, flying in slow circles over Ellesméra, keeping to her course but for a few loops and dives when her thoughts became more turbulent. The Varden and their elvish hosts left her to her own devices, though they often glanced up at her with apprehension in their faces. They could only wait and hope that she would find a way. As for Vidar, he ignored them completely. The only creature in the valley that he paid attention to was Saphira, though he made to attempt to fly up to her. He stayed on the stony plateau he had claimed as his own, and dozed in the sunshine.

At noon that day, Saphira finally stopped her endless circuit. She descended not toward her friends in the Varden, but on Vidar's plateau. He moved back to let her land, which she did, hitting the ground with a thump and a scattering of small stones.

'Well now, Saphira,' said the black dragon before she'd even folded her wings. 'Have you made your choice?'

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'I will be your mate. But only if you agree to help us fight.'

Chapter Five

Silver Storm

Back in Teirm, where Vidar had first arrived, the remnants of the storm had caused a fair amount of damage to the city. The streets were littered with broken tiles and other detritus left there by the rainwater as it flowed toward the sea. Several ships had been dashed against the shore and damaged, gardens flattened and the metal spire on one tower melted by a lightning strike. The people were at work on repairs almost straight away, but nervously. The sky was still grey and the wind was still restless. It might not be over yet.

Their fears were soon justified. Incredibly, only two days after the storm had abated, a second one began to develop. The people saw it coming and fled back into their houses. While they cowered indoors for fear of the lightning, the howling wind brought another dragon to Alagaësia's shore. The dragon flew gracefully, letting the storm throw him up and about at random, but flicking his wings all the while and looping on the turns so that it became more of a dance in the air than a flight. Once he was well over the beach, the dragon levelled his course and disengaged his thoughts. At once the wind died down. Above, the clouds unravelled into blueness. A few sparks of lightning moved over the dragon's wings, and the storm calmed, the last of its power stirring up grains of sand on the beach and sending fragments of dried seaweed skipping up onto the dunes.

The dragon twisted lazily in midair, not troubling to keep himself hidden. He could hear the shouts of the humans in the city, and went to investigate. It was the biggest human settlement he'd ever seen. Big buildings all huddled together like a rocky outcrop, and these clifflike things that ringed them… it delighted him. The dragon circled low over the city to get a better view. When the sentries on the walls fired arrows at him, he barely felt them bouncing off his scales. One went through his wing membrane, and he flicked it irritably at the sting. The humans here looked a little different to the ones he knew, but they were humans nonetheless. He grunted and flew up and away from Teirm.

After his arrival the dragon spent several days exploring just as Vidar had done, and he was impressed by what he saw. Lush forests and majestic mountains, less harsh and barren than the landscape he had grown up in. He decided that he liked it, and on the third day he decided to sample its cuisine. He caught a three deer with ease, and perched on a clifftop to eat them. The dragon enjoyed his meal and tasted each mouthful, turning his head to savour the sun on his scales. He was silver, the colour of rainy clouds, and his eyes were sky-blue, and as he stood and crunched at the bones of his kills he remembered a face much like his own, one he had seen before he left his birthplace.

'Beware the riders and their allies, the elves,' that face had said. 'Beware of them, Skirnir. Never believe what they say… they are liars and only care about power.'

But he wasn't afraid of those creatures, whatever they were. He was ninety-five years old and large, and he was more interested in living than in worrying about the doings of mere humans – whether they had other dragons helping them or not.

Skirnir finished his meal, trying to ignore the other face that loomed large in his memory. That face was dark, and scarred, and terrible. 'Never give in, Skirnir,' it had said. 'We are the dragons of the storm, and no enemy is too powerful for us to defeat. When the sky is dark and the land ravaged, fight on. When you have lost all you loved and hoped for, fight on. If your wings are shattered, your claws blunted and your teeth fallen out, fight on. Never surrender, never stop and never let go. If you do then you are not one of us. Remember it.'

And Skirnir had promised to remember, unable to ignore or dismiss the words of the only creature in the world that he feared.

Now the silver dragon swallowed the last of his food and took off once more, this time heading North.

Galbatorix was angry. Murtagh could sense it. The King of Alagaësia strode out into the practise yard with heavy steps, his dark eyebrows drawn toward each other at the centre of his forehead. Murtagh ceased hacking at the hanging sack of straw he used as a target, and lowered his sword. 'Still not working, is it, my lord?'

'No,' said Galbatorix, sitting down tiredly on a bench. 'Not at all. I thought I had made some progress the first time, but he's still refusing to listen to me. The rebels have blinded him. All he sees when he looks at me is a monster, and all he hears when I speak is lies.'

Murtagh shrugged. 'I did warn you, my lord,' he said.

'Don't assume I forgot it,' Galbatorix growled. 'The boy is an idiot. And a stubborn one into the bargain. The worst kind. His mind simply will not be changed. He holds onto his beliefs like a drowning man clutching at straws, and nothing I say will make him change his mind.'

'Kill him, then,' Murtagh suggested.

Galbatorix shook his head. 'He's no use to me dead,' he said. 'If I handed them back his dead body, it would only make them worse. It would mean becoming exactly what they claim I always was.'

'Well then what are you going to do?' said Murtagh. He'd dropped the 'my lord' fairly quickly, Galbatorix noticed. The lad had always been disrespectful. Not that he really cared.

'I don't know,' said Galbatorix, running his fingers through his hair. 'But if you have an idea, tell me.'

'I will,' Murtagh promised.

'For now, I'm in the mood for some exercise,' said Galbatorix. 'Will you go and get my sword, please?'

'Certainly, my lord,' said Murtagh, and left the yard.

The young man entered the castle with easy, confident strides, returning his sword to its sheath on his back as he did. He walked through the corridors to the easternmost tower, and climbed the steps to Galbatorix's own chamber. It was surprisingly small, given that it belonged to the most powerful man in Alagaësia. But Galbatorix had never cared much about his own comfort. The furniture was simple; a large desk with a high-backed chair behind it and, most surprisingly, a hammock. It had cusions and a blanket on it and had clearly been slept in. That was something Murtagh would never have guessed at. It even amused him a little – that King Galbatorix of all people would sleep in a hammock. But that was the way of the world, after all – no-one was ever exactly what they appeared to be. He learnt that every day he spent with his master.

Galbatorix's white-bladed sword was hanging on the wall within reach of the hammock. Evidently he wanted to have it to hand in case someone tried to assassinate him at night. A sensible precaution indeed. Murtagh took it down from its hook, and turned to leave. As he did, his eye was caught by the desk. He went to have a look at it. The desktop was covered with neatly stacked papers, and a quill and bottle of ink were placed in front of them where Galbatorix had put them down after being interrupted in the middle of some work. The interruption had been Eragon, who'd tried to escape that morning. He'd done it three times so far, but the attempts had been fairly ineffectual. With the block in his mind still preventing him from accessing his magic, and without his sword, he was surprisingly weak. Evidently the elves hadn't taught him much about hand-to-hand combat, as he'd been easily subdued and taken back to his cell every time.

Murtagh had been rather fond of Eragon, but lately he'd started to dislike the other rider, and at the moment he was leaning toward outright contempt. On Galbatorix's request he'd tried to help persuade him to give up his attempts at revolution, but Eragon wouldn't listen. Instead he raged and cursed, threatened, pleaded or just sulked. In the end Murtagh had given up in disgust, and now he believed that there was indeed no reasoning with him. In fact, he had been impressed by how persistent Galbatorix was.

On the wall behind the desk, several items were hanging; there was a shield decorated with a dragon design, two swords belonging to riders long dead, one of which was black and the other of which was white, and a number of fairths. A fairth was a kind of magical photograph – an image captured on a piece of specially prepared slate of something the maker remembered. Murtagh looked closely at them, curious to see which of Galbatorix's memories he had decided to record. There was a picture of a human man and woman, almost certainly Galbatorix's parents, and one of a small city house which Murtagh guessed had been his childhood home. There was another of a magnificent white dragon, Galbatorix's dead partner, and one of Shruikan as a hatchling. It was the last two that puzzled Murtagh the most. One was of a different dragon; this one silver. It was slender, probably female, and was standing by a cave in a rocky landscape. Its wings were half-spread, and an expression of intense joy was on its face. The final picture was of a woman. An elvish woman. She was tall and delicately built, and though she was beautiful there was a strange wildness about her – something not quite right, something different. Murtagh couldn't quite put his finger on it, but he was certain that it went beyond the little oddities. The woman's long, tangled hair was an extraordinary metallic silver colour, and her eyes were fiery gold. Her fingers, though delicate, had bizarre gnarled claws for nails. Murtagh studied her face, wondering who on earth she could be. He had never seen anyone like her before, and he couldn't begin to guess where Galbatorix had seen her, nor why he had chosen to commemorate her like this. He considered the idea of asking him, and left the room.

Back in the practise yard, Murtagh gave Galbatorix his sword. He took it, and twirled it expertly in one hand, catching the sheath as it came off without missing a beat. Murtagh smiled. 'Very impressive, my lord.'

'Thankyou, Murtagh,' said Galbatorix. 'You're not so bad with a sword yourself. Now, what took you so long? Decided to have a good look around my room, did you?'

'Uh…' said Murtagh.

Galbatorix chuckled. 'It's only to be expected,' he said.

'King Galbatorix,' said Murtagh formally. 'If you don't mind, I'm curious about something.'

'Go on,' said Galbatorix, with an interested glance.

'I saw the fairths in your room,' said Murtagh. 'One of them was of a strange elvish woman, and I couldn't help but wonder… who is she?'

'Ah,' said Galbatorix. 'Her. She was a love of mine, a long long time ago. I met her during my exile – she had been outcast by the rider elders just as I had, and she cared for me while I was ill. Her name was Skade. I never was with another woman after she and I parted ways, you know. I swore to her that she would be the only one for me, no matter what happened.'

'So what happened to her?' said Murtagh, bemused. This was yet another side of Galbatorix he'd never seen before – his lord and master had spoken wistfully, his look faraway and dreamy.

'She left Alagaësia,' said Galbatorix, shaking his head regretfully. 'She swore she would return one day, and I've waited patiently for her ever since.'

'You waited for a century?' said Murtagh, nonplussed.

Galbatorix smiled. 'Murtagh, if you had ever been in love you would understand. I hope that one day you do.'

'I think I did like a woman once,' said Murtagh. 'I only spoke to her a few times, but I wanted to see more of her. I still do.'

'Ah, the first attraction,' said Galbatorix knowingly. 'It starts out that way for everyone. If you have the opportunity to pursue her, take it. No man should live without knowing the love of a woman at least once.'

'Or another man, sometimes,' said Murtagh, smirking.

'Quite,' said Galbatorix. 'So it's just as well I removed that particular law.'

He tossed aside the scabbard and began practising with his sword, skilfully cutting chips off a wooden dummy and not letting the weapon be still for a second. Murtagh watched for a while, then quietly moved to another part of the yard where there were archery butts. Galbatorix paused to watch the young man as he tried a few shots, and then resumed his exercise. He could sense Shruikan's mind, though faintly. The black dragon had gone out alone to hunt, and was even now flying slowly over the mountains of the Spine. Galbatorix could feel his partner enjoying the sensation of flight, and half-wished to be with him. There was nothing he liked so much as simply flying for pleasure, seeing how small the realm of men looked from above. It put things in perspective.

Galbatorix twirled his sword, watching the light play over its white blade. It reminded him of a play of light over a very similar surface, one with the same colour, and he felt his heart clench inside him like a fist. Oh, Abenadar, he thought. I can never forget you, can I?

The truth was that he never could, and he didn't try and deny it to himself. Much as he cared for Shruikan and valued the dragon's friendship, he could never forget his first dragon, his true partner. Abenadar, the magnificent white female he had bonded with when no more than sixteen years old. Galbatorix smiled sadly, remembering the sound of her voice in his head, the comforting touch of her strength against his, the feel of her scales under his hands, the mighty sweep of her white wings in the air. Somehow the memory of her led to the memory of someone else he had loved. Skade. He thought of her too, now – her solemn smile, her wild hair and fierce eyes, the gentle touch of her hands. But the wistful yearning of these memories gave way to an almost unbearable agony as he moved on, inevitably, to the cold, hard fact that he had lost both of them. Both of them, and so many others as well. Parents, friends, siblings… so many gone.

Galbatorix's face, normally impassive, twisted slightly. The sword in his hands moved faster, but those were the only signs he gave. Caught up in this, he missed the brief burst of shocked surprise that came from Shruikan.

Shruikan had spotted the deer some time ago, and had been following it, waiting for it to stray into the open. He took his time, motivated by the thrill of the hunt rather than by hunger. The black dragon drifted lazily, keeping pace with his quarry without much trouble. The ground sloped upward, and he angled his wings to catch an updraught, letting himself be carried up and toward the peak of the mountain known as the Lightning Dragon's Fang. However, Shruikan underestimated the power of the wind. It swept him up and over the mountaintop before he was ready for it, and as he halted his progress with his wings he growled in irritation. The deer was gone, somewhere on the other side of the mountain. He should've swooped on it earlier. Shruikan muttered under his breath and flew in a wide circle, trying to get his bearings. He was in a large canyon now; a flat piece of ground ringed by ragged cliffs, more than big enough for a dragon of his size to land in. Shruikan grunted and made to fly off, but then his eye was caught by something in the face of one of the cliffs, the one backed directly by the mountain he had just come over. It was a cave. A dragon's cave. Shruikan could tell straight away. He felt a twinge of excitement at the sight of it. The Spine was riddled with such caves, where the wild dragons had once lived, but they were hard to find. Everything was hard to find in the Spine, come to that. The mountains were secretive, charged with natural magic, and they kept their secrets well.

Although Shruikan had lived in cities among humans for most of his life, the cave called to him. He still retained his instincts, and they unmistakeably told him that a cave was a good place to be. So the black dragon flew straight to it without a second thought, and perched neatly at its lip. On closer inspection he could easily see that it was dragon-made. The walls were covered in deep gouge-marks from where big dragon claws had cut into the stone, and he could tell that the entire thing had probably been dug by its original inhabitants. Shruikan sniffed the air. It was still and cool, and the scent of dragons had long since faded away. Although he'd never lived wild, it gave him a little pang of nostalgia. He walked further in, the bones of ancient kills crunching under his claws, and found the space was larger than he'd thought. And then, quite suddenly, something huge loomed out of the darkness up ahead. Shruikan snarled and went into a crouch, baring his fangs in readiness to fight. The thing made no move for several seconds, and Shruikan relaxed, feeling foolish. Closer examination of the thing took his breath away.

It was a dragon. A stone dragon. Life-sized, staring straight at him through dead eyes. Shruikan had a good look at it, walking around the thing to see it from all angles. The statue was of a mature male, probably about twenty years old. He was battle-scarred, fierce-looking, with wide wings and long claws, and had been carved in a crouched posture with his head on his claws as if he were preparing to sleep. Shruikan tapped the statue's snout with his claws, and sniffed at it, wondering why anyone would make such a fine statue in this obscure place. Perhaps it had been made by one of the wild dragons – it wasn't unknown for dragons to indulge in various forms of art. But there was something about the statue that bothered him. Something. Shruikan's eyes narrowed, and a rumbling growl vibrated in his throat.

Chapter Six

Brothers

It was a bright day, with a pale sky threaded with grey cloud. And, in the sky over the Spine, two dragons flew. One was black and large, the other blue, and smaller. One male, one female. Vidar and Saphira were flying their mating flight. It was something that had not been seen for a century, and those who would find out about it later would regret that theye had not seen it. It was known as the dragon's dance, and was in fact quite a complicated and elegant thing. It looked especially wonderful when one of the participants was as gifted a flier as Saphira. She twisted and turned in the air like an eel, her slim blue form appearing yet more delicate and bright against Vidar's dark, heavy bulk. At the climax of their aerial dance they would mate.

But though most of Alagaësia missed this historic sight, there was one who did see it. A silver dragon who came flying over the mountains from the South, his blue eyes fixed on the horizon. He saw the two dragons circling, and his heart skipped a beat.

'Vidar!' he muttered aloud. It had to be him. And with a female, too.

Skirnir flew on toward them, trying not to get too close. Dragons considered it extremely rude to interrupt a mating flight. However Vidar spotted the other male, and broke away from Saphira, halting the dance. 'Skirnir!' the black dragon bellowed.

Saphira too had seen him. Skirnir flew down to perch on a mountainside, and she and Vidar followed. Vidar landed right by the silver dragon and Saphira alighted by his side. She looked Skirnir up and down, and her breath caught in her throat. His silver scales glittered in the sun, his claws were ivory white, and his eyes were sky-blue. He had a grace and a lightness that Vidar lacked, and as soon as she saw him Saphira knew. Here he was. Here was the male, that magnificent male dragon she had dreamed of for so long. Here was the mate she wanted.

'Skirnir!' said Vidar again. 'What are you doing here?'

'I found out you'd left, so I followed you,' said Skirnir. 'The old thundercloud didn't want me to, but I did anyway.'

Vidar snorted. 'The old thundercloud never wanted us to do anything unless he approved of it,' he said. 'Why did you come?'

'Simple,' said Skirnir. 'The same reason you did; I want a mate.'

Vidar scratched his horns with a claw. 'Meet Saphira,' he said, gesturing at the blue dragon who crouched timidly beside him. 'My mate. Saphira, this is my brother Skirnir.'

'Hello, Skirnir,' said Saphira, lowering her head and looking up at him with a flirtatious glance.

'You're rather small,' said Skirnir, reaching out to touch her face, 'But very pretty indeed. You're a lucky dragon, Vidar.'

'Very lucky,' said Vidar. 'Luckier than you. Saphira here is the last female remaining in Alagaësia.'

'Is this true?' said Skirnir, looking sharply at Saphira.

'Yes,' said Saphira.

'And you have chosen my brother as your mate,' Skirnir growled.

Saphira wanted to shout that it was him she wanted, but she didn't dare. Instead, she nodded silently.

'So there is only one female, and you have claimed her,' said Skirnir to Vidar in a businesslike way.

'Yes,' said Vidar smugly.

'Well then I will fight you for her,' said Skirnir, spreading his wings.

Saphira's eyes widened. 'You don't have to do that!' she exclaimed.

Vidar shot her a contemptuous look. 'You know nothing of the ways of wild dragons, Saphira,' he said. 'It is customary for males to fight for the right to mate. Watch, but do not interfere.'

Saphira backed away, not daring to object any further. But her heart beat faster at the prospect of it. And, to her horror, as the two big males began to snarl and show their teeth and claws, she found she was feeling a thrill – a deep, obscene thrill – at the idea of two powerful males fighting each other just for her.

She'd taken to speaking aloud lately, since Vidar preferred her to, but now she sent a thought to Skirnir, just for him. 'Fight well, silver dragon,' the silent whisper went. 'It is you I choose.'

'I shall,' he thought back, with a note of pride. 'You may be all there is, but you are a rare beauty.'

He took off, and Vidar with him, leaving Saphira with a glow of pride. In that moment, she had almost completely forgotten about Eragon.

Galbatorix lowered his sword. 'What does it look like?'

He listened to the response, and his surprise matched that of Shruikan.

'I know that dragon,' he said. 'You found him?'

'I found a statue of him,' said Shruikan's voice.

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'That statue is alive. A live dragon, sleeping. He has been for a long time. Come back to me, Shruikan. I want to see him for myself.'

'I'm coming,' said Shruikan.

Galbatorix paced the yard until the black dragon arrived, which wasn't long later. Shruikan had always been a fast flier. He was too large to land in the yard, but Galbatorix sensed it when he landed in the wide open space right outside the city walls, and went out to meet him, taking his sword with him and leaving Murtagh in charge. Shruikan carried him to the cave, and man and dragon both examined the statue. Galbatorix walked around it, running his fingers over the stone, his expression fascinated. 'I can't believe it,' he said. 'It's him. It's really him.'

'Who is it?' said Shruikan. 'A dragon I knew? I think… he seems familiar.'

'He should do,' said Galbatorix. 'Shruikan, it's Kullervo.'

Skirnir and Vidar fought. Like a whirlwind, they fought. If a whirlwind had teeth, claws and wings, that is. They turned over and over in the sky, locked together, their fight a mirror of the dance Vidar and Saphira had danced before. Saphira watched from the ground, fighting down the heat in her blood, but unable to ignore the lustful energy which the fight woke in her. It was the natural excitement which every female dragon feels on witnessing a mating fight in her honour; she knew that well enough. But it disturbed her all the same, and prevented her from giving herself over to it completely.

Skirnir bit at Vidar's throat, twisting his head to get a better grip. His fangs skated over the other dragon's hard scales, but found a ridge and locked in place. Vidar clawed at Skirnir's belly with his hind legs, inflicting several rows of painful gashes, then turned and flicked his neck out of his brother's grasp. Then they turned over once again, both screeching and snarling like a pair of wildcats, spitting fire and curses at each other. Flames rushed into the sky, silver and pale blue, and they parted. The two dragons flew away from each other, their wings thrashing powerfully. Then, they charged. Shooting forward like a pair of scaled comets, they slammed together in midair, claws forward, so hard that Saphira could feel the impact thudding in her chest like a second heart. They struggled again, silent now, and then they fell, parted, rose, charged again. When they struck this time, it was Vidar who fell, and Skirnir who stayed. The black dragon plummetted, head-first, his wings loose and useless like a pair of ragged banners. He hit the mountain side with a horrible thump, his body crushing a couple of trees. For a moment Saphira thought he was dead, while he lay still and Skirnir circled overhead, bellowing his victory. But then the black dragon raised his head and got up painfully, grunting. He looked at Saphira, then at Skirnir, and growled before lowering his head and flying away. Inexperienced as she was, Saphira could recognise the signals of defeat well enough. She looked up at Skirnir, and he looked back, his eyes sparkling, powerful form radiating strength and triumph.

Saphira looked back at him, and a smile slowly spread over her face. She forgot her fears and jumped into the air, flying up toward him. She reached him and flew around him, reaching toward his face, cooing deep in her throat. He reached back confidently, his heart pounding, full of adrenaline and lust. Together, completely heedless of the defeated Vidar and his defeat, Saphira and Skirnir began to dance.

'Kullervo?' said Shruikan. 'It's him?'

'Yes,' said Galbatorix. 'I'd know him anywhere.'

'He never said where he planned to go,' said Shruikan.

'Of course not,' said Galbatorix. 'He didn't trust us, did he? But now we have our answer.'

Shruikan touched the other dragon's stone face. 'What should we do, Galbatorix?' he asked. 'Do we leave him here, or is it time?'

Galbatorix thought it over. 'I'm not sure,' he said slowly. 'Kullervo is… unpredictable. If we wake him up, we risk creating another dangerous enemy. It's bad enough when we haven't properly dealt with the rebels yet.'

'And if they were to join forces with dragons…' said Shruikan.

'…then we'd be done for,' said Galbatorix. 'Yes. But there's one thing that could help us. You and I are linked, aren't we? And he won't want to risk killing you; you're his brother. Besides, we had him defeated before, didn't we?'

'He may be bitter about that,' said Shruikan.

'Even so,' said Galbatorix. 'I'm… lonely, and I miss the old days. If the wild dragons were to return, it would help convince the rebels that we are innocent of that particular crime. And besides, Shruikan, we have no right to leave them like this. The dragons are a natural part of Alagaësia, and we cannot rule justly unless we end the lies and give each race its home.'

'The wild dragons opposed our rule,' Shruikan reminded him.

'And they had some justification to do so,' said Galbatorix. 'We had, after all, destroyed the riders who were their allies. But we'll wake Kullervo and talk to him. Perhaps if he can see how the land has propered under our leadership he'll come around. We can only try.'

He reached one gloved hand toward Kullervo's stone snout.

'Galbatorix, this is foolish,' Shruikan snorted, tossing his head like a horse. 'And reckless.'

Galbatorix grinned a wild grin. 'I know,' he said. 'Exciting, isn't it?'

He touched Kullervo's snout, fingers spread, and murmured a string of words under his breath. Shruikan sensed the magic flowing out of his partner, and willingly lent his own strength to help complete the spell. Seconds ticked away and, gradually, the spell began to take effect. Cracks spread over the stone dragon's snout, like those on an egg that was hatching. A deep rumbling groan came from somewhere inside it, and Shruikan and Galbatorix moved back to watch.

Fissures opened all over the stone dragon, spreading in a branching pattern like a growing vine. Flakes of rock fell away, revealing bright orange scales underneath. When the stone dragon moved it was sudden – so sudden it took both man and dragon by surprise. One moment it was still as the statue it had been, and the next it was standing upright, shaking itself vigorously. Stone flakes fell away from it in a shower, and there he was, shivering his wings and blinking a pair of golden eyes.

Kullervo. The eyes focused on Shruikan and Galbatorix, the one standing protectively behind the other. Then they narrowed. 'You,' the dragon snarled. 'What do you want?'

Galbatorix bowed low. 'Kullervo,' he said in a low voice. 'It's good to see you again.'

'Brother,' said Shruikan, bowing his head. 'It's good to see you again.'

Kullervo growled. 'I thought I told you I never wanted to see you again.'

'That was a long time ago,' said Shruikan. 'Things have changed.'

'What hasn't changed is that you killed my rider,' said Kullervo, pointing an accusing white talon at Galbatorix. 'Don't think I can forget that, human.'

'Your rider was a liar who would have used you for your power,' said Galbatorix, unmoved in both senses of the word. 'I told you that before. In any case, it was a very long time ago and things are very different now than they were back then. I suggest you forget the past.'

Kullervo sat back on his haunches. 'If you're going to tell me you're a changed man, think again,' he said. 'You're just as weasel-tongued as you always were. Tell me; how long have I been asleep?'

'A hundred years, or just over it,' said Galbatorix. 'A long time.'

'Hm,' said Kullervo. 'No wonder you've grown so large, brother.'

'I've missed you,' said Shruikan, dipping his head briefly. 'I've missed all dragons.'

'Your punishment for siding with him,' said Kullervo.

'My punishment for taking revenge,' said Shruikan. 'But we've seen how ugly the work of revenge is, haven't we?'

'So what do you suggest?' Kullervo sneered. 'Forgiveness?'

'It would be a great help to us,' said Galbatorix. 'We can't achieve anything without it.'

'I can't forgive you for what you did,' said Kullervo. 'I'm disgusted that you dare to suggest it.'

'I agree,' said Galbatorix. 'Forgiveness is too much to ask. However, it would be wise if you could put it behind you. It's time to bring the wild dragons back.'

'I could lead them against you again,' said Kullervo.

'Yes,' said Galbatorix. 'But you don't want to do that. Not while we have your son.'

Kullervo roared, the sound making the walls shake. The flakes of fallen stone jittered over the floor, and dust fell from the roof. Even Shruikan withdrew slightly at that, but Galbatorix didn't move.

'I don't want to have to resort to threats,' he said. 'Whether you choose to believe it or not, I'm not who I used to be and I've had my fill of cowardly tactics like that. No, your son is safe and shall remain so for as long as I can ensure it.'

'Then give him back to me,' said Kullervo.

'I shall,' said Galbatorix. 'Come to Urû'baen with us, and we'll give him back. As a sign of good faith.'

Kullervo scratched the ground with his talons, leaving a series of deep grooves. 'What is it you want from me?' he said. 'And what has Alagaësia become while I've been asleep?'

'The last of the riders were gone by the time you went into hiding,' said Galbatorix. 'Or so we thought. A few of them survived. One of them… well, you knew one of them.'

'Who?' said Kullervo.

'Brom,' said Galbatorix. 'That over-eager boy who bonded with your sister.'

'The sister you killed,' said Kullervo.

'Actually, Morzan killed her,' said Galbatorix. 'In any case, Brom survived. And after one of the three eggs we had was stolen it hatched for some village brat. Brom trained him, filled his head with righteous nonsense about how evil I am and how I must be destroyed… no doubt the time he spent with the elves only reinforced that. The boy is now leader of the rebels trying to depose me.'

'And what do I care about that?' Kullervo interrupted.

'These rebels are creating civil war,' said Galbatorix. 'If they were to win this fight of theirs, chaos would follow. And Alagaësia has seen enough of that already.'

Kullervo snorted. 'Greedy, foolish creatures you humans, all of you.'

'That's as maybe, but while I rule here it's my duty to put a stop to things that hurt this country,' said Galbatorix. 'I don't wish to be thought of as a tyrant. Alagaësia needs to be healed. And if the dragons returned…'

'What we do should be none of your concern,' said Kullervo.

'Kullervo, they think I wiped out your race,' said Galbatorix. 'They blame me for the decline of magic.'

Kullervo bit back an incredulous laugh. 'They honestly believe that you – you – a mere man – destroyed us?'

'So it would seem,' said Galbatorix, sighing. 'These rebels are… well, it's been a hundred years. Rumours of my debauchery have been greatly exaggerated, and so have rumours of my powers. But if the dragons returned – and if I was seen as having helped bring it about – it would prove that I'm not the monster they claim I am.'

'We will return,' said Kullervo. 'But on our own terms. Tell the rebels what you like, but don't expect us to help you.'

'Agreed,' said Galbatorix. It was the best he could expect.

'But first you will give me back my son,' said Kullervo.

'But of course,' said Galbatorix. 'Come with us.'

Chapter Seven

Navaras

In his cell, Eragon paced back and forth. He'd been pacing a lot lately; it was the only way to stay active, and it helped keep him occupied. Galbatorix had provided him with books to read, and had offered him the freedom of the castle in return for an ancient language oath binding him not to flee, attack or sabotage. Eragon had refused, but he did read the books, and was irritated to discover that most had been selected to demonstrate what a good ruler Galbatorix was. Accounts of Alagaësian history, with detailed descriptions of its leader's words and deeds for the last century. Eragon preferred not to read those books. They had to be propaganda, doctored, untrue… he refused to believe they could be true. If they were true, then they demonstrated that he had been very wrong indeed about his enemy. According to them, Galbatorix had put down numerous violent uprisings, appointed and supported local rulers with good leadership abilities while punishing and demoting those who abused their powers. He'd also kept up good relations with neighbouring countries and apparently had kept an uneasy but peaceful truce with Surda until it began openly supporting the Varden. He had indeed dealt with plagues, using quarantines and hiring expert healers in order to contain and then cure them. In times of famine he'd distributed food to the poor and sent labourers to help plant crops. All in all, they made him look like the best thing that had happened to Alagaësia in a long time. But he had destroyed the riders and wiped out the wild dragons, and for that Eragon would never forgive him or stop fighting him.

But the fact remained that he was still a prisoner, with no immediate prospect of escape. He would not become Galbatorix's ambassador. But unless he did, he could never lead. Where was Saphira? Why had she not come to rescue him? Had she forgotten him so quickly? Eragon reached the wall, halted and stared at it. Then, suddenly, he screamed and slammed his fist into the stone. His knuckles cracked loudly, and pain shot up his arm. He nursed it and swore. His magic was locked away from him by a blocking spell in his mind, and his sword had been taken away from him. Without them, and without Saphira, he was nothing more than a helpless adolescent boy. The insignificant, weak feeling that gave him was infuriating. Suddenly, he wished he'd hit the wall harder.

What am I to do? he raged mentally. What?

Over the Spine, Skirnir and Saphira had completed their mating flight and consummated their pairing. Saphira curled up against her mate's powerful silver flank, her face caught up in a blissful smile. She had mated for the first time, and would bear eggs. She knew it with sweet certainty. Soon she would not be the last Alagaësian-born dragon left. And together, she and her young would destroy Galbatorix and bring back their country's pride. She tried to imagine Eragon's face when he heard her news.

Caught up in the joy of her mating flight, she had forgotten about the boy. But now she remembered him in the aftermath, she felt little guilt over it. She could not be constantly agonising over his plight; there was only so much she could cope with. But now she had mated with Skirnir and gained his allegiance he could help her rescue him. But first she had to rest.

She nestled into Skirnir's warm embrace, only half-awake. As the sun began to sink, she looked up to see the colours it would paint the horizon with. And thus it was that she saw the dragons.

The dragons were returning. From everywhere throughout the Spine they came. From hidden caves and forgotten valleys, from deep crevasses and lost peaks, they emerged. Males and females, young and old, their scales shimmering in every colour of the rainbow. Big and ferocious and magnificent they came, and for the first time in a hundred years the sky came alive with their roars. At their head was a big male, orange-scaled like lava, with wide wings and a strong, scarred body.

The dragons didn't seem to have any particular goal. They were everywhere, flying in all directions, some seeking out friends and relatives, others immediately setting out to hunt for food. Only the orange leader was heading in a definite direction. He flew straight over Saphira, heading North. And he was not alone. Beside him flew another dragon, the sight of whom struck fear into Saphira's heart.

'Shruikan', she whispered mentally.

'Did you say Shruikan?' said Skirnir, standing up to watch the black dragon fly overhead.

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'That is Shruikan, Galbatorix's dragon.'

'Shruikan!' Skirnir roared. He took off, so suddenly that he knocked Saphira off her claws. She recovered herself and followed him, shouting; 'Skirnir! Stop! That dragon is evil!'

Skirnir ignored him. He flew straight toward the steadily sculling Shruikan, so quickly that both he and Kullervo rounded on the silver dragon, ready to defend themselves.

Skirnir hovered in front of them, unafraid. 'Are you Shruikan?' he asked.

'I am,' Shruikan growled. 'Who are you?'

'My name is Skirnir,' said Skirnir. 'And you, Shruikan… I have three siblings and a grandfather, and you remind me of all of them.'

Shruikan just stared at him.

'Shruikan,' said Skirnir, grinning with a mouthful of fangs. 'Do you know your heritage? I think I do. You are one of the sons of Ravana.'

'You know about Ravana?' said Shruikan. Both he and Kullervo had gone tense.

'Of course I do,' said Skirnir. 'Ravana, the Night Dragon, he calls himself. He had four offspring. Saphira and Skade were the females, Kullervo and Shruikan the males.'

'How do you know that?' said Kullervo.

Skirnir snickered. He was enjoying this a great deal. 'Because,' he said, savouring the moment, 'He told me so himself. In fact, he commanded me to find his three missing young if I could. It seems I have found one of them now.'

Kullervo and Shruikan stared at Skirnir for a long time. From Shruikan's back, Galbatorix stared too. Saphira flew to Skirnir's side, staring at Shruikan with utter hatred. 'Skirnir,' she said mentally. 'This dragon is my enemy, and the man who rides him is even more so. Fight them with me! You must!'

'Be quiet, Saphira,' Skirnir replied. 'I've had enough fighting for today, and your feuds are none of my concern. This dragon is my uncle.'

That pulled the blue dragon up short. She stared aghast at the three big dragons, and the more she looked the more she saw the resemblance between them. The same protruding lower fangs. The same fierce eyes. The same long skull-spikes. The same powerful shape. She could have been looking at brothers. Saphira tried to deny it, but in spite of that she had to face the truth. I have mated with Shruikan's nephew.

The blue dragon stared a moment longer, then turned and flew away as fast as she could go. Skirnir ignored her. He was intent on his uncle, waiting for a response. Finally Shruikan said; 'You know my father? He's alive?'

'Oh yes,' said Skirnir. 'I spoke to him only a few days ago. He's got a bad temper, but he's alive.'

'Where is he?' said Kullervo.

'My birthplace. A long way away,' said Skirnir. 'And you, orange dragon… who are you?'

'I am Kullervo,' said Kullervo. 'And you have a lot of explaining to do, Skirnir.'

'Not here,' Galbatorix interrupted, speaking for the first time. 'Come with us, and we'll speak at my home.'

'If you insist,' said Skirnir.

Shruikan and Kullervo flew on, and the silver dragon went with them.

They were returning, the dragons were returning… in a locked and guarded chamber in Galbatorix's fortress, below ground where few could find it, a heap of large, brightly-coloured stones lay piled in a secret compartment. Each one was about the size of a melon and had a hard, smooth surface. The stones' hiding place was padded with soft cloth, and they themselves were covered in dust. The stones were in all different colours; some were blue, some red, some brown or purple, three of them were green, four silver, others were gold or white and two were black. Every egg was chased with pale veins and had a polished, shiny surface. They were dragon's eggs. But only one was real.

Galbatorix had had the decoy eggs carved and polished, and had added the veins and various other illusory signs with magic. It was only good sense, after the theft of Saphira's egg several decades earlier. If any thief managed to break into the treasury – which would involve fighting their way past dozens of guards and defeating numerous defensive spells, not to mention finding the secret compartment – they would have a hard time deciding which egg was real and be unable to carry all of them. Galbatorix had been rather proud of that idea. However, if any thief had been looking at the eggs at that moment, the decoy wouldn't have worked. One of the eggs was moving.

A green egg rolled off the top of the pile and hit the inside of the panel which hid it from view. There, wedged between the panel and one of the false eggs, it started to rock back and forth vigorously. Flakes of shell fell away and, after much more rocking and a series of determined squeaks, the egg split apart and the baby dragon was free. It sprawled over the heap of fake eggs, panting from its exertions. The hatchling was male, and his body and floppy limbs were all as bright green as his egg.

He rested for a time, and then opened his eyes. There wasn't much point; the secret compartment where he'd hatched was pitch black. There was only the faintest hint of light coming from around the edges of the panel, and even then he could only see it because his eyes were adapted to pick up even the scarcest of light-sources. The hatchling chirped loudly, the plaintive, piping sound meant to summon his mother. But no-one heard and no-one came. The hatchling whined sadly and sought about for something to help it get its bearings. It was drawn to the light from the top of the panel, where the seal was weak, and began clawing at it, trying to find a way through. The panel was firmly held in place, but dragon hatchlings are surprisingly strong for their size. This one growled and began battering at the wooden wall that kept him prisoner, and when that didn't work he jammed his front talons into the chink at the top and began levering at it. In the end that worked; there was a loud cracking sound, a thump, and the panel broke free and fell out onto the floor. It took the hatchling by surprise, and he fell out and landed sprawled on top of it. The treasury was dim and musty, the only light in it coming from under the door. But by it he could make out his surroundings well enough. The room was full of treasure. Gold, jewels and valuable items of various kinds. There were several fortunes in that room, or so any human who saw it would estimate. The hatchling, however, just saw a lot of strange shiny rocks. Something else he couldn't recognise were the swords that hung on the walls. Riders' swords. Dozens of them. Galbatorix had saved every one.

The hatchling sniffed around for a while and then made for the door, where the air was sweeter. There was a fairly sizeable gap at the bottom, and he squeezed through it without much difficulty. There was a large contingent of guards outside; two by the door, others at both ends of the corridor, and more patrolling in between. Galbatorix was taking no chances. The hatchling had no idea what these big creatures were, but he was afraid they might be dangerous and so he crept away along the wall, pressing his flank against it and trying not to let his wings trail in the dirt. He was nearly at the end of the corridor when he was spotted.

'What the-?'

The green hatchling didn't hesitate. He ran for it.

Eragon had given up his pacing and was sitting on his bunk and staring at his hands when he heard a commotion outside his cell. He stood up and hurried to the door, and put his face to the bars in time to see several men run past. They were Galbatorix's guards; he recognised their uniforms. They paid no attention to him and ran on by, shouting to each other. For some reason, that enraged him. He was sick of being ignored. He watched them disappear off down the corridor, and sat back down, his head in his hands. He wished those guards had been chasing after him. He would have given them a run for their money.

About ten minutes later, he heard a strange clicking sound coming from near the door. He looked around sharply, and saw something that nearly made his heart stop beating. A dragon hatchling. A green dragon hatchling. No bigger than Saphira had been on that magical night when she hatched just for him, and bright green like fresh spring leaves. The hatchling was trying to squeeze through the bars, and his claws were tapping on the rusted steel as he gripped it and finally forced his little body through and into the cell. Eragon nearly leapt over to him, which made the hatchling take fright. He squeaked and darted underneath the bunk. Eragon smiled and crouched to look at him. The hatchling stared back balefully through a pair of golden eyes, his small form huddled against the wall.

Eragon reached out with his mind. 'Hello, little one,' he said. 'My name is Eragon Shadeslayer. Who are you?'

He could sense the hatchling's fear and suspicion, but he calmed him with his mind and after several nervous starts he answered. 'My name is Navaras,' said the hatchling. 'I am a dragon. What creature are you?'

'I'm human. I'm a rider,' said Eragon.

'A rider?' said Navaras.

'A dragon-rider,' Eragon explained. 'I am bonded with a dragon. What are you doing here, Navaras?'

'I want to find my mother,' Navaras answered. 'Do you know where she is?'

Eragon hesitated; how was he going to explain this? After a moment's consideration he decided not to. 'No,' he said. 'I don't know. But I can help you get out of here if you'll help me.'

'Where is here?' said Navaras.

'This is Urû'baen, the fortress of my enemy and our captor, King Galbatorix,' said Eragon.

'A human?'

'Yes.'

'I want to leave this place,' said Navaras eventually. 'Show me the way, Eragon human.'

'I cannot leave this cell,' said Eragon. 'I need your help, Navaras. You must bring me something that can get me out of here.'

Navaras emerged cautiously from his hiding-place. Eragon reached out toward him, and the green dragon sniffed his fingers. 'I can smell dragon on you,' he said. 'Old, but there. What is it you need? I will bring it if I can.'

'A key,' said Eragon, projecting an image of one into the hatchling's mind. 'If you can't find it, then a thin piece of metal about the same size should work. Or just bring me a weapon.'

'Weapon?'

'My sword,' said Eragon, providing an image of it. 'Or a dagger… anything, really. Can you do that?'

'I will try,' said Navaras.

'Try hard,' said Eragon.

Navaras stared balefully at him and left, slipping through the bars and scuttling off down the corridor.

It was a long, agonising wait for Eragon after his new friend's departure. He paced once again, faster and faster, trying desperately to rid himself of his soul-bending tension. He thought of Arya. Normally that was enough to distract himself, but this time it didn't work. Finally he sat down again on the bunk and flicked almost frantically through one of the books stacked on the pillow.

In the Year of the Turning Clouds, several rebels kidnapped a valuable aide of King Galbatorix. After they resorted to torturing their captive, a well-planned attack resulted in their capture. All were found guilty of treason, kidnapping, extortion and grievous bodily harm and were humanely executed. Their widows and orphans were compensated.

During the Year of Broken Mountains, King Galbatorix dug deep into his own treasury and nearly bankrupted himself in an attempt to provide for the inhabitants of Teirm after a disastrous trade year due to freak storms which wrecked several merchant vessels…

'Lies!' Eragon screamed, abruptly hurling the book across the room where it smacked into the wall.

It was shortly after this that Navaras returned. To Eragon's astonishment he brought, not a key, but the blue-bladed sword which had been taken from him. The hatchling was dragging it along the floor, holding the hilt in his mouth. Reaching the cell door, he pushed it awkwardly through the bars. Eragon grabbed it and twirled the bright blade expertly in his hands, his face suddenly wrapped in a rapturous grin. The sword Íssbrandr, whose name meant 'ice-blade', once the weapon of his mentor, Brom. Eragon had found it buried under a tree in Ellesméra, and carried it in place of Zar'roc, the sword which Murtagh stole from him. It had served him well, and now it would do so again. Eragon lifted Navaras into his arms and hugged him joyfully. The dragon didn't like that. He wriggled free, scratching Eragon's arms, and dropped to the floor, hissing.

Eragon chuckled. 'Be calm,' he said. 'I am grateful to you. How did you find this?'

'It was hanging from a wall,' said Navaras. 'In a room not so far from here. I followed its scent.'

'You are a resourceful dragon, Navaras,' said Eragon. 'You should be proud of yourself.'

Navaras snorted. 'What would you have me do now?'

'Can you lead the guards here?' said Eragon. 'If you do, I will fight them and we can escape.'

'As you wish,' said Navaras, and left.

Once the hatchling came back, fleeing this time into Eragon's cell with several guards on his tail, it didn't take long for him to deal with them once they'd opened the door. Eragon stepped over the bodies, sword in hand, and exited his cell at last, Navaras following on his heels.

There were many guards in the castle, but they were no match for a master swordsman like Eragon. He recklessly fought his way past six of them before he reached the door leading to the open air, which he kicked open before finding himself in the training yard. Luckily for him Murtagh had departed by then, and the yard was deserted. Eragon stood in the middle of it with Navaras crouched by his side, and began to call out mentally.

'Saphira. Saphira, where are you? I need you!'

There was no answer. She was either too far away or could not hear him for some other reason. Eragon looked up despairingly at the darkening sky. And thus he saw the dragons.

Chapter Eight

Reunions

As Galbatorix, seated on Shruikan's back, approached Urû'baen, his mind was full to bursting with speculation. He had never anticipated something like this. Shruikan's father was alive, and this Skirnir knew him. He had itched to hear the explanation straight away, but practicality had won over. Urû'baen was a safer place to talk, and if he had chosen to remain where he was he risked attack from any of the wild dragons who still had a grudge against him. He touched the hilt of his sword for reassurance as Shruikan came in to land at the top of the Easternmost tower, where a roost had been built especially for him. Kullervo landed somewhat clumsily on the wall by the tower, and Skirnir took up station beside him.

'Now,' said Galbatorix once they were settled. 'Skirnir, is it? Tell us how you know Ravana.'

Skirnir shuffled his wings. 'I was born in a land far from here,' he said. 'Over the sea to the West.'

'You came from over the sea?' said Kullervo, astonished.

'Yes,' said Skirnir. 'My mother went there to lay her eggs. I grew up there and the only dragons I knew were my mother, my siblings and Ravana. But I grew restless and came to Alagaësia to search for a mate. I found one, as you saw.'

'Ah, yes. Saphira,' said Galbatorix. 'Eragon will probably be unimpressed.'

'Eragon?' said Skirnir.

'Saphira is a rider's dragon, didn't she tell you that?' said Shruikan.

'No, she didn't,' said Skirnir. He flexed his claws. 'My mother taught me a dragon with a rider is a dupe. But young Saphira did strike me as rather naïve… it doesn't matter; she's beautiful and strong and I like her for that.'

'Enough about her,' said Kullervo. 'What about Ravana?'

Skirnir shrugged. 'He taught me most of what I know,' he said. 'He told me Alagaësia was a treacherous place.'

'That's true enough,' Galbatorix muttered.

'But what about you, Skirnir?' said Shruikan. 'Why did your mother leave here? What is her name?'

Skirnir paused. 'Her name is Skade,' he said at length. 'She is silver, like myself.'

All three of his listeners started violently at that. 'Skade!' said Kullervo.

'Yes,' said Skirnir. 'Your sister. She told me about you. She never knew she had a second brother, but Ravana told her about you, Shruikan. All they knew was that you were lost.'

'Skade,' said Galbatorix, as if he had never heard the name before. 'Is she alive? Is she well?'

Skirnir nodded. 'Alive and healthy. Larger than I am, of course. She's still with her father and my sisters.'

'And your own father?' said Galbatorix in a low voice. 'Who was he?'

'I never knew him,' said Skirnir. 'My mother told me he was dark and passionate, and that he lived in Alagaësia. One reason I came here was to find him.'

Galbatorix sighed. 'Your siblings,' he said. 'What about them? What are they like?'

Skirnir was mildly surprised that the human should be interested in this, but he obliged anyway. 'I have a brother and three sisters,' he said. 'I was the only silver hatchling. Balisong, Katana and Vidar are black like you, Shruikan. And my sister Lifrasir is dark blue. Vidar came here a few days before me, but I won Saphira from him and he went off in a sulk.'

Silence followed Skirnir's words, a thoughtful silence. Kullervo was remembering his sister's fierce, protective face and wondering why he hadn't recognised it in Skirnir before. Shruikan was feeling a kind of sad joy at the thought that he was not, after all, the only black dragon in the world, and pondering on whether he would ever meet the father he had missed all his life. Galbatorix was the one who showed the least reaction but who, underneath, was the most emotional. So Skade had betrayed him. She had chosen someone else, some dragon to be her mate. But he supposed he could not blame her. There was no way he could have fathered offspring by her, and if that was what she truly wanted… but it hurt all the same. To his dismay, he found himself biting back a sob. He tried to breathe calmly.

'Your mother,' he said, and was dismayed once again when he realised his voice had gone husky. 'Is she coming back here as well?'

'I don't know,' said Skirnir, shrugging. 'I never told her I was going.'

For some reason this careless response made Galbatorix angry. 'You abandoned her,' he said, more loudly than he'd intended.

Kullervo and Shruikan both stared at him, their expressions bewildered.

Galbatorix fought himself back under control. 'What are you going to do now?' he demanded of Skirnir, who was now grooming his claws with a bored expression.

'Do?' said Skirnir blankly. 'What I choose to do, I think. Find a home, watch my young grow up. I'll probably find other mates in time… what business is it of yours?'

'It's his business because he rules this land,' Shruikan growled.

'You may rule men, but you do not rule dragons,' Kullervo interrupted. 'Give me back my son, and I will resume my leadership as peacefully as I can manage.'

Galbatorix sighed. He was about to answer the orange dragon, but he happened to glance down at the practise yard below. He saw Eragon, and his initial surprise quickly gave way to exasperated amusement. The boy was actually trying to climb the wall to get at him. He'd retrieved his sword somehow and had it strapped across his back, and his face had that recklessly angry look that Galbatorix had become wearily accustomed to.

Shruikan, Kullervo and Skirnir were looking too. 'That stupid boy again,' Shruikan muttered.

'Who is he, Shruikan?' asked Kullervo.

'The new leader of the rebels,' said Shruikan.

Skirnir laughed out loud. 'He doesn't look so fearsome to me,' he said. 'He's even smaller than you, Galbatorix.'

'Why is he trying to climb the wall?' said Kullervo. 'Is he trying to attack you? No, he can't be trying to do that. No human would be so stupid.'

'Don't be so certain about that,' said Galbatorix, massaging his forehead with his fingertips.

'But there are bows over there,' said Kullervo. 'Why not use those?'

'I suspect he didn't think of it,' said Galbatorix, watching the young rider's slow progress toward them. 'He doesn't have much imagination.'

Kullervo grunted and turned away dismissively. 'I don't have any more time to waste,' he said. 'Where is my son?'

'Look, there's a dragon down there,' said Skirnir, indicating the yard. 'See? A hatchling. Green.'

Galbatorix followed the silver dragon's gaze, and saw Navaras crouched by the base of the wall. 'The last egg hatched,' he remarked. 'Odd. I'd been trying to get it to hatch for a rider, but it wouldn't. Well, if he won't choose a rider he's free to join you, Kullervo.'

'Enough!' Kullervo roared. 'Galbatorix, where is my son?'

Galbatorix turned to face the orange dragon. 'He's-,' he began. He looked at something behind Kullervo, paused, and said; '-Over there.'

Kullervo turned. Something big shot straight overhead, and as he ducked he saw a young dragon, blue, flying straight downward past him. Hot on her heels was another dragon a little smaller than her. Red. Male. And with a rider on his back.

'Thorn!' Kullervo shouted, leaping into the air.

The blue dragon knew where she was going. She fell from the sky, the inner wall of the yard rushing past her in a blur of stone. In the instant before she hit the ground she neatly plucked her rider from where he clung and swooped upwards, holding him safe in her claws. Thorn snarled and went in pursuit, but a voice rang in his head as he did; 'Thorn,' it shouted. 'Come back here. Leave them.'

Thorn turned back reluctantly, and saw two adult dragons flying toward him. One was Shruikan, and the other was an orange male he'd never seen before. 'My lord,' he growled, to Shruikan. On his back, Murtagh inclined his head respectfully toward Galbatorix. 'How can we let him go, my lord?' he demanded almost immediately.

'Calm down,' said Galbatorix. 'He's no threat. We defeated him easily enough before and we can do it again if need be. It's Thorn I want to talk to.'

'Yes?' said Thorn.

'Thorn, this is your father,' said Galbatorix, gesturing toward Kullervo. 'Kullervo, leader of the wild dragons.'

'Father?' said Thorn wildly, staring at Kullervo.

'Thorn,' said Kullervo. 'Is that really you?'

'Yes, Father, it is,' said Thorn. 'But… how can this be? Why are you here? I thought-,'

'I was in hiding,' said Kullervo. 'Along with the rest of our kind. But now we have returned. Thorn… son. It's good to see you. The last time I saw you you were in your egg. But now you're big and powerful. One day, perhaps, you'll be as great as your grandfather was.'

'Thankyou, Father,' said Thorn.

'So,' said Kullervo. 'You have chosen a rider.'

'Yes, Father,' said Thorn. 'His name is Murtagh, and he is worthy.'

'I trust your judgement,' said Kullervo. 'I had a rider once, you know. Her name was Einás… she was an elf. But we weren't bonded for long,' he added, looking at Galbatorix with hatred.

'Ancient history,' said Galbatorix. 'Murtagh – as you heard, the wild dragons have returned. We have things to discuss. Thorn, Kullervo, would you like some time together on your own? I imagine you have a lot to talk about.'

'Yes, thankyou, my lord,' said Thorn.

'Well, then,' said Galbatorix. 'Let us descend.'

The two dragons did so, returning to the wall where both Galbatorix and Murtagh dismounted. As they did so, they realised that Skirnir had gone. 'That dragon is too self-absorbed for his own good,' Galbatorix remarked. 'He's probably gone to find Saphira. No doubt he'll have a hard time justifying himself to her.'

Sitting on Saphira's back again after so long in captivity brought joy to Eragon's heart. He snuggled down in the gap between her shoulders as if he were trying to burrow his way inside her, and sighed as the wind ruffled his hair with its cool fingers.

'Saphira,' he said. 'Saphira, I missed you so much.'

'And I missed you, little one,' she replied. 'Did Galbatorix hurt you?'

'No,' said Eragon, feeling a curious reluctance to say so. 'No, he never did. He only talked.'

'And what did he say?'

'All kinds of things,' said Eragon. 'Things I never expected.'

'He tried to win you to his side?'

'Y – I'm not sure. But he did want me to work for him.'

Saphira growled. 'He should have known you never would.'

That pleased Eragon. 'Yes, he should have. But he surprised me. He said he wanted me to be his ambassador.'

'His what?'

'His ambassador to the Varden. To negotiate a peace treaty.'

'A trick,' said Saphira.

'Maybe,' said Eragon. 'Or maybe he was serious.'

'But what could that mean?'

'It could mean that he's desperate,' said Eragon. 'Maybe our efforts are paying off, and he can't continue the war any longer. Why else would he be so interested in making a peace treaty? He claimed it was because war is destructive and he wants Alagaësia to be peaceful and prosperous. But he must have been lying. He doesn't care about our welfare; he's a tyrant. And we must destroy him, Saphira.'

'Yes, of course,' said Saphira.

There was an extended silence.

Finally Saphira said; 'I have news, little one.'

'Oh, yes,' said Eragon quickly. 'How is the Varden? And how are you?'

'The Varden is well enough, but missing your leadership,' said Saphira, knowing Eragon would like to hear that last part.

'So there have been no attempts to usurp my position?'

'No,' said Saphira. 'I took it.'

'You? You led the Varden?'

'As well as I could, yes,' said Saphira. 'Ellessari objected, but I… persuaded her.'

Eragon was silent.

'Eragon, I have news,' said Saphira.

'Yes? What news?'

'I have found a mate.'

'You have?' said Eragon, taken aback. 'Who? When?'

'His name is Skirnir,' said Saphira. 'A silver dragon. Very strong. He fought for me.'

'Did he win?'

'Yes,' said Saphira, after a short pause. 'Do you approve of this?' she added in a rush.

'I trust your judgement,' said Eragon.

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'Yes, of course you do.'

'The dragons,' said Eragon, missing the unhappiness hiding behind her words. 'Where did they all come from, Saphira? How can this be possible?'

'The wild dragons have returned.'

Eragon's heart leapt. 'All of them?'

'Yes. I saw them emerging from the Spine with my own eyes.'

'But… how? Galbatorix killed them all!' said Eragon.

'It would seem we were mistaken about that,' said Saphira.

'Perhaps they will help us fight,' said Eragon.

'We'll have to send emissaries to them and find out,' said Saphira, banking to avoid a flock of birds.

'Of course,' said Eragon.

'Better still, we could go ourselves,' said Saphira.

'Good idea.'

Chapter Nine

Dragons and Romance

It was six months since the return of the dragons, and another sunset bloomed on the horizon. Ellesméra's inhabitants were preparing the evening meal, and the sentries posted on the surrounding mountaintops saw a large blue dragon approaching. A call went up; Eragon had returned.

Saphira landed neatly on her favourite plateau, and Eragon jumped down. He landed heavily and immediately dropped into a sitting position and thumped his fist on the ground. 'Another wasted trip,' he swore. 'What's wrong with them?'

'They are proud,' said Saphira. She shifted uncomfortably; her flanks were quite visibly swollen from her pregnancy.

'Proud?' Eragon exclaimed. 'What have they to be proud of? They're cowards!'

'At least they refused to side with Galbatorix as well,' said Saphira. 'Kullervo hinted he was trying to persuade them.'

'And you're certain Skirnir won't help us?'

Saphira shook her head silently. Skirnir had more-or-less vanished from her life since their brief pairing. He had only met Eragon once, and had been outright rude to him, scorning him for his youth and also for the fact that he shared names with the first rider who had wronged Skirnir's grandfather. He had shown interest in staying with Saphira and helping her raise their young, but she had refused him because of his ancestry and his treatment of Eragon. 'If you will not accept my rider and bonded partner, then I won't have you,' she'd said, full of contempt and righteous anger. They had argued briefly and Skirnir had left, and thereafter she never saw him again.

In a way she was glad about that, but she had an inexplicable sense of shame over their parting as well. She would lay her eggs in a matter of days, and when they hatched they would be without a father.

There was little point in discussing this with Eragon; the closest he had ever come to finding a mate was his infatuation with Arya. He seemed to think it was true love; in reality it was little more than an adolescent infatuation. At first Saphira had found it amusing; now it was becoming just plain irritating.

But she could hardly disapprove of his anger right at that moment. Far from becoming the extra strength they needed to win the war, the wild dragons had proved absolutely useless. Though Kullervo was acknowledged as their leader by most of them, they were a disorganised race. Dragons do not adapt well to hierarchy and authority; being fiercely individual and rebellious by nature. So while they respected Kullervo they tended to look to him as an example rather than simply bowing to his every whim. Faced with Eragon and Saphira's pleas to aid them against Galbatorix, most simply laughed. Others claimed that Alagaësia had been doing perfectly well under his leadership for a century anyway, something which Eragon particularly resented. And besides which, as many of them pointed out, Galbatorix was a leader of men, not dragons, and whether he continued to be so or not was none of their business or concern. Even Kullervo, though he had ample reason to despise Galbatorix, wasn't interested in joining with the Varden.

'Shruikan is my brother,' the orange dragon had said. 'I will not fight him. Besides which, what have either of you done to earn my trust or respect?'

Neither of them could come up with an answer to this which satisfied him. Although Kullervo had once had a rider, he had been no friend of the old leadership of riders and rider elders, and in fact claimed that they had once unjustly imprisoned himself and his rider and cruelly punished his sister. Eragon wished he were as eloquent and persuasive as Galbatorix, but the truth was that he was not and never would be.

'If I had his snake's tongue, I could make them help us,' he said now, grinding his teeth.

'Perhaps, but you don't,' said Saphira, suddenly sharp. 'So put it out of your mind, little one. We have other things to think of.'

'Like what?' said Eragon.

'Like my eggs,' said Saphira. 'Had you forgotten them?'

'No, of course not,' said Eragon, standing up. 'I suppose we can hope that they will help us win.'

Saphira growled. 'They are my children, Eragon. Not just tools to help you win against Galbatorix.'

'No, I didn't mean-,'

'Eragon, I'm tired,' said Saphira. 'Tired of this war. The longer it goes on the more it feels like a farce. Do we even know what we are fighting for?'

'We're fighting for freedom,' said Eragon.

'But if Galbatorix is destroyed and another ruler chosen, will humankind be free then?' said Saphira. 'And don't speak to me of honour and justice. The more I see of life the less certain I am that these things even exist.'

'They must do!' said Eragon. 'If they don't, why do we bother staying alive?'

Saphira shook her head like a horse worrying at flies. 'It seems to me they are as intangible as the gods of the dwarves, and Oromis told us they don't exist. If there are no gods because there is no proof of their existence, then honour and justice may as well be unreal as well.'

'Maybe, but I'll still live by them,' Eragon said stubbornly.

'Wilful ignorance,' Saphira muttered, too quietly for him to hear. She rolled over onto her side and said no more, feeling her eggs shift inside her. Soon, my loves. Soon.

Night, and a silver half-moon floated over the sea like an eye lidded with grey clouds. A light breeze blew over the sea, some way North from where Vidar and Skirnir had landed. And that was where a third dragon appeared, gliding over the waves in near-silence. A reflection wavered beneath it, rippling with the water, while above the moonlight played over wings the colour of storm-clouds. This dragon was much larger than either Vidar or Skirnir, and shone a ghostly silver in the starlight.

The silver dragon flew wearily, so low her talons nearly skimmed the water. Once the beach was below her she landed on it, clumsily flopping onto her stomach with her legs folded underneath her. She stayed like that for several minutes, her flanks expanding and contracting like a bellows. She tried to keep her head proudly raised, but it slumped onto the sand and she let it lie there, mouth slightly open.

Forgetting common sense in her exhaustion, she slept where she lay and didn't wake up until several hours later. When she did she felt refreshed and prepared to set out once again. She took to the air as dawn began to lighten the horizon, her flight steady and confident.

Alagaësia had changed a lot. For one thing, there were more humans in it. She flew over several cities that she didn't recognise, and all of them were large and bustling. The little two-legged creatures were everywhere. She saw them sailing ships, planting crops, herding cattle, building houses. They stopped what they were doing and gestured when they saw her overhead, and she could hear them shouting – whether in fear, awe or anger she couldn't tell. She stayed away from them for the most part, although she did steal a couple of cows when she felt hungry. She knew precisely where she was going.

She was glad to see that there were plenty of dragons around; she spotted several of them from a distance, and when she passed over the Spine she encountered a green male who emerged to drive her away from his territory. He was only a fraction of her size, however, and retreated when she snapped her teeth at him. Chuckling, she continued on her way. She reached the far side of the Spine, and turned North.

She reached her goal, sure enough, and for some reason she felt no shock or surprise on seeing it. Instead, she felt a strange inevitability settling into her chest. The little village that had once been there was gone. All that was left were ruins, half-buried in mud and ash. The silver dragon landed in what had once been the square, and began picking her way through the wreckage. Nothing was left. Of the houses, only the stone foundations remained. Everything else was charred, shattered timber and the odd animal bone. The dragon felt little sorrow over the village's fate. She was a little surprised it had lasted this long before its destruction, and could only wonder what had caused it. Had it been a rampaging dragon, or an attack by other humans?

She walked through to the forest behind the ruins; that, at least, was still there. Up a slope she went, past trees that were far bigger than she remembered, and to the base of a great cliff that marked the very edge of the mountains. Her heart pounding, she began to follow the cliff's base, searching for something. It wasn't there. Or so she thought at first. She found it in the end, through a combination of scent and memory. A rock-fall had buried it some time ago. The dragon sniffed around the heap of shattered stone, and then began to dig. Thrusting her claws into the heap, she shoved aside man-sized boulders as if they were nothing, shovelling the soil off to both sides with powerful sweeps of her forepaws. Once she had cleared part of it she climbed on top and began using her hind claws as well, pushing back what her fore claws dislodged, her tail lashing behind her.

At last her work paid off, and her reaching snout broke through into the space beyond. The dragon clawed almost frantically at the rock and soil around her head, enlarging the gap. The rock-heap collapsed beneath her, boulders rolling away down the sides, and there it was. A large cave in the cliff, edged with jagged stone, its interior dark and damp.

The silver dragon entered without hesitation. The cave was smaller than she remembered, but she fit into it easily enough. She stood in the middle of the floor, looking around. The cave was very old, and evidently the blockage she'd cleared hadn't been enough to keep out spiders, for the roof and walls were festooned with thick webs. The cave was wet, with puddles of water on the floor and moss and lichen growing around the entrance. The dragon sniffed around in the corners, her breath making the spiderwebs drift gently back and forth. There were signs of habitation. On the floor by her paw was a little heap of old charcoal, and the roof above it was darkened by smoke. A stack of earthenware jars stood against one wall, one lying shattered on the floor. By the opposite wall were the rotted remains of some woollen blankets, so weakened that when she touched them with her snout they disintegrated into threads.

The silver dragon stared at those threads for a long time, feeling an ache in her throat. Had it really been so long?

'Where is he?' she whispered aloud. 'Where did they go?'

The only answer was the lonely whisper of the wind.

Ellesméra, that same night. Saphira, curled up on the plateau where she had taken to sleeping, woke up to the cry of an owl. Her ice-blue eyes snapped open, and for a while she lay still, trying to remember where she was. Reality came back, and she raised her head and yawned widely. A still night, she thought, looking over the slumbering elvish settlement. Bathed in moonlight as it was, it had a strangely ethereal look. Eragon was down there in his rich quarters, probably asleep. Saphira sometimes wished he would sleep against her flank as he'd done back in the day when they were out in the world together, but he preferred to sleep indoors like an ordinary human and didn't seem aware of whether she might be lonely.

Saphira sighed and scratched the side of her neck with a claw, and that was when she realised that something was wrong. She winced and rolled over onto her side. There was a glow of damp heat around her face and neck, and a prickly shiver ran down her spine. Heat was in her belly as well, a painful, aching heat. She moaned softly, and the squeezing began. Quite suddenly, her body seemed to have a mind of its own. It contracted, her muscles closing in over her bones so powerfully that she feared they would crush her organs. Saphira clutched at her lower belly, some desperate notion of holding herself together rushing through her brain. What's going on? her mind screamed. Am I dying?

And then there was only pain, and fear, and a terrifying feeling as if a giant hand had wrapped itself around her middle and was trying to squash her to death. She stood up, half-spreading her wings as if thinking she could fly away from the ordeal that was beginning. But weakness spread through her and she slumped back, groaning. Her hind legs scrabbled at the ground, gouging the stone, the pain peaked, and she felt something slide out of her. She turned feebly to look, but then there was a second push, and a second object expelled. After that they came thick and fast. One, two, three, and then it was over and she was left exhausted as the pain slowly receded. She raised herself with difficulty, and there they were. Her eggs, glistening in the faint light, lying in a little pile where she had laid them. She gently scooped them toward her with a foreclaw, and froze, staring in shock.

There were five eggs. And every single one of them was black as night.

For a long time she could only stare at them, appalled. During those few seconds, all her dreams came crashing down around her. Her eggs, the clutch she had carried inside her and felt such love for… they had been these black-shelled abominations all along.

'What have I done?' she whispered aloud.

It was Skirnir's blood that had done it. He had tainted her, tainted her young, planted these unborn monsters inside her and, in that, ruined everything she held dear. This was not the joyous moment she had longed for. She was not, after all, the mother of a new race of dragons. The dragons had never been gone, and now she was just one among thousands. And her eggs could not bring new hope to the rebels. No-one, elf or human, would even consider bonding with a dragon that came from an egg like this. Not one who was worthy of riderhood, anyway. What would the Varden think, if she offered these up? They would blame her – would despise her for choosing such a mate and bearing such offspring. But if she hid them away, questions would be asked.

Saphira felt slow tears trickling down her face. And that was when another contraction came. She stayed standing with difficulty, and let her body push out one last egg. This one came easily and with little pain. After it came a rush of fluid, and then the laying was finally over. Saphira turned to see the last egg, and her heart leapt. It was silver. Bright, beautiful silver. She took it in her claws and clutched it to her chest, ignoring the other five, and began to cry.

It was some time later, when dawn began to glow on the horizon, and Saphira's tears ran out. She had slept a little, then cried again when she awoke and found the black eggs had not been a dream. Now, feeling a little stronger, she began to act, every movement clumsy and feverish. She gathered the black eggs in her claws, taking two in one fore claw and the remaining three in her hind claws. The silver egg she wrapped securely in her remaining foreclaw and, balancing awkwardly on her heels and tail, she took flight. Up into the mountains she went, up and away from Ellesméra. She flew to a place called the Stone of Broken Eggs, where dragon caves peppered the stone. She passed through a canyon and chose one cave in particular, one whose very air still reeked of anger and shame. There she landed, and carefully put the silver egg down by the entrance. The others she placed in a heap in the centre of the floor. There she flexed her claws and began to dig, frantically, ripping into solid rock as if it were nothing. Down and down she dug, until she had created a deep, round hole big enough for a man to sit in. Then she left the cave and returned carrying a mouthful of branches. She thrust them into the hole, crushing them into the bottom with her snout. Then she turned to look at the black eggs, lying so innocently on the cave floor, the very embodiment of shame. Slowly, almost tenderly, she lifted them in her claws one by one, sniffing at them. Her sense of smell, combined with her telepathic senses, told her the gender of each hatchling and informed her that all were healthy. Three of the black eggs were male, and two female.

'I cannot keep you,' she whispered to them. 'You would shame me for the rest of my life, and none of my friends would ever accept you. I cannot give you my love. All I can give you are names, and after that you must fend for yourselves.'

The first of the eggs was female. 'Dreyri. Blood.'

And the second as well. 'Myrkr. Dark.'

The first male. 'Hrafn. Raven.'

The second, 'Skömm. Shame.'

And the last male; 'You are Valdyr. Wolf.'

As she picked up each egg and named it, she placed it in the pit. And when she was done she piled small stones on top, burying the eggs as deeply as she dared. She could only hope that they would never be uncovered.

Once she was done she turned away from the little heap of stone to her last remaining egg. No. My only egg, she insisted to herself. The others no longer exist. They are not mine.

The silver egg looked very lonely sitting there all by itself, but it was so beautiful with the rising sun behind it, and her heart swelled with love. She picked it up, feeling the smooth, hard shell against her scales. So beautiful. So precious. She scented its shell, and knew that it was a daughter. My only daughter.

'I will name you,' she breathed. 'You are Vervada. That was my mother's name, now it is yours. Vervada. Storm-cleaver. Daughter of Saphira. You are mine, little one. My love.'

Chapter Ten

Father

Eragon was up and about early in the morning, not because he felt like a nice brisk walk, but because there was something disturbing happening in his head. It woke him up around dawn and wouldn't let him go back to sleep. All he knew was that there was something wrong with Saphira. He could feel her pain reflected back into his own body, and in his mind there was fear and, later, intense distress. As he rushed to the window to look for her the information stopped coming and he realised she was blocking him. He barely paused to pull on some clothes, grabbed his sword and ran outside.

From the clearing outside his quarters he could see Saphira's plateau. It was deserted. Eragon cursed and began running toward it. Before he was halfway there he saw her, flying slowly toward him. He halted, relief flooding through him. 'Saphira!' he called mentally. 'I'm here, Saphira.'

She looked down at him and began her descent. She was holding something in her claws and her expression was strangely hard. Eragon waited tensely for her to reach him, moving back a short way so she could land in front of him, which she did. He went straight to her and touched her shoulder. 'Saphira, what's wrong? Are you hurt?'

She lowered her head to touch him with her snout, and he could feel her shuddering under his fingers. 'Good morning, little one,' said her voice in his head. It, too, was shaky. 'Are you well?'

'Fine. I sensed you were distressed before. I could feel your pain. What happened? Were you attacked?'

'No,' she said. 'No, I'm fine. What happened was a good thing.'

'What was it?'

'I have laid my eggs.'

'That's wonderful!' said Eragon. 'Are they healthy? Where are they?'

'There is only one,' said Saphira. She held out her paw and let her claws uncurl. Lying on her palm was a solitary silver-coloured egg.

'Can I touch it?' asked Eragon.

'Yes.'

He picked it up and cupped it in his hands, feeling its wonderful, silky shell. It was the first time he'd held a dragon egg since he had held Saphira's so long ago, and now as then he marvelled at its beauty. 'It's beautiful,' he said.

'I know,' said Saphira, a touch of pride showing through the shakiness in her voice.

'But why only one?' said Eragon. 'You mentioned eggs, not an egg. And you seem… upset.'

'Yes…' she said. 'There were others. But they were dead.'

'Dead? How? I don't understand.'

'Their shells were improperly formed. They broke and died as soon as they were laid. I have buried the remains.'

'That's terrible. I'm so sorry, Saphira.'

'A fact of life,' she said, calming down slightly. 'At least I have this last one.'

'It's a fine egg. You should be proud of yourself.'

'I am. The hatchling inside is female, and I have named her Vervada after my mother.'

'I'm sure she will be as beautiful as you are,' said Eragon, giving the egg back. 'Do you think she'll hatch for someone in the Varden?'

'Perhaps, if one of them is worthy,' said Saphira. 'It is for her to choose her own path. But we will present her to the council as soon as the sun is up.'

Eragon nodded his heart pounding. 'And she will bring back our pride and our hope.'

The silver dragon didn't stay in the cave for long. She slept a few hours, woke and stayed crouched where she'd slept, drinking in the atmosphere and trying to project herself into the past. In the end reality won through, and she lumbered out of the cave. Once outside, she set about replacing the debris over the entrance, shovelling it back into place until the cave was hidden again. When she was done she turned her back on it, and walked back into the ruined village before taking to the air once more. She knew where she wanted to go now. Ellesméra.

A few days of flying and she was there. Ellesméra. The elvish settlement tucked away in Du Weldenvarden forest. In contrast to the human settlements she'd seen, it had changed relatively little. But elves were always slow to change. She circled high overhead, hoping she wouldn't be spotted, and watched the activities below through her sharp dragon eyes. Eyes which narrowed angrily as more memories came. She had once loved Ellesméra, but now the sight of it brought back pain. She did not dip below the cloud-layer where she was hovering unseen, but flew on to the thick trees at the very edge of the settlement and on over to a small field backed by a copse.

It was still there. A small elvish house, isolated and peaceful, with a garden out the front and a grove of trees out the back. The silver dragon landed amongst those trees, feeling her heart pounding against her ribs. The house had aged; the roof had been rebuilt several times and one wall had cracked. The garden had become wild and overgrown. The dragon put her eye to a window and peered in. The interior was unrecognisable. None of the original furniture was there, the carpets were gone, the inside walls had been repainted and numerous new decorations had appeared. The house was also, clearly, unoccupied. There was a layer of dust over everything, and there was none of the clutter which everyday life left behind. It was all so tidy. The silver dragon sighed. Of course the house was empty. How could she have expected it not to be?

She looked a few moments longer, then turned and left. There was nothing in Ellesméra for her now, and it was getting dark. She determined to find somewhere to spend the night, and move on the following morning. There were other places still to visit, and people to find. So she flew up and away from the empty elvish dwelling, and on into the mountains beyond it. She was familiar with those mountains; once she had roamed freely among them for days at a time, testing her then-small body and indulging her youthful curiosity. As the sun slowly sank below the horizon she explored once again, rediscovering rocky spires where she'd climbed, and cave complexes she'd wandered through for hours at a time. It was all still there, seeming smaller, but still there. It made her heart swell with an emotion she couldn't identify.

In the end tiredness put an end to her wanderings. She made her way through a canyon to a particularly large cave, one where she'd spent the night once, long ago.

When she landed in the entrance, she caught an unfamiliar scent and halted, sniffing cautiously at the air. Yes… there it was. Another dragon, female. She guessed the stranger had been there a few days earlier and was probably very young. But inspection of the cave made it seem unlikely that she'd be back. There weren't any signs of recent habitation; no fresh bones, no dung or claw-marks. Except in the very centre. The silver dragon looked there, and saw them. Gouges in the stone. Fresh ones, surrounding a heap of loose rock. The silver dragon went to investigate. It looked as though the other dragon had been scratching at the floor for some reason. Her scent was all over the claw-marks, and the heap of stone. The silver dragon sniffed at that, and found it was also a recent addition to the cave. The rocks were still loose and had not settled yet. Stray debris still lay on the floor around the heap, but there wasn't any inside the claw-marks. It must have been there before they were made; there were little piles of it at the edges of the gouges, obviously shoved aside by the dragon's claws.

The silver dragon, having made these deductions, hissed softly. The other dragon, whoever she was, had built this rock-heap. And for some reason it made the silver dragon shiver. There was a stench of fear and desperation around that rock-heap, and she didn't like it one bit. She hesitated for a few seconds longer, and then she began to dig.

The heap was easy enough to remove. She scooped it aside with her claws until she had uncovered the stone basin in the floor, and then set about excavating it. And, at the very bottom, cushioned on a rough nest of broken, half-dead wood, she found the eggs.

She stared at them for a long time in silence. There were five eggs, all jet-black and shiny as if they'd been carved from obsidian.

'No,' she whispered at last. 'How? How can this…?'

Her voice trailed away. She thrust a paw into the hole and lifted out the eggs, cupping them in her claws. She could feel the beating hearts of the baby dragons inside. They were alive. The silver dragon nosed gently at their shells, whispering to them as a mother dragon does. 'You're safe now, little ones. I have you. I will be a mother to you.'

She thought she heard a faint piping from inside the eggs, and smiled. She had returned to Alagaësia to find those she loved, but instead fate had put these eggs in her path. It was a long time since she'd had eggs of her own, but she would rise to the challenge.

'You'll come with me, precious ones,' she whispered. 'Everything is all right.'

Then she left. There was one place left to search. And, perhaps, if fate was so kind, she would find a father for them.

Galbatorix was up on the ramparts of his castle, sitting by Shruikan's leg. The black dragon flinched and shifted his weight, blood dripping from a series of deep wounds in his flank. Galbatorix was flicking through a book. He finished reading the page he was on and put it aside. 'Right,' he said. 'I'm fairly sure I know what to do. Just hold still.'

Shruikan waited patiently, and Galbatorix held his hands over the wounds and muttered some words. Magic sparked between them, and the dragon's injuries slowly closed.

'Ah, that's better,' Shruikan sighed, touching the spot. 'Thankyou.'

'It may itch a bit,' said Galbatorix, closing the book and replacing it on top of the stack of others beside him. 'So… did you have any luck?'

'Of course not,' said Shruikan. 'What did you think, you little fool?'

'So another male defeated you in a mating fight,' said Galbatorix, studiously ignoring the insult. 'It's not the end of the world.'

'Those wounds weren't from a male, they were from a female,' said Shruikan. 'I tried to court her and she attacked me.'

'Because she wasn't interested in mating?'

'Because I'm black,' said Shruikan. 'You shouldn't have encouraged me, Galbatorix. No female would ever choose a dragon like me.'

Galbatorix patted his partner's leg kindly. 'You shouldn't be so down on yourself,' he said. 'Plenty of females like a male with a certain danger to him. How do you think your father found a mate?'

'He found the only female dragon in the world who was as black as he was,' Shruikan said dryly.

'Even so,' said Galbatorix. 'You know many humans believe that I could never find a woman who would want to… be intimate with me, but I had a woman once and I loved her very dearly. And although she's gone now one of the maids blushes whenever I speak to her.'

Shruikan chuckled a little despite himself. 'Well, perhaps I shouldn't give up so easily. It's only my third rejection, after all…'

During the six months following the return of the wild dragons, in complete contrast to the situation in Ellesméra, things had been going very well indeed for the King of Alagaësia. Now that the dragons were back to stand as a living testament to the fact that he hadn't really driven them to extinction, his popularity had soared. Much to his satisfaction, faith in the Varden had simultaneously plummeted. Their defeat at Urû'baen, and subsequent failure to recoup their losses and strike again had turned people away from them. Support had faded, various rebel factions had quietly laid down their weapons and retreated, and Galbatorix had cannily lowered a few taxes here and there to encourage people. So far, it had worked.

With the wild dragons back and the Varden more or less neutralised, Thorn and Shruikan had the time to head off on their own during the day and search for mates in the Spine. And, although Shruikan hadn't had much luck, Galbatorix was fairly certain that Thorn at least had enjoyed a few close encounters of the female kind. It was good to see the young dragon spending some time with other dragons of his age. It was good, too, to know he had been reunited with his father. Kullervo stayed away from Urû'baen now, but from what Thorn said it was clear the two of them spent a lot of time together. To be with a parent… always a good thing in some way. Galbatorix wished he could have been a father, but he had unknowingly sacrificed any chance of that when he vowed never to touch another woman after that all-too-brief romance long ago. But he didn't want it to be that way any more. He wanted children of his own. He wanted to see his blood preserved. He wanted Skade.

That night while he lay asleep in his hammock, bad dreams came. He was standing in darkness, utterly alone. But from the darkness came sounds. A howling wind, the crackle of lightning. And voices. Hundreds of them.

Murderer, they whispered. Destroyer.

'No,' he answered. 'No, I-,'

You killed us, the voices accused.

'No,' he said again. But when he looked down at his hands he saw they were covered in blood. He wiped them on his robe, but the blood would not come off. 'I'm not a murderer!' he insisted.

And then he saw her. A female elf, walking toward him out of the darkness. She was wild, but beautiful, and her hair and long robe were silver. And her eyes were fiery gold.

Skade. He tried to say her name, but could not. Skade, my love.

Galbatorix, her voice whispered.

Skade.

You killed me, Galbatorix, she said.

No, he tried to say. No, it's not true. You were alive. How could I kill what I loved?

But he could not speak.

You killed me! she screamed, and blood poured from her eyes, blinding him.

'Skade!' he cried, finding his voice at last. But it was too late. She was dead.

Morning came, and Galbatorix woke up shivering. The dream was still in him, making him afraid. He sat up in his hammock and stared compulsively at his hands. They were blood-free, of course.

'I'm not a murderer,' he muttered. 'They would've killed me if they'd been able.'

But the dream had still been disturbingly vivid. The dreams of magic-users often were. And the vision of Skade had only provided a cold reminder of how alone he was.

He got up and dressed slowly, still caught up in an image of Skade as he had last seen her, picked up his sword and wandered distractedly out of his room and off into the castle.

There was work to do, as usual. He muddled his way through three tedious meetings with various councillors, conducted an awards ceremony for some valorous soldiers, and spent his lunch hour sorting paperwork. It had always amused him when people claimed the life of a king was a glamorous one, and irritated him when they said it was an easy one. He had not been joking when he had told Eragon that his life was one of endless hard work and responsibility – it was.

He didn't get any free time until the afternoon, when he went up to the wall to meet Shruikan. The black dragon wasn't there yet, so he sat down and waited, idly watching the view. In time he saw a dragon approaching, and when he saw it was silver his heart leapt.

The dragon got closer. It was heading straight for him. Galbatorix stood up, hardly believing what he was seeing. Surely it couldn't be her.

And though he tried to dissuade himself that it could possibly be her, he couldn't rid himself of memory's voice in his head. I shall come back to you. No matter what happens, I shall return.

In the long years since then, he'd never quite been able to forget those words.

But when the dragon got closer he realised that it was male and his heart sank. It was not Skade, but Skirnir. The silver male landed neatly by Galbatorix and folded his wings.

'Hello,' he said.

'Hello, Skirnir,' said Galbatorix, rolling his shoulders to loosen them. 'Where have you been? Is your mate well?'

'I don't know how she is,' said Skirnir. 'I haven't seen her in months.'

'Oh? Why?'

'She rejected me once she found out I was Shruikan's nephew,' said Skirnir.

Galbatorix snorted. 'I should have warned you she would do that,' he said. 'Evidently she's as prejudiced and narrow-minded as her rider.'

'I never thought it would matter to her,' said Skirnir unhappily. 'I thought she cared for me.'

'Don't be blinded by the charms of females,' said Galbatorix. 'They can be fickle. So why did you come back here?'

'I came here for other reasons than finding a mate,' said Skirnir. 'And I think Saphira will lay my eggs, so that purpose is over with anyway. But the other purpose… I hoped you could help me with it.'

'Go ahead,' said Galbatorix.

'My mother,' said Skirnir. 'Before I left my homeland she told me… I never knew my father, you see. I asked her about him, and she said he was in Alagaësia. I hoped you might be able to help me find him.'

'What was his name?' asked Galbatorix, his hands curling into fists. 'Did she tell you? Do you know what he looks like?'

'She said he was dark,' said Skirnir. 'So I think it means he was black like Shruikan is. It was odd, but she was evasive about it. She said he was older than her, and a fierce fighter, but beyond that…'

'Did she tell you his name?'

'Yes,' said Skirnir. 'Tell me… have you ever heard of a dragon called Galbatorix?'

Galbatorix froze. 'What?'

'She said his name was Galbatorix,' said Skirnir. 'I thought that you would remember if you'd heard of someone else with your name.'

Galbatorix stood up, so abruptly that Skirnir started. He looked the dragon up and down, his eyes narrowed. Skirnir watched him cautiously, but said nothing.

Finally Galbatorix said; 'And she said nothing else about how you were conceived?'

'No,' said Skirnir. 'Why do you ask? And have you heard of my father?'

'Your mother,' said Galbatorix softly. 'Do you know why she hated the old rider elders so much?'

'She hinted that they were cruel to her,' said Skirnir.

'They were,' said Galbatorix. 'They put a curse on her. Their strongest magic. For a while, she was trapped in a different form, one she hated.'

'What are you saying?' said Skirnir. 'What did they do to her?'

'They changed her into an elf,' said Galbatorix.

Skirnir's eyes widened. 'No! That's impossible! No magic could be strong enough to do that, surely…'

'It's true,' said Galbatorix. 'I met her while she was in that form. Look.'

He held his hands up, palms together as if praying, and muttered a few words. A faint glow of magic appeared around his hands, and then he pulled them apart with a quick jerking motion. When he did so, the light stretched between his palms and formed itself into a window. Skirnir looked into the window, and saw a vision, hanging in the air between the man's hands. It was an elf, female, with long silver hair and golden eyes. On the side of her neck was a dark mark that looked a little like a tattoo. It was shaped like a scar, or a bolt of lightning.

'That's how she looked when I first saw her,' said Galbatorix. 'To me she was beautiful.'

'But she didn't stay as an elf,' said Skirnir blankly. 'She was changed back.'

'Of course. I was there when it happened. It took powerful magic to undo the elders' curse, but it was undone in the end.'

'I see why she hated them now,' said Skirnir. 'But what has this got to do with my father?'

Galbatorix looked up at the dragon, his eyes full of tears. 'Everything,' he said. 'I am your father, Skirnir.'

Chapter Eleven

Black Eggs

There was a murmuring in the council chamber. Everyone, from Roran to Islanzadí herself, was excited. Something important was due to happen that day, and all of them knew it. It had started when Eragon had gone to Nasuada a few hours earlier, and spent about half an hour talking to her in private. Afterwards the pair of them had let it be known that Eragon had an important announcement to make in front of the council. Naturally this had leaked out, and now rumours were everywhere as to the nature of the announcement, ranging from the ridiculous – such as the idea that Eragon and Nasuada were going to announce that they were about the marry – to the horrifying – that they were planning to organise a formal surrender to Galbatorix.

Now the council waited to find out which was closest to the truth, shifting nervously in their seats and chattering amongst themselves.

At long last Eragon came in. He was holding a box and his eyes were bright. 'Good morning, everyone,' he said. 'No doubt you're all interested to find out what's going on…'

'I should bloody well think so,' muttered Roran.

'Well, you needn't wait any longer!' Eragon crowed. 'My friends, I have good news.'

They waited expectantly.

Eragon remained standing, holding onto the box and grinning. 'Hope is restored to us,' he said. 'With what's in this box, we can finally begin to build up our strength again. With it, we'll have another chance against the Empire.'

'So what is it?' Roran interrupted. 'Don't toy with us, Eragon, spit it out.'

'All right,' said Eragon, scowling. 'Everyone… Saphira has become a mother.'

As he spoke, he opened the box and brought out the egg. The councillors let out an audible, collective gasp at the sight of it as he held it up so that the candle-light glinted off its silver shell.

'With this!' Eragon shouted over the noise. 'With this egg we can find a new rider, who I will train! And with another rider on our side, we will be unbeatable!'

The council roared its approval. Even Islanzadí forgot her dignity and let out a triumphant shout. Eragon grinned. It was moments like this that made his life worth living.

Galbatorix was in the practise yard again, hacking at a hanging chunk of wood with his sword and trying to think clearly. Skirnir had left after the revelation up on the wall, and he had not been happy when he did so. Galbatorix sensed that the silver dragon would eventually come to accept the truth of what he had told him, but whether he would be pleased about it was still to be seen.

As for Galbatorix himself, he was having just as much trouble coming to terms with the idea. That he could, after all, be a father. That his blood was carried by five beautiful dragons rather than by humans. As he calmed down, he admitted to himself that he had always felt more of an affinity with dragons than with humans. Human beings worked in illogical and aggravating ways, and were dishonest and irrational. But the way a dragon thought had always made more sense to him. Perhaps that was why he had understood Skade so well. He remembered what she had said to him on the day they parted. You have the heart of a wild dragon. Perhaps that was true. His love was a dragon, his partner was a dragon, and now he knew that his children were dragons as well.

I seem to be becoming less human every day, he thought, whacking the wooden target with his sword so that it shuddered in its holder. For some reason the idea amused him.

He hoped that Skirnir would come back, and that he could meet his siblings. According to Skirnir, most of them were black. Galbatorix supposed that they took after their grandfather, but perhaps it was a result of his own blood as well. If he were a dragon, he guessed that he would be as black as his hair and eyes. Now that he thought about it, he found himself wishing he was a dragon. Then he could have gone with Skade and stayed with her forever. But he was human and had chosen to remain in Alagaësia and see things through. That was one of the burdens of being human; that sense of duty that seemed to build itself around everything they did. Dragons, on the other hand, did as they pleased and only gave loyalty to those who earned it. It was a way of being that appealed to Galbatorix.

He sighed and sat down on a bench to rest. It was probably about time to get back to work. But perhaps he could take the evening off and go for a flight with Shruikan. It would be nice to get out in the fresh air and spend some time with Shruikan…

There was the sound of footsteps, and Murtagh came hurrying into the yard. Galbatorix stood up as the younger rider approached. 'Murtagh,' he said. 'What's happening?'

'There's someone to see you, my lord,' said Murtagh, bowing.

'Who is it?' asked Galbatorix, sighing. So much for taking the evening off.

'There's a silver dragon up on the wall asking for you,' said Murtagh.

'Ah!' said Galbatorix. 'So Skirnir's back. Excellent.'

'No, my lord,' said Murtagh. 'It's not Skirnir it's a female. She says her name is Skade.'

Galbatorix stared at him for a fraction of a second, and then ran out of the yard.

Up the stairs he ran, leaping up them two at a time, not feeling a thing when he stumbled and bashed his elbow on the wall. On and on, along and corridor and up another flight of stairs, through a door which he kicked out of the way, and onto the battlements.

And there she was, waiting for him. The magnificent silver dragon, as large now as Shruikan, her scales shining in the sun like distilled moonlight, her eyes like two suns looking straight at him. Skade. Just as in the dream, he could not say her name.

He rushed toward her, carelessly dropping his sword. She dipped her head toward him and he wrapped his arms around her neck, hugging her as if he would never let go.

'Skade,' he said, find his voice at last. 'Skade.'

It was all he could say. Skade.

'Galbatorix,' she whispered. 'My Galbatorix. My love.'

For a long time, they said nothing but that.

At last Galbatorix let go and stepped back to look at her. She was exactly as he remembered, with the dark mark like a scar on the side of her neck and that cautious but direct stare.

'You came back,' he said.

'I promised I would,' she said. 'I came back for… for you, and for our two sons.'

'So they are mine,' said Galbatorix.

'Yes,' said Skade. 'I have had no other mates. Only you, little one.'

'But… how could it have happened?'

'The magic of Rangda and Durza was stronger than we thought,' she said. 'You planted your seed in me, and when I became a dragon again so did they. I never told them their father was a human. I thought they wouldn't believe me.'

'I met Skirnir,' said Galbatorix. 'He was here a few days ago. I told him I was his father… he didn't believe it. But he will eventually.'

'Our children are fine adults,' said Skade. 'Strong in body and in magic. Lifrasir, midnight blue and female, Balisong and Katana, both female and black like your hair. Skirnir male and silver, and then there is Vidar. The very image of his grandfather Ravana.'

'You found him?' said Galbatorix.

'Yes. He has taught me many things. The storm… I can control it now. And so can our children.'

'The storm of the black dragon,' said Galbatorix. 'It runs in your family…'

'In our family, yes,' said Skade, smiling on him. 'It was Ravana's gift to us.'

'But still they wanted to kill him,' said Galbatorix shaking his head.

'The young rider who met me here said you rule Alagaësia now,' said Skade.

'That's true, unfortunately,' said Galbatorix. 'I didn't particularly want to rule, but I had to. It was… my duty.'

Skade shook her head. 'Always duty with you humans,' she said, but she said it with a smile.

'I'm afraid so,' said Galbatorix, laughing. 'Even so… after the riders were removed I couldn't just leave this place in anarchy.'

'The riders are gone, are they?' said Skade. 'I noticed their city had been… replaced. What happened to them?'

'I killed them,' said Galbatorix, stone-faced.

Skade shrugged her wings. 'Fitting revenge, I think. They would do anything to keep hold of their power… so you took it from them.'

'I didn't want it to go that far,' said Galbatorix wretchedly. 'But after I started my rebellion more and more people joined me. Even other riders. It seemed there were a lot of people who resented the riders' rule. And why not? They were corrupt. Islanzadí had them eating out of the palm of her hand. They let murderers and warlords go unpunished in return for favours… and then there was what they did to you.'

'And to you as well,' Skade agreed. 'I am proud of you, Galbatorix. I'm certain Alagaësia is in better hands now.'

'I do my best,' said Galbatorix. 'But…' he looked up at her. 'If I could have been with you and helped you raise our children, I would have. But I didn't know. I thought you'd be back by the end of the year. But you never came. Why were you gone so long? I thought you'd forgotten me.'

Skade sighed. 'My father wouldn't let me go,' she said. 'He wanted us all to stay with him… he's afraid of being alone again. But he couldn't control all of us. After Vidar and Skirnir left, he let me go after them.'

'I haven't seen Vidar, but Skirnir says he fought him over a female and won.'

'So Skirnir found a mate after all,' said Skade. She sounded amused.

'Yes. A mate who rejected him once she found out he was related to Shruikan.'

'Who's Shruikan?' said Skade.

'Your brother,' said Galbatorix. 'I found him and he agreed to replace my first dragon. He's here with me now.'

'And Kullervo?' said Skade. 'Is he alive?'

'Yes,' said Galbatorix. 'And a parent, too. His son, Thorn, became the partner of my last ally.'

'What about Einás?' said Skade.

'Dead,' said Galbatorix. 'I killed her after you left me at Ilirea. I wanted to punish her for betraying you.'

Skade growled. 'You risked Kullervo's life by doing that.'

'A calculated risk,' said Galbatorix. 'I hoped he would agree to help me once I'd freed him from her influence, but he refused. He joined the wild dragons. Did quite well, too. He leads them now.'

Skade looked pleased. 'My brother is strong.'

'And stubborn,' said Galbatorix. 'Yes… Ravana's children are all strong dragons.'

'What about Saphira?' said Skade. 'My sister… did she survive too?'

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'I'm sorry, Skade. She's dead. Brom joined the fight against my rebels, and Saphira was killed in the fighting.'

Skade let out a mournful howl. 'Saphira!'

Galbatorix bowed his head and waited. 'I'm sorry,' he murmured again. 'If I had been there… but we know life is hard.'

'I don't blame you,' Skade said softly. 'Saphira made her choice and reaped the consequence. But I've been away too long.'

'I suppose a life can't be lived without regrets,' said Galbatorix, putting his hand on her snout. She pushed against it gently and made a purring sound in her throat. 'You've changed,' she said. 'You've become wiser. Calmer. I wish you could have been there to help me raise our children. You could have taught them just as much as my own father did.'

'Once I regretted not having fathered children,' said Galbatorix. 'Now I regret missing their childhood.'

Skade smiled. 'Perhaps we can still be parents together,' she said.

'Not in the same way as we could have if they were still hatchlings,' said Galbatorix.

'Don't speak too soon,' said Skade. 'I have something for you.'

'What is it, Skade?' the name felt good on his lips.

She reached under her belly and brought them out, placing them in front of him. Eggs. Five eggs, all jet black. Galbatorix lifted them gently, astonished. 'Where did they come from?' he asked.

'I found them,' said Skade. 'They were buried up on the Stone of Broken Eggs.'

'An unlucky place for eggs to be,' said Galbatorix. 'Why would anyone leave them there?'

'I don't know,' said Skade. 'But I think it was because they're black.'

Galbatorix ran his fingers over the dark shells. 'The old riders were prejudiced, and so are the rebels trying to depose me right now. But I'm the one who accepts the unwanted. Urgals, Shades… all those creatures the riders wouldn't allow to live in peace. These little dragons can stay with me.'

'With us,' said Skade. 'I'm staying here with you.'

'But your father-,'

'I love him, but he forgets that I have a will of my own,' said Skade. 'I'm staying with you and I won't leave you again. Our sons and daughters can look after themselves, but we can raise these eggs together.'

'Yes,' said Galbatorix, smiling the first real smile he'd worn in days. 'Together, Skade.'

Chapter Twelve

Saphira's Shame

Three days later the black eggs hatched into five black hatchlings, and for Skade and Galbatorix it was like witnessing the birth of their children all over again. They crouched side-by-side, watching the small dragons emerge, both feeling a curious pride.

There were three males and two females, and all were strong and healthy. Galbatorix helped them stand, and Skade growled to reassure them. The hatchlings made high, piping calls as they hatched, calling to each other and to their surrogate parents, and once they had recovered some strength they instinctively waddled over to Skade and curled up between her forepaws, against the warm wall of her chest. There they seemed content, and most of them slept there for a while, watched over by the silver dragon and the man.

'What should we name them?' said Galbatorix.

'I'll look into their minds,' said Skade. 'Perhaps their mother named them.' She did so, as gently as she could, and finally said; 'She did. They have names. But not ones I like.'

'What are they?'

'The gold-eyed male is called Valdyr,' said Skade. 'The silver-eyed female is Mykr. The red-eyed female is Dreyri. That male, there, with the black wings, is Hrafn. And the last male, the small one, is Skömm.'

'"Shame"?' said Galbatorix. 'Who would name their child "shame"?'

'Someone ashamed of having laid him,' said Skade, her expression darkening. 'We could try and rename him, but I doubt he would accept a different name. Once a name has been whispered to an egg, it buries itself in the hatchling's mind. When I hatched, I knew my name was Skade. I wouldn't have changed it, even if it meant "evil".'

'What does it mean?' asked Galbatorix unexpectedly.

'My father told me it's an old word meaning "goddess of the mountains",' said Skade.

'It's a good name, and a good meaning,' said Galbatorix. 'Better than "shame", definitely. How could a mother hate her own young that much?'

Skade watched the sleeping hatchlings with a tender look, and said nothing, but he could feel her rage. It was a feeling he shared, mingled with pity and dismay. At least, though, they could have a home and parents of a kind at Urû'baen. And though his uppermost feeling toward them was compassion, he couldn't help but speculate on whether the work he and Skade had done would help resolve a few more issues. If there were five powerful dragons on his side with a grudge against intolerant people…

Midday, and a cold wind ruffled the surface of the sea. In the light of the silvery sun the water was a dark, icy blue. It perfectly matched the scales of the dragon now flying steadily over it. The dragon was female and had a slim, elegant build. Just like Vidar, Skirnir and Skade before her, she saw the coast near Teirm approaching and headed straight for it, finally hitting land a little further North than they had done. But there was something else about the dark-blue dragon's journey that made it different from those of the first three. She was carrying someone on her back. The someone was tall and slim, clad all in white, and her long hair was also white, though she did not look old.

The dragon did not land immediately, but flew on over land, conversing telepathically with her rider.

'Which way do I go?'

'North-East,' the white-clad rider answered. 'You'll see the forest soon enough.'

The blue dragon obligingly turned in that direction. 'So what do plan to do there?' she asked.

'Seek revenge, of course,' said the rider. 'I've waited long enough.'

'Of course you'll seek revenge,' said the dragon. 'I knew that. I just wondered what exactly you were going to do in order to have that revenge. I assumed you had made some plan, so what is it?'

'I'll kill her, of course,' said the rider. 'And otherwise… perhaps something else will present itself.'

'Will you need my help?' the dragon asked.

'Not to kill her,' said the rider. 'I can do that alone. But I may need your help later. Don't leave until we're certain of that.'

'Very well,' said the dragon.

The rider chuckled. 'Always helpful, aren't you, Lifrasir? Something I always liked about you.'

'Thankyou, Rangda,' the dragon said solemnly.

The rider laughed again, and they flew on, heading toward Ellesméra.

Where Eragon was getting rather agitated. It had been several days since he had presented Saphira's egg to the council, and during that time the thing had been handled by what felt like the entire population of Ellesméra, and every human or elvish member of the Varden as well. After it didn't hatch for any of them, even the dwarves had been allowed to try it out, although most of them weren't interested. And still the egg refused to hatch. It was making Eragon rather twitchy, not to mention aggravated. He'd been jubilant, of course, when he'd first known Saphira would lay eggs. But now it felt like the unborn dragon was taunting him, rejecting all the candidates that came forward just to spite him. Saphira was willing to wait for as long as it took, but patience had never been one of Eragon's strong points. He spent most days skulking in Islanzadí's audience chamber, where the egg had been placed on a pedestal, watching over it and keeping an eye on anyone who came to see it. They were taking no chances with the egg, of course – four strong elvish guards stayed with it at all times and the door was kept sealed at night with a powerful spell that would kill anyone who tried to force entry – but even so Eragon didn't dare leave it alone for one second. He only left it in order to sleep at night. He even ate his meals in there. Even Saphira felt he was being a bit too obsessive, but she and Eragon weren't spending much time together at the moment. She'd become solitary and morose, and untalkative even around him. Eragon wasn't sure why, but he'd decided to leave her to her own devices and hope she snapped out of it on her own.

He spent the day pacing in the audience chamber, and retired to his own quarters at sunset, though his sleep was uneasy; punctuated by bad dreams. The figure of a twisted, ogreish creature stalked through his sleeping mind, and made the young rider toss and turn.

The moon coasted on the clouds over Du Weldenvarden like a silver eye, and on the outskirts of Ellesméra a dragon stirred restlessly, her blue scales glittering. Her own eyes were fixed on the white-clad figure that stood in front of her.

'Wait for me here,' the figure said. 'I won't be long.'

The dragon, Lifrasir, nodded. 'Good luck, Rangda.'

Rangda touched the hilt of the sword she was wearing. It was a beautiful thing, with a long blade chased with swirls of white and buttery yellow and a hilt crafted of gold and set with a chunk of amber. A rider's sword. She patted Lifrasir on the snout, and walked silently away into the trees.

Left alone, Lifrasir sighed and scratched her face with her claws, then settled down to wait. The minutes went by and the blue dragon began to fidget. It was no good. She'd brought Rangda this far, but she wasn't her slave. She decided to wander a little to pass the time, and walked off into the forest, carefully going in the opposite direction to the one Rangda had taken. She wasn't stupid enough to think she could get away with straying into Ellesméra.

So she went up toward the mountains that surrounded the valley, eventually taking to the air again in order to see them better. Circling overhead, she spotted something she hadn't expected – another dragon. It was much smaller than her, and was curled up on a stone plateau overlooking the elvish settlement, probably asleep. Lifrasir, her curiosity piqued, flew down toward it. She landed at a respectable distance from the other dragon, and was surprised to see it was blue and female like herself, although she herself was a much darker shade. The other dragon woke up at her arrival, immediately leaping upright in readiness to fight.

'Be calm!' said Lifrasir, speaking the dragon language. 'I'm a friend.'

'Who are you?' the other dragon demanded, not retracting her claws.

'My name's Lifrasir,' said Lifrasir, in as friendly a tone as she could manage. 'I'm a stranger to these parts and I thought you might tell me about them. What's your name?'

'I am Saphira,' said Saphira, relaxing. She didn't want to look overly hostile, since the other dragon was much bigger than she was.

'A wild dragon?' asked Lifrasir.

'No, I have a rider,' said Saphira.

Lifrasir was immediately interested. 'I've never met a dragon with a rider,' she said.

'There aren't many left,' Saphira admitted sadly.

'What's your rider like?' asked Lifrasir. 'What's his name? Is he an elf?'

'Human,' said Saphira. 'His name is Eragon Shadeslayer.'

'Shadeslayer?' said Lifrasir. 'Does that mean he killed a Shade?'

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'He's famous for it.'

'Shades are hard to kill, I heard,' said Lifrasir. 'He must be strong.'

'He was lucky,' said Saphira. 'But yes, he is strong.'

'What was the Shade's name?'

'Durza,' said Saphira.

Lifrasir's silver eyes widened at this, and she kneaded the ground with her claws. 'Was he red-haired?' she asked.

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'You've heard of him?'

'I have,' said Lifrasir. 'I heard he was powerful. And you helped your rider kill Durza, did you?'

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'I distracted him, and gave Eragon time to strike.'

'They should call you Saphira Shadedistractor, then,' said Lifrasir.

Saphira laughed. 'Not so impressive as Shadeslayer.'

'No, I suppose not,' said Lifrasir, not really listening.

Saphira's laughter died away, and all of a sudden the smaller dragon's face was suffused with misery. Lifrasir looked at her, confused, and then Saphira said; 'It's good to have someone to talk to.'

'Doesn't your rider do that?' asked Lifrasir.

'No, not… not now,' said Saphira, lowering her head onto her foreclaws. 'He's a bit distracted at the moment. But I'm… well, I'm lonely,' she said in a rush.

Lifrasir nudged Saphira with her snout in a friendly way. 'There, there,' she said. 'I'm sure things will get better for you. If you're lonely you ought to seek out company.'

'Well, I do have company, really,' said Saphira, indicting the settlement below. 'There are always other people near me.'

'I mean proper company,' said Lifrasir. 'Other dragons. If you want someone to talk to, then look to your own kind. They understand better.'

'Yes…' said Saphira. 'Yes, I suppose you're right. I shouldn't keep expecting people to come to me. I should look after it myself.'

'Yes, you should,' said Lifrasir. 'My mother always taught me that you should do things for yourself because other people are always too busy doing things for themselves.'

'I never knew my mother,' Saphira said quietly.

'I'm sorry,' said Lifrasir.

'Not your fault,' said Saphira.

Lifrasir sighed. 'I should probably go,' she said. 'I have things to do.'

'Come and see me again, will you?' said Saphira. 'I like talking to you.'

Lifrasir paused, and then nodded. 'I'll try to.'

The dark blue dragon left, rather more quickly than was usual, but Saphira was too lost in thought to notice it. It was odd, she thought, that a dragon would be up and about at this hour. Still, it had been good to talk to someone, even if they were a stranger. And Lifrasir's advice had been good. Saphira couldn't help but wonder why she'd never thought of it herself. Perhaps it was because she was used to there being no other dragons to turn to. Even her old teacher, Glaedr, had been too distant and haughty to be a real friend to her. She lay still for a time, a hunched shape in the moonlight, and resolved to do just as Lifrasir had suggested. As soon as it was daylight again, she would leave Ellesméra and look for other dragons. If Eragon had no time for her, then she would have no time for him.

Feeling much better, she went back to sleep.

Down in the valley, Rangda was moving among the houses like a ghost. Her sword was in her hand, the blade now stained. The deed was done, and she was ready to leave. Rangda was a Shade, and Shades cannot feel fear, but she did not want to be seen. If her presence was discovered, she had no doubt that every elf in Ellesméra would set out to kill her. They hated Shades, and they would hate her a great deal more.

'Lifrasir,' she called mentally. 'I'm done. Are you still there?'

After a while, the reply came back. 'I am. Rangda, I have terrible news.'

'What?'

'There is another dragon here; I spoke to her,' said Lifrasir's voice.

'I told you not to wander.'

'Even so.'

'Well?'

'The dragon has a rider,' said Lifrasir. 'A human called Eragon Shadeslayer.'

'Shadeslayer?' said Rangda, stiffening.

'Yes. I asked why, and she told me he did indeed kill a Shade.'

'Which Shade?'

'Rangda, he killed Durza. They both did.'

Rangda was silent for a long time, and then she let out a horrible, silent howl. She swung the golden rider's sword, striking the trunk of a nearby tree and cutting it clean in half. The tree toppled over with a muffled crashing sound. 'Durza!'

Lifrasir shared her own feeling of sympathy, but said nothing until Rangda had calmed down slightly. Sensing this, the dragon said; 'They must be punished for this.'

Rangda said nothing. She was deep in thought. Lifrasir was right, of course. For the killing of Durza, the young rider and his dragon must suffer. But not with death. Death would be too quick. The Shade's mind was not clouded by emotion – after all, she was not human. Like all her kind, she thought clearly and logically no matter what the circumstances. Eventually she said; 'What do you know about these two?'

'Very little,' said Lifrasir. 'I only know that the dragon is lonely. Her rider is distracted, she said.'

'Distracted by what, I wonder?'

Both of them were quiet for a while, thinking. Then Lifrasir said; 'Oh! I remembered something else.'

'Yes?'

'The dragon had laid eggs recently. I could smell it on her.'

'Eggs…' Rangda's mental voice trailed off. Then she smiled coldly. 'I know why the rider is distracted.'

'Why?' asked Lifrasir.

'There is an egg,' said Rangda. 'I saw one in the audience chamber on my way through. Silver. And heavily guarded.'

'So they're hoping it will hatch for one of them,' said Rangda. 'The rider must be busy because of that. Seeking a new rider is important to these people.'

'What will you do?' said Lifrasir.

Rangda ran her long fingers over the blade of her sword, ignoring the blood. 'I know now,' she said, and her mental tones were low and cruel. 'Oh, I know. Wait for me, Lifrasir. I won't be long.'

She turned and stalked elegantly away, back the way she had come. Into the audience chamber she went, delicately stepping over the bodies of the guards, which still lay where they had fallen. Killing them had been laughably easy. The Shade made her way to the plinth, which stood in a shaft of silvery moonlight. The egg lay on a cushion, looking as if it had been carved from a star. Rangda stood over it, her expression one of controlled malice. She could feel her magic thrumming through her veins, carried by the dark spirits which had conquered her human body centuries before and made her into what she was. But though she was still in body she was not still in mind. Durza. Durza, my love. Durza. Lost forever. My Durza.

Rangda spread her long-fingered hands over the egg, and paused a moment, thinking deeply. That part of her mind that was cold and clinical, which worked quite separately from her emotions, was working fast and efficiently, formulating ideas and making decisions. It all took mere seconds, and when it was over there was only one thing left in her mind. She knew exactly what to do.

Rangda touched the egg's shell with her fingertips, and intoned the following words in the ancient language: 'Bíl náttúra tith minn líkami, feiknstafi sási skulblaka til bict óvœttr eđa skömm hir módir allr hir œvi.'

The magic responded at once. Bound and directed by the words, it flowed out of her in a stream of white light and entered into the egg. Rangda stayed still, letting her internal energies flow out of her, fuelled by malice and rage. And when it was over she turned away and left as quietly as she had come. It was done; she had had her revenge. For now.

Chapter Thirteen

Darkness Falls

Day dawned over Ellesméra, and Eragon was woken up by a commotion outside. He got up sharply and ran to the window. Looking out, he saw that there was chaos outside. Elves, dwarves and humans were running in all directions like ants, and there was the sound of fevered shouting, mixed with a terrible wailing. Many of the elves, he saw, were beating on the ground with their fists in a strange ritualistic way, their faces distraught even from that distance. Eragon was bewildered at first, and then a terrible sense of foreboding closed over him like a cold hand. He pulled on some clothes, grabbed his sword and ran downstairs and into the open air. Pausing uncertainly in the open doorway, he called out mentally for Saphira.

'Saphira? Are you there?'

'I am here,' she replied after a pause. 'Is there a problem, little one?'

'Saphira, do you know what's going on?' asked Eragon. 'I just got up. Something must have happened; everyone seems confused.'

'You just woke me up now,' said Saphira. 'I can see it from up here; Ellesméra looks like an overturned ant-heap. You had better ask someone.'

'Very well,' said Eragon. He grabbed a passing dwarf, which said; 'Hey, what d'you – oh, it's you, Shadeslayer. What do you want, sir?'

'What's going on?' asked Eragon, gesturing vaguely at the fuss going on around them.

'Didn't you hear, sir?' said the dwarf. 'I thought someone told you.'

'They didn't,' said Eragon. 'You tell me.'

The dwarf shook his head. 'Islanzadí is dead,' he said.

'Dead?' said Eragon, shocked. 'How?'

'Someone – we don't know who, but – someone broke into her private chambers and killed her.'

'Another spy,' said Eragon, gripping his sword-hilt.

'Maybe,' said the dwarf. 'We don't know. But it wasn't quiet and clean like with poor old Oromis. They killed all her guards too. And someone said-,'

'Yes?' said Eragon, not liking the dwarf's hesitation.

'Dunno if it's true, mind you,' said the dwarf. 'But someone said they cut Islanzadí's head off. Left it sitting on the table. And there was writing on the wall. In blood, I heard.'

'What did it say?' asked Eragon.

'I dunno,' said the dwarf. 'Look, will you excuse me sir? I've got to-,'

'Yes, yes, off you go,' said Eragon, releasing him. The dwarf ran off, and Eragon went to find Arya as fast as he could.

Later, the remaining councillors stood clustered together in Islanzadí's sleeping chamber and surveyed the damage. The Queen's body had already been removed – contrary to what the dwarf had said it still had its head on – but it had left a lot of blood behind. Although the reports had been exaggerated and the victim had not actually been mutilated in any way, it had still been an untidy end for Ellesméra's ruler. But one part of the dwarf's story had been more or less correct – the killer had left a message. Not written on the wall or in blood, but on a piece of paper using plain ink.

'Show it to me again,' said Eragon. Nasuada handed the note to him, and he read it for the fourth time.

So ends the life of the Queen of Elves, who was prejudiced and cruel beneath a beautiful face. And so shall end the lives of all who persecute others when they have committed no crime. I have had my revenge. Beware, lest I seek to take it upon you as well.

'She should not have died like that,' said Nasuada in a low voice. 'Not her.'

'What could she have done that would make someone kill her?' Elessari wondered.

'Nothing that I know of,' said Roran. 'But, then, I never knew her well. Any of you have an idea about it, then?' He looked enquiringly around at the other councillors.

'Who would have a grudge against her, that's the question,' said Orik, the leader of the dwarves. He rubbed his bearded chin, his expression thoughtful.

'Galbatorix,' said Eragon immediately.

'It's true she sent assassins after him when he first began his rebellion,' said Elessari.

'Are you insane?' Eragon demanded. 'Why does he need a reason? He's evil! Islanzadí was an important opponent to him, and assassinating her was the logical thing for him to do against us.'

'Yes, but the note-,' Roran began.

'The note was meant to confuse us,' said Eragon, beginning to pace around the room, his face and gesticulations getting wilder. 'What else could it be? It was him. I know it was him. All he wants to do is destroy the Varden. This is a tragedy, yes. There's no denying it. But it's also a call to action. We must try and strike back, somehow. We must use this to our advantage. To give our people new heart.'

'You mean… we should put it about that this was Galbatorix's work?' said Roran.

'Yes,' said Eragon, stopping sharply and nodding.

Silence followed. A thoughtful one.

'I agree,' said Elessari after a while.

'So do I,' said Roran. 'It's only slightly dishonest, after all. And for a good purpose, right?'

Orik too signalled his agreement.

'I don't know,' said Nasuada.

'You think we should just give up?' said Eragon, quite rudely.

'No,' said Nasuada. 'But we shouldn't rush into things.'

'You're right,' said Elessari. 'We need a plan.'

'Yes, yes, of course we need a plan,' said Eragon, waving a hand. 'That goes without saying. But no matter what we tell the Varden, I still think this was Galbatorix's work. It only makes sense.'

'Maybe we should send our own assassin after him,' said Roran.

'It's been tried,' said Nasauda. 'He's too powerful and too cautious for that to work. My father lost half a dozen of his best men that way.'

'Well we'll think of something,' said Eragon. 'In the meantime, we should calm everyone down and show we're still in control.'

'And we should prepare for the funeral right away,' said Elessari. 'To show respect.'

'Yes, of course,' said Eragon.

'There's only one thing that confuses me here,' Orik broke in.

'Yes? What is it, Orik?'

'The egg,' said Orik. 'Why didn't they steal it? They must've gone right through the audience chamber, but they left it alone. Why?'

'I don't know,' said Eragon. 'Maybe they didn't see it.' He clutched at the egg, which he'd been holding all through the discussion, having not put it down for a second after discovering it was untouched. 'But the point is it's okay,' he added. 'We've still got it, and once it hatches it will be our strongest weapon.'

'If it hatches,' Roran muttered.

'When,' said Eragon, giving him what he thought was a pointed look.

'Let's not argue, please,' said Nasuada. 'We need to-,'

'I wasn't arguing,' Eragon whined.

'Yes, yes,' said Nasuada. 'I agree we should strike back and that this should be the catalyst for it. Let's go our separate ways for now and think on what we should do. We'll meet tonight and everyone can put forward suggestions. Agreed?'

'Agreed,' said Roran.

'A good idea,' said Elessari. 'I will see you then.'

She took her leave, and the rest of the councillors wandered off, either alone or in pairs. Eragon left quickly by himself, but not because he wanted to be alone. There had been a noticeable absence at the meeting, and that was Arya's. He hurried away to find her.

Naturally Eragon had a fair idea of where she might be; he was well versed in finding her favourite haunts. He headed for one of the most likely – a quiet glade in the forest outside Ellesméra. And he found her there, sitting alone beneath a large tree with her head in her hands. Eragon went straight to her without another thought, and touched her on the shoulder. She looked up sharply at this, and to his dismay he saw her eyes were reddened and swimming with tears. He'd never seen her cry before. Not that it didn't make sense to see her do it now, of course…

'Arya,' he said. 'Are you all right?'

Arya looked away from him, saying nothing.

Eragon, not to be put off, sat down next to her. After hesitating for about half a minute, he plucked up courage and put his arm around the elf's shoulders. Arya made no move, and his heart leapt. But then she shrugged him off. 'Don't,' she mumbled.

'Sorry,' said Eragon, clutching the arm with his other hand as if it'd been burnt.

Silence, and he sought for something else to say.

'I – this must be terrible for you,' he said at last. 'I mean… it's no consolation, but I know what it's like to lose a parent.'

Arya said nothing.

'It wasn't right,' Eragon tried. 'She shouldn't have died like that.'

Silence.

'I swear I'll do all I can to avenge her.'

Still, Arya wouldn't look at him.

Eragon tried desperately to think of something else he could say, something that would comfort her and make things all right again. But his mind had gone blank. Perhaps, he thought wildly, perhaps he could show his sympathy with touch. So he reached out and tried to take her hand in his. But she pulled it away, finally looking around at him as she did so and revealing that, although tear-struck and pale, her face was wearing an expression of extreme irritation. She stood up, taking him by surprise, and turned to leave. Eragon got up and went after her, tagging behind her to the edge of the clearing, where she stopped and faced him.

'What do you want?' she demanded.

'I – just to comfort you,' said Eragon. 'In your grief. I care about you. If there's anything I can do…'

'There is,' said Arya.

'Name it,' said Eragon, brightening up.

Arya looked him in the eye. 'Leave me alone,' she said. 'For once, just stop following me around and let me be by myself. Is it really too much to ask?'

Eragon gaped. He couldn't have been more shocked if she had accused him of killing Islanzadí with his own hands.

Arya was staring at him, waiting for an answer.

'I – I didn't mean to annoy you,' Eragon said at last. 'I just… I love you, Arya.'

'I know,' said Arya. 'Don't you think I know you think you're in love with me? Do you think I'm blind?'

'No, I-,'

'I would have to have been blind to have missed it,' said Arya in icy tones. 'You think you love me; you have more than hinted at it a hundred times already. I have tried my best to tell you I didn't feel the same way, but you ignored it.'

'I thought… I can't help it!' Eragon burst forth. 'I just – I couldn't bear to be away from you. My love is…'

'You are not in love with me,' said Arya. She touched his cheek with her fingertips, making him shudder inside. 'Your feelings toward me are not love,' she said. 'They are what we call lust. You follow me around and think of me because you are obsessed by how I look, not how I am inside. You know nothing about me; how can it be love? No, Eragon. Your feelings are nothing but infatuation, and I cannot respect that. Listen to me now, and remember, because I will only say it once. I do not love you. I will forgive and forget your behaviour if you stop it now, but I can promise you that your feelings will never be reciprocated. You are a child to me. Nothing more.'

Eragon listened to all this, and felt as though his heart were crumbling inside him. But he wouldn't accept it, either. 'No!' he cried. 'Arya, I – I am a rider, not a child. Can any child have done half the things I've done? Don't you respect me at all?'

'I can respect you, but not the way you act toward me,' said Arya.

'But it is love,' Eragon insisted. 'I know it is! I can feel it inside me. And when you pushed me away all those times, I felt as though I would die. Arya, you're breaking my heart.'

Arya had lost her cold, controlled look. Now she radiated nothing but naked contempt. 'You know nothing, Eragon Shadeslayer,' she said.

Eragon grabbed her hand. 'I know that I would do anything to make you care for me,' he said. 'Anything at all. You are all that can give my life any meaning.'

Arya wrenched her hand away with a violent twisting motion. Then she slapped him across the face, twice. 'Think with what you keep in your head, not what you keep in your trousers,' she snapped, and walked out of the clearing.

Saphira sighed and rested her head on her foreclaws, her tail neatly curled around her body so that the tip was touching her chin. Her ice-coloured eyes were on Eragon, who was hunched with his back against her belly, sobbing his heart out. He'd been doing it for at least an hour by her guess, and she had waited faithfully by his side, saying nothing but letting him take some small comfort from her presence. She was wiser than to try and talk to him; anything he'd tried to say so far had been completely incoherent. Even his mind, when she probed at it, was in too much of a mess to be communicated with. Not that she needed to ask him what was wrong. Even without the insight she had into his mind, she would have been able to guess. Arya again. Always Arya. And it looked like it had been a particularly ugly encounter this time around. And in spite of her natural sympathy for him she couldn't help but feel more than a little exasperated. And, though she felt guilty about admitting it to herself, she was strongly inclined to believe that he'd probably brought it on himself. It wouldn't be the first time.

Eragon cried inconsolably, too miserable even to feel embarrassed about it. His hands, cupped around the silver egg, were already drenched with tears. Seeing it through his blurred vision, he had the vague thought that it looked as if the egg were drowning in a miniature sea. But what did it matter? It was all over. Arya did not love him, and she never would, and with that unavoidable fact dominating his mind he felt as if everything had ceased to matter. Saphira, the egg, Galbatorix, the Varden… everything. Even Islanzadí's death felt meaningless now. He had lost the centre of his existence, the heart and soul of his being, the thing that brought his world to life. And if that was true, how could anything mean anything? No, no, it was all dead to him now.

He let these thoughts chase themselves around his head, and cried all the harder, oblivious to the world around him.

But all things pass away, and even someone as miserable as Eragon was at that moment couldn't cry forever. He subsided at long last, and lay back against Saphira's warm scales, cradling the egg against his chest. There was a long silence, punctuated only by the young rider's occasional hiccups. Finally Saphira chose to break it.

'Heartbroken again?' her mental voice asked.

'Yes,' was all Eragon could say.

'It will pass,' Saphira said gently.

Eragon said nothing. The dragon's reasonable tone irritated him for some reason.

'It seems we are both doomed to be unlucky in love,' said Saphira.

'I suppose so,' said Eragon, not really paying attention.

'Life is cruel, but pain never lasts forever,' said Saphira. 'We can be certain of finding out for sure, I think.'

Eragon sobbed again, briefly, and wiped his tears away with the back of his hand. 'I don't want to live forever,' he said. 'If a mortal life is painful, an immortal life can only be worse.'

'Not necessarily,' said Saphira. 'We shall find out. Cheer up, little one.'

'Why should I?' said Eragon in sullen tones.

Saphira smiled. 'Because I said so. Will you give me back my egg, Eragon?'

'What? Oh, yes. Of course.'

Eragon passed the egg to Saphira, and she held it in the palm of one huge forepaw and nudged it gently with her snout. 'My daughter,' she said. 'At least I have you.'

'And me, don't forget,' said Eragon.

'I'm sorry, Eragon,' said Saphira. 'I don't know why my egg won't hatch for anyone in the Varden.'

'If only there was some way of telling her how much we need her help,' said Eragon.

'H'm,' said Saphira. She sniffed at the egg, staring at it intently.

Then, quite suddenly, it moved. Eragon jumped in shock, stumbled backwards and then fell awkwardly onto his backside. Not getting up, he stared at the egg. Which moved again.

Saphira too had started, jerking her head upwards away from the egg. Now she lowered it again, watching closely. 'My child…' she murmured.

'It's hatching!' said Eragon, flopping forward onto his hands and knees and scrabbling over to her paw. 'Look, it moved again!'

The egg juddered violently on the scaly surface of Saphira's palm. No sound came from inside it, but they could both see its shell beginning to crack. 'She's hatching,' said Saphira. 'But not for a rider.'

'But perhaps she'll fight for us on her own,' said Eragon, not caring.

The egg moved and was still for a time. Then it began to rock back and forth, not with the subtle movement of a normal egg, but with a strong, quick motion that was almost savage. The cracks in the shell spread further. Then a flake of it fell away, and the first sign that something was wrong appeared. Because as soon as there was a breach in the shell, a black fluid like ink oozed out and onto Saphira's palm. She hissed in alarm, and then a smell – a foul, sickening smell – arose from the egg. Eragon and Saphira reeled backwards, both crying out in disgust. And still the egg kept moving, and as the smell increased and more black fluid poured out, all the joy and wonder of the hatching vanished from the air. It was replaced by the stench, which was so horrible it made Eragon's stomach heave. But he could not look away, and neither could Saphira.

Others, alerted by the noise and the smell, came running to see what was going on, and as the eggshell began to break apart a crowd gathered to watch.

The egg broke open at last, its unnatural hatching over, and… it spilled out onto Saphira's scales.

It was a dragon. In a way. Saphira and Eragon, and the crowd, stared in horror and disbelief as the thing scrabbled in its pool of vile slime, trying to stand.

The hatchling was small and had had silver scales that matched its egg, but they were besmirched by the black muck it had been born with. And the hatchling itself was deformed. Horribly and unnaturally. The horns were already long, and had a twisted shape like those of a goat or an urgal. The wings were overlarge and ragged at the edges, like a pair of torn banners, and when the hatchling opened its mouth to breathe it revealed that its teeth were jagged and broken. The worst part was the eyes. The lids parted for the first time, and behind them there was… nothing. The eyes were there, but they had no colour. They were pitch black from edge to edge, and had no visible pupils. They were not windows to the soul. They were black pits set into a warped and twisted face, and revealed no expression and no life at all.

At the sight of the ghastly hatchling, the crowd let out gasps and cries of mingled dismay and revulsion. Even Eragon backed away. Only Saphira did not move. She nosed gently at the thing sitting in her palm, and the hatchling responded, stretching out with its own small snout to touch hers. Saphira sniffed and shuddered, and then set about cleaning the black slime off. Or she tried to. The instant the stuff touched her tongue she roared and spat it out, licking desperately at the dirt in an attempt to clean it off.

'Here,' said a woman from the crowd. She came forward, offering up the bucket of water she'd been carrying. Saphira drank gratefully and the woman backed off, warily eyeing the grotesque hatchling.

Saphira looked around at Eragon, her expression unreadable. 'Will you help me, little one?'

Eragon hesitated briefly, but came forward anyway. Taking the bucket of water, he began to try and wash the slime off the hatchling, though he did his best not to touch it. The creature seemed to like the feel of the water, and didn't try and avoid it. Someone handed him a piece of cloth, and with it he washed away the black muck from both the hatchling and Saphira's paw. Once it had gone and the hatchling had shaken itself dry, the smell faded somewhat. But if they had thought that getting the slime off would make the hatchling look less twisted they were mistaken. If anything, it looked worse. Now its scales were clean, it was apparent that they weren't just silver. Instead, veins of blackness ran over their surface as over the surface of a leaf. They were all over the hatchling, from snout to tail.

The hatchling, apparently unaware of the attention on it, stood up and waddled toward its mother. Saphira snouted at it again, growling deep in her throat. The hatchling seemed to find the noise comforting. It curled up on her foreleg, beneath the scaly overhang of her chin, wrapping its wings around itself.

Eragon screwed up his courage and went to stand by Saphira's head. 'Saphira,' he said in a low voice. 'How can this have happened?'

Saphira swivelled her eye around to look at him. 'I don't know,' she said.

'I think I know,' said a voice. It was Nasuada, coming toward them from the crowd. She stood by Eragon, looking at the deformed hatchling with a grave expression.

'What do you think, Nasuada?' asked Eragon.

'A spell,' said Nasuada. 'We were wrong. The assassin who killed Islanzadí did see the egg. And he cursed it. Made it hatch into… into this thing.'

'This thing is my daughter,' said Saphira coldly.

'And whoever did this to her is going to pay,' said Eragon, aware the crowd was listening to them. 'And we know who it was, don't we Nasuada?'

'Galbatorix,' said Nasuada, to an angry murmur from the listeners.

'Yes,' said Eragon, watching the hatchling. As if feeling his gaze on it, the creature lifted its head and looked around at him. Its eyes were like holes in its face. Looking at them made Eragon feel like he was cursed.

Chapter Fourteen

Murtagh's Secret

Shruikan and Skade flew side-by-side, their wings fanning in the light wind. They looked remarkably alike; both had the sharp, elegant features they had inherited from their parents, and both had six head-spikes or horns, an unusually high number – dragons usually have only four. And they were the same size, more or less, and had a similar lean, powerful shape. Skade turned and twisted playfully as she flew, her golden eyes burning with life. Galbatorix, seated on Shruikan's back, watched her and smiled. He had scarcely stopped smiling once since her return.

But Shruikan and Skade were not flying alone. Hovering around both dragons were the hatchlings. All five of them, their wings whirring, looking like a flock of oversized bats. They stayed close by the two adults, riding on the slipstream of wind they created. It had been a month since the eggs had hatched, and the young dragons had grown a great deal already. All of them were strong and had a great enthusiasm for living – they played and fought among themselves, squabbled over their food and kept up a constant steam of chirps and squeaks whenever they were feeling lively – which was most of the time. They were some of the most vocal hatchlings Galbatorix had ever encountered. Skade had told him it was a good thing – according to her, a noisy hatchling was an intelligent hatchling. 'Vidar was always chattering when he was small,' she'd said in proud tones. 'And he grew up to be very bright. Strong in magic, too.'

During this time – this time with Skade – Galbatorix had been happier than he had been for years. With her constant presence by his side, he had shed the air of weariness he'd worn for so long and regained that inner fire which had driven him to do all he had done in his life so far. It was affecting the way he ruled, too. When he held an audience with someone, the visitor would find him open and talkative, a much more approachable figure now, more often than not with a small black dragon perched on his shoulder.

No-one knew just who this silver dragon was that had taken up residence in the city, but it was being popularly said that she was Shruikan's mate and mother to the hatchlings that Galbatorix was raising. He was happy enough to let them believe it. It couldn't do any harm.

The truth was that he had lost some of his interest in ruling, and would often leave Murtagh in charge so that he could go out flying with Skade and Shruikan. But Murtagh was being equally irresponsible at the moment. Always accustomed to going off on his own from time to time, he had at least once made some excuse to leave some lesser official in command so he could leave the city. Galbatorix would have complained more about this, but he could hardly deny Murtagh the right to some recreation when he himself was taking every opportunity for it. Still, there was something about it that bothered him, though he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Something about Murtagh's demeanour. Something about the secretive way he spoke about his little excursions, dodging any question that was too searching.

But for the time being Galbatorix was content to let things be and simply enjoy spending time with Skade. He sat comfortably between Shruikan's shoulders and watched the hatchlings fly – weaving in and around Skade and Shruikan, occasionally perching on Shruikan's head and neck to rest. Skömm, contrary to what his name would suggest, was the largest and strongest of the hatchlings. He sat on Shruikan's head between the uppermost pair of horns, and turned around to look at Galbatorix.

'Hello, Skömm,' said Galbatorix.

'Skömm!' said Skömm. It was his only word so far.

'You're a clever little thing, aren't you?' said Galbatorix.

'Skömm,' said Skömm. He turned away, peering intently at something up ahead.

Galbatorix followed the dragon's gaze, and saw a large red dragon flying toward them.

Shruikan had seen him too. 'Thorn,' he said, using telepathy so he could be heard above the wind around their ears. 'What's he doing here?'

Thorn reached them and fell in beside Shruikan. He was riderless.

'Thorn, why are you here?' Shruikan asked sternly.

'I came to find you, my lord,' said Thorn. 'Something bad has happened.'

'What is it?'

'I've lost Murtagh,' said Thorn.

'What do you mean, lost him?' said Galbatorix. It was rude to butt in on a mental conversation, but he did it anyway. Not many people were likely to call him on his manners anyway.

'I mean I don't know where he is,' said Thorn. 'I came to find you because I wasn't sure what I should do.'

'Tell us everything,' said Shruikan.

Thorn paused. Although he tried to hide his feelings from them, they were both practised in the art of reading other people's minds and could tell the red dragon was feeling immensely guilty. 'We have been keeping a secret from you,' he said eventually.

'I had my suspicions,' said Galbatorix. 'Well?' When Thorn didn't answer straight away he added; 'You'll have to tell us if you want our help.'

'Murtagh has been visiting someone in the Varden,' said Thorn. 'I've been taking him to Ellesméra to meet with them. I didn't like it but he swore me to secrecy. He went there again last night, and this time he never came back.'

Galbatorix swore. 'The young idiot! What did he think he was playing at? If he's been captured-,'

'-Or if he's turned traitor,' said Shruikan.

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'I don't believe he'd do that. But I would still dearly like to know who he was seeing. Well, Thorn?'

'I can't tell you,' said Thorn. 'He made me swear not to in the ancient language. But he's not a traitor. He'd never do that.'

Galbatorix sighed. 'We'll have to go to Ellesméra and see if we can find out what's going on.'

'Wouldn't it be more sensible to send someone?' asked Shruikan. 'A spy, or… you shouldn't risk your own life.'

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'I'm going myself.'

'And I'm coming with you,' Skade added.

'Shruikan, you go back to Urû'baen with Thorn,' said Galbatorix. 'If I don't return, act as you see fit. I trust you.'

Both Shruikan and Thorn showed surprise at this. 'A dragon in charge of Alagaësia? Are you serious?' said Shruikan.

'I don't see why not,' said Galbatorix. 'Dragons are as intelligent as humans, and a lot more trustworthy in my opinion. Thorn, you will do as Shruikan tells you. Take the hatchlings with you, and look after them. Understood?'

'My lord, I really don't-,' Thorn began.

'Be quiet,' said Galbatorix. 'I rule here, and you will do as I say. Shruikan, will you do as I ask?'

'I will, but I don't like it,' said Shruikan.

'Thankyou, Shruikan,' said Galbatorix.

Skade moved over until she was as close to her brother as she could get, and Galbatorix made a daring mid-air leap onto her back. Landing safely, he sat down between her shoulders and held onto her neck. Shruikan called the hatchlings to him. They didn't want to leave their surrogate parents, but when Skade growled sternly at them they went to Shruikan and perched on his back.

'Right,' said Galbatorix out loud, with a maniacal gleam in his eye. 'Shruikan, Thorn, good luck. We'll be fine, I'm sure.'

'Goodbye, Galbatorix,' said Shruikan.

'Goodbye, my lord,' said Thorn.

Galbatorix nodded to them, and he and Skade flew away.

Once they were alone together, some of Galbatorix's normal caution reasserted itself. He pulled out a water bottle from the pocket of his robe, and poured a drop of water onto the palm of his hand. Holding the droplet with his fingers curled to shield it from the wind, he put away the bottle, focused his magic, and muttered the words 'Draumr kópa.'

The drop of water turned inky black, and then lit up. Galbatorix squinted at it, and it showed him a vision of Murtagh. The young man was standing in a forest somewhere. He looked upset. But he also appeared to be alone, and he definitely wasn't in a dungeon or being attacked. Galbatorix watched him a little longer, and then flicked the drop of water away.

'What did you see?' asked Skade. She must have overheard him saying the words.

'He's not imprisoned,' said Galbatorix. 'He's among some trees. I think he must be just outside Ellesméra somewhere.'

'That's a good thing,' said Skade. 'We can rescue him without having to go in there.'

'Hah, yes. I hate to think what might happen if I showed my face in Ellesméra. Especially with the Varden there.'

'I don't know why you haven't sent an army in there and wiped them all out,' said Skade.

'I thought about it,' said Galbatorix. 'But after what happened at Urû'baen they seem to have lost their nerve. I was hoping that if things kept on like this they'd surrender or start making peace negotiations. I suppose I've been too distracted lately to do something definite.'

'You shouldn't let me take over your life,' said Skade unexpectedly. 'You are the ruler here, and your duty should be to your people first.'

'I know,' said Galbatorix. 'You're right, Skade… but I've been ruling here for a hundred years. That's a very long time to control an empire. I've been so lonely and tired of life, and when you came back it was like I'd been given a reason to keep going. I suppose it was only to be expected that I would want to break free, even if it was only for a few weeks.'

'Then leave,' said Skade. 'Give up the leadership. Let someone else take your place.'

'But it's my duty,' said Galbatorix miserably. 'I don't like it, but I have to do it. If I left my throne, how do I know my replacement would keep stability like I have? I destroyed the old riders, and that means I have to pay the price, and go on paying it until I die.'

'But you never will die,' said Skade. 'You've already lived much longer than a mortal human would, and paid a lifetime's worth of hard work. Isn't that enough?'

'I don't know,' said Galbatorix. 'I just don't know. But my instincts tell me it isn't. I thought about handing the rulership over to Murtagh, but he's hardly more than a boy. And still stupid enough to go right into the enemy's lair. If he had all my duties suddenly placed on his shoulders, it would destroy him. I can't do that to him; he's had a tough enough time already. And he might not want to be ruler, and if he turns it down I can't refuse him. A leader who's forced to lead is usually a bad one.'

'You're being forced,' said Skade.

'No. I chose to rule. Morzan wanted to head the new government, you know. He even tried to argue me into letting me do it, but the idea of having him in charge was more than I could cope with. Everyone was calling for me to be king; they wouldn't have accepted anyone else. Most people wouldn't believe it today, but I was a hero back then. The people loved me. They called me a liberator, they said they were glad the riders were gone. It's only now, a hundred years later, that I've suddenly become a merciless tyrant who took over by force. But let me assure you that the commoners were firmly on my side back then. They urged me to lead them, and I decided that I would. I was even proud of it at the time.'

'And now they hate you,' said Skade.

'Not really,' said Galbatorix. 'Most of them don't care who is on the throne, just as long as they keep the peace. They blame me for everything that goes wrong, of course. And if this boy, Eragon, managed to kill me and destroy my government, they'd clamour for him to take my place and the cycle would begin again. It's nonsense. The people can't be relied on to do anything but be discontented with the way things are. They only stopped supporting the Varden because they're losing at the moment. They'd go back to it if they thought they looked like winning again.' Galbatorix pulled a disgusted face.

'Humans,' said Skade. 'I never could stand most of them.'

'Neither could I.'

They flew on in silence for a time. And Ellesméra got closer.

The place where Murtagh had been standing when Galbatorix scryed him was a peaceful glade in the forest of Du Weldenvarden, just outside Ellesméra. The young rider was still there, but he wasn't alone. Standing nervously with his hand on the hilt of his sword, Zar'roc, he said; 'I swear to you, I didn't know anything about it.'

The other person in the glade burst into tears. 'I thought you loved me. How could you do this to me?'

'I do love you,' said Murtagh. 'How could you think I'd be so twisted?'

'It must have been you. You were in Ellesméra last night, and you work for – for him. You were planning it all along, weren't you?'

'No!' said Murtagh. 'Arya, I have no idea who did it, but I swear it wasn't me. I'll say it in the ancient language if you want me to.'

'Forget it!' Arya shouted. 'Get out of here, Murtagh. I never want to see you again.'

'But Arya-,'

'Go!' said Arya. 'Go on, get out of here before I change my mind about letting you go. I should have known you would turn out like your father.'

'I'm nothing like him,' Murtagh hissed, finally losing his calm demeanour. 'I don't want to hear you say that ever again, understand?'

'I should have known you wouldn't be able to handle the truth,' said Arya, green eyes flashing. 'You're exactly like him. A traitor and a monster. I saw Saphira's daughter this morning. I saw what you made her into. You've destroyed Saphira. She's heartbroken. And the hatchling. What sort of future can she look forward to when you've made her into a monster? She's an innocent, but you cursed her.'

'Cursed?' said Murtagh. 'You really think I did that? Arya, I don't even know how to do that. And if I did, d'you really think I'd do it? To a child? I can't believe you could possibly believe I would.'

'Why not?' said Arya. 'Like father like son!'

Murtagh exploded. 'I told you not to say that!'

'What are you going to do about it?' Arya sneered.

Murtagh raised his hand to hit her, but restrained himself. 'I'm going to tell Galbatorix about all this,' he said. 'I'm going to tell him where the Varden is and how many warriors it has. And we'll come here with an army and destroy all of you. He was reluctant to do it, but once he knows what I know he'll change his mind. You'll see all your friends die, elf, and it will be your fault.'

'Not if I kill your first,' Arya snarled. She drew her sword.

Murtagh was fast. He wrenched Zar'roc out of the shoulder-belt he was wearing it on, and readied himself to fight. 'Come on, then,' he said, his handsome face full of fury.

Arya hesitated. There were still tears on her face, and her hands were shaking slightly. The human and the elf made eye-contact for a brief second, and each saw the anguish in the other. But it was all over now.

Arya attacked.

She dashed toward Murtagh, bringing her sword around in a powerful sweep. Murtagh brought Zar'roc up, deflecting the blow, and used the momentum to make his own strike. Arya blocked and attacked again, and for a time the two of them fought furiously, making no sound but for the clash of metal. Both were fast and strong fighters, and skill-wise they were about evenly matched. But neither was fighting properly. As their duel wore on and neither took an injury, it became apparent there was a reason for it other than their being a good match. They were both avoiding hurting each other. Neither one, in spite of their rage, was attacking to kill. Knowing this, Arya let out a sob, but she didn't let up either. It couldn't last forever, and it didn't.

Murtagh's sword caught Arya on the cheek, leaving a painful gash. She cried out, more from shock than pain, and Murtagh backed off, lowering his sword. 'I'm sorry-,' he began.

Arya glared at him, blood dripping off her chin. She screamed and charged. But before she reached him a deafening crack split the air. A bolt of white lightning struck the ground between them, knocking Arya off her feet. Murtagh ran to take cover at the base of a tree, and even as he became aware of the suddenly howling wind he saw a huge silver dragon drop out of the sky and pin Arya down with its claws.

'Arya!' Murtagh shouted. Forgetting their feud at once, he ran to help her.

The black-robed man seated on the dragon's back jumped down, sliding over the dragon's sloping flank so that he landed safely. 'Murtagh!' he shouted. 'Stop right there.'

Murtagh recognised that stern voice. He stopped. 'My lord!' he stammered. 'What are you doing here?'

'Rescuing you,' said Galbatorix. 'Murtagh, what in the hell were you thinking coming here? You could have been killed! I thought you were smarter than this.'

'I'm sorry, my lord,' said Murtagh, bowing his head. He realised that Zar'roc was still in his hand, and hastily returned it to its sheath on his back.

'I should think so,' said Galbatorix. 'Well done, Skade.'

The silver dragon growled. 'Shall I kill the elf?' she asked.

'No!' said Murtagh. 'No, don't! Let her go, please!'

Galbatorix looked at him suspiciously, and went to see who the elf was. Arya, uninjured but trapped, stared up at him with hatred. 'You,' she snarled.

'I know you, don't I?' said Galbatorix, stroking his beard with a thoughtful expression. 'I think I know you.'

'Let me up, or-,' Arya hesitated. There wasn't very much she could do.

'Ah, that's right,' said Galbatorix. 'Arya, daughter of Islanzadí. What an odd coincidence to find you here. Well, I don't plan to kill you. I'll let you go on one condition.'

'I will not make an agreement with the likes of you,' Arya spat back.

Galbatorix sighed. Why didn't anyone ever want to listen to him? 'Let her up, will you Skade? Maybe she'll be more interested in listening then.'

Skade lifted her paw reluctantly, and Arya wriggled out from underneath it.

And then-

'No!' a voice screamed from somewhere. Galbatorix looked up sharply, reaching for his sword. A ball of blue light blasted out of the nearby trees, hitting him full in the chest. Galbatorix fell to his knees, crying out in pain. Skade rushed at the unseen attacker, opening her mouth to flame, but then she roared and fell, unable to get up again. Galbatorix, watching helplessly, saw someone running toward him. It was Eragon. Of all people, it was Eragon who had caught him off-guard. The young rider had his sword in his hand, and his face was full of passion. Galbatorix struggled to get up, but his limbs had gone numb and his chest was burning with agony. He managed to turn his head, and saw Murtagh approaching, drawing his sword. From up ahead, other people were coming running. He could hear them shouting. Whether Murtagh could hear them or not was uncertain, but if he tried to fight them all he would die.

'Run, you idiot!' Galbatorix bellowed. 'Run! Get out of here!'

Murtagh stopped. 'I can't leave you!' he yelled back.

'You'll do what I say!' Galbatorix shouted. 'Now run!'

Murtagh ran. Left alone, half-conscious, Galbatorix looked up as Eragon reached him. The young man was panting and grinning triumphantly. 'Got you,' he said.

Galbatorix spat blood. 'Congratulations, boy. Be sure to finish me off quickly. I could cause you a lot of trouble.'

'No,' said Eragon. 'I'm not going to kill you. You'll be a useful hostage. And I'm not going to be a coward like you were when you had me. I'll make you regret leaving me alive.'

'I don't care what you do to me,' said Galbatorix. 'But let Skade go.'

'I'm not going to do what you tell me,' said Eragon. 'You're not my king.'

The people who had come with him were swarming all over Skade, tying her legs and wings together. Galbatorix made another mighty effort to stand up, reaching feebly for his sword. But Eragon grabbed the hilt and took it away from him.

'You're my prisoner now,' he sneered. 'My lord.'

'Skade!' Galbatorix shouted. 'Let her go, you-,'

Eragon laughed out loud. He hit Galbatorix on the chin, hard, with the hilt of his sword, and the King of Alagaësia slumped to the ground.

Chapter Fifteen

Roles Reversed

Much later, Galbatorix sat hunched in a small cell somewhere under Ellesméra and tried to keep warm. His captors had let him keep his robes and had provided him with a jug of water, but that was about all they'd done that was kind. He hadn't exactly expected them to treat him with respect, but he certainly hadn't expected what had happened instead. As soon as they had got him to his cell and searched him for hidden weapons, the torture had begun. Eragon, who had accompanied him to the dungeon, had personally ordered that Galbatorix be beaten by his guards, and they had done it, and cruelly so. Both a club and whip had been used on him, and when he was barely conscious and in a lot of pain they left him alone.

Now Galbatorix tried his best to keep still, grimacing and wrapping his robe around him as tightly as he dared. It was lucky he had worn a thick woollen one that day, since he'd been expecting to fly at a high altitude. Now, perhaps, it would end up serving as his shroud. A few more beatings like that and he would die.

It wasn't just the pain. He could handle that, more or less. It was the humiliation that was worse. That and the fear. Not for himself, but for Skade. He hadn't seen her since the clearing, and there was no way of knowing where they could have taken her or what they might be doing to her. Was she, too, being hurt by her captors? Maybe so, maybe not. It was the not knowing that was worst.

But in spite of his pain and anxiety he could still think lucidly enough, and try and analyse the situation. It was a skill he'd developed after a century of playing the game of politics, and had served him well. He was a prisoner. And there was very little chance that he could escape. His magic had been locked away from him while he was unconscious, and he was in no condition to fight. Assuming Murtagh had made it back to Urû'baen, he would take command. And Shruikan and Thorn could help him. Shruikan had never taken Galbatorix's place before, but if anyone knew how to rule as he did it was the black dragon. Either way, they would certainly send people to rescue him.

Galbatorix couldn't help but smile grimly at the idea. They would tear Ellesméra apart to get him back if they had to. The boy would probably regret keeping him before long.

Hours ticked by, uncounted by Galbatorix, who couldn't see the sun any more. He was hungry, but no-one brought him any food. All he had was the jug of water, which he drank slowly and did his best to conserve. He had no way of telling whether they'd refill it, and thirst was a horrible thing to die of.

At last – at long last – the cell door opened. Galbatorix looked up, bracing himself for another attack. But it wasn't the guards this time. It was Eragon. The young man was pale, but wearing an expression of thinly concealed triumph. Sitting on his shoulder was… well, Galbatorix had to assume it was a dragon hatchling because it couldn't very well be anything else, but the thing was so twisted and horrible that it only just qualified as a dragon. Forgetting the more obvious things he could have said, Galbatorix couldn't help but say; 'What's that on your shoulder?'

'This is Vervada,' said Eragon, touching the dragon's warped head. 'Saphira's daughter. She should have been as beautiful as her mother is, but you changed that, didn't you?'

'I changed – what are you talking about?' said Galbatorix.

'Don't lie,' said Eragon. 'There's no hiding it from me. You sent someone into Ellesméra. They cursed Vervada to look like this, and they killed Islanzadí. You can pretend you know nothing about it, but I know it was you. It has your fingerprints all over it.'

Galbatorix shrugged. 'You can believe that if you want to,' he said. 'But a curse that could do that to a dragon isn't one a human could cast. If you ask me, I'd say that looks like the work of a Shade. And you know perfectly well I haven't got a Shade working for me any more.'

Vervada turned her head toward him. Her dead eyes seemed to bore straight into him, and he grimaced.

'I don't believe you,' said Eragon. 'Why should I? You won't tell me anything true unless I force it out of you. What else could I expect? Someone who would betray his own people certainly couldn't be relied on to tell the truth.'

Galbatorix sighed. 'Feeling particularly self-righteous today, aren't we? Now, what have you done with Skade?'

Eragon scowled. 'I'm going to be asking the questions here. Now tell me: who did you send to kill Islanzadí, and are they still here?'

'I didn't send anyone,' said Galbatorix. 'I didn't even know she was dead until you told me. I was hoping that the Varden would reconsider and ask for a peace treaty, but it seems I was being too optimistic.'

'Say that again in the ancient language,' said Eragon.

'Fine,' said Galbatorix. He switched to that language, and said; 'I did not have Islanzadí murdered.'

Eragon hesitated. 'It's still worthless to me,' he said at length. 'You probably know how to lie in the ancient language. Oromis told me it was possible, and if anyone would spend time finding out how to do it it's you.'

'If you're not going to believe anything I tell you, then there's not much point in asking me questions,' said Galbatorix in his coldest voice.

'Oh, there is,' said Eragon. 'I need to ask them now so you'll know what to say when you can't bear the suffering any longer.'

'So that's the way of it, is it?' said Galbatorix. 'How… noble of you.'

'I will do what I must to save Alagaësia,' said Eragon.

'I must say,' said Galbatorix. 'I thought you were too virtuous to use torture.'

'On anyone else, we wouldn't,' said Eragon. 'But you… for you I can make an exception. You deserve worse.'

Galbatorix paused. 'You seem to think morality is colour-coded, don't you?' he said eventually. 'Just because I wear black and have black hair and a beard, and because I ride a black dragon, you think you can spot my moral character straight away. That's it, isn't it? Or is it because I don't smile enough? Or because I happen to be the King in these parts?'

'It's because you destroyed the riders,' Eragon spat. 'You ended a golden age out of pure malice, and for that you can never be forgiven.'

'And what are you trying to do?' said Galbatorix sharply. 'Usher in an age of peace and enlightenment? You can't possibly be that deluded. Then again, maybe you are. Have you ever heard the saying that history goes in cycles?'

'Yes,' said Eragon, rather hesitantly. Somehow, saying it felt like weakness.

'You'll find that it's true,' said Galbatorix. 'When I was young…' he paused, and smiled with a kind of wistful sadness. '…When I was young I was just like you. Reckless, passionate, idealistic, and convinced that the dominant power in the land was evil and should be destroyed. I led a rebellion that wasn't much different from the Varden, and the war I started was… much more destructive than I ever expected. I never thought it out. I only wanted justice, and by justice I meant revenge. And by the time I had had had my revenge and made that dream a reality, the riders were gone. And now here you are, and have you considered what you might destroy by the time you're done? I doubt that very much. No, Eragon… in reality you're no better than I was. And unless people like you are willing to break the cycle of violence and revolution, it will keep on happening. Whatever government you set up if you destroy mine will be overthrown in turn. That's how these things go. Trust me on this. I know.'

'I'm nothing like you,' said Eragon, hard-faced.

'No, not really,' said Galbatorix. He smiled thinly under his beard. 'I have a brain.'

'Insults won't save you now,' said Eragon. 'I have more questions to ask.'

Galbatorix sat back and sighed. 'Go on. It's not like I have anything else to do right now…'

'Who is this dragon we captured with you?' said Eragon. 'Why were you with her instead of Shruikan? And why are you so worried about her?'

'Her name is Skade,' said Galbatorix. 'She and I are… we've known each other a long time. But I can promise you that she had nothing to do with my government. She wasn't there during my revolution, and she has never killed or attacked any of your allies. She has no part in this. Let her go.'

'Why should I?' said Eragon.

'Because if you don't then you're keeping an innocent captive. It's against Alagaësian law to imprison someone without charge, and that's a law the old riders created so you have every reason to obey it.'

'I know the law,' said Eragon. 'But this Skade is guilty of attacking a member of the royal family. We can imprison her for as long as we like.'

'The elf wasn't hurt,' Galbatorix pointed out.

'I saw the cut on her cheek before I healed it,' said Eragon. 'It was only minor, but it was still an injury. The law still applies.'

'Murtagh did that,' said Galbatorix.

'So you say. But we have no reason to take you at your word.'

Galbatorix sighed. 'What exactly are you trying to prove here, boy?'

'I'm trying to prove that I'm not my father,' said Eragon.

'That you're not like Morzan?' said Galbatorix. 'There isn't much point in that. Morzan wasn't your father.'

That caught Eragon off-guard. 'He wasn't?'

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'I am your father.'

Eragon went pale. 'That's not true.'

'Look inside yourself, you know it to be true,' said Galbatorix, a knowing gleam in his eye.

There was a long silence. Eragon looked as if he were going to be sick. He examined Galbatorix' face urgently, looking for any resemblance between their features. He saw his prisoner's face suddenly twitch. Galbatorix let out a little snort, and then burst out laughing.

'Stop that!' Eragon shouted. 'It's not funny!'

Galbatorix wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. 'Yes it is,' he said. 'It's extremely funny.'

'What, it's funny that you're my father?' said Eragon.

'No, it's funny that you believed me,' said Galbatorix, snickering. 'Of course I'm not your father.'

'You're not?' said Eragon. He was having trouble keeping up with this.

'I think the shame would kill me if I was,' said Galbatorix. 'No, I'm not. But it was worth it to see the look on your face. For someone terminally suspicious, you're incredibly naïve. Either way, it's still true that Morzan wasn't your father.'

'Really?' said Eragon. In spite of his humiliation, he felt hope rising inside him at the suggestion.

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'Murtagh thinks he's your brother, but you're only half-brothers. I know everything that goes on in my court, and it was the same sixteen years ago. I'm almost glad I kept most of it to myself, however. It was worth it after Murtagh told me how badly you overreacted when he told you Morzan was your father.'

Eragon glared at him. He was not liking how this was going. Galbatorix was his prisoner, in his power. He'd just suffered a painful beating. Most likely he had a few broken ribs by now. And there was the threat of worse to come, and yet he'd somehow managed to systematically humiliate him, Eragon, several times in the space of a few minutes. In fact, as he would realise later, Galbatorix had been in command of their conversation almost from the beginning. But that was his way.

'Well if Morzan wasn't my father, who was?' Eragon demanded. 'And say it in the ancient language.'

'I thought you said I can lie in it?' said Galbatorix. He switched to the ancient language anyway, and said; 'Morzan was not your father. Brom was.'

'Brom?' said Eragon.

'Yes. You're carrying his sword, I notice. So both you and Murtagh got your rightful inheritance. You dragon even has the same name as his did. The signs were all there to see. But I happen to know that Brom had an affair with Selena, your mother. Why else would she have run away while she was pregnant with you? Morzan had discovered her secret. That woman never could stay faithful to one man. She even made a pass at me once.'

'Don't say that about her,' said Eragon. 'Ever.'

'I'm afraid it's true,' said Galbatorix. 'I suppose even the most evil man in the land can look attractive to some. Anyway, you'll be glad to know I turned her down. She was much too young for me.'

'But if Brom was my father, why didn't he tell me?' said Eragon.

'I don't know,' said Galbatorix, shivering in the chilly air. 'Probably out of shame.'

Eragon kicked him in the face.

Galbatorix yelped in pain and clutched at his nose.

'You're scum,' Eragon snarled. 'I said you were scum, I know you're scum, you are scum. I won't feel any pity for you at all.'

'Good for you,' said Galbatorix, staring coldly at the other rider from behind a heavy nosebleed.

Eragon took Vervada off his shoulder and held her between his hands. She wrapped her tail and claws around them, and let out a low hiss.

'That's the only sound she makes,' said Eragon. 'Thanks to you.'

'I might be able to remove that curse,' said Galbatorix. 'If you'd let me try.'

Eragon laughed harshly. 'I'm not falling for that one, scum. Vervada may be monstrous to look at, but she can help me. She can understand me.'

'Then perhaps you shouldn't call her that while she can hear you,' said Galbatorix.

'We've discovered that her teeth are rather special,' said Eragon, ignoring him. He tapped Vervada gently on the head, and she opened her mouth, revealing rows of jagged fangs which had some kind of black liquid dripping from them. 'Venom,' said Eragon. 'Not deadly, according to the tests we made on it, but it probably wouldn't be nice to have it in your blood. I was thinking we might test it, but there's only one person we could test it on without making people complain.' He held out a hand, and Galbatorix's arm suddenly rose without his consent. Eragon grabbed it by the wrist, and pulled back the sleeve of his robe. Galbatorix tried to pull away, but Eragon wouldn't let go. 'Now feel the bite of what you created,' he hissed.

The young rider muttered a word, and Vervada bit. Her teeth sank into Galbatorix's arm, and she shook her head viciously, tearing the flesh. Almost instantly, the pain hit him. Terrible, burning pain that ripped into him, a thousand times worse than the mere feeling of her fangs in his arm. Galbatorix tried wildly to break free, suddenly wide-eyed, but the ogreish dragon held on like a bulldog, eerily silent all the while.

She let go after what felt like an eternity, and Galbatorix collapsed, his limbs twitching as the poison flooded into his system. Reaching desperately for something to anchor himself with, he caught hold of Eragon's leg. Eragon kicked him again, cruelly hitting him in the face, and he fell limply onto his back. The pain was unbearable. It was around him, inside him, eating away at him as if his blood had turned to acid. It was too much. Galbatorix screamed.

Up on the surface of Ellesméra, Skade shifted in her chains and felt the relentless rain drumming on her scales. It had been raining ever since she and Galbatorix had been captured. There was a high wind as well, and every now and then lightning would turn the grey light to burning white. It was her guardian storm, she knew. It was raging in protest because she was in danger. But there was little it could do. It hadn't been able to prevent them chaining her up and dragging her to this spot just outside the elvish settlement – a spot where, coincidently, a small house stood. It was empty and had been for some time. Oromis. She overhead someone say that name. It had been Oromis' house. But before that it had been Einás'. The house where she had hatched. So strange that she had come back to it again in this way.

Skade was only just aware that she was afraid. There was fear there, to be sure, but it was subsumed by rage. This was the second time she had been chained up like a pet dog, and the second time she had been bested by elves. Even though a hundred years had passed, she hadn't lost her hatred of them. And now it had only been reinforced.

Her guard was another dragon, blue and much smaller than herself. Saphira. That was her name. Skade couldn't help but be curious about her. Strange that she should have the same name her sister had had. There was an air of misery about her that Skade was also bemused by, and under different circumstances she might have asked about it. As it was the silver dragon stayed in sullen silence, watched over by Saphira, who refused to address her directly.

There were humans and elves about near her, and dwarves too. They were building a number of large structures out of wood and rope, and though Skade had no idea what they were she didn't like the look of them at all. The truth was that they were siege weapons; giant crossbows designed to take down a dragon. The Varden were taking no chances. Now that they had Galbatorix, they could expect an attack at any moment.

Hours dragged by, and the storm raged on while the sun got closer to the horizon, its light beginning to turn the purplish-grey of a stormy sunset. Skade spent that time brooding. What were they doing to Galbatorix while she was lying there, unable to go to his aid? The question tormented her, and so did guilt. If only she had reacted faster, if only she'd advised against going to Ellesméra… if only a lot of things. But if onlys never undo the past. They only make it more painful.

Eventually someone did come to speak to Skade. It was an elf, female. The one she had pinned down in the clearing. The one with the black hair and cold green eyes. The elf came to stand in front of Skade, within touching distance of her snout.

'What do you want?' Skade growled.

'Only to talk,' said the elf. 'So your name is Skade?'

'Yes,' said Skade.

'I am Arya,' said Arya. 'I am the daughter of Islanzadí, Queen of the elves, who was murdered last night by one of Galbatorix's minions.'

'Islanzadí?' said Skade, her golden eyes widening. 'She's dead?'

'You knew it already,' said Arya.

'I did not,' said Skade. 'But now I do, and I'm not sad for her.'

'She was my mother,' said Arya again.

'So you already told me,' said Skade. 'Tell me, did she ever show you the scars on her chest?'

'Yes,' said Arya. 'How did you know about those?'

'I gave them to her,' said Skade. 'She was threatening to kill a friend of mine, and I attacked her. Then she banished me from Ellesméra, and later she instructed Vrael to arrest me.'

'Vrael?' said Arya, astonished. 'You knew him?'

'Yes,' said Skade. 'He kept me prisoner and put a curse on me. He was an arrogant fool. Just like the other riders. Galbatorix was right to destroy them. They had become the playthings of your kind. You… elves.' She spat the word.

'The riders were the greatest people ever to live in Alagaësia,' said Arya, her face pale and twitching with passion. 'And Galbatorix's most unforgivable crime was destroying them.'

'So you say,' said Skade. 'But you never suffered under them as we did. We know what they were truly like.'

'I was alive then as well,' said Arya. 'I was only young, but I remember. It was a golden age.'

'Arrogant fool,' Skade snarled. 'Just like all your cursed kind you're too blind to see what's in front of you. It was one of your race who stole me from my parents while I was still in my egg. That was your most unforgivable crime against me, but you never suffered for it.'

'We never stole you,' said Arya. 'I don't know what you're talking about.'

'You know nothing, Arya, daughter of Islanzadí,' said Skade. 'Go away. I would rather be alone than talk to you.'

'No,' said Arya. 'There's something I want to know.'

'Well?' said Skade.

'Who are you, really?' said Arya. 'Why were you with Galbatorix instead of Shruikan?'

'That's for me to know,' said Skade. 'Where is Galbatorix? What are you doing to him?'

Arya paused and pushed a lock of her lustrous hair away from her eyes with a fingertip. Finally she said; 'At the moment, he is being tortured for information.'

'No!' Skade howled.

'Yes,' said Arya. 'I wasn't there, but I heard about it. They broke his ribs, I think. Now tell me: why were you with him?'

Skade's eyes narrowed. She reached into Arya's mind and said; 'I love him.'

The silver dragon's head shot forward. She wrenched it loose of the chains with a single powerful movement, and before Saphira or anyone else could move her jaws snapped shut around Arya. The elf screamed, but the sound was abruptly cut off by Skade's teeth.

Saphira howled and leapt at Skade, hitting her full in the face. She struck her violently around the eyes and nostrils with her claws, screaming for help all the while. Skade kept her mouth shut and flicked her head sideways, bowling Saphira over. Human and elvish guards came running, and Saphira got up and rushed to help them. They managed to restrain Skade again after a fierce struggle, but when Saphira pried her jaws apart Arya's mangled form rolled out onto the ground and lay there, lifeless and bloody.

Saphira's horrified eyes met Skade's. The silver dragon only snarled at her, unrepentant.

'So dies Islanzadí's daughter. And the same will happen to anyone who dares to mistreat Galbatorix. Let him go, or pay the price as she did.'

The words reverberated around in Saphira's head. 'You're evil,' the blue dragon whispered back mentally.

'No,' said Skade. 'I am angry. Beware, blue dragon. Anger destroys all, in the end.'

Chapter Sixteen

Betrayal

After who knew how many hours or days, Galbatorix woke up and found himself sprawled in an undignified heap on the floor of his cell. He pulled himself into a sitting position, using his chains to do so when his arms and legs hurt too much to work. The effects of the previous day's abuse had really set in now. He had massive bruising on his chest and back, one arm felt as if it were dislocated or nearly so, and from the ominous cracking noise and white-hot pain when he moved he guessed that he had several broken ribs. As if that wasn't bad enough, Vervada's poison was still affecting him. His extremities had gone numb and tingled unpleasantly, and he had a splitting headache.

It was pitch black in the cell – had the torch in the corridor outside gone out? He listened, and could hear the low voices of the guards out there. That didn't make sense. Why would they be guarding him without a light? There was a barred window in the cell door, and light should have been coming through it, but he couldn't see any. He couldn't see the door, either, or his hand in front of his face.

That was when he realised that he was blind.

He heard the door open. 'Who's there?'

'Still alive, are you, scum?' said a voice. Eragon again.

'Oh, it's you,' said Galbatorix. 'Good morning… I think.'

'It's midday,' said Eragon's voice. 'So, how are you feeling?'

'I can't see,' said Galbatorix. There was little point in concealing it.

'So it causes blindness,' said Eragon, with little emotion in his voice aside from mild curiosity. 'Interesting. I wonder if it'll be permanent?'

'Are you ready to start doing something constructive yet?' said Galbatorix. 'Or haven't you finished having your fun with me? I might be blind but I haven't lost my mind. You could make a very favourable peace treaty now you've got me in your power. Oh. I forgot. You're not interested in treaties. What's it to be, then?'

'I'll have your tongue pulled out if you don't stop mocking me with it,' said Eragon in what he probably thought was a threatening voice. 'I know what I'm doing.'

'I highly doubt that,' said Galbatorix. 'Go on, enlighten me.'

'We're going to keep you prisoner until you agree to renounce the throne and arrange the transfer of power to us. You're ours until you start working for us.'

'That I can't agree to,' said Galbatorix.

'You'll have to sooner or later,' said Eragon.

'Not necessarily,' said Galbatorix. 'Shruikan and Murtagh know I'm here. I can promise you they won't stop until they've set me free. And if they have to destroy your followers to do it, they will.'

'I know,' said Eragon. 'I'm not stupid, my lord. I know perfectly well that Murtagh will try and set you free. That's why we're leaving here.'

'Where to?' Galbatorix asked sharply.

'Farthen Dûr,' said Eragon. 'The place where I killed Durza. A fitting place for you to be imprisoned. And you won't be lonely. Skade is coming too.'

Galbatorix's heart sank. The boy was proving more devious than he'd expected. 'Why her?' he asked. 'I tell you she hasn't done anything to hurt you.'

'Yesterday you were right,' said Eragon, his voice suddenly breaking. 'But not any more. That dragon is accursed.'

'Why, what has she done?' said Galbatorix.

'Yesterday-,' Eragon hesitated. 'Yesterday she…'

'Well?'

'That dragon murdered Arya,' said Eragon, unable to keep the emotion out of his voice. He was glad that Galbatorix was blind and couldn't see the tears on his face.

'She – Skade killed Arya?' said Galbatorix, taken aback. 'How?'

'Bit her to death,' said Eragon. 'When she learned what we were doing to you.'

Galbatorix couldn't help himself; he laughed. 'I'm afraid she doesn't like elves,' he said. Inside he knew how cruel it was of him to laugh, but he was in no mood to feel sorry for Eragon. Besides which, the news meant that even if they'd hurt Skade she hadn't lost her spirit. The elf must have been stupid to go within snapping distance of her.

The laugh cost him dear. At the sound of it, Eragon snapped. He lunged at his prisoner and started kicking him as hard as he could, screaming curses all the while. Galbatorix curled up, trying to protect his head and chest, gritting his teeth to stop himself crying out. But when Eragon's boot caught him in the ribs, the agony of it got the better of him. He lurched upright and, reaching out blindly, managed to catch Eragon around the neck. Eragon shoved him off, but Galbatorix wasn't done yet. He braced himself against the wall and butted Eragon in the face.

Eragon shrieked and backed off. 'You broke my nose!'

Galbatorix grinned, his teeth standing out unpleasantly from behind his blood-caked beard. 'Did I? That was a stroke of luck.'

'You'll pay for that,' said Eragon, and left, slamming the door behind him.

Left alone, Galbatorix tried to clean the blood off his face with the corner of his robe. It was childish of him, but he couldn't help but imagine the expression of wounded pride that Eragon must have been wearing, and smirk at it.

Above ground, at her post beside Skade, Saphira was feeling nervous and miserable. Ever since they had taken Galbatorix prisoner, and even more so after Arya's death, Eragon had become a different person. From the passionate, impetuous boy he had been, he had turned into something else entirely. There was a maniacal gleam in his eyes, and a fervour in his speech. His temper had become explosive, and he was liable to shout at any of his followers who didn't react quickly enough to his orders or questions. He had not lost his ability to lead, however. If anything it had become stronger. Everyone, including Saphira, had been surprised by how quickly he responded to the changed circumstances. Contrary to what Galbatorix had thought, nobody had had to point out to Eragon that having him as his prisoner was liable to bring danger. Eragon had figured it out for himself, and had almost immediately decided they would leave Ellesméra and go back to Farthen Dûr, which would be easier to defend. Going there would also mean having the support of the main population of the dwarves who owned it.

But in spite of this sudden decisiveness on his part, Saphira did not like what he was changing into. Until she listened through his ears and heard Galbatorix screaming she had never imagined that her rider could be so cruel, but now it was staring her in the face. She tried to reassure herself by recalling that this was Galbatorix, not an innocent victim, but it didn't work. It wasn't so much that Eragon had had him beaten and poisoned, but the hint of malicious pleasure in the deed that she sensed in him. Torture was supposed to be means to an end, not an opportunity for revenge. But Eragon didn't seem to be aware of that, and Saphira couldn't find the words to tell him so. She despised herself for standing by and doing nothing, but Eragon had always been stubborn and now he was even less inclined to listen to her advice. Perhaps grief had clouded his senses.

He was distraught over Arya's death, as Saphira would have expected. On being told what had happened he had gone mad, and would have killed Skade outright if Saphira hadn't intervened. It took a lot of persuasion to make him change his mind, and both Saphira and Nasuada had to openly oppose him before he did. Skade was not to be killed, or at least not yet. No-one could argue over the seriousness of her crime, but everyone agreed that there should be a trial. And when he was calmer Eragon decided it wouldn't be a good idea to kill her before finding out exactly who she was – although so far Galbatorix wasn't co-operating.

It wasn't that Saphira felt sorry for them – she didn't. But the whole situation made her uneasy. Once it had been absolutely certain that they, the Varden, were in the right. They were the heroes, their fight was just and noble, and their enemy was irredeemably evil and had to be destroyed at all costs. But now things had changed – or had they? Maybe it was just her perspective that had changed. Now things were not so clear-cut. Galbatorix had kept Eragon prisoner, and had not starved or tortured him. Eragon had said that he'd tried to talk him into working for him but had never threatened to hurt him, and that puzzled Saphira. It wasn't the sort of behaviour she would have expected. But now it was reversed, and it was Eragon who was acting like the cruel tyrant, and Eragon who was mistreating his prisoner. It was the world turned upside-down. He even looked more sinister now, which was mostly due to Vervada. The cursed hatchling had taken to following Eragon around and sitting on his shoulder. He seemed to like having her with him, perhaps because it meant she could serve as a constant reminder of Galbatorix's crime.

Or supposed crime. Saphira felt guilty for not being angrier over what had happened to Vervada, but some part of her could only feel that it was her fault. That this was somehow a punishment on her for what she had done to those other eggs.

It was all too much to think of. Saphira sighed and glanced over at Skade. The silver dragon was lying still in her chains, but she wasn't asleep. Her golden eyes were open and staring straight ahead, their gaze fixed and expressionless. Her face had several deep gashes on it from Saphira's claws, but otherwise she was unharmed, and Saphira knew why. There was no way to lock this dragon away in a cell, and no way to hide any telltale marks. And even though she had killed Arya no-one in the Varden hated her as much as they hated Galbatorix. Eragon had suggested that they use Vervada's poison on her, but the hatchling refused to bite the other dragon. Strange. Since Vervada never spoke, mentally or otherwise, it was almost impossible to tell what was going on in her head. She would only stare at people out of those bottomless eyes. She showed no interest or affection toward her mother at all, and Saphira had given up on trying to be a parent to her. There was no way to bond with such a creature, and no way to love her either. Deep down, Saphira knew that the moment the curse had been laid on her egg she had lost her daughter forever. And to grieve over that loss was nothing more than hypocrisy, because it was one she had already inflicted on herself.

Not for the first time, Saphira found herself lonely and depressed and Eragon was not there to reassure her. Impulsively, the blue dragon got up and moved closer to Skade, sitting down again beside her head so that they could see eye to eye. Skade's eye swivelled around to look at her, and Saphira was surprised and impressed by how large it was. One day, perhaps, her own eyes would be that size. She thought about this for a moment, and suddenly felt ridiculous. But it was strange to imagine that one day she could be as large or larger than this dragon.

'How old are you?' she asked impulsively.

Skade stirred in her chains, her eye focusing on the other dragon. Eventually she said; 'I am a hundred years old. And you?'

Saphira was taken aback. 'Nearly a year,' she said.

Skade snickered. 'Nearly a year. How the time passes. Your name is Saphira, isn't it?'

'Yes,' said Saphira.

'I had a sister called Saphira once,' said Skade.

'You did?' said Saphira. 'That's…'

'Strange? Yes,' said Skade.

'Where is she now?'

'Dead,' said Skade. 'She died during the war. She looked a lot like you, you know. Sapphire blue from nose to tail. Gentle and kind. I never saw her as an adult, but I loved her very much.'

'I'm sorry,' said Saphira. 'It must be hard to lose someone you love.'

'It is,' said Skade. 'But I knew what that was like from the night I was born.'

'How is that possible?' said Saphira.

'You don't know my story, do you?' said Skade. 'I was stolen, little dragon. The night my egg was laid. There were four of us. Our parents… we were stolen from them. An elf called Eragon took us from our parents and we were kept by him and his friends like we were trophies.'

'Eragon?' said Saphira. 'You mean… the rider called Eragon?'

'Yes,' said Skade. 'The first rider. Saphira and I were packed away in a box and kept like that by his daughter for a thousand years. A thousand years of captivity. Can you imagine that?'

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'I spent a hundred years in my egg, passed from hand to hand until I chose to hatch for my rider. Galbatorix kept me in his treasury for years until someone stole me from him.'

'You could have hatched while he had you,' said Skade. 'He would have cared for you.'

Saphira snorted contemptuously. 'I'm not fool enough to believe that.'

'He cared for me once,' said Skade. 'When I had been betrayed by someone I thought was a friend, and made into an outcast by the riders. He was the one who gave me the will to live again.'

'You sound as if you care about him,' said Saphira. 'I never knew there was anyone who did.'

'I do,' said Skade. 'He's a great man. Just misunderstood.'

'He destroyed the riders,' said Saphira. 'My parents were killed by the war he started. He has the blood of thousands on his hands, dragons, elves, humans and dwarves.'

'Death happens in war,' said Skade. 'It's to be expected. And Galbatorix did not start that war.'

'He led the rebellion,' said Saphira.

'He wouldn't have done that if there wasn't a need for one,' said Skade.

'That rebellion ended a golden age,' Saphira said quietly.

Skade snorted. 'History romanticised the riders. I remember the time when they ruled this land. It was no more golden than this time is. In some ways it was worse.'

'The riders brought peace and justice,' said Saphira.

'And Galbatorix was trying to do the same,' said Skade. 'Why else would he have been trying to stop the Varden? War brings misery and he wanted to stop it. But you wouldn't listen to him. You ignored him when he tried to make a treaty with you. You wouldn't even negotiate. Do you think he rules Alagaësia because he wants to make it a bad place? No. He kept peace and stability for a hundred years and now your rebels are destroying it.'

'He tortured Arya,' said Saphira.

'And now you're torturing him,' said Skade. 'How do you rationalise that? Does it become moral because it's you doing it?' She sneered.

'That's different,' said Saphira, but she was unable to sound convinced of it. 'He is an evil man and deserves to feel some of the pain he has inflicted on others.'

'They say that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,' said Skade. 'I have a little story for you.'

'I'm listening,' said Saphira.

'It was a few weeks ago,' said Skade. 'After the dragons came back. I found a clutch of eggs. Their mother had abandoned them. I took them with me, and I showed them to Galbatorix. They hatched, and he and I cared for the hatchlings. You should have seen him. He was as kind to them as if they were his own children, and he didn't judge them for what they were. Their mother, you see… all those eggs were black, and their own mother abandoned them because of that. But Galbatorix took them in. He gave them a home and acted as a parent to them when their own mother wouldn't. Now tell me… who was the one that showed the most kindness and tolerance? The man you hate so much, or a dragon who would not love her children because they were born black?'

Saphira said nothing. She had gone very still.

'That's what Galbatorix does,' Skade went on. 'He accepts people. Shades, urgals, ra'zac, black dragons… everyone and everything. He's not like the old riders were. They were prejudiced. They favoured elves above all others, and tried to wipe out the urgals altogether. It was not the riders who ruled Alagaësia; it was the elves, and Islanzadí most of all. There is a reason why all the riders who sided with Galbatorix were human. They were sick of being treated as second-class. If Galbatorix had been an elf, he wouldn't have been denied another dragon and then banished. You can call me evil because I sympathise with him, but I would choose him over the old rider elders any day.'

Saphira said nothing for a long time. Skade respected her silence by not interrupting it, and let the blue dragon think whatever it was she was thinking.

Saphira lifted her head, rainwater dripping off her snout. She stared blankly at the surrounding mountains, and then flew away without a word.

Saphira didn't think. She only flew. Up and away from Skade, thrashing her wings with all her strength, heedless of the thunder and the rain which made most dragons too afraid to fly. Up to the Stone of Broken Eggs she flew, and on through the canyons and to a cave where she had once cried and raged alone for the injustices of life. The instant she landed she saw what she had dreaded she might see: an empty hole in the middle of the floor. Saphira ran to it, and found herself staring at nothing more than rubble and fragments of wood. She sifted through it with her talons, but there was nothing there.

'No,' Saphira whispered. 'No! This-,'

She stood frozen for a few seconds more, and then turned and left the cave as fast as she could go. She hurled herself from the lip of the cave and into the air, and flew back the way she had come. Rainwater splattered on her wings and streamed down her face. If there were tears mingled with them, they were invisible.

As Saphira emerged from the mountains and set out for the place where Skade lay, she saw it and roared aloud in shock. Her horrified eyes reflected what she saw, and it terrified her. A huge, black dragon. Framed against the stormy clouds with lightning crackling around his dark wings, heading straight for Ellesméra. Saphira hesitated, not knowing what to do. Shruikan had come to save his rider, and she didn't dare attack him herself. It would be suicide. Saphira roared again to alert the people on the ground. They heard her, or perhaps they had already seen Shruikan. She could see them running to the giant bows, pulling off the covers placed over them to protect against the wet and winding them in readiness to fire.

Saphira recovered from her shock. She realised that Shruikan was heading toward Skade, and flew on toward the silver dragon's clearing. She reached it before Shruikan did, and landed by Skade's side, staring up apprehensively at the oncoming black dragon. Skade had seen him too, and was trying to raise her head to get a proper view of him.

Saphira looked around quickly. Members of the Varden were attending to the giant crossbows which had been set up on either side of Skade; she saw a dwarf slot a spear-sized arrow into the one to her left. Still Shruikan kept coming. He was nearly overhead by now, and she could see his expressionless golden eyes and long black talons. Saphira tensed expectantly, but stayed where she was.

Eragon came running to her side, Vervada as always hunched on his shoulder like a gargoyle. 'Saphira!' he cried. 'There you are.'

'It's Shruikan,' said Saphira in a low voice, not taking her eyes off the sky. 'He's come. He's come to save Galbatorix.'

'He'll have more than that to worry about,' Eragon snarled. He dashed over to the nearest of the two huge crossbows, sword in hand. The bow had been wound and loaded, and one of the men attending to it looked up questioningly, waiting for the command to fire.

Shruikan was directly overhead now. He let out a deafening roar and began to descend, his gaze fixed intently on Skade. As he entered her field of vision, Skade looked straight at him for the first time, and her eyes widened.

Eragon shoved the bow's attendant aside and positioned him by the rope which held back the drawstring. People were shouting in panic as the black dragon plunged toward them, and those standing by the other bow turned and ran for it. Eragon grinned horribly and swung his sword. The rope snapped, the bow jolted backward with an almighty cracking sound, and the arrow was fired.

The black dragon saw the arrow just before it hit. 'Mother!' he roared.

Skade howled and Saphira dived for cover, and then the black dragon came tumbling to the ground. He landed with a massive thud not far from Skade, and lay there, thrashing desperately in an attempt to get up. The arrow had hit him in the throat. They could see the barb protruding through the back of his neck – it had gone all the way through.

Saphira ran toward the black dragon, forgetting all notion of self-preservation, but before she had reached him he became still. He lay on his side, facing toward Skade, blood oozing from around the shaft embedded in his throat. His mouth hung open, and Saphira could see more blood on his teeth. Feeling curiously safe, she went to him and nuzzled at his head. 'I know you,' she told him mentally.

The black dragon's eyes turned toward her. 'I know you too,' he replied. She recognised his voice.

'I'm… I'm sorry,' she said. 'We thought…'

The black dragon turned away from her to look at Skade again. He began dragging himself toward her, and collapsed just in front of her snout, his face touching hers. Skade whimpered and licked the blood away from his jaws.

'Mother,' the black dragon rasped aloud. 'I came to save you.'

'Vidar,' said Skade. 'Vidar, you should have left me.'

'No,' said Vidar, blood leaking from his mouth. 'Couldn't. Leave you with them. Kill you. They will… I -,' he coughed, and his eyes dimmed.

'Vidar,' said Saphira, moving over to him and caressing his forehead with her claws. 'Be still. We can heal you.'

She turned her head as Eragon came running over, holding his sword in his hand. 'Stand aside, Saphira,' he said. 'I have to finish him off.'

'No,' said Saphira, half-spreading her wings to shield the black dragon. 'Stop. Listen. This is not Shruikan. It's Vidar.'

Eragon paused. 'He looks like Shruikan.'

'I know, but he isn't him. He's Vidar. He's Skade's son. He was trying to help her. He's not on Galbatorix's side. We made a mistake. You must heal him, Eragon.'

'Let me see him,' said Eragon, lowering his sword.

Saphira moved aside and let the boy go to Vidar.

Skade roared. 'Stay away from him, human!'

'It's all right,' said Saphira, touching the silver dragon's snout. 'He can heal him.'

Eragon stood over Vidar, examining his injury. Vervada jumped off his shoulder and perched on one of the black dragon's horns, her unreadable eyes fixed on the bloodied arrow. Eragon stood by Vidar's eye. 'Are you Shruikan?' he asked.

'No,' said Vidar, his voice barely audible and gurgling in his chest.

'You're Vidar?'

'Yes,' said Vidar, his eye closing.

'And you're her daughter?' said Eragon.

'He is,' said Skade.

Eragon nodded. 'That's all I needed to know,' he said. He raised his sword.

'No!' Both Saphira and Skade said it at once.

Too late. Brom's old blade came down, and Vidar roared and went limp. Saphira rushed to him, heedlessly knocking Eragon over, and put her paws on his snout, calling his name in anguished tones. Vidar's eye looked into hers, and she heard his voice in her head. 'I loved you, Saphira.'

And then he said no more. The eye faded, and Vidar let out a faint sigh and became utterly still.

Saphira stared at him, and then turned to Eragon. He had picked himself up off the ground and was wiping his swordblade clean, his expression cold and calm. It was not the face of Eragon any more. It was the mask of a killer.

'I hate you,' said Saphira.

Chapter Seventeen

Dark Dreams

Night over Ellesméra, and the Varden slept. Galbatorix dozed, huddled in the corner of his cell, his face pale and haggard. Skade lay awake, staring at the sky through dead eyes. Saphira slept fitfully up on her plateaux, tormented by the memory of five lost eggs. And in his comfortable quarters Eragon lay curled up on his bunk and slept soundly, lulled by the howling wind outside his windows. Vervada perched at the head of his bed, watching him silently. Eragon dreamed strange and dark dreams that night. He dreamt that Vervada spoke to him.

You have done well, she told him. I am pleased.

Thankyou, he replied. I did my best. I always do my best.

Of course. And this way, the Varden will be safe. And it will triumph.

But how? Eragon asked. We are outnumbered. How can we win?

You have him now, said Vervada. With him in your power, you have the advantage. Don't let him go, and don't let him die.

Yes, said Eragon. He smiled in his sleep. Let him stay alive to suffer. Yes…

And all is well, said Vervada, her voice a low rasp.

No, said Eragon. No it is not. I'm in pain, Vervada. I'm suffering. I can't stand it. Arya is dead.

She did not love you, said Vervada. She would not accept your love. She was unworthy of you. Any woman should long for your affections, but by spurning them she proved she did not deserve them.

But I still loved her, said Eragon.

Love is useless if it is not returned. There will be others. Others who are worthy. You deserve the best, Eragon. Only the best for you.

Yes… said Eragon. Only the best. I must have that.

And you will, said Vervada.

But Saphira…I care about her. And she said she hated me. I saw in her eyes it was true. How could she hate me? I did all this for her.

You don't need her any more, said Vervada. You have me.

Her words needled into Eragon, and he nodded. Yes, he said. I have you. Yes…

Sleep now, said Vervada. There is work to do tomorrow.

On the following morning, Galbatorix was woken up by the sound of his cell door opening. Light fell across his face, and he covered his eyes with his arm. The gesture was automatic, and he rubbed his face with his fingertips and felt a surge of relief when he realised what it meant. His sight had returned. He blinked uncomfortably, and things came into focus. His vision was slightly blurry and grey around the edges, but it was back. Unfortunately, the first thing he saw with his newly-returned sight was the two burly human guards who had been stationed outside his cell. He tensed. Was it to be another beating? There had been several of those over the last few days. The guards advanced, and he braced himself. But instead of hitting him they detached his chains from the wall and hauled him to his feet. Galbatorix stood, wincing as a million different aches and pains shot through his body. He was too weak to resist, and walked meekly between the guards as they led him out of the cell.

He was taken out of the dungeons and up into the open air, where the cool breeze and the sunlight hit him like a slap in the face. He breathed in deeply, savouring the fresh smell of the forest, which was very welcome indeed after the dank cell. The storm was over, and Ellesméra was bright and shining under a new sun. But Galbatorix knew better than to take this as a good sign. Today must be the day of the move to Farthen Dûr, and when they got there… for all he knew they would execute him there, and probably Skade too. Assuming she wasn't dead already.

He had no way of knowing how long he'd been locked up, but he estimated it had been two or three days at least. It had felt longer a lot of the time. His captors had kept up their cruelty toward him and had only fed him twice. Eragon had visited several times, each time bearing new threats and asking more questions, none of which Galbatorix had answered. He continued to treat the young rider with contempt, and most of his replies were sarcastic ones. It gave him some small satisfaction to know how much frustration he must have been causing. No matter what they did to him, he remained unbroken. A hundred years of living taught patience and endurance, and Galbatorix had both.

Unfortunately, Eragon wasn't going to take all that provocation lying down. Every time Galbatorix refused to co-operate, he would have Vervada bite him again. It was probably that which had made the blindness last so long, and by now Galbatorix's arms were covered in bite-marks. The injuries had refused to heal and were festering, several of them oozing black, foul-smelling muck.

Galbatorix looked around him, taking in the scenery in an effort to figure out what had been happening during his captivity. There was a group of heavily-armed elvish soldiers waiting for him, but aside from that the place was completely deserted. The doors of the nearby houses were closed, the windows boarded over. There were other signs too – a curious bareness about the place. No tools put aside by people in the midst of various chores. No rain-barrels. No garden furniture left around the elvish dwellings, even those with the most elaborate and attractive gardens. No flags or banners, no ornaments hanging from the trees – something which Galbatorix knew elves were fond of. It didn't take a genius to recognise the signs. Ellesméra had been evacuated. Most likely himself and his escort were the only people left in it.

That was interesting, Galbatorix thought as the guards formed themselves into a rank around him and marched him away. Very interesting. So the boy had decided to send the others ahead and leave a few people behind to bring him along as part of a separate group. It was a cunning thing to do. If an attempt was made to rescue him in transit, it would be drawn to the much larger group that went first. No-one would notice this much smaller convoy, especially if it went by a different, more inconspicuous route. This strategy was much cleverer than anything he would have expected Eragon to come up with. He must be getting good advice from someone.

In spite of himself, Galbatorix couldn't help but be impressed. But he was also discouraged. He had been hoping that Eragon's stupidity and impulsiveness would give him some chance to escape or be rescued, but this new evidence of intelligent planning changed everything. If they got him to Farthen Dûr, it would be nearly impossible for anyone to get him out of there. The place was built inside a hollow mountain; a natural fortress with a million passages and chambers. Once he was in there, it would take nothing less than a full-scale siege with a large assault force to force a way in. And if it came to that, the Varden had the perfect negotiating tool – Galbatorix.

The journey to Farthen Dûr began, and during the first day and night he ignored the discomforts of travelling and his injuries and sought desperately for some means of escape. But by the end of that time it had become depressingly apparent that none of them would work. His chains stayed on at all times, and at night they were fastened to a handy tree. At least two guards were with him all the time, even when he went into the bushes to relieve himself. Nor was he given the opportunity to try and bribe or persuade them. The instant he said anything, any word at all, the nearest guard would hit him. He guessed – correctly – that they had been instructed to keep him from talking to them. More cleverness on the part of whoever had given them their orders. Eventually Galbatorix was forced to concede something that infuriated him – he had been outwitted and outmanoeuvred. And it was all because of his own thoughtlessness that he had ended up in this sorry position. And Skade, too. Skade. His beloved was in enemy hands because of him. Maybe she was dead. And he himself could very well not survive. He had thrown it all away – his tactical advantage over his enemies – because he had allowed his joy at Skade's return to make him forget his place as ruler of Alagaësia. He had neglected his duties and forgotten all his usual caution and strategies. In short, he had acted like a hot-headed boy. But, of course, love could do that to any man. Then again, not every man was head of an empire.

But Galbatorix didn't let his guilt and depression take control. Instead, he let it harden into rage. He wasn't finished yet. And once he got free and returned to Urû'baen, there would be no more softness. No more mercy toward the rebels. He'd let them hang on too long. It was time to shed his weariness with fighting and exercise his ruthless side again. He'd taken a hard line before, when he felt it was needed, and it had worked well. It was a good strategy to occasionally demonstrate that he could be harsh on people who deserved it, and all this pacifism he'd shown toward the Varden must have made him look weak. Well, no more. The instant he was back in command, he would resume open war with the Varden and wipe them out to the last man. They had demonstrated that they would show no mercy to him, and he would repay them in kind; he promised himself this. And Eragon… sitting with his back to a tree and shivering in the chill wind while the stars watched over him, Galbatorix swore he would kill Eragon with his own hands. The vicious boy who called himself saviour of Alagaësia was worthy of nothing less. It would be a great satisfaction to face him in open combat and defeat him. And once Eragon was dead, no-one would dare to call him a hero ever again and no-one would question Galbatorix's power.

That amused him a little, when he thought about it. It was exactly the sort of thing evil tyrants were supposed to say and think. Well, the Varden had spent enough time trying to convince people he was just that. And since they were so insistent on it he would do as they wished and be a tyrant toward them. The rest of Alagaësia had known him as a firm and just ruler, and perhaps even a benevolent one. The Varden, however, would get to see his less pleasant side. They had thoroughly earned it.

He kept himself occupied with thoughts like this, and maintained his silence as they wanted him to, and the journey dragged on. First on foot, then by boat, then on horses. It took weeks, and during that time, at least, there were no more beatings or poisonings. They fed him every day, too, so he would be strong enough to keep going, and these improved circumstances helped restore him to something approaching health. The only injuries that didn't start healing were the fang-marks, which remained infected and painful. An ordinary human being would probably have succumbed to all that ill-treatment, or at least be too weak to travel, but Galbatorix was a rider, and riders as a rule tend to be tougher and to heal more quickly than mortals.

They crossed the Hadarac Desert at its narrowest point, and finally entered the mountains, where a small cave led into a carved stone passage. Countless hours spent walking through this in near-darkness, and they were finally at Farthen Dûr and the journey was over. Galbatorix was handed over to a different group of guards, who took him down into the city's lowest levels and placed him another cell. This one was slightly larger than the one he'd been in before, and there was some food and a jug of water waiting for him. He sat down with a sigh, and ate and drank. He'd never been so tired in his life.

A few hours passed, and Galbatorix dozed. When he woke up he felt a little better, and picked up the water-jug for another drink. Gazing down into it, he saw his reflection looking back at him. He hardly recognised it. The man looking at him from the surface of the water was pale and gaunt, the eyes red-rimmed and darkened from exhaustion. He was filthy and sweaty, and there were several bruises on his jaw and cheeks from where he'd thumped into the wall of his old cell. Only his beard, caked with dirt and dried blood as it was, was familiar.

Galbatorix stared at his reflection for a long time, feeling inexplicably sad. What a state they'd reduced him to…

With a quick, compulsive movement, he scooped water out of the jug and splashed it onto his face, then set about scrubbing it clean with the sleeve of his robe. He worked hard, suddenly desperate to get the grime off, as if doing so would help him reclaim his old self. When he was done he rinsed off with another handful of water, and felt much better for it. He sat back, his beard dripping onto the floor, and lost himself in thoughts of Skade and their five children.

Not long after he'd started to wonder what would happen next, there was a creaking sound as the door opened. He looked up, and found himself looking into a pair of horrible black eyes. It was Vervada, and Eragon was with her. The vile dragon had grown to the size of a dog since he'd last seen her, but was as ugly and disturbing to look at as ever. Galbatorix stood up, chains clinking. 'Good evening,' he said, keeping his voice level and courteous because he knew it annoyed Eragon.

'Is that all you've got to say?' said Eragon. He was wearing a rather nice outfit of light blue wool with thigh-length boots of soft red leather.

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'I thought I'd mention how impressed I was when I realised you'd decided to bring me here in the way you did. That was more intelligent than I expected. Who suggested it, may I ask?'

'It was clever, wasn't it?' Eragon admitted, puffing up slightly and smirking. 'We took the dragon along with the first group. And a decoy prisoner dressed up to look like you. It worked well, didn't it? There were attacks on the first group, but they failed. Both of you are still in our custody and no-one can get you out.'

'Skade?' said Galbatorix. 'She's alive?'

'For the moment, yes,' said Eragon. 'But not for long. The witnesses have testified. Tonight she will be executed for the murder of Arya.'

Galbatorix closed his eyes for a few seconds, but showed no other reaction. 'And me?'

'As for you,' said Eragon. 'You'll be kept alive until you agree to vacate the throne and give orders for Murtagh to surrender to me and open the gates of Urû'baen to the Varden. It's over, Galbatorix. You've lost. And I've won. Once you've given me what I want, you'll be allowed to die painlessly. It's all you have left to do.'

Galbatorix stared fixedly at the boy's face. It was different. Somehow, it had changed. Something in the expression, something about the eyes. It was not the face of someone who would spare his life. 'No,' said Galbatorix. 'I won't do what you want, and I won't let you take my throne. The people of Alagaësia deserve better than your rulership. You're not who I thought you were. You've become exactly what you said you hated most.'

'Then we'll have to keep doing this the hard way,' said Eragon. He stayed where he was, and Vervada came forward alone, her empty eyes fixed on Galbatorix. He backed away cautiously, but the monstrous dragon kept coming until he had his back to the wall. She stared into his eyes, and all of a sudden he felt something probing at his mind. He breathed in sharply, and the next moment his consciousness had been invaded. Suddenly the only thing left in his mind was Vervada. Her presence was everywhere, flooding into his knowledge and his memories, stripping away every barrier, knocking down every defence. And permeating all of this was the voice. It dominated every sense, shutting out all other sounds.

You will do as I say, it hissed. As I command. You are mine now.

Galbatorix tried to reply, but he couldn't. His voice, his body, his very mind refused to obey him. All he could do was listen as the voice spoke on.

You will do as Eragon tells you, it said. You will surrender your empire to him. You have nothing left to lose. Your time is ended. Say the words. Say you give in. Say it!

Somewhere from behind a veil, Galbatorix heard his own voice say; 'I will-,'

But it didn't complete the sentence.

SAY IT! The voice screamed.

The presence of Vervada still had hold of his mind, but even as her voice commanded him he felt his will suddenly strengthen. Skade. If he did as Vervada said, it would been losing Skade forever. It would mean death. And he would never let that happen.

DO IT! Vervada roared.

Galbatorix gathered his mental strength. NO! he shouted, and wrenched control away from the monstrous dragon, sending her own mind back into her body and out of his. The veil was ripped away, and he found himself crouched on the floor of his cell, staring at Vervada, who was thrashing in pain. Eragon ran to help her, and when he made contact wit her scales she stilled and became calm once more.

Galbatorix stood up, rubbing his forehead and staring, horror-struck, at Vervada. She stared back, unreadable.

'You'll stay here for now,' Eragon spat, and it was the metallic edge to his voice that made Galbatorix put two and two together.

'Stop!' he said. 'Listen to me. You're not yourself. It's that dragon; she's controlling you.'

Eragon looked at him, his expression thoughtful. For an instant his eyes lost their cold, fixed look. But then he shook his head and the look returned. 'Be quiet,' he snapped, and left, Vervada walking beside him like a twisted shadow. Galbatorix watched them go, and when the door slammed behind them he was suddenly aware that his heart was pounding. This explained a lot, and changed things as well. If Eragon was being controlled by Vervada, then it now made sense why he was behaving so coldly and erratically. And it also meant that it was Vervada who was the real danger and Vervada who had to be killed. But how on earth was he going to do that? And Skade… unless something changed drastically, he would have no chance to save her, or even see her again.

Skade had already been at Farthen Dûr for several days by the time Galbatorix had arrived there. Her group, which had been very large and included Saphira and about a hundred armed soldiers, had departed in the middle of the night without any warning at all. It seemed even the soldiers hadn't known they were going to be leaving until they'd been suddenly woken up and told to get ready. It had all been meticulously planned. Skade was forced to fly to Farthen Dûr, Saphira following behind to keep a close eye on her. Her mouth remained tied shut, and her legs were tethered, and several men sat on her back, holding onto ropes which had been strung around her neck, ready to stab and kill her if she tried to attack or escape. She was instructed to follow Saphira's directions and not to fly more than a tail's length ahead of the column below. And that was what she did, though she hated herself for it. She had no illusions about the situation – they wouldn't hesitate to kill her if they had to. Her killing of Arya and friendship with Galbatorix had earned her the hatred of every member of the Varden, and as she flew the soldiers on her back were happy to wrench out her scales and stab at the soft skin underneath to cause her pain.

That didn't bother Skade overmuch. A dragon of her size could deal with a lot of pain. But it did make her angrier, if that was even possible. She was not afraid, not even slightly. Skade had never been very prone to feeling afraid. When things were bad, she was more inclined to become angry, and she was. And all of it was directed at her captors. Even as she flew slowly and wearily to the place where they said she would be killed for her crime, her mind was focused on one thing: Eragon. The snivelling brat with the blue-bladed sword. He had killed Vidar, and had done it with a gleam of pleasure in his eye. Skade relived it in her mind over and over again, and her hatred of him increased every time. She wasn't finished yet. The instant she got free, she would go after him. And she would kill him just as she had killed the elf woman. She promised herself this. It would give her great satisfaction to feel her jaws snap closed around his puny body and tear it apart. His blood on her tongue would taste better than the sweetest water or the freshest meat.

When they arrived at Farthen Dûr, Skade was told to land on a ledge halfway up the mountain. She did so, and there were guards waiting. Her plan to attack as soon as the soldiers had climbed off her didn't work; they stayed where they were until she had been securely chained again and forced to drink a potion which made her weak and drowsy. Thwarted for now, she followed Saphira into the cave which lay beyond the ledge and lay down when she was told to stop. Saphira and the guards retreated, and a heavy iron gate slammed into place at the cave's entrance, locking Skade inside. Saphira settled down on the other side, and the guards departed, leaving the blue dragon to watch over Skade alone. Skade watched her vaguely, too dazed by the potion's effects to think anything coherent. Here she was. And here, it seemed, she would wait until her time came to die. Or to kill.

Days passed and Skade stayed in her cell. Only one noteworthy thing happened during that time: on the fourth day Saphira informed her that she had been trialled in her absence and sentenced to death for the killing of Arya. The blue dragon was oddly subdued when she brought this news. In fact, Skade observed, she seemed utterly miserable. She had been like that during the journey to Farthen Dûr, and every day since their arrival as well. There was no hint of malicious satisfaction over Skade's impending fate. She wouldn't even look the silver dragon in the eye.

That night, Skade dragged herself over to the grate and spoke to Saphira for the first time since their conversation back at Ellesméra. 'You've won, blue dragon. Why so unhappy?'

Saphira started, looking around at her, and then relaxed. 'Skade. I'm sorry. I was miles away.'

'I can forgive you for that,' said Skade. 'This place is boring. I can't blame you for using your imagination to escape it for a while.'

'Yes,' said Saphira. 'I suppose…' She was giving Skade a searching look as she said this.

'What is it?' asked Skade.

'I can't help but… I mean… they're going to kill you. But when I told you I couldn't see any fear in you at all. Aren't you afraid?'

'Afraid of death?' said Skade. 'Perhaps. But I'm alive now. And there's still a chance for me.'

'No there isn't,' said Saphira. 'You can't escape from here. They'll kill you without ever giving you a chance to get away. You have no chance.'

'I am a storm dragon,' said Skade. 'I was born while there was lightning in the sky. I never stop fighting and I never give up hope, and I never show fear.' She said this with a considerable amount of pride in her voice, and Saphira couldn't help but be impressed.

'That mark on your neck,' she said. 'It looks like a lightning-bolt. Is that what you mean when you say you're a storm dragon?'

'No,' said Skade. 'The storm is a gift. My father passed it on to me, and I passed it to my own children. This mark is just a mark. But the storm…' the silver dragon paused, and looked out at the sky beyond her prison. 'Every member of our bloodline has a storm. It watches over us. Guides us. You saw mine in Ellesméra. My father told me that his own storm saved his life once. I believe that mine will save me too.'

'A storm can't stop an axe,' said Saphira sharply. 'A storm can't put your head back on your neck. You will die, Skade.' But although she spoke harshly there was still despair behind every word.

'Perhaps,' said Skade. 'And what about you, Saphira? Where is your rider? Why isn't he with you? Has he forgotten about you?'

'No,' said Saphira quickly. So quickly that it made 'no' mean 'yes'.

Skade said nothing. She waited patiently, sensing that Saphira was holding something back. Sure enough, after about a minute of silence, Saphira spoke again.

'Skade,' she said. 'You said…'

'Yes?' said Skade.

'Those eggs you told me about,' said Saphira in a rush. 'Where are they? What happened to them?'

'They hatched,' said Skade. 'Galbatorix and I cared for the youngsters at Urû'baen. They're strong and intelligent youngsters. No doubt they're still in Urû'baen. Shruikan will be looking after them. He's my brother.'

Saphira already knew that. 'What were their names?' she asked. 'The hatchlings, what were they called?'

'There were three males and two females,' said Skade, looking at her steadily. 'Hrafn, Dreyri, Myrkr, Valdyr and Skömm. Skömm is the strongest. His own mother called him "shame". But the shame wasn't his, was it Saphira? It was yours.'

Saphira let out a sob. 'It was,' she said, tears shining on her face. 'It is. Forgive me, Skade. I have been a fool.'

'You abandoned your own children,' Skade said levelly. 'You threw them away and called them unworthy of your love just because they were black.'

'Yes,' said Saphira, suddenly looking the other dragon in the eye. 'Yes, I did that, Skade. I saw that they were black and I refused to be a mother to them because of that. And ever since the memory has tormented me. I tried to tell myself that I did the right thing, but if it was right then why was I kept awake every night by guilt? No, I was a fool. Worse than a fool. It was my duty to be a mother to those eggs, but I tried to hide them away instead. I've been blind for so long.'

Skade's heart went out to the other dragon. 'I suppose you can't be blamed,' she admitted gruffly. 'There is a lot of prejudice against black dragons. My father… did I ever tell you about my father?'

'No,' said Saphira.

'My father's name was Ravana,' said Skade. 'He was the first black dragon, and every other dragon hated him for it. His mate, Silarae, was black as well. He only ever fathered one clutch of eggs by her. Four eggs. I was one of them, of course. Shruikan was another, and Saphira and Kullervo were the others. But we were stolen from our parents. Because other people thought they were evil, they believed they weren't fit to be parents. So they stole us. And Eragon, the first rider… he killed my mother, and nearly killed my father as well. My father hates humans and elves for what they did to him. What they did to us. That was more than a thousand years ago, but ever since Alagaësians have hated black dragons. It has always been said that they are evil from the moment they hatch, but it's not true. No-one is born evil. Evil is something that takes time to create. And many times it's created by people who call themselves moral and righteous. Black dragons like my father grow up to hate the world because it rejects them and calls them evil. What other chance do they have but to become as dark in spirit as they are in their scales?'

Skade said all this with quiet passion, and Saphira listened closely.

'You must have loved Vidar very much,' she said once the silver dragon had fallen silent.

'I did,' said Skade. 'Just as I love all his siblings.'

'Tell me about them,' said Saphira.

And Skade did, more openly and passionately than she had expected her to. She talked of how she had watched over her eggs until they hatched, and how she had seen her young struggle to their paws for the first time in their lives. How small they had been, all wet from being inside the shell, their bones and scales still soft. So tiny, so helpless, but already full of a fierce will to live. She had named them, and as they grew she came to see how each one was different.

'Vidar was the strongest,' she said, watching as a great grey cloud drifted over the sky outside. 'He was like that cloud. Powerful and silent.'

And there were the others too, and each one was individual. There was Lifrasir, gentle and intelligent. Skirnir, brash and impulsive. Katana, quick and cunning. And graceful Balisong, who could make flying look like a dance.

And how quickly they grew. From hatchling to near-independence in such a short space of time. But even after they grew up they remembered their roots. They roamed far over their grandfather's country, finding homes for themselves, but they would still come back to see their mother and go hunting with her, and to hear Ravana speak.

The ancient black dragon was lord over the new country he had found for himself, and patriarch of Skade's family. He had taught her children all he knew, and he had taught Skade as well.

'What is he like?' Saphira asked softly. 'What is Ravana like?'

Skade's eyes became distant. 'Huge,' she said. 'He is the biggest dragon I ever saw. He sleeps at the top of a mountain, and if you see it from a distance it looks like the mountain's top is made of black rock. Each one of his paws is as big as your entire body, and when he looks at you it feels as if you could drown in his eyes.'

Saphira tried to imagine a dragon that large, but she simply couldn't. It was beyond her comprehension. 'But what is he like inside?' she asked, referring to his personality.

'He doesn't speak much,' said Skade. 'By the time I found him he'd been alone so long he'd nearly forgotten how. But when he does speak, you listen. His magic is more powerful than mine is. More powerful than yours, too. I've seen him do things with it that no-one else could do.'

'What kind of things?' asked Saphira.

'He can change the shape of things,' said Skade. 'He can make a wind so powerful it knocks down forests. When he can't catch anything big enough to eat, he can force an ordinary deer or a goat to grow a hundred times bigger.'

'But that's impossible,' said Saphira. 'No-one can do things like that.'

'My father can,' said Skade. 'I've seen him do it. And many other things as well.'

'But how?' said Saphira.

'I don't know,' said Skade. 'But I think… I think that magic grows stronger over time. And my father is older than the riders themselves.'

Saphira lowered her head humbly. So this was where Vidar and Skirnir had come from. She had always known what her own inheritance was; and this had been theirs. And Vidar's life had been snuffed out in an instant, right before his mother's eyes.

'Who was their father?' Saphira asked quietly. 'Vidar and Skirnir… who was their father?'

Skade's golden eyes became a little warmer. 'My mate was very special. I loved him dearly. I still do.'

'But what was his name?' said Saphira.

'His name,' said Skade. 'Isn't for you to know, blue dragon. I've told you too much already.'

'Skirnir was my mate,' said Saphira. 'Did he tell you that?'

'Yes,' said Skade. 'He said you rejected him when you found out Shruikan was his uncle.'

'How is he?' said Saphira. 'Do you know?'

'He was well last time I saw him,' said Skade. 'He would have been a good father to your eggs if you had let him.'

There was silence for a time, but the atmosphere between the two female dragons had become friendlier.

Eventually Skade said; 'You've asked me a lot of questions, and now I have one for you.'

'I'm listening,' said Saphira.

'Where is Galbatorix and what is going to happen to him?' said Skade.

'He's imprisoned somewhere underground,' said Saphira after only a short hesitation. 'I haven't seen him, but he's alive.'

'The torture-?'

'It won't have left any lasting damage,' said Saphira. 'I know that's cold comfort, but he'll live.'

'What are they going to do to him?' said Skade.

'They won't kill him,' said Saphira. 'At least… Eragon wants him to make the Empire surrender to him so that he can take the throne for himself. Galbatorix will be kept alive until he agrees to do that, but so far…'

'Galbatorix will never be broken,' said Skade. 'Never.'

'No,' said Saphira, bowing her head. 'I don't think he will. He hasn't given up any useful information. Eragon is… very frustrated.'

Skade laughed darkly. 'Your rider is up against a will he can never break. I knew Galbatorix when he was young, and I know what drives him. No-one will ever make him do what he doesn't want to do.'

'I would have said that about Eragon once,' said Saphira.

'But not any more?' said Skade.

'No.' Saphira was silent for some time, and then said; 'You were there when Galbatorix began his rebellion?'

'Just before it started,' said Skade. 'I never saw the rebellion itself. But I met him just after he lost his dragon, when he was sick in the mind and the body.'

'They said he went mad,' said Saphira.

'Maybe he did for a while,' said Skade. 'But he recovered.'

'But his grudge against the riders was still madness,' said Saphira. 'They say he blamed them for his dragon's death, but it was his own fault.'

'He blamed them for it for a while, maybe,' said Skade. 'But it wasn't his only reason for doing what he did, no.'

'The riders were corrupt, you said,' said Saphira. 'Was that it?'

Skade looked at the blue dragon. 'You don't know where he came from, do you?'

'No, I don't,' Saphira admitted. 'Why?'

'You don't know he's half-elvish?' said Skade.

Saphira started. 'No, never,' she said, shocked.

'His father was an elf,' said Skade. 'One from the North. The elves there were called dark elves because they had black hair and dressed in black.'

'I never heard of them,' said Saphira.

Skade smiled coldly. 'You wouldn't have, would you? They're gone now. The Southern elves wiped them all out. Only a few of them survived. Galbatorix's father was one. He was forced into slavery.'

'So what happened to him?' asked Saphira.

'He was sent to Teirm to be sold,' said Skade. 'And he was bought by a young noblewoman. But she fell in love with him, and they became lovers. And then disaster hit them.'

'The noblewoman became pregnant,' said Saphira.

'Yes, and when that happened the secret got out,' said Skade. 'She had no husband and so the child had to be illegitimate. Her parents tried to force her to drink a potion that would kill the child, but she refused. And when she was near to her time, she was caught with her lover.'

'What happened?' said Saphira, who was listening closely. She had never imagined something like this.

'It was forbidden for elves and humans to interbreed,' said Skade. 'Especially if one of them was as low as a slave. The noblewoman was allowed to give birth to her child, and then both of them were executed. The child was given to a pair of humans to foster. They gave him some ordinary human name, but when he was old enough and they told him the truth he took up the name his parents had given him before they died.'

'Galbatorix,' Saphira breathed.

'Yes. The foster parents thought it was too grand a name for a bastard half-breed so they tried to take it from him. And though he never met his real parents he never forgot where he had come from and what had happened to them.'

'The old riders would never have allowed that sort of injustice to happen,' said Saphira.

'The riders were the ones who ordered the execution,' said Skade. 'Now do you understand?'

Chapter Eighteen

Out of the Blue

There was a huge space, right at the centre of Farthen Dûr. And in it the Varden had gathered. Thousands of them; elves, dwarves, humans, men, women and children alike. They were nervous but expectant – none of them had much idea of why they'd been ordered to gather together like this, but they were hoping it would answer some questions. Namely, why they had been brought back to Farthen Dûr in the first place. None of them knew much beyond the fact that it had been thought safer. They knew about the silver dragon who had killed the princess Arya; that she would be executed that night, and that the enemy seemed awfully anxious to rescue her, but beyond that…

A platform had been built at one end of the chamber. A big one. Huge stone slabs, stacked on each other, big enough for twenty people to stand on. But only one person that they knew of would be standing on it – Eragon.

Sure enough, after they had waited for half an hour or so, a door on the other side of the platform opened and Eragon came through it. Vervada was at his side as she always was these days, and his sword was strapped across his back. The Varden cheered when they saw him, and once he had mounted the platform he bowed solemnly in return.

The crowd cheered even more loudly. From up on the platform Eragon could hear them chanting his name and he smiled. They loved him. He was their hope, he was their pride. He was their leader. And soon he would show them that their faith in him had been justified.

He raised his arms for silence, which he got eventually. 'My friends!' he yelled, projecting his voice as best he could. 'Warriors of the Varden! Enemies of the Empire! I have come before you today with good news!'

The crowd roared its approval. Eragon waited for silence, and resumed his speech.

'We have had our setbacks recently, during our noble fight against the Empire's tyranny. Recently I was a captive of the enemy, and suffered their tortures without ever giving in. It was because I knew I could never betray you. My friends and followers, for you I would make any sacrifice.'

There was more cheering at this. He had them hanging on his every word, and believing them too.

'And today!' he shouted, 'Today you will see your courage and your fortitude be rewarded! Because as of a few weeks ago something happened which put the power in our hands. Now we have the advantage, and now we have the means to win.' As he spoke, the door behind him opened and two guards came through, dragging a ragged figure between them. They brought him to the front of the platform, and forced him to kneel at Eragon's feet. Eragon grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head backward, so that all could see the man's face.

'Warriors of the Varden!' the young rider roared. 'I give you… King Galbatorix!'

The crowd didn't shout this time. There was a collective bellow, a bestial, hate-filled sound. From the platform Galbatorix saw the faces of the Varden and knew that he was staring into the eyes of his own death. These were not warriors, as Eragon had called them. They were a mob. Just like the mob that had gathered to witness the killing of his parents, most likely. Everyone loved a public execution.
Eragon spoke on. 'Now that we have Galbatorix in our power, we have the ultimate bargaining tool and the ultimate hostage! Now the Empire has no option but to surrender to us! And once we have persuaded Galbatorix to begin working for us, the war will end and we will triumph! Soon the Empire will be ours to command!'

And who's commanding you, Eragon? Galbatorix thought.

He glanced over to his right, and saw Vervada. The foul creature was squatting beside Eragon like a parody of a pet dog. It was impossible to tell where she was directing her eyes, but Galbatorix had a fair idea of what her mind was up to.

The guards pulled him upright, and that was when Galbatorix acted. He hurled himself sideways, slamming into one guard and knocking him over. He punched the other one in the face, and before Eragon could draw his sword he attacked. But it wasn't Eragon he attacked. He threw himself at Vervada. The dragon was taken by surprise, and reeled away from him, hissing. One of the guards made a grab for the chain attached to Galbatorix's right arm, but he wrenched it away and looped it around Vervada's neck, twisting it tight. The two guards seized him by the shoulders and tried to pull him off her, but he held on with all his strength, trying desperately to kill her before he was stopped. The guards hit him around the head, but he fought on, gritting his teeth and trying to see through the stars flashing in front of his eyes. Vervada struggled violently, hissing and lashing at him with her tail, her claws slashing through his robe. Galbatorix felt no pain. He wrenched at the chain, crushing Vervada's neck. But then he felt cold steel at his own throat, and looked up to see Eragon, holding the blue-bladed sword against his jugular.

Galbatorix gritted his teeth, but he knew the game was up. He let go of the chain and Vervada struggled free. Eragon wrenched the sword backward, and he felt a stinging pain in his neck. He sagged gently and held his hands up to signal defeat. Eragon snarled and struck him in the face. Galbatorix fell heavily onto the platform, and that was when the ground shook.

In her cave, Skade was still watching the sky. And she saw it begin to darken. On the other side of the grate, Saphira saw it too. A storm was building. The blue dragon tensed instinctively, watching the track leading up the mountainside.

'There are men coming,' she said. 'It's time. And I think your storm knows it.'

Skade stood up, her tail twitching. 'No,' she said, as forked lightning suddenly split the sky. 'Not my storm.'

Saphira stared at the horizon. It had turned pitch-black as if night had fallen before the sun had set. She could see lightning dance its eerie dance around the edges, and feel the ground shake with distant thunder. The oncoming storm was one of great power. And it was coming very fast.

Skade watched the storm coming, and she watched Saphira as well. She could faintly hear the voices of the guards climbing up to the cave. Death was coming with them.

Saphira stood still for a moment longer. Then she whirled around to face Skade. For a moment the two dragons stared each other in the face, and then at last Saphira acted. The blue dragon raised her forelegs and slammed them against the gate. Wham. It shook in its stone frame, dust showering from the hinges. Saphira struck again, and the bars started to bend. Skade was quick to react. She hooked her foreclaws around the bars and pulled with all her might. Saphira shoved from the other side, and in spite of its magical reinforcement the gate couldn't hold up against the pair of them working together. It collapsed inward with a metallic groaning sound, and Saphira entered the cave.

She muttered a word over Skade's chains, which snapped, and the silver dragon shook herself free. 'Come on,' said Saphira. 'We're getting out of here.'

Once Skade would have attacked the other dragon, but not now. She nodded. 'Will you give me back my magic?' she asked. It had been locked away by a spell while she was helpless.

Saphira hesitated. 'Yes. Stand still, and-,'

The storm arrived. A massive blast of wind blew into the cave entrance, knocking both dragons down. The ground shook violently. 'What is that?' Saphira screamed, digging her claws into the stone for purchase.

'I don't know,' said Skade, only just audible above the thunder.

They fought their way toward the entrance, just in time to see the guards arrive. Eragon was taking no chances; there were about a hundred of them, all heavily armed. They carried long, barbed spears, and as soon as they were safely out of the storm they pointed them at Skade, holding the points dangerously close to her eyes. She backed off, watching them cautiously. Without her fire, she wouldn't be able to fight them all off. Twenty of them would have been a small challenge, but this many…

Saphira stood between her and them, protecting her with half-spread wings. 'Stay away from her,' the blue dragon threatened.

'Stand aside,' the leader of the guards ordered her.

Saphira bared her teeth. 'I am Eragon's dragon and his equal,' she snarled. 'You will not tell me what to do.'

'Fight them, Saphira!' Skade urged her. 'Use your fire or give me back mine!'

'They're members of the Varden,' said Saphira. 'I won't hurt them. But I won't let them kill you.'

'So Eragon's own dragon has betrayed him,' said the guard. 'Arrest her, men. But try not to hurt her.'

The guards advanced. Many of them were carrying ropes and nets. And then the ground shook again.

Down inside the mountain, Galbatorix looked up from where he lay sprawled on the platform. Eragon, standing over him with the tip of his sword resting on the back of his prisoner's neck, was looking around nervously. The mountain was shaking. And, as another huge thump sounded from somewhere above, chunks of rock fell out of the ceiling. They landed among the crowd, crushing several unfortunates while the rest ran for it. Eragon and Galbatorix were among those who stayed, the one too bewildered and confused and the other not daring to move because Eragon's sword was still touching his neck. Vervada stayed too, but the two guards bolted for the door. There was another thump, a cracking sound, and daylight flooded into the mountain. Or almost daylight. It was not bright gold like the sun, but grey and flickering white. Storm-light. And after it came fire. Unnatural, dark fire. And Galbatorix and Eragon both watched as Farthen Dûr mountain was torn open. And not by an earthquake, but by massive claws.

There was a deafening roar, and then the light was blotted out and he was there. The black dragon. Not Shruikan. Not Vidar returned from the dead.

The dragon entered through the huge hole he had torn into the mountain's living stone, and when he had he filled the chamber. The remains of the crowd fled in terror, running past the dragon's column-sized legs and away as fast as they could go. Eragon stepped backward, withdrawing his sword, and Galbatorix stood up. Their enmity forgotten, the two of them stared thunderstruck at the black dragon.

The dragon lowered his head so that he could see the two men standing on the platform, the only ones who had not run. His eyes were gold, each one big enough for a dozen men to drown in. Galbatorix was quick to guess their owner's identity. He knelt, bowing his head to the dragon. 'My lord,' he murmured.

The black dragon eyed him, and then looked at Eragon, who hadn't moved. There was tense silence for a time, and then the voice sounded in the minds of the two riders.

'Skade,' it said. The voice was deep and guttural, and even though it was mental it still felt loud. 'Skade,' the voice said again. 'You will tell me where she is.'

The tone suggested that disobedience was not an option.

'My lord,' said Galbatorix again, using mental speech as a mark of respect. 'Your daughter is imprisoned somewhere in these mountains. I do not know where, but I too want to set her free.'

The huge gold eyes blinked. 'And who imprisoned her, human?'

Galbatorix dared to look up. He pointed at Eragon. 'It was this man, lord.'

The huge head turned toward Eragon, and Galbatorix heard the voice again.

'Is this true, human? Have you taken my daughter prisoner?'

Eragon said nothing. His eyes had gone wide and terrified. Ravana, the black dragon, opened his mouth and roared. The sound was simply indescribable. The walls shook with it, and both Eragon and Galbatorix put their hands over their ears as the roar slammed into their heads, so forcefully that it caused them physical pain.

'ANSWER ME,' the voice bellowed.

Eragon got up with some effort, and tried to run away. Ravana's head darted forward to snap at him, but at that moment Vervada intervened. Galbatorix had forgotten the foul creature was there, but she appeared seemingly out of nowhere, standing in Ravana's way. And when he swung his head sideways to knock her away he suddenly roared and reeled backward. The black dragon sat back on his haunches, one wing demolishing more of the roof, and stayed still, his eyes suddenly blank and glazed. Galbatorix stood up in time to see Eragon fall to his knees. A few people who were cowering in the corners of the chamber collapsed. Only he and Vervada were unaffected, and when he turned to look at the small dragon he realised he could feel her power moving through his own head. She had rendered everyone in the chamber helpless. Everyone except him. Galbatorix didn't hesitate. He lashed out with one booted foot, catching Vervada on the snout. She hissed and reeled away from him, and he heard Ravana start to growl as his senses returned. Galbatorix gathered his chains in both hands, and smashed them into the side of Vervada's face. He could feel her probing at his mind, desperately trying to find a way in. But her efforts were in vain. He remained in control of himself, and continued to hit her as hard as he could, aiming for her head, trying to stun her.

Vervada had had enough. She turned and ran from him, spreading her black-veined wings. Galbatorix ran after her, but his chains slowed him down, and she took to the air, flying up and out through the hole Ravana had made and away.

As soon as she had gone, Eragon groaned and stood up, clutching at his head. 'Ooh… I feel terrible,' the young rider mumbled. 'What happened?'

Galbatorix ignored him. He strode to the front of the platform. Ravana lowered his head again to speak to him. 'What happened to us?' he demanded. 'What did that dragon do?'

'I'm not sure, lord,' said Galbatorix. 'She has the power to control minds, I think. But I seem to be immune to it.'

Ravana sniffed the air. 'Then I owe you a debt for stopping her,' he said. 'I felt her power. I could not resist it.'

'I think I know where she went, lord,' said Galbatorix. 'I had an insight into her mind when she tried to attack mine. She has gone to where Skade is.'

Ravana growled deep in his chest. 'Then I must go after her.'

He half-spread his wings, but Galbatorix said; 'No, my lord. Stop.'

Ravana closed his wings, and glared at him. 'Speak, and be quick.'

'You can't fight that dragon,' said Galbatorix. 'You admitted it yourself.'

'But I will do it anyway, for my daughter's life,' said Ravana.

'Send me,' said Galbatorix. 'I will kill that dragon for you, and rescue Skade.'

'You?' said Ravana, his voice full of contempt. 'You are a human.'

Galbatorix faced him, unafraid. 'Only on the outside,' he said.

Ravana eyed the human standing before him. He was irritated that one of them would dare face him like this, and challenge him so boldly. He considered killing him for a brief second, and then… and then, quite unexpectedly, he saw something strange. As he stared at the black-clad, dark-haired man who stood there on the platform, proud and fierce even though he was in chains, Ravana had a vision of himself. So long ago, much younger and smaller… he remembered a time when he himself had been chained and helpless, but unbroken all the same. Unbroken and ready to fight and kill if only he had the chance. Then the vision faded, and all he saw was the human. But a human who could resist a power great enough to stop even Ravana dead in his tracks. A human who reminded him in some strange way of himself. And though it seemed like madness later on, Ravana decided to trust him.

'Only on the outside,' he agreed. 'I shall change that. And you will go to save Skade once it is done.'

'I swear it,' said Galbatorix.

'Good,' said Ravana. He unleashed his magic.

The leader of the guards pointed his spear at Saphira, touching the point to her throat. 'Hold still and let us tie your wings,' he said. 'Or else…' he jabbed hard enough to draw blood.

Saphira stayed where she was, caught in indecision. So it had come to this. Attack her own allies, or be captured and face Eragon's rage. Once she would have been confident that her rider would never hurt her, but not any more. He was a stranger to her now. And with his new-found cruelty, there was no telling what he might do if he found out she had betrayed him.

Skade, however, had no such reservations. She arched her head straight over Saphira, and snatched the guard captain up in her jaws, killing him instantly. The other guards charged, and before she knew what was happening Saphira found herself fighting side-by-side with Skade, for her very life. For their very lives. Like it or not, she had thrown her lot in with the silver dragon and now their fates were intertwined.

Saphira belched blue flames at the guards, closing her ears to their screams. She would have given Skade her own fire back, but there was neither space nor time to do so. Besides which, Skade was highly effective even without that particular weapon. The silver dragon fought like one who has been held back too long from something she has longed to do – in other words, like a berserker. She felled her attackers right and left using fangs, talons and tail, and did it so effectively that it soon became clear that she and Saphira would win the fight.

Sensing this, Skade pushed forward, driving the guards back toward the entrance so that several of them lost their footing and went tumbling down the mountainside. Others, seeing the situation was a lost cause, sensibly made a break for it. Skade made her way to the entrance, preparing to fly away.

'Skade!' Saphira shouted.

Skade looked back, and saw the blue dragon struggling under a mass of guards. They were weighing down her wings, tying them together while others bound her mouth.

Skade hesitated for a few seconds, and then ran to help her. She knocked the guards off and cut through the ropes with the serrations on her claws.

'Thankyou,' Saphira gasped.

'Come on,' said Skade, urging her toward the entrance.

Where Vervada was standing.

The twisted dragon's black veins stood out all the more horribly against the dark sky behind her, and her eyes seemed to stare right through them. The surviving guards acted instantly, as if on some unheard command. They ran to Vervada and formed themselves into a group around her, standing ready as if she were their new captain.

'Vervada,' Saphira whispered. 'Vervada, it's me. You must help me, daughter.'

Skade recoiled – this thing was sister to the hatchlings she had fostered?

Vervada did not react to her mother's voice. She simply stared at her, as was her way.

Skade had had enough. She strode forward, claws sinking into the solid stone floor. There was fury and contempt in her gaze. How dare this revolting creature stand in her way? She would have fought Ravana himself for her freedom, but this was no contest.

And then it happened. Skade felt it. Saphira felt it. The enslaved guards felt nothing.

The power swept over them. It went straight into their minds like an invading army, bringing weakness and confusion. Skade dropped onto her belly, her legs suddenly useless. Just behind her, Saphira found herself unable to move or even think of moving. Her horrified eyes took in Vervada, who was suddenly there in front of her without seeming to have moved at all. Her daughter's eyes were empty pits set into her face, but still she thought she could read an expression of hatred in them.

She heard the voice in her head. 'Hello, Saphira… I shall not call you Mother. It was not you who spawned me. I was born out of hatred and the will for revenge, and both of those you created.'

'Vervada, please,' said Saphira. 'I loved you. How could you do this to me?'

Vervada bared her jagged teeth, venom dripping from them and onto the floor, where it hissed. 'There was love between two Shades once. Even after they were parted they loved each other. But then the one who left came back and found that the one she loved was dead. And you killed him, Saphira.'

'Durza…?' Saphira faltered. 'This is because of Durza?'

'His blood is on your talons,' said Vervada's voice in her head. 'And now you will die for your crime. As will the boy. I have had my pleasure with him.'

'Pleasure? What pleasure? What have you done to him?' Saphira demanded, terror striking at her heart.

Vervada seemed to grin. 'I have made him into the very thing he hates the most. A tyrant. And I have made you suffer the loneliness of the Shade whose heart you broke. Now that your mental sufferings are done, I shall make you suffer in body as well.'

'You are a coward,' came a voice – Skade's. The silver dragon had been listening, and though she could not move her eyes burned.

Vervada turned her head toward the silver dragon for a brief moment. 'You I will not harm,' she said. 'Unless you try and interfere.'

That said, she turned her attention back to Saphira. Saphira had no opportunity to resist. Her front leg moved of its own accord, reaching toward Vervada, who bit it. Her teeth cut through Saphira's scales and into the skin and flesh beneath. The venom took effect almost instantly, and Saphira howled in agony, the noise echoing through the cave.

Skade, lying nearby, suddenly found she had control of her body again. Vervada was distracted, and her power over the silver dragon had lapsed. But it had done the same for the guards. Recalled to themselves again, they remembered what their objective had been beforehand and attacked Skade while she was still bewildered. Skade struggled to her feet, her mouth opening in readiness to fight, but then a guard hurled his spear. The weapon hit Skade in the eye, blinding it, and she screamed. The guards wasted no time. They rushed her, snaring her wings and legs with their nets and knocking her down. Others began hacking at her neck, intent now on killing her outright.

Skade roared. 'HELP ME!'

And her roar was answered. It came from outside, from the stormy sky, and then he was there. Another dragon, jet-black and sinewy, his mouth open wide to spit crimson flames straight at the guards. One moment there was nothing, and then he was there as if he had been all along. He hurled himself at the guards, his claws tearing into them as if they were nothing more than bales of hay. He fought off those attacking Skade, and once she was free of them she helped him. Between them they defeated the last of them and drove them away. Vervada had whirled around, caught by surprise, but it was all over in a minute or two. The smaller dragon hissed furiously.

'Go away from here,' her voice said. 'I will not stop you. But the blue dragon is mine to punish.'

Skade, ignoring the blood flowing from her ruined eye, looked at the black dragon through the uninjured one. She had thought he was Shruikan at first, but now she saw him properly she realised that he wasn't. She didn't recognise him at all. He was her size, but lighter and slimmer. His wing membranes were black like the rest of him, but he had the most peculiar horns. They had a strange spiralled shape like those of a goat, and were very long. His eyes were black, but unlike Vervada's they had the light of life in them. His underjaw was covered in small spikes and, though she later thought it was odd for her to have noticed, his forelegs were cut and infected.

But whoever he was he had saved her. 'Thankyou,' she said.

The black dragon regarded her out of those sparkling eyes. 'For you I would do anything,' he said.

Skade paused – there was something odd about his voice. But there was no time to think it over. 'We can't leave Saphira here,' she said. 'She saved my life. Help me rescue her. That creature will kill her.'

'Don't worry,' the black dragon said. 'I have no intention of letting it live.'

Vervada was still watching them cautiously, while Saphira moaned softly on the floor behind her. 'You will stay away from me,' she commanded.

'Let Saphira go,' said Skade.

'No,' said Vervada. She struck out mentally, and Skade backed away, hissing.

'Leave her alone,' the black dragon snarled, stepping toward Vervada, his talons extended.

Vervada sneered internally. She would not harm Skade, but she had no reservations about hurting this other dragon. She locked eyes with him, and began her assault on his mind. No reason to be gentle. This one she could destroy utterly.

The black dragon winced, lowering his head slightly as if in a high wind. But he raised it again. His gaze remained steady. Vervada's confidence suddenly began to falter. This mind was familiar. Horribly familiar. And it had defences she could not understand.

Too late, she began to withdraw. Her mind was suddenly blasted back out of his, landing in its original body with a sickening mental blow which knocked her back onto her haunches. Vervada let out a high-pitched screech and attacked, this time physically, jaws snapping at the black dragon's injured forelegs. But he was ready for her. He reared up onto his hind legs, roaring, and snapped at her with his own teeth, aiming for her back. Vervada dodged the blow and ran for the entrance. Skade had recovered and was after her too, and she knew that she was beaten. She was too small to fight this pair.

Vervada reached the open air, and hurled herself into the sky, her ragged wings unfolding. Skade and the black dragon took off, chasing her up and into the midst of the storm, heedless of any danger. But Vervada was faster than they were. She avoided the flames they sent her way and dived down into the rocky waste of the mountains and away. Skade fell back, but the black dragon kept going. He pursued Vervada through a canyon and up over a cliff, his eyes narrow and intent. Vervada dived into a narrow fissure in a rocky plateaux, folding her wings in order to fit, and the black dragon, plunging after her, smacked into the stone floor, unable to follow her. He roared his frustration, blasting the fissure with fire and gouging at the stone in an attempt to dig her out. It was useless: the fissure was deep and stretched across half the plateaux, and he couldn't even see where the warped dragon had gone.

The black dragon stayed where he was for a time, snorting irritably. Well, she wouldn't be able to hide from him forever. He had his methods of finding people when he wanted to do it badly enough. And at least Skade was safe. He set out back toward the cave.

Skade was waiting at the entrance. 'Did you catch it?' she asked.

'Unfortunately, no,' said the black dragon. 'But we'll find her eventually.'

'What was it?' asked Skade. 'How could it have done those things? It was unnatural.'

'I don't know,' said the black dragon. 'I think a Shade could have done it, though. And that magic she used on you… didn't it feel familiar to you? It felt like Shade magic to me.'

'A dragon can't be a Shade,' said Skade. 'It's impossible.'

The black dragon nosed at her face. 'Are you all right?' he asked.

'Fine,' said Skade.

'They didn't hurt you?' he looked at her with an anxious expression.

'No,' said Skade. 'But I hurt some of them.'

The black dragon chuckled. 'Exactly what I've come to expect from you, Skade. Now, then…' he looked past her to where Saphira lay unconscious. 'Is she… she's not dead, is she?'

'No,' said Skade, going over to the blue dragon and sniffing her. 'Not dead. But that poison seems to be very painful.'

'I know,' said the black dragon.

'Who are you?' said Skade, looking up at him. 'You're so strange.'

The black dragon opened his wings so that their shadow fell over the floor. 'I hoped you'd recognise me,' he said.

Skade's eyes widened. 'Galbatorix,' she breathed. 'No. That can't be…'

'It's me,' said Galbatorix, flicking his new wings with a touch of pride. 'I suppose I must look different.'

'But you're not… you're not you.'

'This is who I always was on the inside, I think,' said Galbatorix. 'Remember what you told me all those years ago? You have the heart of a wild dragon. And now I have the body of one.'

'But how?' said Skade.

'Your father is here,' said Galbatorix. 'He came looking for you. This is his storm.' He indicated the dark sky outside by pointing a foreclaw, a humanlike gesture that looked rather comical when used by a dragon.

'My father?' said Skade, her normal calm deserting her. 'He's here?'

'Any father would come looking for his daughter,' said Galbatorix. 'He wanted to come here himself and save you, but I offered to go in his place when I found out I could resist Vervada's power.'

'Where is he?' said Skade.

'He's inside Farthen Dûr,' said Galbatorix. 'And I mean… inside. He demolished half the mountain to get there. We'll go to him now.'

'And we'll take Saphira with us,' said Skade. 'Help me carry her, will you?'

'She really saved your life?' said Galbatorix.

'Yes,' said Skade. 'I hated her at first, but… she was very unhappy about how Eragon had been behaving. And she told me – she was the one who abandoned the eggs I found. And Vervada is the only one she kept.'

'You mean… those were Saphira's eggs?'

'Yes. And she was tormented by guilt over what she'd done. She told me so herself. It seems she took pity on me or maybe she hoped I could lead her to her children. But she fought beside me against the guards, and I'm in her debt.'

Galbatorix's expression darkened. 'She's bonded to Eragon,' he said. 'The boy is corrupted. No doubt it's affected her too.'

'I don't think so,' said Skade. 'We'll take her back to him, Galbatorix. Because it's the right thing to do.'

Galbatorix shook his head. 'If she saved your life, I suppose we should help her. Now that creature's gone she won't be able to control the boy again. Not that he'll be any friendlier when he's doing his own thinking.'

Skade smiled. 'You sound like a leader when you talk like that.'

'Do I? I suppose even if I'm a terrible leader I still sound like a proper one…' Galbatorix sighed. 'Well, come on then. We'll carry her between us.'

Chapter Nineteen

The Vault of Souls

When Vervada fled after Galbatorix's attack and her controlling spell faded, it was as if Eragon were waking up from sleep after a long illness. The numb veil that had clouded his senses dissipated, and light and sound flooded back into his mind. He breathed in, blinked, and found himself crouched on the platform, its stone surface rough against his fingers. There was a howling wind in the cave. The rumble of thunder. And a deep, growling sound from directly overhead. He looked up slowly, and saw something that nearly gave him a heart attack. The black dragon. Not Shruikan, not Vidar, but the black dragon. It stood over him, its chest a wall of black scales so big they looked like the shields of a great army. The head was directly above him, tilted downward slightly so that he could see its face. The eyes were molten gold, the lower fangs jutted over the upper jaw, and three huge scars stretched from forehead to cheek. Eragon's heart froze inside him. There it was, so close he could reach out and touch it. The black dragon. The embodiment of all he feared and all he hated. It was no longer just a spectre to haunt the shadows – it was real and present; a nightmare come to life. In it was Galbatorix, the Empire, the Raz'ac who had killed his uncle, Durza the Shade, the urgals who had destroyed Yazuac… all those terrible things and more.

Eragon looked at the black dragon, and it looked at him, and then Eragon ran for it. The door behind the platform was hanging open, and he bolted through it, narrowly avoiding a blast of black flame. He ran away through the corridor beyond, only just managing to stay upright when the floor shook and half the wall collapsed. Enormous black claws cut through into the corridor, passing through the stone with scarcely a pause, and more than once he had to dodge very smartly to avoid them.

His mind was racing. What should he do? How could he fight? He'd dropped his sword on the platform, and it would be useless against that monster anyway. And where was the rest of the Varden? Hiding, no doubt, and how could he possibly convince them to go up against a dragon so large? They would stand no chance. But there had to be something he could do, something that would work. And then, as he turned a corner and was finally out of reach of the black dragon's talons, it hit him. The words of the werecat who had told him where to find Brom's old sword. When you need a weapon, look under the roots of the Menoa Tree. And he had done so, and found the sword buried there. But the werecat had said more. He had spoken of something called the Vault of Souls. Speak your true name, he had said. To open it. Eragon knew what his true name was, and he had a strong suspicion that he knew what the Vault of Souls was too. Isidar Mithrim, the giant star sapphire carved in the shape of a rose. It had been broken during his fight with Durza, but Saphira had repaired it, and afterwards she said she had sensed something strange about the huge gem. There was something locked inside it, she said, something, some presence that she couldn't identify. And directly below it, in the lowest levels of the mountain city, were the crypts were hundreds of people had been buried. It was said there were even older tombs lost beneath even these ancient resting-places. A vault of souls. It was worth a try, and Eragon couldn't think of anything else. So he ran on, the tunnels twisting and turning, up and up until he was in the chamber whose roof was Isidar Mithrim itself.

The huge sapphire hung overhead, sparkling in the torchlight, and Eragon stood directly below it, still finding space to marvel at its beauty.

But there was no time to waste. He stared straight into the red heart of Isidar Mithrim, breathed in and said; 'Þykkr-hǒfuđ.'

That was it; that was his true name, which had taken a great deal of effort to find. Once he had spoken it he stood and waited, hoping against hope that it would work.

And, as he watched, Isidar Mithrim began to glow. Sparks of white light moved within it like fish swimming in a pool. There were uncountable thousands of them, and a pale outline appeared around each one. Eragon knew in his heart that they were souls.

'Come forth,' he whispered. 'I, þykkr-hǒfuđ, command you.'

The lights ceased their swirling motion, and began to gather. They flowed toward the lowest point of Isidar Mithrim, joining together into one, pure white light that was as round and bright as the full moon. Then it left its prison, emerging in a great beam of light that shot from the gem and blasted onto the floor like a waterfall. And from that beam they emerged. Pale, transparent shapes, hundreds of them, and each one recognisable. Some were human, some elvish, some dwarven. There were werecats, too, and dragons. They stood together in a group, some partway through the walls, and where they touched they merged together like fog. Every one of the ghosts had a chunk of that white light at its heart, and some were brighter than others. Eragon felt a strange coldness at his own heart and, looking down, he was shocked to see that he had his own white light, shining from inside him. It was his own soul, responding to the presence of the others.

The ghosts made no sound, but he could see them all looking at him. He hesitated – what on earth was he going to say to them? Everything he thought of felt hollow and stupid. But he had to say something.

While he stood there in indecision, there was a movement from among the assembled souls and several of them broke away from the group and came toward him. And he recognised them. Garrow. Arya. A woman he did not know. And then there was Brom. Brom. His teacher and friend. Brom, who had been like a father to him… or perhaps more than that.

'Father,' said Eragon. 'Brom… I mean… Garrow! And Arya…'

'Hello, Eragon,' said Brom's ghost. His voice was startlingly loud and alive. He took the woman whom Eragon didn't know by the hand, leading her forward. 'This is your mother,' he told Eragon. 'Selena.'

'Mother,' said Eragon. He reached out toward the ghost, who looked back at him with sad eyes. She was short and plump, but had a kind face and long, flowing hair.

'Eragon,' she whispered. 'My son.'

Eragon tried to touch her cheek, but his hand passed through it. His heart felt several sizes too big for his chest, and he felt a tear leave his eye and begin to roll down his cheek. 'Brom,' he said again. 'Are you…?'

'Yes?' said Brom.

'Galbatorix said you were my real father,' said Eragon. 'Were you…? I mean… are you my father?'

'Yes,' said Brom. 'I was.'

'Then why didn't you tell me?' Eragon demanded, his voice breaking. 'Why? Were you ashamed of me?' He couldn't hold back those last five words. They had tormented him ever since Galbatorix had used them to taunt him.

'No,' said Brom. 'Never. I just… I couldn't bear to tell you. I knew that if I did you would ask why I never raised you myself. The guilt was too much. I kept fighting with myself, trying to make myself tell you, but I never could. And then it was too late.'

'And why didn't you raise me yourself?' asked Eragon.

'Because at first I didn't even know where you were,' said Brom. 'And because I was caught up in the fight against the Empire.'

'What are you saying?' said Eragon. 'That fighting the Empire is more important than your own son?'

'Yes,' said Brom simply. 'In the fight against evil, you must put aside your friends and family. You must even put aside love, if you are to succeed.'

'Which you could never do,' said Arya's ghost. 'You always let your impulses direct you rather than your head. That is why Galbatorix has kept control of Alagaësia for a century. Because he put aside all else.'

'I will not become like him,' Eragon snarled.

'But you already have,' said Garrow.

'No,' said Eragon. 'And tonight I will prove it to you. Come with me. Help me. I will find him and kill him.'

Brom nodded. 'I will go with you.'

'And I will,' said Garrow.

'And so will I,' said Selena, linking arms with Brom.

'And I will come,' said Arya.

As she spoke, dozens of other ghosts came silently to join them. Eragon recognised a few of them. He guessed correctly at who they were. They were all those who had died at the hands of the Empire. They were Galbatorix's victims.

But even as they came to stand by him, others came forward too. And they did not come to stand by Eragon's side. And he recognised many of them. Durza, his spirit swimming with the dark shapes of the evil spirits that had given him his power and his life. The Raz'ac he had killed. Countless urgals and Empire soldiers. And the largest of them; a dragon. Vidar, his eyes full of rage and accusation. At the sight of them, Eragon's righteous pride and joy died inside him. On the one hand were those whom Galbatorix had killed, yes, but here too was the legion of his own victims. His hands were by no means clean, either. But he reassured himself with the thought that it wasn't the same. The people he had killed had been dark and cruel and deserved to die. He had never killed innocents as Galbatorix had.

'Stay away from me,' he said.

Durza's spirit stared at him through hate-filled eyes. 'I have no interest in you,' it told him. 'I have other things to do.'

The ghost turned and drifted silently away. Vidar's spirit growled at him. 'I remember you,' the ghostly dragon said. 'You killed me like a coward, too afraid to fight face-to-face.' But he too left the chamber. As if that was a signal, the assembled occupants of the Vault of Souls drifted away, their pale faces preoccupied and dreamy. They were no longer alive and had forgotten the concerns of the living. They had no interest in fighting anyone. Eragon shouted at them to come back, but they ignored him. Only Brom, Selena, Arya and Garrow stayed.

'Come back!' Eragon roared again.

'They can't hear you,' said Brom. 'They don't care any more.'

'You stayed,' said Eragon, looking desperately at the four ghosts.

'We stayed because we have an attachment to you,' said Selena. 'We all care for you in some way.'

'So you did love me,' said Eragon to Arya.

She regarded him coldly. 'I loved Murtagh,' she said. 'But he betrayed me and put a curse on Vervada.'

'Wait – Murtagh did it?' said Eragon.

'He was in Ellesméra that night,' said Arya. 'I let him in. Oh, I was such a fool…' she paused, visibly struggling with her emotions. 'It was almost a relief to die. If the dragon had not killed me, my guilt would have.'

Eragon was thunderstruck. Murtagh. She had been in love with Murtagh. And it was because of her that Vervada had been cursed. He looked at her, and suddenly he saw things differently. Before he had seen beauty and grace. But now, looking at Arya's face as if for the first time, he saw arrogance and disdain. Contempt. It made her fine features take on an ugly aspect that had never been there before. And, seeing that, he finally shed the illusion that he had ever been in love with her.

'Go away,' he said softly. 'And don't come back.'

Arya bowed coldly and drifted away, and Eragon did not need to watch her go. He turned his back on her. 'Come on,' he said to the remaining three ghosts. 'We'll gather the rest of the Varden. There's fighting to do.'

Back in the huge audience chamber, Ravana looked up and saw Skade and Galbatorix approaching. They flew down into the chamber and landed on the platform, depositing the much smaller dragon they had been carrying between them before they did so.

Galbatorix tried saying the healing words over Saphira, but the spell tried to draw too much energy from him and he broke it off. He was going to need Skade's help for this.

But Skade was busy. She was looking at her father.

Ravana lowered his massive head and touched his snout to Skade's flank with surprising gentleness. 'Are you well?' he asked her, using mental speech.

'Well enough,' said Skade. 'Father, I can't believe you came all this way looking for me.'

'For my children I would do anything,' said Ravana. 'Where are Skirnir and Vidar?'

'Skirnir is well,' said Skade. 'I saw him recently.'

'And Vidar?'

Skade lowered her head. 'Vidar is dead.'

'What?' said Galbatorix. 'Dead? How?'

'Eragon killed him,' said Skade out loud. 'I'm sorry… I thought you knew.'

Galbatorix slumped miserably. Vidar… dead. The son he had barely known.

Ravana let out a little moan. 'Vidar… no. Who killed him? Tell me so that I can have revenge for him.'

'It was Eragon,' said Skade. 'The human who held us captive. When Vidar tried to rescue me, he killed him.'

'He was here before,' said Galbatorix. 'Where did he go?'

'The human escaped me,' said Ravana. 'He ran away into the mountain. But I will find him.'

'Change me back,' said Galbatorix at once. 'Make me human again and I can go after him.'

'I have done too much for you already,' said Ravana. 'And this is my fight.'

'It is mine as well,' said Galbatorix, throwing caution to the winds. 'Vidar was my son.'

Ravana's face showed shock. 'Truly… his son?' he said, directing the question at Skade.

'Yes, father,' said the silver dragon.

'But he is human!'

'I know… it happened while I was under the curse. While I had the form of an elf.'

Ravana roared. 'You have betrayed me! My own daughter, taking a human for a mate! It is unnatural, obscene! How could you do this to me?'

Skade faced him. 'I am an adult,' she said fearlessly. 'I am free to make my own choices; he was my choice and he still is. I love him truly and he loves me, and if you care about me you will respect that.'

Ravana's mind radiated agony. 'Is this true?' he demanded, turning to Galbatorix.

'It is,' said Galbatorix. 'My lord…I have loved your daughter every day during the time we were apart. I never looked at any other female. I saved her life because of that love. And I will avenge the death of our son if you will let me.'

Ravana stared at him, and Galbatorix stared back, forcing himself to remain calm and still. Even as a dragon, he would die in an instant if Ravana decided to attack.

Finally Ravana spoke. 'You have spoken truly,' he said. 'I can sense that you do love my daughter, just as I loved my own mate before she was taken from me. I will… I will grant your request.'

'Thankyou, my lord,' said Galbatorix, his relief almost palpable.

'On one condition,' Ravana cut in.

'Whatever you ask, my lord.'

'That you will bring the other human here so that I may see him die,' said Ravana. 'You have the father's right to avenge your son… but I wish to be certain that it has been done as it should be.'

Galbatorix nodded. 'I will do as you ask, my lord.'

Ravana tilted his head slightly in acknowledgement, and unleashed his magic once more. He did it wordlessly, as only the greatest wielders of magic can. The energy flowed through Galbatorix, hot and cold and tingling, and he felt the form of the dragon melt away like salt in the wind. When it was done, he saw the world through human eyes once again. Colours were different, and distant objects much harder to see. He felt horribly weak and vulnerable now, with no scales to protect him, no wings, no fire, fangs or talons, and nothing covering his skin but his ragged old robe. He wondered if this was how Skade had felt when they changed her into an elf. It made him understand a little more clearly why Ravana and other wild dragons viewed humans with such contempt. Still, it was the form he had been born in, and though he had enjoyed being a dragon he knew that a human was what he would always be. Nothing could truly change that, not even magic as powerful as Ravana's. The thought made him slightly sad.

No time for contemplation, though. Galbatorix shook himself back to his senses, and searched automatically for a weapon. His gaze fell on Eragon's sword, lying discarded on the platform not far away. It would do the job. He picked it up, and felt much more certain now it was in his hand.

He looked back at Skade and Ravana. 'I'll be back as soon as I can,' he promised them, and ran off into the ravaged corridor through which Eragon had escaped.

Ravana's magic had restored him to his full strength once again, and he moved fast and with certainty, his robe swirling around him. Only the injuries on his forearms hadn't healed completely, although some had become raw red scars. He was fairly certain that they would leave permanent marks, but it didn't bother him much. Scars were just memories written on someone's skin. He had plenty of them already, and a few more wouldn't count for much.

Passing through a guard-room on his way through the cell-block, he found – against all expectations – his own sword hanging from the wall. He grabbed it. That was better. There was nothing like using your own blade. It always made a fight feel more legitimate, somehow. The elf who had first trained him in swordplay had said that a rider's sword was almost as important to him as his dragon, and Galbatorix was inclined to believe it, even though in his experience elves were prone to say silly things and try and pass them off as profound wisdom. It couldn't all be nonsense.

And now to find Eragon.

Back in Isidar Mithrim's chamber, Eragon had just reached the door and was about to go through it. There was the sound of running feet from the other side. Eragon moved out of the way just as the door was kicked open, and Galbatorix himself came bursting in.

'You,' said Eragon.

Galbatorix had seen him and stopped. He was staring at the three ghosts standing behind Eragon. 'I know you,' he said to them. 'But… how did you get here? You're dead!'

'The Vault of Souls has been opened,' said the ghost of Brom. 'We have returned to help our son fight.'

Galbatorix took Eragon's sword from his belt. 'Very well,' he said. 'But you won't be interfering with this. Eragon…?'

'Yes?' said Eragon nervously.

'Catch.' Galbatorix tossed the blue-bladed sword to the other rider, who caught it and quickly took up a fighting stance. 'We've played the game of politics,' said Galbatorix, readying his own sword. 'Our followers have fought for us, and armies have clashed in our names. But we still haven't resolved anything, have we? So enough of that. We'll fight man to man. Or are you too frightened of me for that?'

'Never,' said Eragon.

'Then fight me,' said Galbatorix.

'And the winner will be king,' said Eragon.

'No, the winner gets to kill the loser,' said Galbatorix. 'You think I'd gamble my empire on the outcome of a duel? No.'

'But you'll gamble your life,' said Eragon.

'My life is mine to do what I choose with,' said Galbatorix. 'But the Empire is more important.'

'The Empire is mine,' said Eragon, and rushed at his enemy.

Galbatorix was ready. The white sword and the blue sword clashed, and the two riders began to fight. Both of them were well-trained and strong, but Galbatorix was the taller of the two, and far more experienced. They moved with the fluidity and grace of a pair of born swordsmen, but while Eragon was noisy and reckless about his blows and dodges Galbatorix fought quietly, scowling in concentration. His sword stood out against his black clothes; a striking reminder of a time past when he had been bonded to a white dragon rather than a black one, a time when he had not been ruler of Alagaësia but a mere boy no older than Eragon himself. But though Eragon's sword was as blue as Saphira's scales, it was Galbatorix who was balanced and calm, and Galbatorix who drove Eragon back, with little apparent effort. His sword Hvítr Atganga – a name which means 'white violence', flicked Eragon's sword Íssbrandr aside and struck at the young man's arms and chest, seeking to disable him. Eragon's confidence began to ebb away. He had thought himself nearly unbeatable in a swordfight, but in spite of his heightened speed and strength he quickly found himself struggling to hold his own. He was fast and strong, but Galbatorix was faster and stronger. And no matter what moves or combinations of moves he resorted to, his opponent was always ready to counter them. The ghosts of Brom, Garrow and Selena hovered behind him all the time, shouting encouragement, but it wasn't enough.

Finally, scared and frustrated, Eragon drove forward, locking blades with Galbatorix. They strained to push each other over, their faces only a few inches apart, feet scrabbling for purchase on the stone floor. Eragon found himself eye-to-eye with his enemy. Galbatorix's eyes were black and impenetrable. Eragon, who had always prided himself on his ability to read faces and eyes, could not read this one no matter how hard he tried.

They struggled on, neither one able to free his blade.

'One of us will have to yield,' Eragon rasped. 'And it won't be me.'

Galbatorix grinned. 'You're forgetting that I've done this before. And I'm still alive. Do you know what that means? I means I won.'

Eragon said nothing. And then Galbatorix's knee came up, catching him in the groin. Eragon howled. The pain was simply indescribable. Unable to stop himself, he dropped his sword and fell over, his eyes streaming. And before he could get up or move out of the way, the tip of a white-bladed sword appeared at his throat.

Galbatorix stood over him, holding him at his mercy. He was laughing out loud. 'I'm surprised you didn't see that coming,' he said. 'It worked on Vrael too. Didn't anyone tell you that story?'

'You – coward!' Eragon gasped. 'Dishonourable–!'

Galbatorix prodded him with the tip of his sword, hard enough to draw blood. 'You can have the honour; I'll take the victory. Do you think principles and warrior's codes won me the war? Not likely. It never does.'

'Are – you – going to kill me now?' said Eragon.

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'I'm going to take you with me to see someone who's rather anxious to meet you. You killed his grandson, you see.'

'Help me!' Eragon shouted suddenly, appealing to the three ghosts. 'Do something!'

Galbatorix risked a glance up, and saw the ghosts coming toward him. 'I'm not afraid of you,' he told them, the coldness in his tone masking his true uncertainty.

Brom's ghost glared at him. 'You should be,' it said, and grabbed his hand.

Galbatorix started, but the hand passed straight through him, giving him no sensation beyond an icy chill. 'You see?' he said. 'You can't hurt me. You can't even touch me.'

'I can't touch your body, no,' said Brom's ghost. It pulled hard, and its transparent hand emerged from inside Galbatorix's solid one. It was holding onto something. Galbatorix's hand went numb and dead, and to his horror he saw a white, ghostly replica of it being pulled out of him by Brom's silent shade. The sword dropped from his nerveless fingers, and when he tried to catch it his arm wouldn't respond. Eragon scrambled away from him and ran to the opposite wall, where he stood and watched with obscene fascination.

Galbatorix tried to pull away. A mistake. Selena's ghost reached into his chest and reappeared holding a handful of spectral cloth. Garrow grabbed his other hand, and all three ghosts pulled. Galbatorix struggled wildly, beginning to panic, but nothing he did had any effect on the three ghosts. His other arm went limp and useless, and as he fell backwards the rest of his body followed. His vision went black, sound was abruptly cut off, and all he could feel was deathly cold. He could hear his own heart pounding in his ears. And then it stopped.

Some unknown period of time later, he opened his eyes and found himself looking down at… himself. He was completely bewildered. What was happening? This couldn't be happening. But in spite of that he still found himself standing below Isidar Mithrim, looking down at a crumpled body that was unmistakeably his.

But if he was looking at himself, then what exactly was doing the looking? Automatically, he looked down. And found that though he still had a semblance of a body it was white and transparent with a fist-sized starlike glow where his heart was supposed to be. If Galbatorix had a special talent, it was the ability to think fast.

He turned and found Garrow, Selena and Brom were standing just behind him. Strangely, they now looked more real than the solid world around him.

'What did you do?' Galbatorix demanded, although he had a horribly strong suspicion that he already knew.

'You're dead, traitor,' said Brom. 'Justice has been served.'

Galbatorix looked back at the body on the floor. There was no mistaking it for anyone else's. He was dead. He was a ghost. Brom had had his revenge from beyond the grave. On the other side of the chamber, Eragon started to laugh. Galbatorix span around to face him, and saw the boy leaning back against the wall, shaking with mirth. The boy looked up at him, his face full of unsuppressed triumph. 'Now,' he said, 'Now it's over. I've won. Your crimes finally caught up with you, just like I always said they would.'

Eragon straightened up and walked over to Galbatorix's body, retrieving his sword along the way. 'I swore that one day I would stand over your dead body,' he said. 'I used to try and imagine what it would be like. I even planned speeches I could give.' He kicked the limp corpse violently in the ribs, flipping it over onto its back. 'But I think that was much more eloquent.'

Galbatorix started furiously toward the young rider, but Brom's ghost stepped in the way. 'You'll stay away from him, Arren.'

'That's not my name any more,' said Galbatorix, and swung a punch at the other ghost. His fist connected, but had absolutely no effect. There was no mass behind it to give it force, and nothing substantial for it to hit. He may as well have stabbed a pool of water with a feather.

Brom's ghost laughed. 'That won't work any more. The dead cannot harm the dead.'

'No, but the dead can harm the living,' Galbatorix snarled. He dodged around the other ghost, catching Eragon unawares, and thrust his spectral hand into the young man's chest just as Selena had done to him. It worked: his hand passed straight through Eragon's flesh, and he found something beyond it that he could grasp. He pulled. Eragon cried out, flailing ineffectually at him, and Galbatorix started to drag his soul out of his body. But he had reckoned without the three ghosts behind him. Selena and Garrow grabbed his shoulders and pulled him away from Eragon. Brom reached into Eragon's chest and removed Galbatorix's hand, thrusting Eragon's emerging soul back into his body without any apparent effort.

Eragon's breath was gasping and ragged, as if he had just been rescued from drowning. He put his hand to his heart, pressing down on it as if to reassure himself that it was, indeed, still beating. Then he looked up at Galbatorix, who was striving with all his might to break free of the other three ghosts and resume his attack.

'It's useless,' Brom rasped. 'You're beaten, so admit it.'

They let Galbatorix go, and went to stand protectively around Eragon. Galbatorix stared at them, his eyes full of fury, wishing that he had the ghost of a sword in his hand. He looked down at his body. It was right there, probably not even cold yet. If only there was some way of climbing back into it…

'You can't go back,' said the ghost of Garrow in a rough voice. 'Not like that.'

'No,' said the ghost of Selena. 'Not like that. You can only return with help from another spirit. One which truly loves you.'

'And there is no-one for you,' said Brom. 'No-one in the plane of the dead who cares for the traitor and murderer of his own people. Soon you will fade beyond the sight of the living altogether.'

Eragon kicked Galbatorix's discarded body again. 'You'll wander the world until the end of time, all alone. And this worthless thing will be thrown on a rubbish heap where it belongs. The riders are avenged. Goodbye, Galbatorix.'

The three ghosts standing around the young rider faded away, spreading out and growing thinner until there was nothing left of them at all. The last Galbatorix saw of them were their eyes; burning with triumph and hate. Eragon picked up Hvítr Atganga from the floor, paused to spit on the corpse of his defeated enemy, and limped out of the room, leaving Galbatorix all alone.

Chapter Twenty

Shades of the Past

Galbatorix stood unmoving in the chamber for some time, not knowing what to do. His determination to fight against reality was fading away just as the three vengeful ghosts had done, and he found himself trapped by a single, cold fact. He was dead. He was standing over his own mortal remains, with no means of re-entering them. And, he realised with a horrible jolt, no-one but Skade would mourn. In all his life, she was the only person who had ever truly cared for him. The only one he had. And there would be no funeral, not for him. After all, who would come to honour the most hated man in Alagaësia? Probably most people would celebrate. Celebrate the fall of a despot.

Galbatorix slumped down beside his own dead body and tried to reach into it, seeking desperately for some way to go back into it. But he soon found that Brom had spoken the truth. No matter what he tried, his hands simply passed through it and into the floor beneath. There was nothing inside the body for him to grasp, nothing he could touch. It was as if it were the ghost rather than him.

Defeated, Galbatorix sat back, staring fixedly at his own deathly white features. When he realised that tears were starting to flow over his transparent cheeks, he made no effort to stop them. No-one would ever see them. It was all over, and here he was, mourning over his own corpse. What a strange and ghastly thing life was.

After a time he heard someone coming, and looked up half-heartedly to see who it was. The chamber door swung open, and she walked through it. Galbatorix stood up, shocked. It was Skade. And she was not a dragon any more. She was back in the form of the wild silver-haired elf that he had first met her in. She paused in the doorway, her golden eyes surveying the chamber, and then she saw the black-robed body lying on the floor. She ran to it, crouching by its side, directly opposite from Galbatorix's ghost, and shook its shoulder desperately.

'Galbatorix,' she whispered. 'No! Galbatorix!'

'I'm here, Skade,' said Galbatorix.

She did not hear him. He reached out to touch her, but his hand passed through her without a sound. Skade touched the body's cold cheeks, feeling for some spark of life. But she found nothing. 'No,' she said again. 'Galbatorix… wake up! It's me! It's Skade! I've come to help you. You've got to wake up, Galbatorix.'

'Skade,' said Galbatorix's ghost, reaching helplessly toward her. 'I'm here, Skade. Can't you hear me?'

But his words were as insubstantial as a shadow.

Skade lifted Galbatorix's body into her arms, hugging it to her chest, and began to sob brokenly, her face buried in his hair. Galbatorix's ghost stood by, watching her, his own face shining with spectral tears. Skade, he said, his voice barely audible even to him. I'm here, Skade. Don't cry. I love you, Skade.

'Too late,' Skade whispered. 'I came too late. I love you, Galbatorix.'

Skade, said Galbatorix. I don't want to leave you. He looked around at the chamber. Was there no-one, not one single spirit out of the hundreds that the Vault of Souls must have released, that would come to his aid? Was he truly as cursed as so many people had said? Perhaps he was. He had been cursed by his very birth. Or had been a curse. His very existence had claimed the lives of both his parents.

I tried to live as you would want me to, he said, appealing to their unseen presence. I avenged you. I brought justice. I never… I never wanted any of it to happen. Are you so ashamed of your son?

There was silence, broken only by Skade's sobs and the howl of the wind outside. And no-one came to answer Galbatorix's plea. He waited and watched, and then bowed his head. Then I have truly been abandoned, he murmured.

He looked up resignedly, staring into the gloom of Isidar Mithrim's chamber. Darkness had been his whole life, he knew. But he had never quite admitted it to himself until now. And then there was light. Pure, white light. It shone from up ahead, and Galbatorix watched it uncertainly. It couldn't be from a torch or a candle; it was too steady. And too pale. But as it got closer he realised that there were two lights. Two small points of light like a pair of fallen stars. He walked toward them without realising what he was doing, and he met them at the middle of the chamber, directly under Isidar Mithrim's lowest point.

The two lights shone in the hearts of two ghosts. He did not recognise either of them. One was a human woman, clad in a flowing gown and wearing strings of precious stones around her neck. Her hair was curly and she had a pretty face with a pointed nose and large eyes. The other was a male elf, the same height as Galbatorix. His clothes were ragged and dirty, but he carried himself with pride. His ears were pointed, of course, but had a subtly different shape to those of Islanzadí's people. And though he was without colour just like every ghost, his face was dark and intense of expression, handsome and angular and impossible to read.

Galbatorix knew who they were. 'Mother,' he said. 'Father.'

The elf smiled. The woman said, simply, 'Yes.'

'They told me your names,' said Galbatorix. 'Skandar of the dark elves of the North. And Ingë of Teirm, descendent of the House of Taranis. They said you were…'

'Cursed,' said the elf. 'Yes. They would have said that.'

'They said that he took me against my will,' said the woman. 'Or that I took him while he was under a spell or a potion. They said it was an unnatural union.'

'All lies,' said Galbatorix. 'I know it is. I always knew, no matter what they told me.'

'We loved each other truly,' his father said. His voice was rich and deep.

'We did,' his mother agreed. 'And now we are together always. And you, our son… in you is our love. You are what we died for, but it was a willing sacrifice. Nothing would ever have made me value my own life above yours.'

'What we did, we did for love,' said his father, nodding. 'And no-one should ever be ashamed of love.'

'I know,' said Galbatorix. 'I… I could never understand why you would die rather than be parted. Until I met her.' He turned to look at Skade once more, where she mourned alone. 'Now I know,' he said.

'Let me see her,' said his mother. She walked silently toward Skade, with Skandar by her side, and Galbatorix went with them. They stood over her like white shadows, and Ingë reached out to touch her cheek with a spectral finger. 'So beautiful,' she sighed. 'So sad.'

Galbatorix looked at his mother's own face. 'Yes,' he said simply.

'She is mourning because she lost you,' said Skandar. Galbatorix wasn't sure if it was a question. It was as if the spectral elf was saying what was obvious in order to make it more real in some way.

'What we did, we did for love,' said Ingë again. 'And this we shall do for love as well.'

She took Galbatorix gently by the shoulder, and Skandar took the other.

Ingë kissed him on the cheek. 'My dearest child,' she whispered.

Then the two ghosts pushed.

The first thing Galbatorix felt was pain. His entire body ached and throbbed. Whereas before he had felt nothing, now he felt all kinds of things. He felt that he was cold, and that he was in pain, particularly around the ribs. And he realised, with a rush of joy that warmed him up from end to end, that the pain was from where Eragon had kicked him. He opened his eyes and breathed in. It was the hardest breath he'd ever drawn in his life. It reinflated his crushed lungs, which hurt in protest, and made him twitch, once, all over. With that breath, everything came back. Sight. Sound. Touch. He could hear Skade, whispering his name and sobbing softly, and he could see her tear-stained face so close to his own. With a great effort, he moved his arm upward and touched her cheek.

Skade started, moving her head back and looking down at him. She saw him looking back at her and smiling. 'Galbatorix,' she said, her voice blank with astonishment. 'Skade,' said Galbatorix. It was all he could say, or needed to say.

Skade let out a cry and hugged him fiercely, sobbing into his hair again, this time from joy. He put his arms around her and held her as best he could, but he was too weak to do anything else.

What we did, we did for love, he thought. He had no idea where he'd heard it before. All he knew was that he was back. It was all over. He was alive.

'Oh, Galbatorix,' said Skade, finally letting him go. 'I thought you were…'

'So did I,' said Galbatorix. 'For a while. But – I'm okay now. I think.'

'Can you stand up?' asked Skade.

'I'll try,' said Galbatorix, although he had a feeling the answer should have been 'no'. Skade stood up, lifting him with her. He tried to stand unsupported, but his legs simply folded up and she had to catch him and hold him up by the shoulders. 'You're a lot heavier now,' she said, laughing through her tears.

'I'm sorry,' said Galbatorix.

'There's nothing to apologise for,' said Skade, with that stern kindness in her voice that he loved so well. 'Let me hold you up and we'll get out of this place.'

She walked him out of the room, holding his arm around her shoulders and supporting the other one with her elbow. Galbatorix did his best to walk, feeling too happy and relieved to be embarrassed by his own feebleness. Just now, railing against a mere inability to walk unaided would be the worst kind of ingratitude.

'What happened?' he asked. 'How come…?'

'Why am I an elf again?' said Skade. 'My father, of course.'

'You persuaded him to change you back again?' said Galbatorix. He was frankly astonished by the idea.

'No,' said Skade, with a mischievous grin that showed her still-sharp teeth. 'I cast the spell myself, and drew on his strength to do it.'

Galbatorix winced. 'He can't have been pleased about that.'

'He wasn't,' said Skade matter-of-factly. 'He told me it was the worst kind of self-mutilation and that I had degraded myself by doing it. He said he was ashamed of me.'

'Didn't you tell him you were going to change yourself back?' said Galbatorix.

'I can't,' said Skade. 'He's gone.'

'What? How? Where to?'

'I don't know,' said Skade. 'Back to his country, probably.'

'But how are you going to change back now, if he's not there to help you?' said Galbatorix.

'I'm not going to,' said Skade. 'That's why he was so angry.'

'I don't understand,' said Galbatorix. 'You're not saying you decided to stay like this forever, are you?'

'I am,' said Skade. 'I told my father I would stay as an elf for the rest of my life, and there was nothing he could do about it. I've never seen him in such a rage before. He told me I wasn't welcome in his country any more, and so Alagaësia is where I'll stay.'

'But – you can't do this, Skade!' said Galbatorix.

'Why not?' said Skade, turning her head to look calmly at him.

'Because… because you're a dragon. Because when you were an elf you hated it. You were miserable.'

'I told myself that for a long time,' said Skade. 'But in the end I realised that this is the only form I've ever been truly happy in. While I was an elf, I was happier than I have ever been before or since. Because I was with you. And if staying with you means losing my old form forever, then I'll do it.'

'We could still have been together,' said Galbatorix. 'I would love you in any form.'

'We could,' said Skade. 'But not truly. Not as we should be.'

'I would have become a dragon again for you,' said Galbatorix. 'I would have stayed that way if you'd asked me to.'

'I know you would have,' said Skade. She was silent for a time, and then went on; 'While I was imprisoned, I had a lot of time to think. I came to see things in ways I'd never seen them before. I've realised how many things you've sacrificed for me. You risked everything on my behalf – your home, your reputation, and your empire. You even stood up to my father. Very few people have ever had the courage to do that. And now I know you were willing to lose your own life to save mine. You did all those things for me. Now, it's my turn.'

Galbatorix couldn't help but chuckle. 'What did I ever do to deserve someone like you?'

'You understood me,' said Skade. 'It's what you do for people.'

'A lot of people would be surprised to hear you say that,' said Galbatorix.

'The truth can be surprising to some.'

They had reached the huge chamber where the Varden had met, and emerged onto the platform. True to what Skade had said, Ravana was there no more. The chamber looked much bigger without him in it, but much less impressive. Most of the roof was missing, and the floor was covered in rubble. A few stray Varden members were hurrying through it, but none of them paid any attention to the elf and the human standing together on the platform.

'Now what?' said Galbatorix.

'Now we wait,' said Skade.

Wait for what? For help, as it turned out.

There was a roar from outside, where the last of Ravana's storm was clearing. They heard a loud burst of shouting from somewhere, and a number of loud thumping sounds. Galbatorix looked up in time to see a big red dragon fly down through the hole in the roof. It was Thorn, and Murtagh was on his back.

Thorn landed on the platform, and Murtagh jumped down and ran to Galbatorix's side.

'My lord,' he said. 'Are you all right?'

'Just a little weak right now, thankyou Murtagh,' said Galbatorix. 'It's good to see you.'

'It's good to see you, too,' said Murtagh. 'I thought you were dead. Now, who's this?'

'I'm Skade,' said Skade.

'Skade?' said Murtagh. 'You mean… the dragon…? How can-?'

'It's a long story,' said Galbatorix. 'Which can wait for later. What's going on out there?'

'We're attacking the Varden,' said Murtagh. 'The army is outside, breaking down the defences. I came in here to see if I could find you.'

'Took you long enough,' said Galbatorix. 'Where's Eragon?'

'Oh, him?' said Murtagh. 'He ran away.'

'What? Ran away? Are you sure?'

'Absolutely,' said Murtagh. 'Not long after we got here, we heard the Varden shouting his name. And then Saphira flew out of here, holding him in her claws. Shruikan went after her, but she got away.'

'I never saw the boy as a coward,' said Galbatorix, frowning. 'I thought he hated us enough to stop and fight no matter what the odds were.'

'I don't think it was his choice,' said Skade. 'I think it was Saphira's.'

'We'll catch them eventually, my lord,' said Murtagh. 'Now, come on. We've got to get you out of here. Skade… will you help me get him onto Thorn?'

Thorn approached them and helpfully folded his front legs, and between them Murtagh and Skade lifted Galbatorix onto the dragon's back. He held on as best he could, and Murtagh and Skade climbed up and seated themselves behind him, holding him in place. Thorn took off with an easy flick of his wings, flying up and out of Farthen Dûr and into the clearing sky. Outside battle was raging between the Varden and the Empire's soldiers. Leading the soldiers was a black dragon. Shruikan.

Shruikan flew up to meet them, practically radiating concern. 'Galbatorix,' he said, seeing him. 'You're alive. Thank goodness. I thought… I thought I felt you die.'

'Hello, Shruikan,' said Galbatorix. 'It's good to see you again. I knew you would come and find me.'

'Always, my friend,' said Shruikan. 'Thorn, we'll land now. I want to take my rider back to Urû'baen.'

The black dragon headed downward, and Thorn followed obediently. On the ground, well out of range of arrows and spears from the battle, Galbatorix allowed himself to be lifted onto Shruikan's back. Skade joined him, putting her arms around his waist and holding him steady.

'You go now,' said Murtagh. 'You need rest and medicine. Thorn and I will see to things here.'

Galbatorix nodded to the young man. 'You've done well, Murtagh. I'm proud of you.'

Murtagh smiled bashfully. 'Thankyou, my lord.'

'And you too, Thorn,' said Shruikan.

Thorn inclined his head in a gesture of gratitude, and Shruikan flew away, heading with steady, confident wingbeats toward Urû'baen and safety.

Galbatorix looked back at Farthen Dûr. It looked a lot smaller, now that it had been torn open. He had to marvel that anything living could have had the strength to do that. If he hadn't seen it for himself he wouldn't have believed it.

'I hope it goes well,' he said.

'They'll be fine,' said Shruikan. 'That young dragon and his rider have grown up tremendously since you've been gone. I've advised them, of course, but they've made some very wise decisions. You would have been proud of them.'

Galbatorix, still watching the battle as it got smaller and further away, thought he saw crimson flames billow upward from the mountain's base. Without their leader, and hence without a rider helping them, the Varden was at a severe disadvantage. And they had already lost so much. He turned away. Leave it to Murtagh. He knew what he was doing.

During the weeks and months that followed his return to Urû'baen, Galbatorix recovered steadily. The infected bite-marks on his arms responded first to herbal ointments and then to Murtagh's healing spell, and after that it was just a matter of plenty of food and sleep.

Galbatorix didn't much enjoy his period of recuperation. It was good to rest, of course, but he was impatient with his own weakness, and desperate to be up and about again so he could attend to his long-neglected duties. Only the following day after his rescue from the Varden, he was sitting up in bed and reading official documents, all while impatiently waiting for some word from Murtagh.

It came eventually. Murtagh returned leading the imperial army, bringing the news that the Varden had suffered a catastrophic defeat. The bulk of its army had been wiped out, and its leaders had either fled or given themselves up. Either way, it looked like the rebellion was over. Galbatorix was pleased to be informed that, although Eragon had escaped, both Nasuada and Roran had been taken captive, along with Ellessari and several other important members of the Varden's council. Now that they were his captives, the Varden's head had been effectively cut off.

Galbatorix had them brought to his throne room so that he could speak to them. The prisoners were brought in by guards, defiant even with their hands bound together. Galbatorix sat on his high-backed throne, wearing a new robe with faint silver embroidery around the collar, his hair and beard now meticulously clean and trimmed. In the absence of his own sword, which hadn't been retrieved, he had selected one of the old rider's blades from the treasury and had it lying across his lap. Skade sat beside him on a chair brought in for her, and the silver-haired elf watched the prisoners balefully.

'Now then,' said Galbatorix, once they had been brought to stand in a row in front of him, their guards standing on either side of the row. 'Welcome to my home. Have any of you got anything to say?'

'You'll never make us yield,' said Nasuada at once. 'Never. We defy you.'

'Yes, I know,' said Galbatorix. 'However, I'm afraid that sort of thing is out of your hands now. The Varden is finished. Now that you've been caught, you'll be tried and brought to justice. And some of you will be executed.'

Ellessari went pale. 'You can't do that,' she said.

'I'm ruler here; it's my right and my duty,' said Galbatorix. 'And you are guilty of high treason, breaching the peace, and, in some cases, war crimes.'

'We did what was necessary,' said Nasuada.

'And now I'll do the same,' said Galbatorix. 'But you should have realised you had no chance. You were outnumbered from the start. I've led this country long enough to know its ins and outs and where the power is. But you, a little band of rebels and malcontents, were not only arrogant enough to think that you could overthrow me, but to believe you had the right to do it as well.'

'We had a rider on our side,' said Roran.

Galbatorix snickered. 'Yes; a sixteen-year-old with a head full of sawdust. Who, incidentally, ran off and left you to fend for yourselves. Personally, I'd prefer to be led by someone a little more suitable.'

'I don't care who we were led by; our fight was just,' said Nasuada. 'The riders deserve to be avenged.'

'So it's about revenge, is it?' said Galbatorix. 'How noble of you. I'm not fool enough to think you'd listen, but if life has taught me anything it's that revenge never does anyone any good.'

'But you're going to kill us,' said Nasuada. 'Isn't that about revenge?'

'No,' said Galbatorix. 'This is not about revenge. It's about justice. If I wanted revenge, I would have you all beaten, starved and poisoned, publicly humiliated and then killed as cruelly as possible. Revenge would be doing to you what you did to me.'

'We never tortured you,' said Nasuada.

Galbatorix rolled up the sleeves of his robe so that the ugly scars on his forearms were visible. 'Then I must have got these when I tripped over on the stairs yesterday. Spare me your delusions, please. I'm in no mood. But you'll be well-fed and left unmolested during your time here, and those of you who are sentenced to execution will be killed quickly and painlessly. And I won't make a public spectacle of it, although there are people out there who are urging me to do it. Those not sentenced to death will be sent to the mines. No doubt the labourers there would be grateful for the extra help. And perhaps it would be good for you to do an honest day's work for once in your lives.'

'I don't care what you do to us,' Roran spat. 'He'll avenge us. Eragon will have revenge for us.'

'I doubt that very much,' said Galbatorix. 'Guards… take them away, please.'

The prisoners were led away, several of them hurling insults and threats as they were taken out of the room. Once they had gone, Galbatorix sat back and sighed. 'So righteous, aren't they? Even now. I didn't sound too pleased with myself, did I?'

'You did well,' said Skade, who had watched the entire exchange in silence. 'You told them the truth and didn't let them provoke you.'

'Should I execute them?' asked Galbatorix. 'The law says I have to, but I can transmute the sentence to life imprisonment if I choose.'

'Kill them,' said Skade. 'They're criminals.'

'Yes, but if I do that I risk turning them into martyrs. Let's not delude ourselves here; these won't be the last rebels. There will be others one day.'

'And we'll fight them together,' said Skade.

'Together,' Galbatorix agreed.

He was silent for a time, thinking. Then he said; 'It's a strange thing to think of… but when I fought my rebellion, if I'd been caught then…well, it could easily have been me brought before the ruler of Alagaësia on a charge of high treason. And it could have been me facing execution for it. I suppose you could say that I'm just a rebel who got away with it.' He sighed again. 'It's all so ridiculous, isn't it? Sometimes I wonder if I'm any better than the old riders were, or if I'm worse. Who knows? There's barely anyone left who remembers those times, so I can't understand why so many people are so keen to go back.'

'It's human nature to be discontented,' said Skade. 'Don't worry about it. You do your best, and that's all you can do.'

'I suppose so,' said Galbatorix. 'But it's hard…'

Two weeks later the captive rebels were put on trial. There was a jury of selected commoners and nobles, and Galbatorix himself presided. Ellessari and two older council members were found to have been responsible for the torture and inhumane killings of imperial diplomats sent to initiate peace treaties. They were sentenced to death by beheading. Roran and Nasuada were found guilty of the slightly less serious crimes of treason and breaching the peace, and were sent to the mines along with the remaining members of the Varden's council and those ordinary fighters who had been captured along with them and trialled separately. Galbatorix was glad to see them go. Justice had been done, and he had been given the opportunity to show that he could be merciful as well as stern.

And, to his immense relief, the news was received very gladly by the populace. The romantic image which some had held of the Varden had become tainted now that it was plain that they were mere men and women, and by no means heroic liberators. No, these rebels would not make life better for anyone. Their lust had been for power, as Galbatorix said, and now they had been brought to justice the war was over.

As for Eragon, a warrant was put out which offered a reward to anyone who brought information about him. Galbatorix wasn't about to let him get away unpunished. The seriousness of what the young rider had done in outright refusing an offer for peace, prolonging the war, openly attempting to take the throne of Alagaësia for himself and threatening to commit regicide wasn't lost on either Galbatorix or any of his officials. Nor was it lost on the commoners. Galbatorix saw to it that the story of Eragon's abandonment of his own people at a moment of crisis spread far and wide, and it more or less spelt doom for the rebel rider's reputation. People began to contemptuously refer to him as a coward and an idiot, and more besides, and in the end he became popularly known as 'Eragon the Brat', which amused Galbatorix and Skade no end.

In the meantime, as the last of the Varden's members were slowly but surely hunted down and the Empire began to repair itself after the effects of the war, Galbatorix and Skade started a new life together.

They did not marry; as a rider, Galbatorix had never really believed in the idea of marriage, and as a dragon Skade had never believed it either. But they stayed together at Urû'baen, husband and wife in all but name, and they were happy. Galbatorix made Skade joint ruler, and she proved surprisingly effective; fierce, stern, almost impossible to fool. And perhaps the notion that Galbatorix could love another helped to make him less of a cold and distant figure in the eyes of the people. He rarely appeared in public without Skade at his side, and curiosity about this mysterious elf-woman was intense.

Meanwhile Thorn and Murtagh proved their worth again and again; ranging far and wide in Galbatorix's name and doing what they could to keep the peace. It was largely thanks to them that the rebel country Surda was subdued and brought back under control. And it was thanks to Thorn that something even better happened. The red dragon had found a mate somewhere in the Spine, and one day he brought a gift back to Urû'baen: three eggs. He had persuaded his mate to let him take them, and now he presented them to Galbatorix, who received them very gladly indeed. On Skade's and Murtagh's advice, he put the word out, and people began coming to the palace at Urû'baen from far and wide, all eager to handle the eggs and see if they would be chosen. Perhaps, one day, they would hatch. And when that happened, the riders would truly begin to come back.

'It's my duty to bring them back,' Galbatorix told Skade. 'I destroyed them, so I must undo that.'

One day, maybe, that dream would come true.

In the meantime, Skömm, Valdyr, Dreyri, Myrkyr and Hrafn grew quickly toward adulthood and independence. Skömm paradoxically declared that he wanted to go and try to find his mother. Galbatorix and Skade let him go with some hesitation, but were forced to acknowledge the fact that what he chose to do was up to him. They couldn't keep him at home forever.

Dreyri, Myrkyr, Valdyr and Hrafn became agents for their adoptive parents, flying far and wide over Alagaësia much as Thorn and Murtagh did, and they became well-known and popular visitors in many places. It was thanks to them that black-scaled dragons slowly began to lose their sinister reputation, and perhaps that went some way toward explaining why Shruikan did, in the end, find a mate and father eggs of his own, two of which he brought to Urû'baen just as Thorn had.

Valdyr sought his father and found him, and thereafter Skirnir became a frequent visitor to Urû'baen. Skade and Galbatorix told him the truth about his parentage, and after he accepted it he would come back every now and then to see them. Lifrasir too came to Urû'baen eventually, and it was she who told them about Rangda's return. It was also her who told them about the Shade's trip into Ellesméra, and her sinister claim to have inflicted some punishment on Saphira and Eragon for their killing of Durza. Galbatorix was anxious to speak to Rangda after he learnt this, but she had parted with Lifrasir the day afterwards and the dark blue dragon had no idea where she had gone.

As for Vervada, no-one knew what had become of her. The warped dragon had simply vanished. Perhaps she was still alive somewhere in the wilderness, but the scouts whom Galbatorix sent to look for her found nothing. He had no doubt that she would return one day. And when she did, he hoped he would be ready for her. He hoped, too, that he would find Rangda one day. If she had indeed created Vervada, then she would have to answer for it. But Shades could be very hard to find when they wanted to be.

A dark night, somewhere in the mountains not too far from Farthen Dûr. That was where Rangda stopped to rest on the night that Ravana returned and Farthen Dûr fell. She found a small overhang and made camp in it, lighting a fire with a heap of wood and a quick spell. Once it was burning brightly she sat down by it, unaware of any sense of fatigue. Shades don't sleep or feel the cold much, but she needed the fire because she, like all Shades, could absorb fresh energy from the flames. And, after the curse she had put on the egg, she was still a little weak. She hadn't expected it to take so much out of her, but it had.

It was popularly believed that Shades could not feel emotion. And that belief was largely true. Rangda was never truly happy, rarely angry, and felt sadness only as a faint, ephemeral thing. Until now. And the reason why was quite simple; Shades can, in fact, feel love. It is extremely rare and coldly expressed, but it can happen, and in spite of all that she could and had done to others out of a simple lust for power, she had loved Durza as truly as anyone had ever loved another living being. It would have been completely alien to a human, an elf, a dwarf or a dragon, but the love between Rangda and Durza had been no less real than that between Skade and Galbatorix, or Brom and Selena. And now Durza was dead, and Rangda could not rid herself of the cold hollow that his death had left inside her. It had brought forth a hatred more intense than any she had felt before, and caused her to put aside her normal calm and clinical patterns of thought. Even now, she was surprised by the extremity of the punishment she had inflicted on Eragon and Saphira. But she had no regret. One emotion that a Shade never, ever feels is regret.

She meditated by the fire, letting its energy flow into her, and wondered what had become of the dragon she had cursed. No doubt it had hatched by now, and even now it would be doing everything in its power to harm the blue dragon and her rider.

Rangda smiled coldly. 'You would be proud to see it, Durza,' she murmured.

She completed her meditation and, restored, sat by the fire and thought. It was around then that she sensed it. Her head went up sharply, like that of a cat who has heard something, and she bent her mind toward finding out what had disturbed her.

It was coming from the direction of Farthen Dûr. Rangda stood up, staring at the darkness. Her eyes, their sight psychically enhanced, showed her a brief glimpse of a great red stone, white shadows pouring out of it in a flood.

'The Vault of Souls,' she breathed.

Her senses showed her other things as well. She saw the ghosts emerging from the mountain, stepping through its solid stone as if it were nothing. She knew what they were doing. They were doing what every ghost did if given the chance. They were going to seek out those they had loved in life, drawn to them by the siren whisperings of memory which were all they had left to remind them of who they were. Rangda knew what that meant. If the Vault of Souls had indeed been opened, then there would be someone from inside it coming to seek her out.

And he did. He came. Durza.

She saw him coming from out of the darkness, and stepped forward to meet him. Durza. Pale and transparent, the dark spirits swimming inside him like black eels, with no star of white light at his heart as there would have been for the ghost of a human. But he was there. He was Durza; he was her love.

'Durza,' said Rangda.

'Rangda,' said Durza. His cold, angular face betrayed no emotion, but he had sought her out. He remembered.

'I came to find you,' said Rangda. 'Too late.'

'I waited for you to come back,' said Durza. 'A hundred years is a long time.'

'Not for us,' said Rangda.

'No,' said Durza. 'Never for us.'

They were silent for a while, but there was no awkwardness in the silence. A Shade is never embarrassed. Certainty is their way.

'He killed me,' said Durza. 'The boy killed me at Farthen Dûr.'

'You tried to use him,' said Rangda.

'Yes,' said Durza. 'He was young and naïve. I hoped he could be of use. But he would not listen.'

'I have punished him,' said Rangda. 'He and the dragon have been punished. When I learnt what happened to you, I took my revenge on them for you.'

'What did you do?' said Durza.

Rangda smiled a thin Shade smile. 'The dragon had an egg,' she said. 'Their pride and joy. I cursed it.' She laid a thin pale hand on her chest. 'I put one of my spirits into it. A small part of me. I made that dragon a Shade. By now she will have hatched into an abomination. And she will have my rage in her. She will hurt the boy and his dragon in whatever ways she chooses, and she will feel no regret. She is the tool of our revenge.'

'You should not have done that,' said Durza. 'Giving up one of your spirits… you have sacrificed a part of yourself.'

'I know,' said Rangda. 'But I did it willingly. It hurt me to do it, but for you I would do anything.'

For you I would do anything. The words hung in the air for some time, and both Shades knew just how significant they were. A Shade's main and most powerful driving instinct is for power. He or she will go to any lengths to gain power, no matter how slight, and will manipulate others in any way he or she sees fit if they have some use in that direction. In the past, Shades had killed hundreds of people just in order to absorb their life-energy. They had violated sacred laws, stolen priceless magical artefacts and brought down ancient kingdoms in order to make themselves more powerful. Nothing was too extreme, no crime too heinous, cruel or obscene for them to balk at. If it brought power, then they would do it. And they would do it without regret. For a Shade to do something that decreased her power was not just bizarre – it was unthinkable. And yet Rangda had done it, and had done it willingly.

And something even more unthinkable happened then: Durza's eyes shone faintly with unshed tears. He bowed his head to hide them, but Rangda had seen it.

'Come with me,' she told him, her cold voice taking on a slightly ragged edge. 'Come with me, and we will find you a new body. I will bring you back.'

'A new body,' said Durza, his voice growing fainter. 'Tempting. But unnecessary.'

'Why?' said Rangda.

Durza looked her in the eye; blood-red to pale silver. I have already found a new body, he said. He reached out a spectral hand, which passed through Rangda's body and into her heart, the centre of her soul where her driving spirits came together. Rangda gasped, feeling his deathly, numbing cold spreading through her. But Durza went no further. He stayed where he was, and the black spirits inside him began to flow from his heart and down through his arm. They entered into Rangda, one by one, filling her up like a glass with water, mingling with her own spirits. They had found a new host, they had found a better home. And they brought new and untold strength to Rangda. Power beyond anything she had ever imagined before.

And when it was all over and Durza withdrew, she saw that he had become wispy and insubstantial, the spirits that had been his mind and driving force gone forever.

Now I shall live on forever, his voice whispered. You shall carry my power and my memory inside you, Rangda. I am content.

'Durza,' Rangda whispered, but even as she watched she saw him fade away before her eyes. He was gone forever. But she was alive. And now she carried the spirits of not one Shade but two. Power beyond measure.

Rangda started to laugh.

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