Skulblakae Dreyri; Dragon's Blood

Chapter One

Dreyri's News

The sky was the bright, fresh blue of a deep mountain lake. Huge grey clouds, their edges glowing in the sunlight, drifted across it, their dark shapes all looming and ominous and hanging overhead as if they were about to fall. Their shadows moved over the stone walls of a great city which had been built on a plain somewhere in the middle of the land called Alagaësia. The city's name was Urû'baen, and at its centre was the old castle which was the seat of Alagaësia's government. Unlike a regular castle, this one was equipped with several very tall and extremely stout towers. Their tops were flat and wide, massively reinforced so that they could support hundreds of tons in weight. It was for a very good reason. Up on the top of one of these towers, a dragon was perched.

Her name was Dreyri. At five years old, she was the size of an elephant and powerfully-built, with four short, thick legs and a pair of wide wings on her back. Her polished scales were jet black and looked like they'd been carved from obsidian, and her curved talons and the six long horns on her head were all ivory-white, as were the fangs that jutted from her top lip. The membranes of her wings were blood-red, as were her eyes, and her long-muzzled face was angular and fierce-looking. All in all she was an intimidating sight, as she sat and rustled her wings restlessly. Waiting.

After a few minutes a trapdoor by her foreleg opened, and a man climbed through it. He looked about thirty, and was clad in a long black robe. The man dusted himself down rather fastidiously, and went to stand a short distance away from the end of Dreyri's snout. She looked down at him, and then bowed her head, touching her nose to the stonework at his feet.

'Father,' she said.

The man put his hand on her forehead. 'Hello, Dreyri,' he said.

Dreyri raised her head and sat back on her haunches, curling her tail around her like a cat. She said nothing, and waited for the man to speak, which he did.

'What have you discovered?' he asked. 'Do you know if it's really true?'

'It is,' said Dreyri. She opened her left wing and showed him the flank beneath. It was marred by a row of deep, bloody gashes. 'It's true,' she said, lowering the wing again.

The man winced. 'Those look bad,' he said. 'Here, let me heal them.'

'No,' said Dreyri. 'Leave them. I'll let them heal on their own.'

'Very well,' said the man. 'Now tell me what you've found.'

'I met one of them,' said Dreyri. 'Male. Yellow. With an elf riding him.'

'So they attacked you?' said the man.

'No,' said Dreyri. 'No, that was her.'

'Saphira,' said the man.

'Yes,' said Dreyri. 'And he was with her. I identified myself to them, but they ignored me. They tried to kill me. I called up the storm and got away, then came straight back here to report.'

'Where was this?' the man asked. 'And when?'

'In the Beor Mountains,' said Dreyri. 'Not far from Orthíad. Two days ago.'

'You got back here that fast?' said the man.

'Yes,' said Dreyri.

The man's chin was adorned by a pointed black beard. He stroked it with a thoughtful expression. 'If it's true,' he said. 'Then we can't afford to waste any time. I'll go there with Shruikan and see what I can find out. I want you to look for Skömm and Hrafn, and Valdyr too if you can find him. Tell them to come back here. Skade will tell them what to do.'

'Yes, father,' said Dreyri. She flew away without another word, and the man retreated back through the trapdoor. There was a short ladder underneath it, which led to the top of a staircase. The man made his way down these, deep in thought. His name was Galbatorix, and he was probably the most hated man in Alagaësia. He was also the king of Alagaësia, and had been for a hundred years. It wasn't a job he'd ever taken much pride in, but he did it competently enough. Since his crushing defeat of the rebel army called the Varden he'd become more popular in some eyes, but the Empire which he had built was still far from safe. Especially now.

Galbatorix reached the foot of the stairs and began traversing a corridor. He was as dark in looks as he was in reputation – in other words, very. His hair was black and curly, and he wore it long so that it flowed over his shoulders like a mane. The beard was a neat goatee and unaccompanied by a moustache, and he had eyes the same colour as Dreyri's scales. Black and unreadable, glittering with ruthlessness and fierce intelligence. His features were angular, handsome in a cold way, and he carried himself like a man who knew what he was doing. He did, too.

He made his way through the castle until he reached a door, which he opened. On the other side were his private chambers. Or, at least, they had been private until a few years ago. Now there was someone waiting for him inside.

She was sitting by the window, watching the clouds drift over the sky outside, the light making a halo over her hair. When Galbatorix came in she turned around and smiled. 'Hello,' she said. Galbatorix went to sit next to her. She took his hand in hers. 'What's the news?' she asked. 'Did you see one of the hatchlings?'

'It's been a while since they were hatchlings, Skade,' said Galbatorix. 'But yes, I did. Dreyri. She brought bad news for us.'

'The news riders really exist?' said Skade. She was an elf, but very slightly odd in appearance. Her long hair was silver, and there was a silvery sheen to her skin. Her eyes were fiery gold, and when she smiled her teeth were revealed to be sharp and her canines long.

'Yes,' said Galbatorix. 'Or, at least, one of them is. A yellow male, with an elf riding him.'

'Elves,' Skade spat. 'Scum. Did she kill him?'

'Unfortunately, no,' said Galbatorix. 'She was attacked. By Saphira and Eragon. She's all right. Just a few scratches.'

Skade's golden eyes narrowed. 'Where are they?'

'In the Beor Mountains somewhere,' said Galbatorix. 'Orthíad. Shruikan and I are going to investigate. You'll be in charge while I'm gone.'

Skade squeezed his hand. 'Don't go,' she said. 'Send someone else, please.'

'Don't worry,' said Galbatorix. 'Murtagh's coming with me. I'm not making that mistake again.'

Skade hesitated. 'Well, all right. But be careful. I don't want to lose you again.'

'Don't worry about me,' said Galbatorix. 'I'm tough to kill, me. And you be careful too, all right? Be on the alert. Keep a weapon to hand, make sure you're always guarded… the usual. I'm sure you know what to do.'

'I can fight,' said Skade, and growled mock-ferociously at him. 'Now and always.' She touched her abdomen, which was swollen from her advanced pregnancy.

'I know you can,' said Galbatorix, his eyes a little warmer than usual. He sighed. 'I'd better go and get ready. Will you come and see me off?'

Skade stood up. 'Of course.'

Galbatorix smiled and left the room. He headed for the armoury with quick, efficient steps. He was taking no chances on this trip; Eragon had caught him unprepared before, and it had cost him dearly. In the armoury he put on his armour, which he had had made especially for him. A plain but well-forged breastplate made of black steel with his personal symbol etched into it, which he wore under his robe along with a matching backplate, a pair of thick leather vambraces and a helmet decorated with a snarling dragon with its wings spread. Clad in this, with the helmet under his arm, he collected a bag of supplies which he'd had packed for him by one of the servants, and climbed to the top of the Northernmost tower, where Shruikan was waiting for him, Skade by his side. Shruikan was a black dragon, much like his grand-niece, Dreyri, but much larger and more heavily built. His wing membranes were white, and unlike Dreyri his lower fangs protruded over his upper lip rather than the other way around. Skade was with him, busy strapping the saddle into place on the black dragon's shoulders. Galbatorix patted Shruikan's neck. 'How are you, old friend?'

'Ready to go,' said Shruikan. 'And happy to as well. I've been bored out of my mind, waiting around here.'

'Me too,' said Galbatorix. 'Are Thorn and Murtagh ready?'

'Yes,' said Shruikan. 'They're over there.' He indicated one of the towers at the far side of the castle, where a large red dragon was indeed perched. There was a man seated on his back. Galbatorix reached out to them with his mind. 'Are you ready to leave?'

There was a brief pause, and then Murtagh's mental voice said; 'Yes, my lord. We'll follow you.'

Galbatorix nodded. 'Right. Then that's everything.' He turned to Skade. 'We'll only be gone a day or two at most. Take care of yourself. And don't forget to have a word with Councillor Tarnn about that irrigation scheme he's been fussing over. And be sure to take your potion every morning, and-,'

'Calm down,' Skade advised him. 'You're fussing again.'

'Sorry,' said Galbatorix.

They embraced and kissed, and then Galbatorix slung his bag on his back and climbed into Shruikan's saddle, where he secured himself with the leg-straps built into it. Skade took shelter by the low stone wall at the edge of the roof, and Shruikan took off with a great flick of his white wings. He flew up and over the castle, and Thorn followed, and the two male dragons soared off over the roofs of Urû'baen and away.

Left alone, Skade retreated indoors. There was a chilly wind beginning to blow in from the North. Back in the chambers she shared with Galbatorix, she closed the window and put on a warm grey robe with fur trimming. So, Eragon was back. She hadn't seen him in years, but she hadn't forgotten him by any means. The boy had been leader of the Varden, and was the only dragon-rider left who was not loyal to Galbatorix. He and his blue dragon, Saphira, had both been determined to bring down the Empire at any cost, and the result had been a long and bloody war. It had come to a head when both Skade and Galbatorix had been captured by the Varden. Eragon, showing a brutality that none had previously believed him capable of, had had Galbatorix mercilessly tortured and had tried to force him into handing over control of the Empire to him. However, Galbatorix had refused to co-operate, and had come very close to dying for it. But luck had returned to him and Skade. They had been freed thanks to Skade's father, Ravana, and the Imperial army, led by Murtagh, had wiped out the Varden and captured most of its leaders. Eragon himself, however, had escaped along with Saphira and managed to evade all attempts to find him. Now, some years on, rumours had surfaced that there were other riders in Alagaësia. Riders who wanted to bring down the Empire and murder Galbatorix, although they called it 'liberating Alagaësia' and 'avenging the riders of old'. The 'riders of old' were the previous rulers of Alagaësia, and had been wiped out by a rebellion led by Galbatorix, who had built the Empire to replace them and made himself king of it. He had ruled Alagaësia for over a century since then, and although it had been a time of peace and stability there were those who still hated him for his past crimes and wanted to remove him for it. Skade did not take this idealistic view. She had lived during the time of the old riders, and she did not remember it as a utopia. What she remembered was how the riders, supposedly so powerful, had been more or less controlled by the elves. And under their narrow-minded and supremacist influence they had treated humans as second-class citizens and slowly given more and more power to the elves. Those whom the elves disliked – such as the urgals, and the mysterious dark elves – were made war on and driven out of their lands, which were taken from them along with their treasures and secrets. The dark elves were wiped out altogether. All that remained of them was in one man – Galbatorix. His father had been a dark elf, and he was the last man alive who knew the secrets of that lost people. Skade thought of the riders' fall as a good thing because she, too, had been persecuted by them. She had hated them, and the elves as well, for their cruelty and their prejudice. She had first fallen in love with Galbatorix because he was the only one who saw the wrongness of what was happening, and who had the strength and the courage to try and put a stop to it. She remembered how passionate he'd been then; a mere boy, still weak and suffering from insanity and illness brought about by imprisonment and loss. But in spite of that there had been something in his spirit that had kept him alive against all the odds. It was an inner fire which had led him to win what looked like a hopeless battle, and build an empire almost single-handedly.

And now Skade was helping him to make the empire a hundred times stronger than it had been before and was now. Before he had ruled Alagaësia by right of conquest – which was a strong enough right. The riders themselves had taken over by force. But according to the oldest laws of Alagaësia that right only lasted until someone managed to kill him. The instant Galbatorix died, whoever killed him would automatically take his place as ruler. But now Skade would change that. She knew the other law. The instant she bore him an heir, his right to rule would be automatically legitimised. Once the child was born, the death of Galbatorix would only mean that the throne would pass to it. And the killer would have no claim at all. After a string of miscarriges they had managed to conceive a healthy child, and though Skade resented it she knew it was her duty now to stay in Urû'baen and keep safe. And take care of the empire.

She wasn't afraid of the rebels. She would stand by her beloved's side no matter what the cost, and she would fight for him and for their child. And if that meant going up against Eragon the Brat again, then so be it.