From White To Black

K.J.Taylor

Chapter One

Dark Beginnings

Ingë Taranisäii, last of the ancient House of Taranis, lay on her back on a straw pallet in a grubby, rank-smelling room and tried to breathe calmly. She was attended by a pair of nurses, one of whom bathed her forehead with a wet cloth. Ingë was barely aware of them. All she knew just then was fear. A giant hand had wrapped itself around her and was squeezing, and sweat ran down her face in torrents. She pushed and strained, feeling as if her body was tearing open, and refused the pain-killing potion which one of the nurses offered her. In her head, voices spiralled and whispered. Do you know what you did? Do you know what you've done?

'Skandar,' she whispered.

Then the pain took her again. She laboured under it for hours. The two midwives worked efficiently, and with their help Ingë finally gave birth to her child. She lay back, exhausted, and one of the midwives put the child into her arms. She clutched it to her chest, staring through foggy eyes at the little bundle of life that was both her curse and her hope. It was a boy. His wispy hair was jet-black. And, most strangely, so were his eyes. He made no sound, but looked back calmly at her through those impenetrable eyes, and in spite of all his existence had done to destroy her own life she loved him more in that moment than she had ever loved anyone in her life.

The midwife reached out to take him away from her, and she pulled away, her eyes fearful. 'Please,' she said. 'Let me hold him a little while longer.'

'We need to clean him and wrap him up,' said the midwife. 'Afterwards you can hold him again, and your… you will both be allowed to spend a short time with the father.'

'Thankyou,' said Ingë, and let go of the child.

'Menulis commanded it,' said the midwife, stone-faced. She left the room, taking the child with her. Ingë watched them go, feeling a terrible anxiety that she would never see her son again.

But she did see him again. She was taken back to her cell, where she was fed and told to rest. She slept a few hours on the rough bed provided, and when she woke up she found that the child had been placed next to her. He took him into her arms again and let him suckle, aware of nothing just then but the need to keep him warm and safe.

'You're mine,' she whispered to him. 'My love. My precious one.'

The door opened, and she looked up in time to see a tall, ragged shape enter her cell. She stood up. 'Skandar.'

He was an elf; black haired, with a ragged beard and unreadable black eyes. And though he was clad in torn, ill-fitting clothes and was filthy, he was still graceful, his face angular and handsome. Ingë threw herself into his arms, and the two of them kissed passionately, almost violently.

'Ingë,' the elf murmured.

As she withdrew, Ingë realised there was a wetness on her fingertips. It was blood. She looked at Skandar, and saw the marks of a whip on his chest and back. 'Skandar,' she whispered. 'They…'

'I'll be all right,' he said. 'Ingë, is this…?'

She gave the child to him. 'Yes,' she said. 'This is our son.'

Skandar touched the child's forehead with his slender fingers. 'He has my eyes.'

'And your hair,' said Ingë.

'Have you named him?' asked Skandar.

'No,' said Ingë. 'I thought… they'll give him a name after we're dead and they give him away to be looked after by strangers.'

'They named him before he was born,' said the dark elf. 'They call him shame.'

Ingë touched her son's tiny head. 'We should name him,' she said.

'I have a name for him,' said Skandar. 'It's an old name in our language. I'd like to honour the dark elves by giving it to him.'

Ingë nodded. 'I thought of calling him Taranis, but… what name have you thought of?'

Skandar hugged his son to his chest, dark eyes glittering. 'I want to call him Galbatorix.'

'Galbatorix,' Ingë repeated, trying the sound of it. 'What does it mean?'

'It means "great king",' said Skandar.

Ingë laughed a slightly crazed laugh. 'Great king. Our son…'

'You don't like it?' said Skandar.

Ingë kissed him again. 'I love it,' she said. 'Galbatorix will be his name.'

'And may he grow to honour us,' said Skandar.

'They'll tell him to be ashamed of us,' said Ingë. 'But one day he'll learn the truth.'

'One day he'll understand,' said Skandar.

'Yes,' said Ingë. 'He'll see that there's no shame in love. I'm sure he will.'

'If he has a mind like yours, then he will,' said Skandar, smiling on her.

'And if he's strong like you, he'll be able to survive it,' said Ingë. 'And he will be.'

The two of them embraced, holding their son between them. For the rest of his life that moment of warmth and love would remain buried somewhere inside the child, and even if he never truly remembered it it would stay with him in some form; a source of comfort in dark times, and courage at moments of danger.

But their time together was all too short. The cell door re-opened and two guards came in and hauled Skandar away. The dark elf was too weak to put up much resistance, and allowed himself to be taken away, though he held onto Ingë's hand to the last, his eyes looking into hers. Ingë hugged her child and watched resignedly until the door slammed shut and her beloved was gone.

She sat down on the bed, realising that her shoulders were shaking. Ingë Taranisäii was a delicate creature. She had a slim figure, and her features were finely-sculpted and beautiful, almost elvish. Her long hair was curly and coloured a rich reddish brown. Even though she was a prisoner, her status meant she was allowed to wear a finely-tailored gown made from green and golden silk decorated with expensive lace. There were exquisite gold rings on her fingers, and she wore a rope of precious stones around her neck. The other necklace she wore, however, was very plain, and old as well – so much so that it looked a little odd hanging beside the glittering splendour of the string of well-cut jewels. It was a stone pendant, carved into a triple-spiral design and strung on a plain leather thong, and Ingë had always worn it. It was the emblem of the House of Taranis, and had been inscribed on the sword wielded by Taranis himself, more than nine hundred years ago. Nestled in his mother's lap, the child blinked and reached out a tiny hand toward it. Ingë looked down and saw him, and suddenly smiled through her tears.

'You'll honour us, won't you?' she said. 'My little one. My Galbatorix.'

On the morning following, Menulis the elf stood on a large wooden platform, regal and poised in the bright sunlight. He was very old, but like all elves the only indication of his age lay in his dignified and patient way of carrying himself, rather than in his youthful face. Menulis, however, was more than just an elf. He was a dragon-rider. The riders, known in the ancient tongue as the Shur'tugal, were the ruling force in Alagaësia. Every ruler in the land, no matter how powerful, answered to them. Even the wild dragons, notoriously proud and fierce creatures, were subject to their laws. Menulis was a member of the great council of the riders, which was a group of the five oldest and wisest of their kind. Menulis was one of the most senior and respected even of these, and as he had been present at Teirm at the time he had taken up the task of presiding over important legal cases. And when the young noblewoman Ingë Taranisäii had been brought before him accused of taking her slave, Skandar, for a lover, Menulis had not hesitated to sentence the pair of them to death. It was forbidden for slaves and free-borns to be lovers, and doubly forbidden for elves and humans. The fact that Ingë was carrying a bastard half-breed child and refused to take the potion that would kill it before birth only helped to seal her fate.

Now Menulis stood on the platform, where a stone block had been set up and a heavy-set man stood ready with a large axe in his hand. A crowd had gathered to witness the execution, and were being held back by a contingent of guards. Only Menulis remained impervious to the howling and savage shouts from the onlookers. Behind him, standing on the cobbled street behind the platform, was the looming presence of the dragon Nyx, who was Menulis' friend and bonded partner.

'Humans are such crude creatures,' her voice remarked in the elf's head.

'Yes,' said Menulis. 'I didn't expect so many of them to come.'

The two of them were silent, and waited patiently until a group of guards arrived, dragging the prisoners with them. Ingë still held her child in her arms, but before she was taken up to the platform a guard took him from her. She kissed the child passionately on the forehead, and then was hauled away from him, not taking her eyes off him until the last.

When she and Skandar appeared on the platform, the response from the crowd was instantaneous. They let out a collective bellow, a sound full of contempt and bloodlust, and some began to hurl rotten fruit and handfuls of mud at the platform. Menulis ignored them. Skandar and Ingë were taken to the front of the platform, where the stone block stood, and the rider came forward, unfurling a scroll of parchment as he did so in order to read the charges written on it.

'Ingë Taranisäii,' he said, his voice loud and booming. 'And Skandar of the dark elves of the North. You have been found guilty of initiating and pursuing an obscene and unnatural relationship, in open defiance of the laws of elves and men. You have disgraced the reputation of the House of Taranis, and as if this were not bad enough you have also produced a half-breed child. The evidence is overwhelming, and your defence inadequate, and you have been sentenced to death by beheading. Have you anything to say before justice is done upon you?'

The crowd quieted down a little to listen, and Skandar took the opportunity offered to him. 'There is no shame in love,' he said, his still-powerful voice carrying far over the heads of the mob. 'And I was not born a slave. I am Skandar Treganni of the dark elves of the Northern mountains, and my blood is as noble as any. Kill me, but all you will have from me is my blood and my contempt.'

The crowd jeered in response, and a broken jug, hurled from an upper window of one of the nearby houses, hit Skandar in the face. He snarled and spat blood onto the platform, refusing to show pain.

'And you, Ingë Taranisäii?' said Menulis as if nothing had happened.

'I was not deceived,' said Ingë, holding her chin up proudly. 'My love for Skandar is a true love, and I have kept it in spite of all that stood in our way. You will never make me ashamed of that.' She turned suddenly to look at Menulis. 'You have condemned me, Argetlam,' she said. 'But do not condemn my son. Let him be brought up by people who will treat him kindly. That is my last request.'

Menulis signalled to the guards. 'Let the sentence be carried out,' he said, showing no sign that he had heard Ingë's plea.

Skandar was hauled over to the block and forced to kneel, his neck laid over its scarred and stained surface. The executioner moved into place and raised his axe. Ingë did not look away. She forced herself to watch. Even in death, she would not be ashamed of him. Skandar looked into her eyes, and she could see his fear. Then the axe came down and Ingë screamed.

The crowd roared its approval, and two guards dragged Skandar's body away. Then it was Ingë's turn. She went to the block, fighting every inch of the way, crying Skandar's name. But she was shoved roughly to her knees, and her head was thrust onto the block. She saw the executioner's feet as he balanced himself and lifted the axe once again, its blade dripping with Skandar's blood.

There was a flash of steel, a loud thump, and another shout from the crowd. And then it was all over.

Menulis oversaw the removal of the bodies. Skandar would be burnt and his ashes thrown away. Ingë, meanwhile, would be returned to her family so that she could be interred in its ancestral tomb. Menulis felt no satisfaction. He had done what needed to be done, and all he felt was disgust.

The rider stepped down from the platform, wanting to be away from the mob. There a guard put the child into his arms, and he held it awkwardly, looking at its tiny face. A boy, black-haired and black-eyed like his father, his stare disconcertingly direct.

'Has a foster family been chosen?' Menulis asked, diverting his gaze from those bottomless eyes with some effort.

'Yes, Lord,' said the guard. 'A pair of traders who live down near the docks. They said they were willing to raise the boy and let him work at their stall.'

'I will send one of the servants to take him to them,' said Menulis. 'In the meantime, I want you to disperse the crowd.'

The guard saluted and left. Menulis walked away toward Nyx, who brought her dark-blue head down to sniff at the child. 'So tiny,' she commented.

'Yes,' said Menulis. 'Come on. We'll take him back to the palace.'

That evening, the child was delivered by a female servant to the place that would be his new home. It was a modest house not far from the water-front, with barrels stacked around the door and a small yard out the back. The young couple living there came to the door and were given the child, along with a piece of paper and a small bag of money.

The woman, a short and robust person with tousled blonde hair, took the child into her arms while her husband stood by, looking on with a slightly dubious expression. The servant handed the paper and the money to him, saying; 'Take good care of him, and try to keep his true origins a secret from other people. But you must tell him one day. It's his right to know.'

'Does he have a name?' the woman asked.

'His parents named him Galbatorix before they died,' said the servant. 'But you would be advised to choose a different name for him.'

The man shook his head. 'Galbatorix is much too grand. We'll change it.'

'As you wish,' said the servant, and left.

So the child was accepted into a new home with new parents, and his life began. They gave him the name of Arren; a good, solid, sensible name, and cared for him as if he were their own. He grew well, and the initial stir over the execution of his parents soon died down. The fate of the child had of course been kept secret, and so he grew up in peaceful anonymity, not knowing anything about his true parentage. His foster-father, whose name was Cardock, had a business selling leather goods from his stall in the city's markets every day, and his wife Freyja helped him. Once he was old enough, Arren was expected to do the same, starting at the age of five when he began helping Freyja pack the goods into boxes ready for transportation to the market.

He grew to be a strong and well-coordinated boy, but a strange one. His face was naturally impassive, and he retained his disconcerting jet-black stare. His hair grew to be thick and curly, and he took great pride in it, brushing it every morning, much to his foster father's embarrassment. It was probably his elvish blood coming through, Cardock thought darkly. They had always been poncy and fastidious.

He was a silent child, too. He rarely smiled, almost never laughed, and only spoke when it was necessary. It only added to the air of slight mystery around him, and often unsettled people who didn't know him. Fortunately his ears weren't pointed like his father's, which would certainly have raised awkward questions, but he very quickly showed that he had inherited a grace and an elegance that was distinctively elvish. It singled him out amongst his peers, which was why, one day, when he was nine years old, he came home with bruises on his face.

'What happened?' Freyja demanded instantly.

Arren was as calm and collected as always. 'Tommen and Bruin hit me,' he said. 'They called me a freak.'

'You didn't provoke them, did you?' said Freyja, who wouldn't have believed it even if he'd said yes.

'No,' said Arren. 'I was just going to the well. Mother, why did they do that? I didn't do anything wrong.' He looked at her with earnest entreaty in his eyes.

Freyja took him in her arms. 'It's all right,' she soothed. 'It's not your fault; it's theirs. If they bother you again, ignore them and don't show fear. That's what they want you to do.'

'I won't,' Arren promised, his thin form relaxing in her arms. 'I'm not afraid of them, anyway. They're stupid and I hate them.'

For some reason the words chilled Freyja.

'Mother?' said Arren again.

'Yes, Arren?'

'Why am I so different?' he looked at her, very calm.

'You're not different; you're special, and that's nothing to be ashamed of,' said Freyja.

It was the standard reply to that question, but it didn't seem to satisfy Arren. 'Then why am I special?' he persisted.

'Because you are,' said Freyja. 'Now, run along. There's work to do.'

At the age of eleven, Arren was old enough to begin helping his foster father run the leather stall. And it was then that he revealed a startling talent. Never verbose, when faced with the challenge of persuading passers-by to stop and buy a new belt or a shoulder-bag, he demonstrated an eloquence that very few had seen in a grown man, let alone a child. His direct stare, combined with a few well-chosen words, were enough to make someone want to buy just about whatever he suggested and to do it gladly, too. And it was a talent that kept unfolding. By the time he was twelve, Cardock was happy to leave him in charge of the stall, and he became a well-known figure among the other traders and regular customers at the markets. They called him Arren the Silver-Tongued, and tales of his abilities were told in taverns all through the city. What Arren himself thought about this was difficult to say, but he seemed to like being respected.

He was less successful when it came to making friends; other children of his age were nervous of him and stayed away, and he showed little interest in them. Inevitably bullies continued to target him, and their intentions were often violent. Arren would at first try and talk his way out of trouble if he couldn't avoid them altogether, and on the occasions when that didn't work he would fight. That was when he revealed another thing inherited from his father – when he wanted to, he could be a formidable fighter. He was stronger, faster and more agile than they were, and though they had the superiority of numbers he gave as good as he got. In the end they became frightened of him and left him alone.

And that was Arren's life. During the day there was work, in the evenings Freyja would teach him how to read and write, and at night he would sleep in his hammock under the eaves at the back of the house. A happy enough life, if not a grand or exciting one. And then, one day, when Arren was fourteen, everything changed.

It started innocently enough. Freyja and Cardock were sitting by the fire after the evening meal, enjoying the silence and the warmth, and Arren came to join them. He sat on his stool by the fireplace and held his hands by the fire. But there was a preoccupied air around him that suggested he had more on his mind than just getting warm.

Eventually he said; 'You're not my real parents, are you?'

'What?' said Cardock, caught off-guard.

'I said you're not my real parents, are you?' said Arren. His tone was quite matter-of-fact.

'Why… darling, whatever gave you that idea?' said Freyja.

Arren shrugged. 'I had a suspicion for a long time. I'm nothing like you. My hair and eyes are different, I have a different build… we look completely different. And I know you're not my parents. Inside, I know.'

'That's no reason to think it's true,' said Cardock. 'Aren't you jumping to conclusions?'

'Perhaps I was for a while,' said Arren. 'But then I found this hidden in the cupboard.' He held out a piece of yellowed paper. Cardock took it, but there was no point in reading it. He'd known what it said for fourteen years.

This is a request from the court of Teirm that you, Cardock Aniruson and your wife Freyja will take charge of the orphan boy entrusted to you by the authorities and raise him to manhood. You are hereby commanded to maintain secrecy and to be discreet, and to understand that he is now your responsibility. We have provided a sum of money as compensation, but no further funds will be forthcoming and requests for such will be ignored. This document was signed and sealed on the Day of the Seventh Hatching in the eight hundred and eighty-seventh year of the Riders' rule.

Underneath that was the official seal of the grand council of the riders, and Menulis' neat signature.

Cardock looked up at his foster son's solemn face. 'Well,' he said gruffly. 'I suppose we should have told you by now. They advised us to do it when we felt the time was right, but… well, now you know. But it doesn't mean we don't love you. You're a good lad.'

'Who were my real parents?' said Arren.

Cardock opened his mouth to make some excuse for not telling him, but the boy's black eyes were fixed on his face and, just as many people had done in the past and would do in the future, he found his resistance shrivelling up in the face of that stare.

'I don't like to tell you this, son,' he said. 'But… your parents were criminals. They were both executed the day after you were born.'

'Tell me why,' said Arren, betraying no emotion.

So Cardock told him the story, slowly and hesitantly and with much reluctance. Arren listened in silence, and once his foster-father's words ran out he said; 'So I'm half-elvish.'

'Yes.'

'But how can that be possible?' said Arren. 'Elves can't be made into slaves. So why was my father…?'

'Your father wasn't like the elves you've seen,' said Cardock. 'Those were all Western and Southern elves.'

'Your father was from the North,' Freyja put in. 'There's cold, mountainous land there. The elves in the North are called dark elves, and your father was one of them.'

'Dark elves?' Arren repeated. 'I've never heard of those. What happened to them?'

'There was a war between them and the Southern elves,' Freyja explained. 'The dark elves lost. Most of them were killed and others, like your father, were sold into slavery.'

'They wiped them out?' said Arren, stiffening. 'Why? How could the riders let that happen?'

Cardock shifted uneasily. 'The riders are the reason why the Southern elves won,' he said. 'After they agreed to help them fight, the dark elves didn't stand a chance.'

'But why?' said Arren. 'Why would they want to do that at all?'

'I don't know,' said Cardock.

'The riders are supposed to keep the peace,' said Arren, staring into the fire. 'They can't do things like that.'

'The riders can do what they like,' said Cardock. 'They always have.'

'Why?' said Arren.

'Because they're powerful,' said Cardock, shrugging. 'Powerful people don't have to answer to anyone but themselves.'

Arren said nothing for a time. He seemed to be deep in thought. Eventually he said; 'Is Arren my real name?'

'No,' said Freyja. 'I mean… it is. But it's not the one your parents gave you. We changed it after they gave you to us.'

'What did they call me?' said Arren, turning his powerful gaze on her.

'It was… I'm not sure. Cardock, do you know?'

Cardock thought it over. 'I think it was…'

'Galbatorix,' said Freyja suddenly. 'That was it. Yes. Galbatorix.'

'Galbatorix,' said Arren. 'It's… very strange. Galbatorix.' He repeated the name several times, trying the sound of it. 'So my name is Galbatorix,' he said at length.

Freyja started to speak, but stopped. Her adopted son was smiling a strange, cold smile, a smile without any joy in it. And for a brief moment his impassive eyes showed a hint of an emotion – agony.