Light … Golden sunbeams streaming across a series of rolling hills patched with fields and vineyards. She was standing by the edge of a small courtyard, underneath a trellis laden with blooming morning glories, the vines of which seemed uncomfortably familiar. She was wearing a beautiful yellow dress. There was a crystal goblet of wine in her right hand and the musky, cherry taste of wine upon her tongue. A slight breeze was blowing from the west. The air smelled of warmth and comfort and freshly tilled land.
“Ah, there you are,” said a voice behind her, and she turned to see Murtagh striding toward her from a grand estate. Like her, he held a goblet of wine. He was dressed in black hose and a doublet of maroon satin trimmed with gold piping. A gem-encrusted dagger hung from his studded belt. His hair was longer than she remembered, and he appeared relaxed and confident in a way she had not seen before. That, and the light upon his face, made him appear strikingly handsome—noble, even.
He joined her under the trellis and placed a hand on her bare arm. The gesture seemed casual and intimate. “You minx, abandoning me to Lord Ferros and his interminable stories. It took me half an hour to escape.” Then he paused and looked at her closer, and his expression became one of concern. “Are you feeling ill? Your cheeks look gray.”
She opened her mouth, but no words came to her. She could not think how to react.
Murtagh’s brow furrowed. “You had another one of your attacks, didn’t you?”
“I—I don’t know. … I can’t remember how I got here, or …” She trailed off as she saw the pain that appeared in Murtagh’s eyes, and which he quickly hid.
He slid his hand down to the small of her back as he moved around her to stare out at the hilly landscape. With a swift motion, he drained his goblet. Then, in a low voice, he said, “I know how confusing this is for you. … It isn’t the first time this has happened, but—” He took a deep breath and shook his head slightly. “What is the last thing you remember? Teirm? Aberon? The siege of Cithrí? … The gift I gave you that night in Eoam?”
A terrible sense of uncertainty overcame her. “Urû’baen,” she whispered. “The Hall of the Soothsayer. That is my last memory.”
For an instant, she felt his hand tremble against her back, but his face betrayed no reaction.
“Urû’baen,” he repeated hoarsely. He looked at her. “Nasuada … it’s been eight years since Urû’baen.”
No, she thought. It can’t be. And yet everything she saw and felt seemed so real. The motion of Murtagh’s hair as the wind tousled it, the scent of the fields, the touch of her dress against her skin—it all seemed exactly as it should. But if she was actually there, then why hadn’t Murtagh reassured her of it by reaching out to her mind, as he had done before? Had he forgotten? If eight years had elapsed, he might not remember the promise he made to her so long ago in the Hall of the Soothsayer.
“I—” she started to say, and then she heard a woman call out:
She looked over her shoulder and saw a portly maid hurrying down from the estate, the front of her white apron flapping. “My Lady,” said the maid, and curtsied. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but the children hoped that you would watch them put on their play for the guests.”
“Children,” she whispered. She looked back at Murtagh to see his eyes shining with tears.
“Aye,” he said. “Children. Four of them, all strong and healthy and full of high spirits.”
She shuddered, overcome with emotion. She could not help it. Then she lifted her chin. “Show me what I have forgotten. Show me why I have forgotten.”
Murtagh smiled at her with what seemed like pride. “It would be my pleasure,” he said, and kissed her on the forehead. He took her goblet and gave both glasses to the maid. Then he grasped her hands in his, closed his eyes, and bowed his head.
An instant later, she felt a presence pressing against her mind, and then she knew: it was not him. It could never have been him.
Angered by the deception and by the loss of what could never be, she pulled her right hand free of Murtagh’s, grabbed his dagger, and shoved the blade into his side. And she shouted:
In El-harím, there lived a man, a man with yellow eyes!
To me, he said, “Beware the whispers, for they whisper lies!”
Murtagh regarded her with a curiously blank expression, and then he faded away before her. Everything around her—the trellis, the courtyard, the estate, the hills with the vineyards—vanished, and she found herself floating in a void without light or sound. She tried to continue her litany, but no sound came from her throat. She could not even hear the pounding of her pulse in her veins.
Then she felt the darkness twist, and—
She stumbled and fell onto her hands and knees. Sharp rocks scraped her palms. Blinking as her eyes adjusted to the light, she rose to her feet and looked around.
Haze. Ribbons of smoke drifting across a barren field similar to the Burning Plains.
She was once more clothed in her tattered shift, and her feet were bare.
Something roared behind her, and she spun around to see a twelve-foot-tall Kull charging toward her, swinging an ironbound club as large as she was. Another roar came from her left, and she saw a second Kull, as well as four smaller Urgals. Then a pair of cloaked, hunchbacked figures scurried out of the whitish haze and darted in her direction, chittering and waving their leaf-bladed swords. Although she had never seen them before, she knew they were the Ra’zac.
She laughed again. Now Galbatorix was just trying to punish her.
Ignoring the oncoming enemies—whom she knew she would never be able to kill or escape—she sat cross-legged on the ground and began to hum an old dwarvish tune.
Galbatorix’s initial attempts to deceive her had been subtle affairs that might very well have succeeded in leading her astray had Murtagh not warned her beforehand. To keep Murtagh’s help a secret, she had pretended to be ignorant of the fact that Galbatorix was manipulating her perception of reality, but regardless of what she saw or felt, she refused to allow the king to trick her into thinking of the things she should not or, far worse, giving him her loyalty. Defying him had not always been easy, but she held to her rituals of thought and speech and, with them, she had been able to thwart the king.
The first illusion had been of another woman, Rialla, who joined her in the Hall of the Soothsayer as a fellow prisoner. The woman claimed she was secretly wedded to one of the Varden’s spies in Urû’baen, and that she had been captured while carrying a message for him. Over what seemed like the course of a week, Rialla tried to ingratiate herself with Nasuada and, in a sideways manner, convince her that the Varden’s campaign was doomed, that their reasons for fighting were flawed, and that it was only right and proper to submit to Galbatorix’s authority.
In the beginning, Nasuada had not realized that Rialla herself was an illusion. She assumed that Galbatorix was distorting the woman’s words or appearance, or perhaps that he was tampering with her own emotions to make her more susceptible to Rialla’s arguments.
As the days had dragged on, and Murtagh neither visited nor contacted her, she had grown to fear that he had abandoned her to Galbatorix’s clutches. The thought caused her more anguish than she would have liked to admit, and she found herself worrying about it at nearly every turn.
Then she had begun to wonder why Galbatorix had not come to torture her during the week, and it occurred to her that if a week had elapsed, then the Varden and the elves would have attacked Urû’baen. And if that had happened, Galbatorix surely would have mentioned it, if only to gloat. Moreover, Rialla’s somewhat odd behavior, combined with a number of inexplicable gaps in her memory, Galbatorix’s forbearance, and Murtagh’s continued silence—for she could not bring herself to believe that he would break his word to her—convinced her, as outlandish as it seemed, that Rialla was an apparition and that time was no longer what it seemed.
It had shaken her to realize that Galbatorix could alter t
he number of days she thought had passed. She loathed the idea. Her sense of time had grown vague during her imprisonment, but she had retained a general awareness of its passage. To lose that, to become unmoored in time, meant she was even more at Galbatorix’s mercy, for he could prolong or contract her experiences as he saw fit.
Still, she remained determined to resist Galbatorix’s attempts at coercion, no matter how much time seemed to go by. If she had to endure a hundred years in her cell, then a hundred years she would endure.
When she had proven immune to Rialla’s insidious whisperings—and indeed finally denounced the woman for being a coward and a traitor—the figment was taken from her chamber, and Galbatorix moved on to another ploy.
Thereafter, his deceptions had grown increasingly elaborate and improbable, but none broke the laws of reason and none conflicted with what he had already shown her, for the king was still trying to keep her ignorant of his meddling.
His efforts culminated when he seemed to take her from the chamber to a dungeon cell elsewhere in the citadel, where she saw what appeared to be Eragon and Saphira bound in chains. Galbatorix had threatened to kill Eragon unless she swore fealty to him, the king. When she refused, much to Galbatorix’s displeasure—and, she thought, his surprise—Eragon shouted a spell that somehow freed the three of them. After a brief duel, Galbatorix fled—which she doubted he ever would do in reality—and then she, Eragon, and Saphira started to fight their way out of the citadel.
It had been rather dashing and exciting, and she had been tempted to find out how the sequence of events would resolve itself, but by then she felt she had played along with Galbatorix’s false show for long enough. So she seized upon the first discrepancy she noticed—the shape of the scales around Saphira’s eyes—and used it as an excuse to feign a realization that the world around her was only a pretense.
“You promised you would not lie to me while I was in the Hall of the Soothsayer!” she had shouted into the air. “What is this but a lie, Oath-breaker?”
Galbatorix’s wrath at her discovery had been prodigious; she had heard a growl like that of a mountain-sized dragon, and then he abandoned all subtlety, and for the rest of the session he subjected her to a series of fantastical torments.
At last the apparitions had ceased, and Murtagh had contacted her to let her know she could once again trust her senses. She had never been so happy to feel the touch of his mind.
That night, he had come to her, and they spent hours sitting together and talking. He told her of the Varden’s progress—they were nearly upon the capital—and of the Empire’s preparations, and he explained that he believed he had discovered a means of freeing her. When she pressed him for details, he refused to elaborate, saying, “I need another day or two to see if it will work. But there is a way, Nasuada. Take heart in that.”
She had taken heart in his earnestness and his concern for her. Even if she never escaped, she was glad to know that she was not alone in her captivity.
After she recounted some of the things Galbatorix had done to her and the means by which she had foiled him, Murtagh chuckled. “You’ve proven more of a challenge than he anticipated. It’s been a long time since anyone has given him this much of a fight. I certainly didn’t. … I understand little about it, but I know it’s incredibly difficult to create believable illusions. Any competent magician can make it seem as if you’re floating in the sky or that you’re cold or hot or that there’s a flower growing in front of you. Small complicated things or large simple things are the most any one person can hope to create, and it requires a great deal of concentration to maintain the illusion. If your attention wavers, all of a sudden the flower has four petals instead of ten. Or it might vanish altogether. Details are the hardest thing to replicate. Nature is filled with infinite details, but our minds can only hold so much. If you’re ever in doubt as to whether what you’re seeing is real, look at the details. Look for the seams in the world, where the spellcaster either does not know or has forgotten what should be there, or has taken a shortcut to conserve energy.”
“If it’s so difficult, then how does Galbatorix manage it?”
“He’s using the Eldunarí.”
“All of them?”
Murtagh nodded. “They provide the energy and the details needed, and he directs them as he wants.”
“So then, the things I see are built on the memories of dragons?” she asked, feeling slightly awed.
He nodded again. “That and the memories of their Riders, for those who had Riders.”
The following morning, Murtagh had woken her with a swift bolt of thought to tell her that Galbatorix was about to start again. Thereafter, phantoms and illusions of every sort had beset her, but as the day wore on, she noticed that the visions—with a few notable exceptions, such as that of her and Murtagh at the estate—had grown increasingly fuzzy and simple, as if either Galbatorix or the Eldunarí were growing tired.
And now she sat upon the barren plain, humming a dwarven tune as Kull, Urgals, and Ra’zac bore down on her. They caught her, and it felt as if they beat and cut her, and at times she screamed and wished her pain would end, but not once did she consider giving in to Galbatorix’s desires.
Then the plain vanished, as did most of her suffering, and she reminded herself: It is only in my mind. I shall not give in. I am not an animal; I am stronger than the weakness of my flesh.
A dark cave lit by glowing green mushrooms appeared around her. For several minutes, she heard a large creature snuffling and padding about in the shadows between the stalagmites, and then she felt the creature’s warm breath against the back of her neck, and she smelled the odor of carrion.
She started to laugh again, and she continued to laugh even as Galbatorix forced her to confront horror after horror in an attempt to find the particular combination of pain and fear that would break her. She laughed because she knew her will was stronger than his imagination, and she laughed because she knew she could count on Murtagh’s help, and with him as her ally, she did not fear the spectral nightmares Galbatorix inflicted upon her, no matter how terrible they seemed at the time.
A QUESTION OF CHARACTER
ERAGON’S FOOT SLIPPED out from under him as he stepped on a patch of slick mud, and he fell onto his side in the wet grass with brutal suddenness. He uttered a grunt and winced as his hip began to throb. The impact was sure to leave a bruise.
“Barzûl,” he said as he rolled to his feet and carefully stood. At least I didn’t land on Brisingr, he thought as he pried scales of cold mud from his leggings.
Feeling glum, he resumed trudging toward the ruined building where they had decided to camp, in the belief it would be safer than by the forest.
As he strode through the grass, he startled a number of bullfrogs, who sprang out of hiding and fled hopping to either side. The bullfrogs were the only other strange creature they had encountered on the island; each had a hornlike projection above its reddish eyes, and from the center of its forehead sprouted a curving stalk—much like a fisherman’s rod—upon the end of which hung a small, fleshy organ that at night glowed either white or yellow. The light allowed the bullfrogs to lure hundreds of flying insects within the reach of their tongues, and as a result of their easy access to food, the frogs grew enormously large. He had seen some the size of a bear’s head, great fleshy lumps with staring eyes and mouths as wide as both his outstretched hands put together.
The frogs reminded him of Angela the herbalist, and he suddenly wished that she were there on Vroengard Island with them. If anyone could tell us our true names, I bet she could. For some reason, he always felt as if the herbalist could see right through him, as if she understood everything about him. It was a disconcerting sensation, but at the moment, he would have welcomed it.
He and Saphira had decided to trust Solembum and stay on Vroengard for another three days at most while they tried to discover their true names. Glaedr had left the decision up to them; he said, You know Solembum be
tter than I do. Stay or do not. Either way, the risk is great. There are no more safe paths.
It was Saphira who ultimately made the choice. The werecats would never serve Galbatorix, she said. They prize their freedom too highly. I would trust their word before that of any other creature, even an elf.
So they had stayed.
They spent the rest of that day, and now most of the next, sitting, thinking, talking, sharing memories, examining each other’s minds, and trying various combinations of words in the ancient language, all in the hope that they would be able to either consciously work out their true names or—if they were lucky—strike upon them by accident.
Glaedr had offered his help when asked, but for the most part he kept to himself and gave Eragon and Saphira privacy for their conversations, many of which Eragon would have been embarrassed for anyone else to hear. The finding of one’s true name ought to be something one does by oneself, said Glaedr. If I think of either of yours, I will tell you—for we have no time to waste—but it would be better if you discover them on your own.
As of yet, neither of them had succeeded.
Ever since Brom had explained to him about true names, Eragon had wanted to learn his own. Knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, was ever a useful thing, and he hoped his true name would allow him to better master his thoughts and feelings. Still, he could not help but feel a certain amount of trepidation about what he might discover.
Assuming that he could discover his name in the next few days, of which he was not entirely sure. He hoped he could, both for the success of their mission and because he did not want Glaedr or Saphira to figure it out for him. If he was to hear his whole being described in a word or phrase, then he wanted to arrive at that knowledge on his own, instead of having it thrust upon him.