The sun rose.
The sky had already begun to lighten – only a little, but noticeably. Black became very dark blue, tinged with grey, before that paled still further and took on a hint of purple, mixed with wisps of white cloud that threaded themselves between the fading stars. Which, little by little, began to go out. The night was ending and their time was done. The moon had long since gone, and now they too were leaving to make way for the sun.
A line of pale yellow appeared along the horizon. It grew and it brightened, deceptively fast, and then flashed into pure gold along its entire length. The sun rose.
It did so in absolute silence, bringing the light of day with it and letting it flood joyously over the land, turning featureless black shapes into mountains, hills and trees. And, closer to, it revealed the rooftops of the city. Smoke was already rising from a few chimneys here and there, ethereal against the pink and purple sky. On the horizon beyond the great blazing shape was rising into view, red-gold and glorious.
From her perch on the dragon roost, Saphira raised her head a little to watch, one wing refolding itself with a faint rustling sound. She loved to watch the sunrise and did so nearly every morning. Dawn was the natural time for a dragon to wake up, and the others sharing the roost with her were beginning to stir.
The blue dragon yawned and scratched her snout. It looked like another fine day ahead.
Beside her, a large red dragon stretched his wings and bared his own teeth in a yawn. 'Good morning,' he said, using the mental speech all dragons spoke.
Saphira nuzzled the other dragon's muscular shoulder. 'Good morning, Thorn. Did you sleep well?'
'I might have slept better, but someone was digging her claws into my tail,' Thorn growled.
Saphira dipped her head. 'Sorry.'
He nibbled at the membrane of his left wing. 'You're forgiven.'
The two dragons stopped abruptly, snouts turning upward as a loud noise shattered the silence of dawn. It came again a few seconds later; a harsh, distant bellowing that echoed over the city.
The silence that followed seemed somehow even more complete than before.
'The King has awakened, it would seem,' said Thorn.
'I hate it when he does that,' said Saphira.
'Consider yourself lucky that you haven't heard him do it from up close,' Thorn said grimly.
'Why does he have to do that every morning?' said Saphira. 'People don't like it.'
'It's his instinct,' said Thorn. 'He is not a bonded dragon, Saphira. I don't mind it, myself.'
'But doesn't it scare you?'
'A little, yes,' the red dragon admitted. 'But then I remind myself of what it means. It's not just a noise. It means "I am here, and I am strong, and I will protect this land". It reassures me, knowing that.'
'Well I wish it did the same for me,' Saphira muttered.
Thorn ignored her. He got up, stretching his legs and wings, and then launched himself off the dragon roost, soaring upward to circle high over the city, his red wings catching the early sun. Saphira watched him, unable to hide her admiration.
The other dragons were awake now. Rose, whose scales were red like her father's, flew up to join him, and Skarlath, her green-scaled brother, followed. Saphira ambled over to the black dragon that had stayed behind. 'Morning, Silarae.'
The black dragon flicked her tail. 'Morning. Has the King finished his roaring yet?'
'Yes, luckily. Is your rider awake yet?'
'Not yet. She was up late.'
'Not again. Doesn't that child ever sleep?'
'She's starting to have doubts about it,' said Silarae.
'Oh well. I'd let her sleep if I were you. She needs it.'
'I intend to. What are you going to do today?'
Saphira yawned again. 'Not much. Maybe go for a flight somewhere. I'll wait for Sif to wake up and ask her what she feels like doing.'
'Enjoy that sort of thing while you can,' Silarae said darkly. 'You two can't stay idle forever.'
'Yes, yes, I know.'
'I'm not just speculating, you know,' said Silarae. 'Nasuada and I went to talk to the King yesterday, and he told us he had something in mind.'
Saphira shifted nervously. 'What sort of something would that be?'
'I don't know. But I expect you'll find out soon enough.'
Sif turned over in bed, sighed and settled down into the pillows. She loved mornings like these, when she was just awake enough to know she was still more or less asleep and able to enjoy the warmth and softness of the feather mattress. The King's customary morning roarings had roused her, but not much. She was too used to hearing it by now.
She nestled under the velvet coverlet and tried to slip back into the dream she had been having. To her annoyance, though, it refused to be recaptured and slipped out of her mind. Her efforts to remember it only woke her up properly, and she sighed and opened her eyes.
Early morning sunlight was shining in through the window. She lay and watched it, feeling too lazy to move, but finally gave in and sat up, yawning widely.
Saphira, of course, instantly sensed that she was awake. 'Morning, sleepyhead.'
Sif slid out of bed and padded over to the window. 'How long have you been awake?'
'Hours. The sun's already up. You know, you really should come and watch the sunrise with me one day.'
'Thanks, but I'd rather get up after the sun,' said Sif.
'Someone's grouchy this morning,' Saphira commented.
'If you say so.'
Sif went to the nightstand and splashed her face with water from the dish resting on it. That helped to wake her up, and once she'd dried herself off she went to the wardrobe to choose an outfit. There were dozens of fine gowns hanging up in there, and she flicked through them for a while and finally selected a dark blue affair whose front bore an elaborate dragon design embroidered in silver, with slashed sleeves that had been highlighted with grey silk picked out with tiny sapphire beads. She laid it out on the bed and picked up a comb, peering at herself in the mirror.
At the age of sixteen – her seventeen birthday was a few months away – Sif had only just finished her training as a dragon-rider. Her adopted father had schooled her in the art of swordplay, and had also taught her the ancient language and the methods of channelling and using the magic that her bond with Saphira had blessed her with. Now that she no longer had lessons every day, but had not been entrusted with any important duties like the other riders, she was free to do whatever she liked. It had only been like this for a month or so, but she was enjoying it a great deal.
Sif dragged the comb through her hair with quick, efficient strokes. It was very dark – almost black – and she wore it long around her shoulders. Once she had neatened it to her satisfaction she picked up a number of thin gold bands from the dressing table and used them to bind it into a number of long bundles. That done, she put on her favourite pair of earrings, along with a large red jewel on an elaborate necklace, and then pulled the gown on over her head, smoothing down her skirts and adjusting the hang of it until she was sure it was on properly. Before she put on her shoes she checked herself in the mirror again, wanting to be certain that she hadn't forgotten anything.
She had inherited her mother's delicate features and fine eyebrows, but the bright blue eyes had not come from either of her parents. They were a relic of her long-dead grandfather, or so she had been told. They matched Saphira's scales, and she had always liked that about them. She was less happy about her nose, though. She rubbed it and frowned at her reflection. Maybe there was some way to change the shape of it by magic… she decided she would ask Murtagh about it next time she saw him.
'Stop grooming yourself and hurry up,' Saphira complained. 'I want to go flying today.'
Sif pulled on her shoes. 'All right, all right, I'm coming. I just have to go and have breakfast. I'll be as fast as I can.'
She left the room and made her way toward the castle's dining hall. The servants she passed greeted her respectfully, but she didn't notice much. She was used to it by now. She might be young but she was a rider, and riders ruled Alagaësia now, just as they had done a hundred years ago. Not that it was quite the same now. Once all riders had been trained and led by the race of elves, and had been themselves governed by a council of elders headed by an elf called Vrael. There had been hundreds of them in those days, or so Sif had been told. But then, one day, a young rider called Galbatorix had led a rebellion against the rest of the order. With the help of twelve other traitors he had wiped out the riders and then assumed power, crowning himself King of the entire country.
Now, though, Galbatorix was gone. He had left the country six years ago, along with his Queen, Skade, and no-one had seen him since or knew where he had gone. He had left his old power to the new riders who had arisen toward the end of his own reign, but they had been forced to subordinate themselves to a new King. He had taken the throne more or less by force, and no-one had had the strength or courage to refuse him. The new riders had taken unbreakable oaths of obedience to him, and now he ruled the country through them. There had been some attempts to change this state of affairs, but they had all been half-hearted affairs and none had gone very far. The truth was that even the riders themselves – the most powerful race to exist in Alagaësia – were too afaid of him to do anything but obey him.
When Sif reached the dining hall she found Murtagh already there, along with her mother, Nasuada. Murtagh was eating a bowl of soup, but though there was a second bowl in front of Nasuada she wasn't eating it. She was busy contending with the small boy sitting beside her, who was refusing to eat his own breakfast.
Sif came over to join them. 'Hello,' she said, sitting down. A couple of servants quickly supplied her with soup and some toasted bread, and she started to eat it without looking at them.
Nasuada, an elegant-looking middle aged woman with dark brown skin, glanced up. 'Good morning, Sif. How did you sleep?'
'In bed, same as always,' said Sif, and giggled.
Murtagh gave her a jaundiced look. 'It's a little early in the day for jokes.'
'It's not that early,' said Sif, dipping her spoon into the soup.
'It is if you've been up half the night trying to deal with this,' said Nasuada, resignedly dabbing at the soup which the child had just spilled over his tunic. 'Look, for the last time, Eragon, the soup goes in your mouth.'
The boy grinned and prodded her with the spoon. 'I'm a rider.'
'And riders need to eat,' said Nasuada, taking it from him and dipping it into the bowl for another go.
Sif sighed and resumed eating her own breakfast. She hated watching her half-brother during mealtimes. He never seemed to be able to eat anything without making a mess.
'I'm glad to have caught you this morning, Sif,' said Murtagh, interrupting her thoughts.
She looked up at him. 'Why?'
Murtagh rubbed a hand through his greying hair. 'The King wants to see you.'
Sif dropped her spoon. 'What? What for?'
'It's all right, you're not in trouble,' said Nasuada. 'He just wants to talk to you.'
Sif didn't feel much better to hear this. 'But why? What about?'
'You've finished your training,' said Murtagh. 'Obviously he wants to give you some responsibilities. You're ready for it now.'
'But I've only just finished,' Sif complained. 'I thought I wouldn't have to do any of that stuff until I was eighteen at least.'
'Don't be childish,' said Murtagh. 'I became a rider when I was only a little older than yourself, and I had duties to carry out before I'd even finished my training. Thorn and I were flying into battle together before I turned twenty.'
'Yes, because he sent you,' said Sif.
Murtagh tore a chunk of bread in half. 'Exactly. He was my master. Now your own master is ready to give you your first orders. You should be proud.'
'I don't want him to be my master,' said Sif. 'Why do we need a King, anyway?'
'That's enough, Sif,' said Nasuada.
'I said that's enough. You swore loyalty to the King, and therefore you must do as he says.'
'You didn't do what the last King said,' Sif pointed out.
'That's different. I'm a rider now, and that means having responsibilities. You can't spend the rest of your life playing, Sif. Power wasn't given to you so you could waste it.'
'I don't play!'
Nasuada ignored her. She had given up on trying to make little Eragon eat, and now started on her own breakfast.
Sif stared at the table, her appetite gone. There was a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Saphira had heard. 'Sif…'
Sif fiddled with the fastenings on her hair. 'I don't want to go.'
'We have to. You know what will happen if we don't.'
Sif gave a mental nod. 'I know, I know…'
'Don't worry. He's not going to hurt us, Sif. Why would he? We haven't done anything wrong. He just wants to give us something to do.'
'But what if it's something awful?'
'I doubt it. But we'll see. Don't worry. I'll be there.'
Sif stood up abruptly. 'I'm coming.'
'Don't forget to bring the saddle.'
Nasuada was watching. 'Don't go yet,' she said. 'I'm coming with you.'
Sif looked at her. 'When do I have to go?'
'As soon as you can. The King doesn't like to be kept waiting. You go ahead and put Saphira's saddle on, and I'll come and meet you on the roost, all right?'
'Yes, Mother.' Sif shuffled resignedly out of the room.
Back in her own quarters, she opened a chest and lifted out Saphira's leather saddle. Underneath it was a long silver-hilted sword. She lifted that out too. The scabbard was well-oiled and had fine silver fastenings, but it was nothing compared to the sword. Its hilt was set with gems the colour of ice, and the blade itself was also blue, rippling with silver watermarks. It was a rider's sword, made by an ancient elvish method now lost to the world forever. Engraved just below the hilt was the word Íssbrandr. Ice-Blade. Her grandfather's sword, and her father's. She had never used it in combat before.
'Should I take it with me?'
Saphira paused to think it over. 'Yes, I think you should. For ceremonial reasons.'
Sif nodded and straightened up. 'I should put on a better dress, too.'
'I very much doubt the King will care about what you're wearing, Sif. Dragons don't notice that sort of thing. Anyway, you don't have the time for it.'
'Oh, fine.' Sif took a thick, dark-blue woollen cloak from the wardrobe and put it on, strapping the sword on over the top with the hilt protruding over her shoulder. She didn't like having it there. It weighed her down and pulled her dress out of shape. But it did make her feel a little more confident.
She picked up the saddle and left for the dragon roost, climbing laboriously up the long flight of stairs that led to its flat top. She hauled herself up the ladder and pushed the trapdoor open, blinking when the wind touched her face.
Saphira was crouched nearby, waiting. 'There you are.'
Sif straightened up, her arms aching under the weight of the saddle. 'I hate carrying this thing.'
Saphira lay flat on her stomach. 'Well put it on then.'
Nasuada arrived while Sif was strapping it into place, carrying Silarae's own saddle. She was warmly dressed, and her own sword was strapped to her back. 'Oh good,' she said, on seeing her. 'I was hoping you'd already be here. You're bringing your sword, are you?'
Sif nodded. 'I thought it would look right.'
'Yes, you were right to think that,' said Nasuada. 'A rider is only complete with their sword. The King may take you a little more seriously now.'
Sif finished putting the saddle on, and climbed onto Saphira's back. The blue dragon sat still while she did up the straps around her legs that would hold her in place. 'Are you finished yet?'
'Yes.' Sif held on tightly, lurching a little as Saphira got to her feet.
Nasuada had finished saddling Silarae, and now she too mounted up. 'All right, let's go. You should fly ahead.'
Saphira launched herself from the roost and flew out over the city. Sif shivered as the wind dragged at her, but she wasn't bothered by flying. She'd been doing it since the age of ten, and it was second nature by now.
The blue dragon circled over the city a few times, beating her wings to steady herself in the air. When she was at soaring height, she turned herself South and set out on the short journey to the place where the King awaited.
Once there had been farmland to the South of the city – once called Urû'baen, but now restored to its old name of Ilirea. Now, though, that land had been emptied and the farmers that had once occupied it had been forced to leave. Trees, encouraged to grow by magic, had covered the abandoned fields. And, rising straight out of that, there was the mountain. It had not always been there.
Sif still dimly remembered the day when the mountain had appeared. The strongest part of the memory was the noise. The very stones of Ilirea had shaken under the force of it, and when she had run up to the castle wall to look she had seen the mountain rise out of the ground, soil flowing down its sides like water as it thrust itself into the sky. The mountain had come to be referred to as the Dragon's Throne, and commoners regarded it with a great deal of superstitious fear. Sif knew that the King was the one who had made it. His magic had forced it to rise out of the ground, just as it had made the trees grow. Lacking a home that suited him, he had made one for himself.
Saphira landed at the edge of the trees, and Sif dismounted. The trees were oaks and pines, impossibly tall and majestic, as if they were hundreds of years old. Silarae landed a short distance away, and she and Nasuada came on foot to join them.
Sif, still standing at the edge of the trees, looked back uncertainly. 'Are you coming in with me?'
'Yes, of course,' said Nasuada. 'Let's go.'
Sif braced herself and walked in, followed by Saphira. The trees closed in on her almost at once, blocking out the sky and making her feel as if she were entering a cave rather than a forest. Underfoot the ground was padded with fallen leaves, and here and there a shaft of light reached through a rare gap in the canopy. As she walked she caught a glimpse of something. It was a deer, impossibly big, bounding away.
'My gods,' said Saphira. 'I've never seen one that size.'
'The King makes them grow,' said Sif. 'He can change things…'
They walked through the forest for several minutes, sharing a feeling of apprehension, until the mountain was directly in front of them and Nasuada called a halt.
'Well,' she said. 'Here is where I wait. You have to go on from here without me.'
Sif went cold. 'Why?'
'The King didn't send for me, he sent for you,' said Nasuada. 'If I came with you he would send me away again. Whatever he wants to talk about will be between you and him.'
Saphira came close, touching Sif with her snout. 'Come on. We can do this. You and me, together.'
The blue dragon's voice gave Sif a little courage. 'All right,' she said aloud. 'I'm going.'
'And good luck,' said Nasuada, smiling on her. 'Just be respectful and don't answer back, and everything will be fine.'
Sif nodded. She put her hand on Saphira's foreleg and the two of them walked toward the mountain together, weaving their way between the massive tree-trunks. Before long Nasuada and Silarae had disappeared from view, but Sif did not look back. All her attention was on the mountain now. Close to it looked even more massive than before, its sides jagged dark grey rock, green here and there with moss and ferns. She had never seen it up close before. The only people who came here came at the direct request of the King, and he had never sent for her before.
Saphira halted. 'We're here.'
Sif did not need to ask her how she knew. It had been obvious ever since the mountain had come into view. Ahead of her there was a massive hole in its side – so huge its top reached more than halfway up the mountain's full height. Beyond there was darkness.
Sif and Saphira stood at its edge, both unwilling to go further. But it was too late to turn back. As Sif was on the point of asking Saphira what they should do next, she heard a deep rumbling come from inside the cave. The King had sensed their presence.
'Don't move,' said Saphira.
Silence, and then there was a voice. It spoke in both their heads. 'Come to me.'
The voice was deep and rumbling, every word a growl.
Saphira raised her wings briefly and glanced at Sif. 'Well come on.'
Sif knew she had no choice. She braced herself and stepped forward, into the darkness.
But it was not entirely dark. Once she was well inside she realised that there was a faint glow inside the cave… not quite light, but an absence of complete darkness. It was just enough to show her the massive shape that awaited them both. It could see her too. It shifted slightly, and the scrape of talon on stone echoed in the cave. 'Kneel.'
Sif fell to her knees. Beside her, Saphira bent her forelegs and laid her head on the ground. 'Sire.'
There was a growl, and the cave suddenly brightened. Pale grey light sprang up, illuminating the walls and ceiling, and the two of them, abasing themselves before their lord and master.
Sif could feel his presence hanging over her, and her heart pattered frantically. She felt as if she were going to faint.
'Rise,' the voice rasped. 'Look at me.'
Sif obeyed. And as she raised her head, the first thing she saw was the face of King Ravana, Lord of Alagaësia.