Pointing to a white stump with a flat, polished top three yards across that rested in the center of the hollow, Oromis said, “Sit here.” Eragon did as he was told. “Cross your legs and close your eyes.” The world went dark around him. From his right, he heard Oromis whisper, “Open your mind, Eragon. Open your mind and listen to the world around you, to the thoughts of every being in this glade, from the ants in the trees to the worms in the ground. Listen until you can hear them all and you understand their purpose and nature. Listen, and when you hear no more, come tell me what you have learned.”
Then the forest was quiet.
Unsure if Oromis had left, Eragon tentatively lowered the barriers around his mind and reached out with his consciousness, like he did when trying to contact Saphira at a great distance. Initially only a void surrounded him, but then pricks of light and warmth began to appear in the darkness, strengthening until he sat in the midst of a galaxy of swirling constellations, each bright point representing a life. Whenever he had contacted other beings with his mind, the focus had always been on the one he wanted to communicate with. But this… this was as if he had been standing deaf in the midst of a crowd and now he could hear the rivers of conversation whirling around him.
He felt suddenly vulnerable; he was completely exposed to the world. Anyone or anything that might want to leap into his mind and control him could now do so. He tensed unconsciously, withdrawing back into himself, and his awareness of the hollow vanished. Remembering one of Oromis’s lessons, Eragon slowed his breathing and monitored the sweep of his lungs until he had relaxed enough to reopen his mind.
Of all the lives he could sense, the majority were, by far, insects. Their sheer number astounded him. Tens of thousands dwelled in a square foot of moss, teeming millions throughout the rest of the small hollow, and uncounted masses beyond. Their abundance actually frightened Eragon. He had always known that humans were scarce and beleaguered in Alagaësia, but he had never imagined that they were so outnumbered by even beetles.
Since they were one of the few insects that he was familiar with, and Oromis had mentioned them, Eragon concentrated his attention on the columns of red ants marching across the ground and up the stems of a wild rosebush. What he gleaned from them were not so much thoughts—their brains were too primitive—but urges: the urge to find food and avoid injury, the urge to defend one’s territory, the urge to mate. By examining the ants’ instincts, he could begin to puzzle out their behavior.
It fascinated him to discover that—except for the few individuals exploring outside the borders of their province—the ants knew exactly where they were going. He was unable to ascertain what mechanism guided them, but they followed clearly defined paths from their nest to food and back. Their source of food was another surprise. As he had expected, the ants killed and scavenged other insects, but most of their efforts were directed toward the cultivation of… of something that dotted the rosebush. Whatever the life-form was, it was barely large enough for him to sense. He focused all of his strength on it in an attempt to identify it and satisfy his curiosity.
The answer was so simple, he laughed out loud when he comprehended it: aphids. The ants were acting as shepherds for aphids, driving and protecting them, as well as extracting sustenance from them by massaging the aphids’ bellies with the tips of their antennae. Eragon could hardly believe it, but the longer he watched, the more he became convinced that he was correct.
He traced the ants underground into their complex matrix of warrens and studied how they cared for a certain member of their species that was several times bigger than a normal ant. However, he was unable to determine the insect’s purpose; all he could see were servants swarming around it, rotating it, and removing the specks of matter it produced at regular intervals.
After a time, Eragon decided that he had gleaned all the information from the ants that he could—unless he was willing to sit there for the rest of the day—and was about to return to his body when a squirrel jumped into the glade. Its appearance was like a blast of light to him, attuned as he was to the insects. Stunned, he was overwhelmed by a rush of sensations and feelings from the animal. He smelled the forest with its nose, felt the bark give under his hooked claws and the air swish through his upraised plume of a tail. Compared to an ant, the squirrel burned with energy and possessed unquestionable intelligence.
Then it leaped to another branch and faded from his awareness.
The forest seemed much darker and quieter than before when Eragon opened his eyes. He took a deep breath and looked about, appreciating for the first time how much life existed in the world. Unfolding his cramped legs, he walked over to the rosebush.
He bent down and examined the branches and twigs. Sure enough, aphids and their crimson guardians clung to them. And near the base of the plant was the mound of pine needles that marked the entrance to the ants’ lair. It was strange to see with his own eyes; none of it betrayed the numerous and subtle interactions that he was now aware of.
Engrossed in his thoughts, Eragon returned to the clearing, wondering what he might be crushing under his feet with every step. When he emerged from under the trees’ shelter, he was startled by how far the sun had fallen. I must have been sitting there for at least three hours.
He found Oromis in his hut, writing with a goose-feather quill. The elf finished his line, then wiped the nib of the quill clean, stoppered his ink, and asked, “And what did you hear, Eragon?”
Eragon was eager to share. As he described his experience, he heard his voice rise with enthusiasm over the details of the ants’ society. He recounted everything that he could recall, down to the minutest and most inconsequential observation, proud of the information that he had gathered.
When he finished, Oromis raised an eyebrow. “Is that all?”
“I…” Dismay gripped Eragon as he understood that he had somehow missed the point of the exercise. “Yes, Ebrithil.”
“And what about the other organisms in the earth and the air? Can you tell me what they were doing while your ants tended their droves?”
“Therein lies your mistake. You must become aware of all things equally and not blinker yourself in order to concentrate on a particular subject. This is an essential lesson, and until you master it, you will meditate on the stump for an hour each day.”
As he sat on the stump, Eragon found that his turbulent thoughts and emotions prevented him from mustering the concentration to open his mind and sense the creatures in the hollow. Nor was he interested in doing so.
Still, the peaceful quality of his surroundings gradually ameliorated his resentment, confusion, and stubborn anger. It did not make him happy, but it did bring him a certain fatalistic acceptance. This is my lot in life, and I’d better get used to it because it’s not about to improve in the foreseeable future.
After a quarter of an hour, his faculties had regained their usual acuity, so he resumed studying the colony of red ants that he had discovered the day before. He also tried to be aware of everything else that was happening in the glade, as Oromis had instructed.
Eragon met with limited success. If he relaxed and allowed himself to absorb input from all the consciousnesses nearby, thousands of images and feelings rushed into his head, piling on top of one another in quick flashes of sound and color, touch and smell, pain and pleasure. The amount of information was overwhelming. Out of pure habit, his mind would snatch one subject or another from the torrent, excluding all the rest before he noticed his lapse and wrenched himself back into a state of passive receptivity. The cycle repeated itself every few seconds.
Despite that, he was able to improve his understanding of the ants’ world. He got his first clue as to their genders when he deduced that the huge ant in the heart of their underground lair was laying eggs, one every minute or so, which made it—her—a female. And when he accompanied a group of the red ants up the stem of their rosebush, he got a vivid demonstration of the kind of enemies they faced: something darted out from underneath a leaf and killed one of the ants he was bound to. It was hard for him to guess exactly what the creature was, since the ants only saw fragments of it and, in any case, they placed more emphasis on smell than vision. If they had been people, he would have said that they were attacked by a terrifying monster the size of a dragon, which had jaws as powerful as the spiked portcullis at Teirm and could move with whiplash speed.
The ants ringed in the monster like grooms working to capture a runaway horse. They darted at it with a total lack of fear, nipping at its knobbed legs and withdrawing an instant before they were caught in the monster’s iron pincers. More and more ants joined the throng. They worked together to overpower the intruder, never faltering, even when two were caught and killed and when several of their brethren fell off the stem to the ground below.
It was a desperate battle, with neither side willing to give quarter. Only escape or victory would save the combatants from a horrible death. Eragon followed the fray with breathless anticipation, awed by the ants’ bravery and how they continued to fight in spite of injuries that would incapacitate a human. Their feats were heroic enough to be sung about by bards throughout the land.
Eragon was so engrossed by the contest that when the ants finally prevailed, he loosed an elated cry so loud, it roused the birds from their roosts among the trees.
Out of curiosity, he returned his attention to his own body, then walked to the rosebush to view the dead monster for himself. What he saw was an ordinary brown spider with its legs curled into a fist being transported by the ants down to their nest for food.
He started to leave, but then realized that once again he had neglected to keep watch over the myriad other insects and animals in the glade. He closed his eyes and whirled through the minds of several dozen beings, doing his best to memorize as many interesting details as he could. It was a poor substitute for prolonged observation, but he was hungry and he had already exhausted his assigned hour.
When Eragon rejoined Oromis in his hut, the elf asked, “How went it?”
“Master, I could listen night and day for the next twenty years and still not know everything that goes on in the forest.”
Sunlight brings those creatures hidden that I forget to look for, those in plain sight that I’m blind to unless one pops up suddenly under my feet, breaking into thoughts like a pin-prick of light entering through a slit into a dark room
Night light brings them closer
The artificial brightness of my lamp attracts them
Pulls them out of other midnight wanderings, wings clicking towards luminescence.