Chapter One

Chapter One

Writing in the Stars

They sparkled, scattered over the field of the night sky like grains of salt. From here, it looked as if there were no end to them – as if they went on forever, to the very ends of the earth.

Skandar shifted, adjusting his grip on the branch to balance himself better, and watched them with fascination. From here he had an uninterrupted view, and he kept his eyes skyward, picking out the shapes which the stars drew in the heavens. There was the Wolf, running through the sky with the moon in his jaws. The Bear, massive starry claws raised to defend his children. The Deer, watchful for danger. And the Crow, wings spread wide to travel between the heavens and the earth with his sacred messages.

Skandar's grin returned, as he captured the image in his mind and kept it there, ready for when he needed it. Tomorrow he could try and capture it upon a piece of wood. He knew his magic would be strong enough by now; it had to be.

'Skandar?' the voice drifted up to him.

Skandar looked down. 'Yes, Father?'

Skraed Traeganni's face, looking back up at him, wore a smile. 'Do you do nothing but stay up that tree all night, boy?'

Skandar slid down, his long, powerful toes gripping the bark easily. 'I sleep as well,' he said.

Skraed laughed. 'Well, it is time for you to do that again,' he said. 'The stars will still be there tomorrow night.'

Skandar followed him back toward the settlement, barefoot and nimble. 'Have the hunters returned?'

'Not yet, but they will be back by morning,' said Skraed. 'There is no need to worry.'

'Well I am worried,' said Skandar. 'If they do not come back before light, they could be seen.'

'Seen by who?' said Skraed.

Skandar scowled. 'You know who, Father. The Shur'tugal are about.' His scowl deepened. 'They'll take more of our hunters, Father, I know it.'

'Now then,' said Skraed. 'We do not know that the Shur'tugal had anything to do with our missing men.'

'But they did,' said Skandar.

'Silence, Skandar. Do not accuse without proof.'

'I don't need proof,' Skandar snapped. 'Who else but a dragon-rider could have killed one of our warriors?

Skraed muttered something to himself, but he said nothing and walked on through the grove of birches that marked the edge of the settlement with Skandar following at his heels.

Beyond the trees were the little stone huts that everyone in the settlement lived in – even King Graethen himself. There were plenty of people about, some of them at work on some chore or other, but most of them lounging around the black compound fire, relaxing after a long day.

Skandar loped past them after his father, noting the fact that nearly all the adults in sight had weapons to hand. They had noticed the signs, even if his father preferred to ignore them.

Skraed pulled aside the deer-skin that covered the entrance to his home, and went inside.

Beyond it, his wife Arthryn looked up from her sewing. 'Ah, there you are.'

Skraed hustled the complaining Skandar through the door. 'I found this one hiding up a tree like a squirrel. Perhaps we should not have named him for the hawk after all.'

Arthryn looked at her son. 'Why were you there, Skandar?'

Skandar rubbed his shoulder. 'I was looking at the stars, Mother. I just like to do that, see?'

'Yes, I see. Well, get ye to bed, Skandar.'

Skandar moved toward his sleeping pallet, but reluctantly. 'Why? The moon is barely in the sky.'

Arthryn laid her needle down. 'The King has called us together to discuss important things. You and the other children must stay away.'

Skandar stared at her. 'What things? Why must we stay away?'

'Not things you should worry about,' his mother told him, with a finality in her voice that told him he wasn't going to get anything more from her.

Skandar thought quickly. 'Well go then,' he said. 'I can guard the hut.'

Skraed chuckled. 'I have no doubt. Sleep now, son. We will be back soon enough.'

He left the hut, and Arthryn followed in silence.

Alone, Skandar sat in front of the fire and frowned. At the age of eleven, he was already much stronger than a human child, though he looked younger. He had thick pitch-black hair, worn in the traditional loose style of childhood, and his black eyes had the quiet watchful expression common to dark elves.

He reached a decision quickly, and stood up. Moving silently, he crept toward the entrance and peeked out.

The adults were gathered around the fire – even old crippled Arvel was there. They were all looking toward King Graethen, who was saying something just out of earshot.

Skandar looked quickly at the placement of objects around the assembly, assessing the situation. Yes. He could do it.

He took a deep breath, and slid out of the hut and into the shadows, moving with the utter silence that was his people's gift. If any of the adults had been expecting him to be there they would have seen him instantly – they were far more practised at it than he was. But they were caught up in the meeting, and their eyes and their attention were elsewhere.

Skandar slipped from shadow to shadow until he was at the very edge of the group, less than an arm's length away from Celython the sheep-herder.

He crouched down in the shadow cast by an abandoned hand-cart, and listened.

'…cannot give in,' the King was saying. 'Sooner or later the light elves shall come, and when they do, we must be prepared.'

Prydwen, the settlement's greatest warrior, spat. 'Pah. They have not the courage.'

'But they have the strength!' Skraed snapped back. 'Do you have rocks between your ears, Prydwen? With the riders behind them, the light elves may do whatever they choose. They know where we are now, and they shall destroy us if we give them the chance.'

'Well then what do you suggest, Skraed Traeganni?' said the King.

Skraed stood up. 'We must leave here, Father, and soon.'

'And where shall we go?' another voice demanded. 'Where shall we flee this time, Prince Skraed?'

'I do not know, but it is our only chance,' said Skraed. 'If the riders come here… when they come…'

'Skraed, we have nowhere else to go,' the King told him wearily. 'If we left the shelter of this place, we would be fleeing into unknown lands – lands full of elves and humans allied with the riders. They would give us up at once. And how could we survive if by the grace of the gods the riders did not find us?'

Skraed hesitated. 'What alternative do you suggest, Father? What else can we do?'

'The only thing we can do,' said the King. 'We must negotiate with the riders. If we can make a treaty with them…'

Skraed scratched his pointed beard, apparently trying to calm himself down. Around him, the others were less restrained.

'Madness!' one shouted.

'We cannot do that!' said Prydwen.

The King turned his calm gaze on him. 'Why do you say that, Prydwen? What do you suggest we do?'

'We must fight, Sire!' Prydwen exclaimed. 'It is the only-,'

'You fool!' Skraed burst forth. 'Fight the riders? Have you lost your mind?'

But many of the dark elves had muttered their assent.

King Graethen turned on them. 'You think we should fight them, then? And what would we gain?'

'Our pride!' said Prydwen. He raised a fist. 'Too long have the dark elves hidden away like rats beneath a stone. We cannot let those Southern scum oppress us! Did we not spawn the first rider? Were we not the first to discover dark magic? And yet we allow ourselves to be crushed this way – reduced to fleeing like deer-,' he glared at Skraed, 'Or trying to make petty deals as if we were human.' And he glared at the King as well.

Graethen met the glare calmly. 'Once again, Prydwen, you allow yourself to be ruled by your passion rather than your senses. Yes, to run or negotiate would be to admit weakness, but the alternative is one too terrible to speak of. Extinction.' He turned to look at all the listeners. 'Aye, extinction. You know that. All of you know. We know what the riders have done to the silver elves, and to the plains dragons, and the red dwarves. Unless we use our heads, we shall suffer the same fate.'

'Well then we must fight!' said Prydwen. 'Fight for vengeance, fight to-,'

Skraed snapped. He turned on his heel and hit Prydwen in the face, hard enough to knock him over.

The assembled dark elves started, but none of them made a sound. Instead, they turned their gaze toward Skraed, who calmly moved to stand next to the King.

'My father is right,' he said. 'We cannot flee; we have nowhere to go. And we cannot fight. To fight them would be a brave gesture, and an utterly futile one. What would we gain from it but our own destruction? No. I find it as distasteful as you do, but we must try and bargain with them. We are dark elves!' he added, to smother the dismayed mutterings. 'We are cunning and patient, famed for our ability to deceive. We shall deceive the light elves and the riders, we shall pretend to submit and take our opportunity for revenge when it arises.'

'My son is correct,' said the King, smiling very slightly at him. 'We shall fight, but not until the time is right. Consider this. When the light elves come here, we shall surrender… shall appear to surrender. We shall beg for mercy, offer up whatever oaths of loyalty they demand, make ourselves their vassals. When we are safe, we shall wait until the time comes.' His eyes glittered slyly. 'In time – who knows? Perhaps one of our number shall even join the riders. Then we would have a power on our side that could be the saving of us.'

Silence followed, and the dark elves glanced at each other. Some of them began to smile.

Prydwen stood up. There was a swelling dark bruise on his chin, but he came forward and bowed low to the King. 'I thought you were a coward, Sire, but I was wrong,' he said quietly. 'You have spoken sense. We shall fight when we have the advantage, when our position is stronger. The light elves are more than arrogant enough to believe whatever pleasant lies we tell them.'

The others nodded their agreement, and some stood and bowed too.

'Then it is decided,' said the King. 'We shall wait, and watch… and prepare.'

The meeting was over, and the adults began to disperse without another word. Skandar, still hiding behind the cart, found himself shivering in fear. The riders were coming. His father had been lying. They were coming, and when they did…

Skandar already knew what the riders did to their enemies. But, then, all of Alagaësia did.