Over the Hills and Far Away
The sun was starting to dip below the horizon, but the sunset it made was pale and watery, as if it were shining through a cloud of smoke. The light was enough to make the trees cast long shadows over the snow. It looked like the bars of a cage.
It was getting cold now, too. He didn't like it here. He wanted to be back at the camp, by a warm fire. But he didn't know where it was any more. He was lost.
He sped up, pulling his robe more firmly over his shoulders. The thick fabric helped him keep warm, but not much. It was white. If he fell over in the snow, he would be nearly invisible. No-one would ever find him. He would lie there forever, lost and frozen.
His heart beat faster and he began to search among the trees, pawing at the thickets of dead fern that grew among them. Nothing. No sign of anyone anywhere.
'Father? Father, where are you?'
Silence, broken only by the distant screech of an ice-eagle.
'Father! Please, I'm scared, I want to go back now!'
But there was no reply, and no-one came to answer his call. Fighting back tears of fright now, he broke into a run. The snow was slippery, and his boots sank deeply into it with every step, threatening to trip him up. He did fall once, but landed in a snow-drift. He got up, his robe now wet, and ran on.
The sun sank lower, and darkness began to close in. Night was coming now.
He stopped to rest by a tree, gasping for breath. Hunger was gnawing at his stomach, and his knees were bruised.
Calm down, he told himself quietly. Breathe deeply. Think!
He looked around. Their camp had been on a higher piece of ground, where it was a little drier. So if he went uphill, he might find it. Yes. He started to feel calmer. Go uphill.
He started to go back the way he had come, watching the landscape. It did rise gently to his left, so he turned that way and followed it until it became a true slope. Yes, this was the way, he was sure of it.
But… but in spite of that, doubt kept edging back into his mind. The trees all looked the same, and the snow made everything featureless. He thought he could see his footprints, but what if a deer had done it? He didn't know anything much about tracking.
He started to feel frightened again. What if he was going in the wrong direction, and heading away from camp rather than toward it? Should he just stay where he was until someone came to find him? There could be wolves out here. He'd been warned about that. Wolves wouldn't normally attack a person unless they were wounded, but there was a small cut on his hand. Would that be enough?
He stopped again, looking around. Maybe he should climb a tree. He might be able to see something from up there.
He found one that had a branch low enough to reach, and hauled himself into it without much trouble. He'd always been good at climbing. His father had told him that he was stronger than ordinary people. He didn't know if that was true, but he supposed it was.
The tree's bark was wet and slippery, but he dug his nails into it and gripped it easily enough. Once he was as high as he could get, he stood in a fork and surveyed the landscape. But there was nothing but trees in any direction, as far as he could see. He looked up at the sky, but there was nothing up there. Only birds.
'Gods damn it,' he mumbled. It didn't make him feel any better.
He slid back down the tree, full of worry. If night came before he could get back…
He started to fume internally. This was all his father's fault.
'Father!' he yelled. 'It's not funny! Stop it!'
Silence. But then, as he stood there and scowled at the snow, he thought he heard something behind him. He turned. There was nothing there.
More silence. And then a voice whispered from somewhere to his left. 'I am the shadow that comes in the night…'
He whirled around. 'Father?'
Now the voice was to his right. 'I am the fear that lurks in your heart…'
He turned this way and that, searching for the owner of the voice, but all he could see were shadows.
'…I am the rider on the wings of the storm…' Now it was behind him.
'Father, stop it!'
The voice went quiet. He stared fixedly at the spot where it had last come from. There was nothing there but a tree, and he took a few steps toward it, staring fixedly at the shadow it had flung over the snow. But he couldn't see anything. He stepped into the shadow, loath to believe the evidence of his own eyes. Nothing. The shadow was just a shadow.
The back of his neck prickled. He turned sharply.
Nothing. Still nothing.
'Father! Please, I'm getting cold.'
More silence, and then the voice said; 'All right.'
It was coming from a spot by another tree. And, as he stood and watched it, a shadow slid out onto the snow and took on the shape of a man. The man straightened up, laughing.
He ran at him. 'Father!'
He hit him and bowled him over, and the man fell, still laughing. He thumped him in the chest as hard as he could. 'Stop it! It's not funny!'
The man managed to fend him off and sat up, grinning. 'It's all right, Skandar, calm down…'
Skandar pulled away, scowling. 'Well it's not funny. I was scared.'
The man got up, brushing the snow off himself. He was tall and thin and had a pale face. His hair was long and curly, jet black with a little grey in it, and he had a pointed black beard. One eye was glittering black. The other was closed. 'Well,' he said, 'You know what I told you about fear, don't you?'
'Yes, but I don't care,' said Skandar. 'You shouldn't have teased me like that.'
'It was all right, you know,' the man said more kindly. 'I was following you the whole time. You weren't in any danger.'
'Well I don't care,' said Skandar.
'I suppose that's only sensible,' the man admitted. 'Well, come on. We'd better get back to camp before dark or your mother will have my head.'
'It's uphill,' said Skandar. 'I figured that out.'
The man grinned again. 'So it is. Well done.'
They walked off through the wood, side by side. Skandar watched his father, and saw how he was limping a little more badly than usual. His leg must be hurting him in the cold. He forgot his sulk and took him by the hand.
His father looked a little surprised at that. He usually looked surprised when someone touched him, though Skandar didn't know why. But he didn't let go either.
'How do you disappear like that?' said Skandar.
'I told you; magic. Special magic. You'll get the hang of it one day.'
'No I won't,' said Skandar. 'I've tried. I can't do it. I don't have any magic.'
His father laughed. 'Don't have any magic! Yes you do. You know perfectly well you do. I saw you do it.'
'Yes, but that was just an accident,' said Skandar. 'I can't do it any more.'
'Well, you'll remember how to do it eventually. You're a special boy, Skandar. I couldn't do what you did. No-one can, except for you.'
'I can't do it either,' said Skandar, shame-faced.
'Yes you can. Not everything comes to us by instinct, Skandar. We have to learn them. I wasn't born knowing how to hide in shadows, you know. I had to learn it. And then I had to practise it.'
'I don't want to practise,' said Skandar.
'None of us ever do. But if we just had everything we wanted as soon as we wanted it, it wouldn't be worth anything.'
'That doesn't make any sense,' said Skandar.
Skandar's fear had gone now. He held onto his father's hand, and felt big and strong, and happy. Suddenly, he wanted to laugh. 'I'll try again, Father,' he said. 'I can do it.'
His father glanced down at him, and smiled. 'I know you will, Skandar. You did well today, you know. You started to panic, but you didn't lose your head. You acted sensibly, and you were doing the right thing in going uphill. If you'd just kept your confidence, you wouldn't have needed any help from me.'
Skandar felt warm pride glowing in his chest. 'I knew I had to go uphill. I remembered what you told me.'
'And you have a very good memory.'
They walked on in silence for a time.
'I'm a prince, aren't I?'
His father thought about it for a while. 'I suppose you are, in a way.'
'But I am,' Skandar persisted. 'You're a King and Mother is a Queen, so that makes me a Prince.'
'I'm not a King any more,' his father said gently. 'I stopped being one quite a while ago.'
'But you were a King when I was born,' said Skandar. 'Weren't you? That's what your name means. You told me so.'
'Yes, yes, I suppose so. Does it really matter?'
'Well… does that mean I'll be King some day?' said Skandar.
'No, Skandar. I already told you that. And even if I still had a throne for you to inherit… I'm glad that you never will.'
'Why?' said Skandar.
'Because being a King is not a good thing,' his father answered. 'Believe me, Skandar. If you were King you would hate it as much as I did.'
'Well if you hated being King, why didn't you stop doing it?' said Skandar.
His father shook his head. 'I don't feel like explaining right now. Anyway…' he looked ahead. 'I think we're there now.'
They shoved their way through some bracken and emerged into a clearing. There was a strange black fire burning at its centre – burning over the snow, without any fuel. A huge white dragon was there, too, her body curled around the clearing and very nearly encircling it. She was sound asleep. The two of them walked quietly past the end of her snout and entered the camp, where Skandar's mother was already getting up from her seat by the fire and coming to meet them. 'There you are!'
Skandar let go of his father's hand and went to meet her, and she embraced him tightly and kissed him on the forehead. 'You're soaking wet,' she said as she let him go. 'Did you fall over?'
'Yes. But I'm all right.'
She pushed him toward the fire. 'Dry yourself off, then. Go on.'
His father stood by, watching. 'What, no kiss for me?'
She went to him. 'Galbatorix Taranisäii, where have you been?'
'No need to be like that about it,' he said mildly. 'I've been teaching Skandar how to find his way around in the wilderness.'
'He took me far away from camp and then disappeared,' Skandar said loudly from his spot by the fire. 'I was looking for him for hours.'
His mother looked irritated. 'What did you do that for?'
'He has to learn, Skade,' said Galbatorix. 'Don't worry; I was keeping a close eye on him.'
She shook her head. 'I'm sure you were. Come on, sit down and warm yourself up. I've got some food ready for you.'
Galbatorix sat down beside his son, and warmed his hands over the fire. 'Ahh, that's better. So, what have we got in the way of food?'
Skade passed him some bread and dried meat, and an apple, and he ate heartily. Skandar got the same. The food tasted good after so much exercise and excitement.
'So,' said Skade, once the two of them had taken the edge off their hunger. 'Where are we going next, Sire?'
Galbatorix rolled his eyes. 'That's not even a little bit funny, Skade.'
'So where are we going?' said Skade. 'It doesn't look like there's anything but snow out here.'
'Yes, you're quite correct about that,' said Galbatorix. 'If you want snow and pine trees and mountains, the Northlands are the place to find them.'
'But where are we going from there?' said Skade. She was an elf, with silver hair and a silvery sheen to her skin. Her eyes were gold, with slitted pupils, and she had sharp teeth.
'Further North,' Galbatorix said briefly. 'Until we reach the sea. And from there, we go beyond.'
'Over the sea?'
'Yes. I thought I'd made that clear already.'
'But why?' said Skade. 'We don't even know if there's anything on the other side.'
'But there has to be,' said Galbatorix.
'Why?' said Skade.
'Because there just has to,' Galbatorix said stubbornly. 'Because I'm not going back.'
'I still don't understand why we couldn't have stayed,' said Skade. 'There's no danger for us in Alagaësia any more, not now that my father-,'
'There is,' Galbatorix interrupted. 'Skade, there is. And there always will be.'
'I want to see your castle,' Skandar piped up. 'I want to see your Empire, too.'
'Skandar-!' Galbatorix turned sharply, his voice suddenly rising. 'You can't,' he said, forcing himself to calm down. 'We're not going back. No matter what happens.'
Skandar had shrunk back a little. 'But why?' he said.
'Because I say so.'
'Galbatorix,' Skade said sternly. 'Stop that. You're acting like a child.'
Galbatorix put his hand over his eyes. 'Godsdammit, Skade, please don't be like that. It's hard enough as it is, with Skandar always asking questions-,'
'Well why don't you answer them? In fact, you could answer some of mine while you're doing that,' said Skade.
Skade moved closer to him, touching him gently on the shoulder. 'Galbatorix, you were a King,' she said softly. 'You ruled this country for more than a hundred years. It's thanks to you that its people are still free. You brought the riders back. There's nothing left that you need to be forgiven for. You could have stayed there. They needed you to help them; there were so many things that were lost in the war, and only you remembered them. You could have taught them. We had a home there, and my father would have kept us safe. You're not leaving the country, you're fleeing from it.'
Galbatorix looked at her, and slowly opened his other eye. It was not black, like the other one. It was the colour of blood. 'I couldn't stay there, Skade,' he said. 'Please, you have to understand that.'
Skade shivered and took her hand away from his shoulder. 'Galbatorix-,'
He looked toward the fire. 'There's too many memories for me there now. Things I would rather forget.'
Skandar listened to them in silence. He did not understand what he was hearing, but it made his heart beat fast, as if he were listening to something secret and forbidden. He wanted to ask questions, but something in his father's voice stopped him and he looked away. He could see the red eye gleaming in the firelight, and it scared him into silence.
Skade must have sensed that she had pushed Galbatorix too far. 'It's all right,' she said at last. 'I understand. And maybe you're right. Maybe there is a better place over the sea.'
'Yes…' Galbatorix closed the eye again, and looked up at the darkening sky. 'I hope so,' he said softly. 'I hope so.'
Galbatorix was up early the next day. His bad leg was aching in the cold, and he rubbed it gingerly, huddled against Laela's warm flank. Skade and Skandar were curled up beside him, both still asleep. He could just see them in the grey light among the trees, and he could hear their peaceful breathing.
Galbatorix sighed and settled down to watch the sunrise, keeping still to avoid disturbing them. Every so often he glanced over at them, as if he were afraid that they might suddenly be snatched away from him. But they were always there. Skade looked very vulnerable in her sleep, as the light touched her face. If he hadn't known her waking self, and how ferocious she really was, he could easily have thought of her as fragile. But she was stronger than she looked, and resilient as well. He smiled to himself when he thought of how terrible she could be when she was angry.
Skandar lay close to his mother, the top of his head touching her chin. Even though he was only ten, he was just as fierce as his mother was, in his own way. He certainly had something of her temper. Galbatorix, watching him, felt an almost painful sense of pride at the sight of him. So like Skade, and so like himself. Both their qualities together, embodied in their son. Skade was always remarking on how much he looked like his father, and Galbatorix supposed that was true. Skandar had the same pale, angular face as he did, and that likeness would no doubt become more pronounced when he entered maturity. And he had his father's black eyes and long, delicate fingers, and his hair too was curly. But it was silver like his mother's – a colour no human's hair could ever have. And he had her pointed ears, and the same sharp teeth – though they were not quite as pronounced. And, like her, his fingers were equipped with curved black claws. They weren't ridiculously long or obvious, but they were a long way from being fingernails.
Galbatorix sighed and touched the hilt of the sword that lay beside him. He had no idea what would await them over the sea – if indeed there was anything there – but if there was danger then he would place himself between it and his family regardless of the consequences.
'Did you sleep at all last night?'
Galbatorix looked up, startled out of his reverie. It was Laela. The white dragon had raised her head and was looking at him, her silver eyes gleaming in the gloom. He relaxed. 'Good morning, Laela.'
She yawned. 'It hardly qualifies.'
Galbatorix looked through the trees toward the horizon. 'Well, it's a nice sunrise, anyway.'
She gave it a jaded look. 'Stuff and nonsense. I've seen better colours in a pool of vomit.'
'What are you in such a mood about, then?'
'My leg hurts,' she growled.
'Ah.' Galbatorix looked guilty. 'That would be my leg, actually. Sorry.'
Laela snorted. 'Not your fault. Don't you dare block me out of your mind again or I'll burn your head off.'
'What, you enjoy feeling my leg ache all damn night?'
'You know perfectly well what I'm talking about, Galbatorix.'
He sighed. 'I'm sorry. It's not your fault. It's… well it's not important.'
Laela moved her head closer to him, watching him with concern. 'Yes it is. Galbatorix, I don't like this. Something's not right with you. I can feel it.'
'I'm just worried.'
'No you're not. I mean…' she paused. 'Well, yes, you are worried. But I can't understand why. You won't stop doing this to yourself.'
'I'm not doing anything, Laela. I'm just… watching out for Skade and Skandar. And you.'
'I think they can look after themselves. Anyway, I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about you.'
'There's nothing wrong with me.'
'Yes there is. And you can bloody well stop trying to lie to me, O Great Deceiver. You're barely sleeping. You won't calm down. And you're hurting me.'
'Laela, I can't help it if my leg-,'
'It's not your leg that's hurting me,' said Laela. 'You're not letting me in. You barely even let me talk to you, and you keep hiding your feelings from me. You won't embrace the connection like you should, you're not sharing yourself any more.' She sent him a feeling of gentle reproach and hurt. 'Galbatorix, what's wrong with you? I'm your dragon. I came back from… you know what we went through together and how much it took for us to be reunited. Can't you trust me any more?'
'Oh, Laela…' Galbatorix reached out to touch her forehead, embracing her awkwardly. 'I don't mean to. You know I wouldn't do that to you deliberately. Of course I trust you. It's just that…'
'It's just that what?'Laela said sharply. 'Stop playing around with me and just say what you're thinking.'
Galbatorix sat back. 'Laela, you can't expect me to be who I was before. That was a hundred years ago. A hundred years, Laela. You can't just ask me to forget them all because you want your old rider back, it doesn't work that way. I can't control it any more than you can.'
'Is that what's troubling you, then?' Laela raised her head, suddenly radiating confusion and dismay. 'You think you're not worthy to be honest?'
'A hundred years of telling lies and hiding behind a mask takes its toll, Laela. The last time I was completely honest with someone was when I stabbed the Brat through the stomach with his own sword and told him he'd had it coming.'
'Galbatorix, please don't.'
'I'm sorry. I'm just not…' he looked toward the sunrise. 'I miss Shruikan, you know. He wasn't an easy dragon to know… we argued a lot. In the beginning we were fighting each other. He was always wild at heart, you see. But you should have seen us when we were in harmony. When we fought side-by-side… we were unstoppable.' Galbatorix sighed and narrowed his eyes. 'People are idiots. They talk about dragons – bonded dragons – as if they were nothing but giant talking steeds. Shruikan was never just Shruikan, he was always "the King's dragon". Without him I would never have won the war. He taught me how to be a warrior. But more than that. He taught me how to be a rider again.'
Laela growled softly. 'You must have cared for him very much.'
'I did. In all those long years, he was the only one who stayed with me. When I wanted to die, he was what held me back. I knew I owed it to him to stay alive'
'I'm glad you did,' said Laela.
He grinned. 'I'll bet.'
They were silent for a time, and then Laela started to prod gently at his mind, trying to deepen their connection so that they could immerse themselves in each others' thoughts, memories and feelings. For a brief moment he did not resist, but then he abruptly withdrew and shut her out, concealing those deeper feelings that he had refused to share with her. Laela pulled away, stung, and her mind radiated anger into his. 'Galbatorix!'
He looked back at her, stone-faced. 'No, Laela. Not yet.'
'But why? For gods' sakes, why?'
'I… just not now, all right? Wait a while.'
Laela left his mind, snarling her resentment, and the two of them sat in sullen silence. But later on, when she calmed down and tried to think, she began to realise just what it was she had glimpsed in him before he had shut her out. It had only been a brief glimpse – the merest hint of something, but she knew or suspected what it had been: fear.