Chapter One

The Mad King

It was early evening, and the sky over the city of Urû'baen was pale mauve, dotted with the first stars, and in the streets below people were returning home from work. It was the eighty-fifth year of the reign of King Galbatorix the First, and in a large tavern not far from the Westernmost wall of the city, two men sat at a table and shared a loaf of bread. As they did so, they were approached by a third man. 'May I join you?' he asked.

One of them glanced at the jug of mead he was holding, and grinned. 'Sure, if you bring that with you.'

The man sat down and poured some out for them. 'I'm not sure what they put in this stuff, but be my guest.'

One of the men tried a mouthful, and blinked in surprise. 'By gods, you're generous. This stuff isn't cheap.'

The man shrugged and took a seat next to him. 'Help yourself.'

'Don't mind if I do. I'm Lando, by the way.'

'Rannoch,' said the man. He was middle-aged, with short grey hair and a neat beard.

'And I'm Robb,' Lando's companion added.

'Pleased to meet you,' said Rannoch.

'So, where'd you spring from, Rannoch?' said Lando. 'Don't think I've seen you around here before.'

'I work up at the castle,' said Rannoch.

'Oh. Really? What d'you do there?'

Rannoch sighed and poured himself some mead. 'Try and think of all the jobs in the entire kingdom, and I can guarantee you mine's the worst.'

Robb grinned. 'I know what you mean. I spend every day moving crates down the warehouse. All day long it's do this do that, get a move on. No thanks, and the pay's terrible.'

'Yeah, and my boss keeps on threatening to sack me,' said Lando. 'Can't seem to do anything but whine about how bad I am, but this one time when I stayed all night to finish off a wall that was behind schedule, did he bother to pay me extra? No. Didn't even say thankyou.'

'I can sympathise with that,' said Rannoch. 'Every day, it's do this, see about that, deal with some whiny idiot who can't be bothered to think for himself… I have so much paperwork to deal with I have to work on it while I'm eating lunch. Just today I had to throw something away because I spilled mustard on it.'

Lando chuckled. 'Sounds like a nightmare. What is it you do over there?'

'Oh, a bit of this, a bit of that. Whatever needs doing.' Rannoch drank deeply, his demeanour gloomy.

'So,' said Robb. 'You heard the latest?'

'What's up, Robb?' said Lando.

'I just heard it from someone I work with,' said Robb. He put down his mug, evidently relishing the moment. 'Took me by surprise, I can tell you.'

'C'mon, out with it,' said Lando.

'Lady Tranah's dead,' said Robb. 'Just a few days ago.'

'What, Lady Tranah of Teirm?' said Lando, taken aback. 'That Lady Tranah?'

'Who else could it be? But yeah, she's dead. Not sure how it happened, but they're saying the Varden assassinated her.'

Lando whistled. 'That's, what, three governors they've killed now, isn't it?'

'Four,' said Rannoch.

'Anyway, they'll be sending her body here to be buried, I reckon,' said Robb. 'It's what they did with the others.'

'The King can't be happy about it,' said Lando.

'He isn't,' said Rannoch.

'Hmm? What's that, Rannoch?'

'I was there when he got the news,' Rannoch explained. 'No, he's not happy at all.'

Lando whistled. 'You've seen the King?'

Rannoch nodded. 'A few times.'

'What's he like?'

Rannoch appeared to think about it for a while. 'Cold,' he said at last.

'They say he's insane,' said Robb. 'I heard he wanders the castle walls at night, calling the names of his dead friends.'

'Well, it's the first I've heard of it,' said Rannoch. 'If he's mad, I never saw anything.'

'Well, how would anyone really know?' said Lando. 'He never comes out of the castle any more.'

'It didn't used to be like that,' said Robb. 'He used to come out into the city every now and then… my grandfather used to tell me stories. Actually, he says he even saw him once. Did I ever tell you that story?'

'I don't think so,' said Lando. 'Go ahead.'

'Well,' said Robb. 'A while back, before Lady Ana was killed, there was a troupe of actors who came to the city. Travellers. And they had a new play to perform. A comedy. It was about the King.'

Lando winced. 'What were they thinking?'

Robb shrugged. 'Anyway, the lead actor was the one playing the part of the King. My grandfather says he was quite good at it. They stayed in the city for weeks, and a lot of people went to watch. They got to be very well-known. Of course, people were a bit uneasy about it. If the King got wind of it… well, they could be arrested, or at least thrown out of the city. And then one night, my grandfather went to see the play.'

'What happened?' said Rannoch.

'Well, everything went as usual,' said Robb. 'The actors did their stuff, everyone had a good laugh, and then…'

'What?' said Lando.

'And then the King himself was there,' said Robb. 'My grandfather said no-one ever quite figured out how he got there. One minute he wasn't, and the next minute he was. Like a ghost. My grandfather said he just turned around and saw him sitting in the back of the theatre, all alone, without any guards or anything.'

Lando gasped. 'What the hell happened then?'

'Well, everyone just froze and stood there staring at him, and then he just stood up, pointed at the head of the troupe and told him he needed to work on the voice. And then he just walked out and disappeared.'

'What, and that was it?' said Lando.

'So my granddad said,' said Robb. 'But the next day the actors left the city. My guess is they were too scared to want to stay.'

Rannoch snickered. 'Sounds like they couldn't take a little criticism.'

'Of course,' said Robb, 'Not long after that he stopped coming into the city any more. Just locked himself away. Around the time Lady Orwyne got assassinated.'

'I don't blame him,' said Rannoch.

'Neither do I,' said Lando. 'They're saying there's agents of the Varden hiding somewhere, right here in Urû'baen. Dunno if it's true, but if it is you can bet they'll be plotting to kill him next.'

'The Varden? They're just a group of grubby rebels,' Rannoch sneered. 'They couldn't kill him. He's tougher than that.'

'I dunno about that,' said Lando. 'I mean, they just killed Lady Tranah, didn't they? And she would have had plenty of guards around her after what happened to Orwyne and Ana.'

'The Varden didn't kill Lady Tranah,' Rannoch interrupted.

'What? How do you know?'

'Because I was the one who reported it to the King himself,' said Rannoch. 'Lady Ana and Lady Orwyne were killed by the Varden, but the Lady Tranah wasn't. As far as anyone knows, the Varden doesn't even have a presence in Teirm.'

'How did she die, then?' said Robb.

'Strangulation,' said Rannoch.

'What?' said Lando.

'She hanged herself,' said Rannoch. 'They found her in her bedchamber.'

'What, suicide?' said Robb. 'Are you sure?'

'Of course I'm sure,' Rannoch said heavily. 'It was a clear-cut case. The door was locked from the inside, and the window was barred. And she had left a note. I don't know what it said; it was for the King's eyes only.'

'Why would she have killed herself?' said Lando. 'It doesn't make any sense.'

Rannoch shrugged and downed the last of his mead. 'No doubt she had her reasons.'

'That leaves only four riders in the entire country,' said Robb. 'Including the King.'

Lando snorted. 'Yeah. And he's only got himself to blame for that, hasn't he?'

'Couldn't blame anyone else for it, could they?' said Robb. 'Yeah…' he sighed. 'What a world we live in. Urgals, Shades and Ra'zac everywhere, the elves and the dwarves both gone, and the dragons wiped out. At this rate there won't be a single rider left except the King.'

'Well, what would he care?' said Lando. 'He gets the best of everything and leaves us to deal with his taxes.'

'Yeah,' said Robb. He stared into the depths of his drink. 'It didn't used to be like this. Not when the riders were still around.'

'They still are,' Rannoch pointed out.

'Yeah, but not like they used to be,' said Robb. 'Not like it was before the war. The sky was full of dragons, and humans lived with elves and dwarves. We didn't have the fear back then. And then because of one man we ended up like this – living under the thumb of the Mad King.'

Rannoch was giving him an incredulous look. 'You can't honestly believe that.'

'What, you think it's better now with that lunatic in charge?' said Robb.

'How would I know?' said Rannoch. 'How would anyone know? It was nearly a hundred years ago, for the gods' sakes. But you want to go back to that? How d'you know it won't be worse?'

'It couldn't possibly be worse than being ruled by a murderer,' Robb muttered.

'Robb, stop that,' Lando said sharply, elbowing his friend in the ribs. 'You could be arrested for saying things like that.'

'I doubt it,' said Rannoch, pouring himself another drink. 'The King probably can't hear you from here. Anyway, since when did he have people arrested for talking?'

'Well, what about that time when those fellows from Surda got thrown into prison for being Varden sympathisers?' said Lando.

'It's called "sedition". It is in the law books, you know,' said Rannoch.

'And what about that book he banned? "Rise to Power" or whatever it was called?'

'There are laws against propaganda. The King was within his rights.'

'You're awfully sympathetic to him,' said Robb.

Rannoch shrugged. 'He pays my salary.'

'It's all very well for you, with that cushy job of yours,' said Robb.

'"Cushy"? Hah!' Rannoch laughed derisively. 'It's about as cushy as cleaning privies, and only half as dignified. Now…' he glanced at the window. 'I'd better head home. I've got a lot to do tomorrow.'

'Oh. Goodbye, then,' said Lando.

Rannoch stood up. 'It was nice chatting to you.' He nodded rather formally to them, and left the tavern.

Robb and Lando watched him go. 'What an oddball,' said Lando.

'Yeah,' said Robb. 'I wonder what the heck's so awful about working at the castle? It can't possibly be as bad as he was making out.'

It was quite dark by the time Rannoch emerged into the open air. He walked off along the street back toward the city centre, shoulders hunched. After a while he started to mutter irritably to himself. '…thumb of a lunatic… taxes… sedition… bloody idiots.'

As he passed through a narrow back-street, a noise behind him made him pause and look back. There was no-one there. But as he turned back to continue on his way, he was in time to see a group of three heavy-set men step out of an alley and block his way. Even as he slowed down, two more appeared behind him.

The apparent leader of the thugs pulled out a dagger. 'All right, old man. Hand over your money pouch and we won't have to hurt you.'

Rannoch stopped. 'Oh, for the love of gods. Can't you go and annoy someone else?'

The thug snarled and lashed out with one huge fist, aiming for Rannoch's face. But the old man neatly side-stepped it and punched him smartly in the jaw.

The other muggers rushed in at him from all sides. But he was ready for them. He ducked and weaved, keeping his distance from them to avoid being surrounded as they were trying to do. They, expecting to take him down quickly, soon became confused. Rannoch did not fight like an old man. He was simply too fast to be hit, and impossibly strong. As soon as he had broken free, he kicked one of them in the back of the knee, hurling him down, and punched a second in the face, breaking his nose. The third one to come at him managed to land a glancing blow, but Rannoch seized him by the wrist and broke it with a quick, ruthless twist. The remaining two, knowing that guards would soon come running toward the noise, panicked and fled.

When the guards arrived, they found three groaning men lying in the street, clutching at various wounds and, standing over them, a slight middle-aged man, watching their approach with his arms folded. 'These men tried to mug me,' he said. 'I suggest you arrest them. There were two others – they went that way.' He pointed.

Several guards ran in that direction, while the others hauled the muggers to their feet.

'You'd better come with us too,' one said, to Rannoch.

Rannoch inclined his head. 'I'd be glad to, but I'm afraid my time is valuable. Keep up the good work.' He strolled off.

'Hey!' two guards ran after him, but he turned into a side-alley and vanished, and no amount of searching could make him reappear. It was like trying to find a ghost. Rannoch watched the guards from his hiding-place, and stifled a snigger. It was childish, he knew, but he couldn't help but enjoy it anyway. As soon as they had gone, he re-emerged and walked off. Ahead of him, the castle loomed darkly over the rooftops of Urû'baen. High above it, on the huge tower built especially for that purpose, the shape of a great dragon shifted slightly, silhouetted against the stars.

Rannoch made straight for the castle, moving with a steady, confident tread. He found a back door leading into the kitchens and slipped through it. There were a few people still at work in there, but he evaded them easily enough and passed through the various corridors, heading for the living quarters. As he walked, he could feel an unpleasant tingling spreading over his skin. His head ached, more and more fiercely, and he lurched suddenly as the corridor around him warped and shifted, stretching and twisting as if he were seeing it through a pool of water. He staggered and nearly fell, catching himself on the wall. As he leaned against it, breathing rapidly, he could see his hand, gripping the stone. The skin was moving over the bone and flesh, stretching itself back from the fingertips as if pulled by some unseen force.

Rannoch took in several deep breaths and righted himself. Concentrating with all his might on keeping his legs steady, he found a small door and ducked through it, slamming it behind him. Beyond was a store-room full of neatly folded clean linen, and he hastily locked the door behind him and then collapsed onto a heap of pillows. He lay still for a few minutes, groaning softly, and then he started to twitch and convulse. He gritted his teeth to stop himself crying out, as pain spread all over his body; burning, wrenching pain. It felt as if his very bones were moving inside him against their will. Tears forced themselves out of his eyes, and his face glistened with sweat. He shuddered violently, his fists clenching, his teeth gritted so hard that they threatened to break.

And then, quite suddenly, the world around him went dark.

The pain faded slowly. He lay still on the heap of pillows, listening to the sound of his own shaky breathing. He could feel himself shivering.

He waited until his vision returned, and then got up. He checked himself, and once he was satisfied he unlocked the door and peered out into the corridor. There was no-one around, and he slipped out and walked off, listening carefully for any sound of approach. Once, hearing the footsteps of someone coming up the corridor behind him, he hid around a corner, waiting silently until they had passed by. Once he was alone again, he emerged and walked on.

He reached a door at the end of a corridor, and passed through it. There was a spiral staircase on the other side, and he climbed it, not troubling to keep quiet this time. It led to another door, this one made of very heavy wood, studded with nails. He took a key from his pocket and unlocked it.

Once he had entered the room beyond and locked the door behind him, he finally relaxed.

The room was small and plain, and sparsely furnished. It had a low, flat ceiling and only one window, and the only furniture were a desk, a chair, a cupboard, a chest and a rug on the floor. In one corner, a simple cloth hammock had been slung up from a pair of metal rings driven into the walls.

He sighed deeply and picked up a candle-stick from the desk. He muttered a few strange-sounding words, and the candles spluttered into life. He put them back onto the desk and strode over to the cupboard. Inside were a selection of robes, and several pairs of heavy leather boots neatly lined up. He opened a drawer underneath and pulled out a clean nightshirt, then stripped off his tunic, boots and trousers and packed them away. He put on the nightshirt, closed the cupboard and returned to the desk. A row of slates hung on the wall behind it, each one marked with an image in strikingly bright, vivid detail. They were pictures of people, for the most part, but among them were three dragons – one black, one white, and one silver. Beside the image of the silver dragon hung one of a woman. She was elvish, that was plain, and… strange. Her hair was silvery-grey and her skin had a metallic sheen to it. Her eyes, staring out of the slate, were burning gold, and her expression was fierce.

He looked at it for a moment, and then touched the hilt of a sword that hung above it. It was elegantly made, with a plain silver hilt set with a massive black diamond. The blade, which was an extraordinary pure white chased with silver veins, was engraved with a triple-spiral symbol, and two words. Hvítr Atganga. In the ancient language of magic, they meant "white violence".

Not far from the sword was a large mirror, simply framed but with an obsessively polished surface. He looked into it in the candle-light, and sighed when he saw what stared back.

It was a very different face now.

The face was pale, its features angular and very slightly odd. Just how wasn't clear, but there was something about it that wasn't quite right. Something not entirely… human.

The eyes were black and glittering and cold of expression, their stare disconcertingly direct, and the ears, poking through a shoulder-length mane of carefully-combed black curls, were ragged at the tops. The face was clean-shaven but for a small, pointed beard, and, though it was smooth and unlined, it did not look young. Even though at first glance it looked like the face of a man no older than twenty-five, there was something about it – a tiredness about the eyes, a bitter set to the mouth – that hinted at great age.

He touched it carefully, and sighed. Changing back got harder all the time. Sometimes he wished that he would somehow be unable to go back, and escape into a different name and a different face forever. But some things could never change, and he knew it all too well.

He looked at the face of King Galbatorix Taranisäii, and saw it stare back knowingly.

'The worst job in the kingdom,' he muttered, and turned away.