The Magic of Recluce

The Magic of Recluce: Chapters 1-5

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The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.Our Fantasy Firsts program continues with an extended excerpt from The Magic of Recluce, the first book in L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s bestselling fantasy series set in the magical world of Recluce. The next book in this series, Recluce Tales, will become available January 3rd.

Young Lerris is dissatisfied with his life and trade, and yearns to find a place in the world better suited to his skills and temperament. But in Recluce a change in circumstances means taking one of two options: permanent exile from Recluce or the dangergeld, a complex, rule-laden wanderjahr in the lands beyond Recluce, with the aim of learning how the world works and what his place in it might be. Many do not survive. Lerris chooses dangergeld.

When Lerris is sent into intensive training for his quest, it soon becomes clear that he has a natural talent for magic. And he will need magic in the lands beyond, where the power of the Chaos Wizards reigns unchecked. Though it goes against all of his instincts, Lerris must learn to use his powers in an orderly way before his wanderjahr, or fall prey to Chaos.

I

GROWING UP, I always wondered why everything in Wandernaught seemed so dull. Not that I minded the perfectly baked bread routinely produced by my father or by Aunt Elisabet, and I certainly enjoyed the intricately carved toys and other gifts that Uncle Sardit miraculously presented on my birthday or on the High Holidays.

Perfection, especially for a youngster learning about it from cheerfully sober adults, has a price. Mine was boredom, scarcely novel for a young man in the middle of his second decade. But boredom leads to trouble, even when things are designed to be as perfect as possible. Of course, the perfection and striving for perfection that marked the island, though some would term Recluce a smallish continent, had a reason. A good reason, but one hardly acceptable to a restless young man.

“Perfection, Lerris,” my father repeated time after time, “is the price we pay for the good life. Perfection keeps destruction away and provides a safe harbor for the good.”

“But why? And how?” Those were always my questions.

Finally, shortly after I finished the minimum formal schooling, in my case at fifteen, my mother entered the discussion.

“Lerris, there are two fundamental forces in life, and in nature. Creation and destruction. Creation is order. We attempt to maintain it—”

“You sound just like Magister Kerwin…‘Order is all that keeps chaos at bay…because evil and chaos are so closely linked, one should avoid all but the most necessary acts of destruction…’ I know perfection is important. I know it. I know it! And I know it! But why does it have to be so flaming boring?”

She shrugged. “Order is not boring. You are bored with order.” She looked at my father. “Since you are bored with us, and since you are not quite ready for the possibility of undertaking the dangergeld, how would you like to spend a year or so learning about woodworking with your Uncle Sardit?”

“Donara?” asked my father, obviously questioning my mother’s volunteering of his sister’s husband.

“Sardit and I have talked it over, Gunnar. He’s willing to take on the challenge.”

“Challenge?” I blurted. “What challenge? I can learn anything…”

“For about the first three weeks,” my father commented.

“It’s not as though you will ever be a master woodworker, Lerris,” added mother. “But the general skills and discipline will come in useful when you undertake your dangergeld.”

“Me? Why would I ever go tramping off through the wild lands?”

“You will.”

“Most assuredly.”

But the only thing that was assured then was that I would have the chance to learn how to craft some of the screens, tables, chairs, and cabinets that Uncle Sardit produced. Every once in a while, I knew, someone traveled from Candar or even from one of the trading cities of Austra to purchase one of his screens or inlaid tables.

Until I had a better idea of what I really wanted to do in life, woodworking was better than helping my father keep all the stonework spotless or mixing clays or tending the kiln fire for mother. Although the same traders who visited Sardit also visited my mother’s shop, I did not have the touch for pottery. Besides, pots and vases bored me. So did the intricacies of glazes and finishes.

So, within days I had left the neat and rambling timbered and stone house where I had grown up, where I had looked out through the blue-tinted casement window in my bedroom on the herb garden for the last time. Then, I had walked nearly empty-handed the half-day to my uncle’s where I was installed in the apprentice’s quarters over the carpentry. Uncle Sardit’s other apprentice, Koldar, had almost completed his term and was building his own house, with the help of an apprentice stonemason, a woman named Gorso. She was bigger than either of us, but she smiled a lot, and she and Koldar made a good pair. He was living in the unfinished house alone, but probably not for long. That meant that until another apprentice came along I had the privacy and the responsibility of the shop in evenings.

Still, it had been a small shock to realize that I would not be living in the guest room at Uncle Sardit’s, but in the much smaller and sparsely-furnished apprentice’s space. The only furniture was the bed, an old woven rug, and a single hanging lamp. The plain red-oak walls scarcely showed even hairline cracks where the boards joined. The polished floors, also red oak, displayed the same care and crafting.

“That’s what you’re here for, Lerris. When you learn how, you can make your own tables, benches, chairs, in the evenings. Have to fell your own wood and make arrangements with Halprin at the sawmill for the rough stock to replace what’s been seasoned unless you want to try to cut and rough-cure the logs yourself. Don’t recommend that.”

Sardit as a craft-master was a bit different than as an uncle.

I was going to learn about carpentry, and tools, and how to make screens and cabinets and tables, right? Not exactly. To begin with, it was just like the pottery shop, but worse. I’d heard about clays and consistencies and glazes and firing temperatures for years. I hadn’t realized that woodworking was similar—not until Uncle Sardit reminded me forcefully.

“How are you going to use tools properly, boy, if you don’t know anything about the woods you’re working with?”

With that, he sat me down with his old apprentice notes on woods. Each day, either after work or before we opened the shop in the morning, I had to show him my own hand-copied notes on at least two kinds of trees, the recommended uses, curing times, and general observations on the best uses of the wood. Not only that, but each card went into a file box, the one thing he had let me make, with some advice from him, and I was expected to update the cards if I learned something of value in a day’s work on a wood.

“What did you write down on the black oak? Here, let me see.” He scratched his head. “You spent all day helping me smooth that piece, and the wood told you nothing?”

Once in a while, I saw Koldar grinning sympathetically from whatever project he was handling. But we didn’t talk much because Uncle Sardit kept me busy, and because Koldar mostly worked alone, just checking with Uncle Sardit from time to time.

After a while, Uncle Sardit even nodded once or twice when reviewing my cards. But the frowns and questions were always more frequent. And as soon as I thought I understood something well enough to avoid his questions, he would task me with learning some other obscure discipline of woodworking. If it weren’t the trees, it was their bark. If it weren’t their bark, it was the recommended cutting times and sawmill techniques. If it weren’t one type of wood, it was what types you could match in inlays, what differences in grain widths meant. Some of it made sense, but a lot seemed designed to make woodworking as complicated as possible.

“Complicated? Of course it’s complicated. Perfection is always complicated. Do you want your work to last? Or do you want it to fall apart at the first touch of chaos?”

“But we don’t even have any white magicians in Recluce.”

“We don’t? Are you sure about that?”

There wasn’t much I could say to that. Practicing magicians, at least the white ones who used chaos, were strongly discouraged by the masters. And what the masters discouraged generally stayed discouraged, although there seemed to be only a few masters for all the towns in Recluce.

I guess my old teacher, Magister Kerwin, actually was a master, although we didn’t usually think of magisters as masters. They were both part of the same order. Magisters were those who actually taught.

So…I kept studying woods, trees, and tools, and after nearly a year began to make a few simple items.

“Breadboards?”

“Someone has to make them. And they should be made right. You can do it well enough to keep chaos at bay, and you can select from any of my designs or try one of your own. If you do your own, let’s go over it together before you begin cutting.”

I did one of my own—simple, but with an octagonal shape.

“Simple, but nice, Lerris. You may actually have a future as a wood crafter.”

From breadboards, I went to other simple items—outdoor benches for a café, a set of plain bookcases for the school. Nothing with carving, although I had begun to do carving for my own furniture, and Uncle Sardit had even admitted that the wooden armchair I had built for my quarters would not have been out of place in most homes.

“Most homes. Not quite clean enough, and a few rough spots with the spoke-joining angles, but, on the whole, a credible effort.”

That was about the most I ever got in praise from Uncle Sardit.

But I was still bored, even as I continued to learn.

II

“LERRIS!” THE TONE in Uncle Sardit’s voice told me enough. Whatever I had done—I did not wish to know.

I finished washing the sawdust from my face. As usual, I got water all over the stone, but the sun had already warmed the slate facing, and the water would dry soon enough, even if my aunt would be down with a frayed towel to polish the stone within moments of my return to the shop.

“Lerris!”

Aunt Elisabet always kept the washstones polished, the kettles sparkling, and the graystone floors spotless. Why it should have surprised me I do not know, since my father and, indeed, every other holder in my home town of Wandernaught, exhibited the same fastidiousness. My father and his sister were both the householders, while Mother and Uncle Sardit were the artisans. That was common enough, or so I thought.

“Lerris! Young…man,…get…yourself…back…here…now!”

I definitely did not want to return to the carpentry, but there was no escape.

“Coming, Uncle Sardit.”

He stood at the doorway, a frown on his face. The frown was common, but the yelling had not been. My guts twisted. What could I have done?

“Come here.”

He thrust a wide-fingered hand at the inlaid tabletop on the workbench.

“Look at that. Closely.” His voice was so low it rumbled.

I looked, but obviously did not see what he wanted me to see.

“Do you see that?”

I shook my head. “See what?”

“Look at the clamps.”

Bending over, I followed his finger. The clamps were as I had placed them earlier, the smooth side, as he had taught me, matching the grain of the dark lorken wood.

“With the grain of the wood…”

“Lerris…can’t you see? This end is biting into the wood. And here…the pressure has moved the border out of position…”

Perhaps the tiniest fraction of a span, if at all, but all I had to do to correct that would be to sand the other end a bit more, and no one, except Uncle Sardit, and perhaps the furniture buyer for the Emperor of Hamor, would have ever noticed the discrepancy.

“First, you don’t force wood, Lerris. You know that. You just aren’t paying attention any more. Woodworking means working with the wood, not forcing it, not working against it.”

I stood there. What could I say?

Uncle Sardit sighed.

“Let’s go into the house, Lerris. We have some talking to do.”

I liked the sound of that even less, but I followed his example and unstrapped my leather apron and racked my tools.

We walked out the door and across the smooth pavement of the courtyard and into the room Aunt Elisabet called the parlor. I never knew why she called it the parlor. I’d asked once, but she had just smiled and said it had been a name she had picked up along the way.

A tray sat on the table. On it were two icy glasses, some slabs of fresh-baked bread, cheese, and several sliced apples. The bread was still steaming, and the aroma filled the small room.

Uncle Sardit eased himself into the chair nearest the kitchen. I took the other one. Something about the tray being ready bothered me. It bothered me a whole lot.

The soft sound of steps caused me to look up from the tabletop. Uncle Sardit put down his glass—iced fruit punch—and nodded at Aunt Elisabet. She, like father, was fair-skinned, sandy-haired, slender, and tall. Uncle Sardit was smaller and wiry, with salt-and-pepper hair and a short-cropped beard. Both of them looked guilty.

“You’re right, Lerris. We do feel guilty, perhaps because you’re Gunnar’s son.” That was Aunt Elisabet.

“But that doesn’t change anything,” added Uncle Sardit. “You still have to face the same decisions whether you’re our nephew or not.”

I took a gulp of the fruit punch to avoid answering, though I knew Aunt Elisabet would know that. She always knew. So did my father.

“Have something to eat. I’ll do some of the talking. Elisabet will fill in anything I miss.” He took a wedge of cheese and a slab of bread and chewed several bits slowly, swallowed, and finished up with another gulp of fruit punch.

“Magister Kerwin should have taught you, as he taught me, that a master or journeyman who instructs an apprentice is also responsible for determining the apprentice’s fitness for practicing the craft.”

I took some bread and cheese. Obviously, the master was responsible for the apprentice.

“What he did not tell you, or me, is that the craft-master must also determine whether the apprentice will ever be ready for practicing a craft, or whether the apprentice should be considered for dangergeld or exile.”

“Exile…”

“You see, Lerris, there is no place in Recluce for unfocused dissatisfaction,” added Aunt Elisabet. “Boredom, inability to concentrate, unwillingness to apply yourself to the fullest of your ability—these can all allow chaos a foothold in Recluce.”

“So the real question facing you, Lerris, is whether you want to take the dangergeld training, or whether you would rather just leave Recluce. Forever.”

“Just because I’m bored? Just because I put a little too much pressure on a wood clamp? For that I have to choose between exile and dangergeld?”

“No. Because your boredom reflects a deeper lack of commitment. Sloppy work on the part of someone who is doing his best is not a danger. Nor is sloppy work when the honest intent is perfection, provided, of course, that no one has to rely on the sloppy work for anything that could threaten their life if it failed.” Aunt Elisabet looked somehow taller, and there was a fire behind her eyes.

I looked away.

“Are you saying that you have honestly been happy trying to achieve perfection in woodwork?” asked Uncle Sardit.

“No.” I couldn’t very well lie. Aunt Elisabet would catch it.

“Do you think that it would become easier if you continued to work with me?”

“No.”

I took another slice of bread and a second wedge of cheese. I didn’t remember eating the first, but I must have. I sipped the fruit punch only enough to moisten my mouth, since I was cold enough inside already.

“Now what?” I asked before taking another bite.

“If you decide to take the dangergeld training, the masters will work with you for as long as necessary, in their judgment, to prepare you for your dangergeld. After training, you cannot return until you have completed the charge laid upon you.

“If you choose exile, you will leave. You cannot return except with the permission of the masters. While not unheard-of, such permission is rarely given.”

“Just because I’m bored? Just because I’m young and haven’t settled down? Just because my woodwork isn’t perfect?”

“No. It has nothing to do with youth.” Aunt Elisabet sighed. “Last year, the masters exiled five crafters twice your age, and close to a dozen people in their third and fourth decade undertook the dangergeld.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

I could tell she was. Uncle Sardit, for all his statements about doing the talking, hadn’t said a word in explanation. I was getting a very strange feeling about Aunt Elisabet, that she was a great deal more than a holder.

“So where do I go?”

“You’re sure?” asked Uncle Sardit, his mouth full.

“What choice is there? I either get plunked down on a boat to somewhere as an exile, knowing nothing, or I try to learn as much as I can before doing something that at least gives me some chance of making a decision.”

“I think that’s the right choice for you,” said Aunt Elisabet, “but it’s not quite that simple.”

After finishing my bread and cheese in the strained atmosphere of the house, I went back to my quarters over the shop and began to pack. Uncle Sardit said he would keep the chair and the few other pieces until I returned.

He didn’t mention the fact that few dangergelders returned. Neither did I.

III

LIKE A LOT of things in Recluce, my transition from apprentice to student dangergelder just happened. Or that’s the way it seemed.

For the next few days after my rather ponderous and serious conversation with Aunt Elisabet and Uncle Sardit, I continued to help out around the carpentry shop. Uncle Sardit now asked me to rough-shape cornices, or rough-cut panels, rather than telling me to. And Koldar just shook his head, as if I were truly crazy.

He shook it so convincingly that I began to wonder myself.

Then I’d hear Uncle Sardit muttering about the inexact fit of two mitered corners, or the failure of two grains to match perfectly. Or I’d watch him redo a small decoration that no one would see on the underside of a table because of a minute imperfection.

Those brought back the real reason why I couldn’t stay as his apprentice—the boring requirement for absolute perfection. I had better things to do with my life than worry about whether the grain patterns on two sides of a table or panel matched perfectly. Or whether a corner miter was a precise forty-five degrees.

Perhaps it suited Koldar, and perhaps it kept the incursions of chaos at bay, but it was boring.

Woodworking might have been better than pottery, but when you came right down to it, both were pretty dull.

So I didn’t mind at all when, several days later, Aunt Elisabet announced that I had better get my things together.

“For what?”

“Your training as a dangergelder, of course. Do you think that the masters just hand you a staff, a map, and some provisions, and hustle you aboard a ship to nowhere?”

That thought had crossed my mind, but I quickly dismissed it in the face of my aunt’s insistence.

“What about saying good-bye to my family?”

“Of course, of course. We’re not exactly barbarians, Lerris. They’ve been expecting you for some time, but you’re not an apprentice any longer. So what you do is strictly up to you. The masters at Nylan are expecting you, and several others, the day after tomorrow.”

“That’s a good distance…” I hinted, hoping that Aunt Elisabet would indicate that the masters would provide a carriage, or a wagon. While I had a few silver pence, I certainly had no desire to spend them on riding the High Road. Nylan was a full day’s walk, and then some.

“That it is, Lerris. But did you expect the masters to come to you?”

I hadn’t thought about that one way or another.

Aunt Elisabet cocked her head, smiling, as if to indicate that the sunny morning was passing quickly. It was, and, if I had to be in Nylan by the following evening…

Another thought crossed my mind. “When on the day after tomorrow?”

“No later than noon, although I suppose no one would mind if you were a trifle later than that.” Her smile was kindly, as it usually was, and the sun behind her still-sandy hair gave her the look of…well, I wasn’t sure, but Aunt Elisabet seemed to be more than I had thought. Why, I couldn’t say, just as I couldn’t explain why woodworking seemed so incredibly boring.

I swallowed. “I’d better get going. That’s an early rising tomorrow, and time to make on the road.”

She nodded. “I have some flake rolls for your parents, if you’re going that way. And you’ll find a set of boots, with the right trousers and cloak, laid out on your bed.”

I swallowed again. I hadn’t thought about the boots, although my heavy apprentice clothes would have been adequate for most hard travel.

“Thank you…” I looked down. “Need to say good-bye to Uncle Sardit.”

“He’s in the shop.”

After going back to my room, I found my clothes had been wrapped in one bundle, and that someone had laid out not only boots and clothes, but a walking staff of the heaviest, smoothest, and blackest lorken. The staff was almost unadorned, not at all flashy, but it was obviously Uncle Sardit’s work, probably months in preparation as he had cut, seasoned, and shaped the wood, and soaked it in ironbath. The ends were bound in black steel, with the bands recessed so precisely they were scarcely visible against the darkness of the wood.

I held it and it seemed to fit my hand. It was exactly my own height.

Finally I shrugged, and looked around for the old canvas bag in which I had brought my old clothes. Not that there were many left after nearly two years of growing and discovering muscles in the process of woodworking. Don’t let anyone tell you that precision woodwork isn’t as hard as heavy carpentry. It isn’t. It’s harder, and since you can’t make mistakes, not for someone like Uncle Sardit, it requires more thinking.

The last thing laid out was a pack. Not flashy, not even tooled leather, but made out of the tightest-woven and heaviest cloth I’d ever seen. Dull brown, but dipped in something that had to be waterproof. I wondered if Aunt Elisabet and Uncle Sardit felt guilty for deciding that I didn’t fit in. Certainly the staff and the pack alone were magnificent gifts, and the clothes, although a dark brown, were of equal quality and durability.

That wasn’t all. Inside the pack was a small purse. Attached was a note.

“Here are your apprentice wages. Try not to spend them until you leave Recluce.” I counted twenty copper pennies, twenty silver pence, and ten gold pence. Again, a near-incredible amount. But I wasn’t about to turn it down, not when I couldn’t tell what might lie ahead.

I picked up the staff again, running my fingers over the grain, examining it once more, trying to see how the ends were mated so closely to the wood that the caps were scarcely obvious.

At least they, or my parents, whoever had supplied me, wanted to send me off as well-prepared as they could. I remembered from Magister Kerwin’s dry lectures that dangergelders were only allowed whatever coins they could carry comfortably, two sets of clothes, boots, a staff, a pack, and a few days’ provisions.

If you decided to return, of course, after your year or more away, and the masters approved, you could bring back an entire ship, provided it wasn’t stolen or unfairly acquired. But then, the masters weren’t too likely to let you return if you’d turned to thievery.

I shook my head, put down the staff, and examined the pack, realizing my time was short. Inside were another set of clothes and a pair of light shoes, almost court slippers.

Stripping to the waist, I headed down to the wash trough to clean up before putting on the new clothes. Uncle Sardit was humming as he buffed the desk he was finishing, but did not look up. Koldar was down at the sawmill, trying to find enough matched red oak to repair the fire-damaged tables at Polank’s Inn.

I’d overheard my aunt and uncle discussing the fire, acting as if it had been totally expected, ever since young Nir Polank had taken over from his ailing father.

“Some have to learn the hard way.”

“Some don’t…” my aunt had answered, but she hadn’t said anything more once I had entered the house for dinner.

On the washstones was a fresh towel, which, after the chill of the water, I gratefully used. At least I hadn’t needed to take a shower. Standing under even partly-warmed water in the outside stone stall wasn’t exactly warm. Cleaning that stall was even less enjoyable, but Aunt Elisabet, like my father, insisted on absolute cleanliness. We didn’t eat unless we were washed up, and more than once as a child I’d gone without dinner for refusing to wash.

They both took a shower every day, even in winter. So did my mother and Uncle Sardit, although my uncle occasionally skipped the shower on the days that Aunt Elisabet was out visiting friends.

I folded the towel, and put it back on the rack.

“Getting ready to go?”

Uncle Sardit stood in the shop door, finishing cloth in his left hand.

“Yes, sir.” I swallowed. “Appreciate everything…sorry I just don’t seem to have the concentration to be a master woodworker…”

“Lerris…you stayed longer than most…and you could be a journeyman for some. But it wouldn’t be right…would it?”

Since he was standing three steps above me, I looked up. He didn’t seem happy about my leaving.

“No…probably get more bored with each day. And I don’t know why.”

“Because you’re like your dad…or your aunt. In the blood…”

“But…they seem so happy here…”

“Now…”

I couldn’t seem to find anything to say.

“Be on your way, boy. Just remember, you can always come back, once you discover who you are.” He turned back into the shop and returned to buffing the already shining wood of the desk, without humming.

All of a sudden, there seemed to be so many things unsaid, so many things that had been hidden. But no one was saying anything.

It seemed so unfair. As if I couldn’t possibly understand anything until I’d gone off and risked my life in the Dark Marches of Candar or the Empire of Hamor. Then everything would be fine…just fine.

And my parents—they never came by to see me. Only if I went to see them, or on High Holidays, or if they came to visit my aunt and uncle.

Up in the apprentice quarters, no longer mine really, I pulled on the clothes, ignoring their comfort and fit, and the boots. Then I picked up the cloak and folded it into the pack, and strapped the old clothes to the outside. Those I could leave at home, if it were truly home. Besides the new clothes and the pack, the staff was the only thing that felt right.

As I looked around the quarters, I wondered about my armchair…and my tools. What about my tools? Uncle Sardit had said something about taking care of them, but hadn’t said how.

I found Uncle Sardit in the shop. He was looking at a chest, one I hadn’t seen before.

“I thought I’d store your tools in this, Lerris, until…whatever…”

“That would be fine, Uncle Sardit…and could you find some place for the armchair?”

“I was going to keep it here, but I could take it back to your parents.”

For some reason, I’d never considered the chair as belonging where I’d grown up.

“Whatever you think best.” One way or another, I wouldn’t be needing it for a while.

“We’ll take good care of it…just take care of yourself so you can come back for it.”

We stood there for a moment, with everything and nothing to say.

Finally, I coughed. “I’m not a woodworker, Uncle, but I learned a lot.”

“Hope so, boy. Hope it helps you.”

I left him standing there, turning to rack my tools in the chest he had made for them.

Aunt Elisabet was waiting at the kitchen doorway with a wrapped package. Two of them.

“The bigger one has the flake rolls. The other one has some travel food for you.”

I took off the pack and put the travel food inside, but just strapped the rolls to the top. They weren’t heavy, and while it was cloudy, the clouds were the high hazy kind that kept the temperature down but almost never led to rain. That early in the summer the farmers would have liked more moisture, but I was just as glad I wouldn’t have to trudge to Nylan through a downpour. I had a feeling I’d be traveling in enough wet weather.

“And here are some for you.”

On a plate she had produced from nowhere were two enormous rolls, one filled with chicken and the other with berries that dripped from one end.

“If you want to get home by dinner, you’ll need to start now.”

“Dinner?”

“I’m sure your father will have something special.”

I did not answer, nor ask how she would know that my father would have a special dinner, because, first, she would know, and, second, I was wolfing down the chicken-filled flake roll. In all the hurry to get ready for Nylan, I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. When you chose dangergeld, you obeyed the rules of the masters, including their schedule.

After washing down the last of the first roll with a tumbler of ice-cold water, I took the second.

“You have enough time not to eat them whole, Lerris.”

I slowed down and finished the dessert roll in four distinct bites. Then I took another deep swallow from the tumbler.

“Do you have your staff? Your uncle wanted you to have the best…”

I lifted the staff. “Seems to belong to me already.”

My aunt only smiled. “You should find it helpful, especially if you listen to the masters and follow your feelings…your true feelings.”

“Well…time for me to go…”

“Take care, Lerris.”

She didn’t give me any special advice, and since I wasn’t exactly in the mood for it, that was probably for the best.

As I walked down the lane with its precisely placed and leveled gray paving-stones, I felt both my aunt and uncle were watching every step, but when I turned around to look I could see nothing, no one in the windows or at the doors. I didn’t look around the rest of Mattra, not at the inn where Koldar was laying out the timbers from the sawmill, not at the market square where I had sold my breadboards—one had actually fetched four copper pennies.

And the road—the perfect stone-paved highway—was still as hard on my booted feet as it had been on my sandaled feet when I had first walked to Mattra.

I made it home, if Wandernaught could still be called home, well before dinner. But Aunt Elisabet had been right. I could smell the roast duck even before my feet touched the stone lane that was nearly identical to the lane that led from the street to Uncle Sardit’s. Mattra and Wandernaught were not all that different. Some of the crafts were different, and Wandernaught had two inns and the Institute where my father occasionally discussed his philosophies with other holders or—very occasionally—masters from elsewhere in Recluce. But nothing very interesting ever happened in Wandernaught. At least, not that I remembered.

My parents were seated on the wide and open porch on the east side of the house, always cool in the summer afternoons. The stones of the steps were as gently rounded as I recalled, without either the crisp edges of new-cut granite nor the depressions of ancient buildings like the temple.

“Thought you’d be here about now, Lerris.” My father’s voice carried, although it had no great or booming tone.

“It’s good to see you.” My mother smiled, and this time she meant it.

“Good to be here, if only for a night.” I was surprised to find I meant what I was saying.

“Let me take the pack and the staff—Sardit’s work, it looks like—and have a seat. You still like the redberry?”

I nodded as I slipped out of the pack straps. My father laid the pack carefully next to the low table.

“Oh, I forgot. The top package is for you—Aunt Elisabet’s flake rolls, I think.”

They both laughed.

“Good thing we don’t live closer, not the way she bakes…”

My mother just shook her head, still smiling.

For some reason, they both looked older. My father’s hair was no thinner, and it still looked sandy-blond, but I could see the lines running from the corners of his eyes. His face was still smooth, with a slight cut on his chin from shaving. Unlike most of the men in Recluce, he had neither beard nor mustache. I could sympathize. Although I could have worn a beard, I followed his example, not blindly, but because whenever I worked hard I sweated buckets, and I found even a short and scraggly beard more of a bother than shaving—cuts and all.

He was wearing a short-sleeved open-necked shirt, and the muscles in his arms looked as strong as ever. The woodpile behind the house was probably three times the size it needed to be. Dad always claimed that handling an axe was not only necessary, but good exercise.

My mother’s angular face seemed even more angular, and her hair was too short. But she had always worn it too short, and I doubted that she would ever change that. Short was convenient and took less time. She also wore a short-sleeved faded blue blouse and winter-blue trousers, both more feminine, but essentially mirroring what my father wore—not because she cared, but because she didn’t. Clothes were a convenience. That’s why Dad did all the tailoring—except for holiday clothes—for Mother and me.

He was funny about that. He refused to let anyone see him work. He’d take measurements, fit partially-sewn garments, and adjust until they fit perfectly, but not with anyone around. When I was little, I thought he must have had someone come in. But as time went by, I realized that he understood clothes, understood too much not to have done the work. Besides, it’s pretty difficult not to believe, when your father disappears into his workrooms with cut leathers and fabrics and returns with the products—especially when there’s only one door and when you’re an exceedingly curious boy trying to find a nonexistent secret passage. There wasn’t one, of course.

While I was remembering, my mother had poured a large tumbler full of redberry, and Dad, after setting the pack down and recovering the flake rolls, had disappeared. To the kitchen, presumably.

“It’s too bad you have to be in Nylan tomorrow,” offered my mother, as I eased into one of the strap chairs across from her. My feet hurt, as I knew they would with the new boots, but I’d wanted feet and boots worked together as soon as possible.

“I didn’t realize it would happen so quickly.”

“Sometimes it does. Other times it takes weeks,” added my father. As usual, I had not heard him return. He was always so silent when he moved, like a shadow.

“How many…will there be?”

“It depends. There could be as few as four dangergeld candidates. Never more than a dozen. And you’ll lose two before the masters are through.”

“Lose?” I didn’t like the sound of that.

He shrugged. “Some people decide they’d rather accept exile than listen to the masters. Others decide they’d like to go home.”

“Can they?”

“If they can convince the masters…it happens every so often.”

Not very often, I could tell from his tone. “If they can’t?”

“They can continue with their training or go into exile.”

I got the feeling that you didn’t just go wandering out of Recluce on any old quest without the approval of the masters.

Before I asked another question, I took several healthy swigs from the tumbler, then ate some of the plain flake rolls Dad had cut into bite-sized pieces. Mother had one or two, which was more than she usually had before dinner.

“What are the masters?” I finally asked, not that I hadn’t asked the question several dozen times before of several dozen people. Usually the answer amounted to: “The masters are the masters, entrusted with the guardianship of the Isle of Recluce and the Domain of Order.”

This time, though, my father looked at my mother. She looked back at him. Then they both looked at me.

“The answer isn’t likely to mean what it should…”

“In other words, you aren’t going to tell me?”

“No. I will tell you, as far as I am able. But I’m not sure that you will either like or appreciate the answer.” He pulled at his chin, as he did when he was trying to find the best words to express something unpleasant.

“Try anyway.”

He ignored my comment, and, for a moment, his eyes almost misted over, as if he were looking a world away.

I took the opportunity to drain the rest of the redberry.

My mother refilled my tumbler, and Dad still hadn’t said a word.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “…Uuuhhmmm…you recall…Magister Kerwin…when he told you that the masters stood between Recluce and chaos because they were the defenders of order?”

I found my fingers tapping on the edge of my refilled tumbler.

“Bear with me…this is difficult…”

How difficult could it be? Everybody had a role in life, including the masters. Either they controlled Recluce or they didn’t.

“Perhaps I should go back to the beginning. It might be simpler…”

I managed to keep from grinding my teeth, only because I somehow could tell that he was not trying to put me off. But I still couldn’t see why an explanation of who controlled what had to be so difficult.

“…fundamental conflict between order and chaos, or, simplistically speaking, between good and evil. Though that’s not exactly correct, because chaos and order do not by themselves have a moral component. More important, while certain components of order may be used for evil, and certain components of chaos for good, almost never can anyone devoted to chaos remain committed to good. Someone committed to good finds anything other than the most minor uses of chaos repulsive. That distinction is important, because someone committed to order itself, rather than good, can be corrupted, while seeming orderly in all he or she does…”

Curiosity was fighting boredom in my case, and rapidly losing.

“No…I can see you’re bored already, Lerris…that explanation is too long. Try and remember the beginning, though.”

My mother was slowly shaking her head. Finally, she interrupted. “Think of it this way, Lerris. It takes skill to be a potter. A potter may use his skill for producing containers. Those containers may be used for good or evil purposes. Most are used for purposes without much real good or evil. And most people find a truly beautiful and orderly vase hard to use for evil things. In the same way, it is much easier to use a chaotic or disorderly creation for evil.”

That made sense, so far. “What does that have to do with the masters?”

“That’s the hard part,” said my father slowly. “And we may have to continue the discussion over dinner, because the duck is almost ready.

“The masters are responsible for ensuring that things in Recluce are what they seem to be, for rooting out self-deception, and for maintaining our physical defenses against the Outer Kingdoms.”

“Physical defenses? Magister Kerwin said that Recluce had no armies and no fleets, only the Brotherhood of the Masters.”

“As you will learn, Lerris, words can conceal as much as they reveal.” He stood. “Wash up, and we’ll try and answer the rest of this question over dinner. A good dinner shouldn’t be kept waiting.”

Since I didn’t know when I’d get that good a duck feast again, I went down to the washstones to rinse the dust from my face and the grime from my hands, and tried to figure out a better set of questions.

The duck smelled as good as I remembered, and I put the questions aside until I had finished my first helping, which included another flake roll warmed in the oven, sliced and spiced sourpears, and some tart greens. The duck was tangy, moist, and not at all oily. Dad was one of the few cooks I knew who could manage the moistness without an oily taste—though I’d tasted few enough foods from other cooks.

I decided to slow my headlong pursuit of various foods and took a sip of water, cold from the deep well.

“About the masters…was Magister Kerwin misleading us? Do the masters act like the armies of the Outer Kingdoms? Isn’t that a form of chaos?”

My father chuckled. “Yes, and no, to the first. No to the second, and, if true, yes to the third, although it probably wasn’t intentional, which would mitigate the impact.”

“But—”

“Kerwin let you think what you wished, which is a form of deception, particularly to an agile mind such as yours.” He held up his left hand and took a brief sip of his wine.

I’d never liked the wine and still preferred cold water.

Mother continued to pick at her meal.

“Some of the masters deal extensively with the Outer Kingdoms, and counter chaos on a daily basis. We seldom see them, but they’re properly called the Brotherhood. They wear scarlet and black. Then there are the masters, who wear black when undertaking their official duties, and whatever they please at other times. There are others as well, whom you will come to recognize in the days ahead.

“While each group has specific duties, all their duties revolve about maximizing reasonable order in Recluce. You remember the baker—Oldham?”

I nodded wearily.

“Who took him away?”

“The masters.”

“What did they do with him?”

“Dumped him somewhere in the Outer Marches, I suppose. Or killed him.”

“Do you know what he did?”

I drained the rest of the water from the tumbler before answering. “What difference does it make? The masters are powerful, especially the hidden ones.”

“Hidden ones?” asked my mother.

“The ones no one knows about. How else would they know about people like the baker?”

“I take it you do not believe in magic, then, Lerris?” asked my father.

“How can I believe or disbelieve? The practice of chaos-magic is prohibited, and I’ve never seen anything that would be called good magic that could not be explained by either chance or hard work.”

My mother smiled, a rather strange smile, almost lopsided.

“What point were you trying to make? What about the baker? Why was that important? Or was it just to show that the masters control Recluce?” By now I was as impatient as I had been when I had left for my apprenticeship.

“I’m not sure, Lerris, except to show that the masters affect everything in Recluce. By the way, the baker is still living, and doing fairly well in Hamor. That might indicate the masters are neither cruel nor vindictive, but only protective of us.”

“Then why are they so secretive?” I was beginning to regret even getting into the argument. My parents hadn’t changed at all, still talking around things, hinting, but never saying anything outright.

My father sighed. “I’m not sure I can answer that.”

He hadn’t been able to answer that question before I had left, either.

“Dear,” added my mother, “right now we can’t tell you everything, and you want explanations that require experience you don’t have.”

“That means you aren’t going to explain anything.”

“Hold it. You asked about defenses. I can answer that.” My father practically glared at me.

I ignored him and speared another slice of duck.

“The Brotherhood does act as our army, and as a navy, too. As part of the dangergeld choice, you could choose to serve as a border guard with the Brotherhood, assuming the masters agreed. The masters themselves maintain a sort of watch against chaos-magic, even in its subtler forms, such as shown in the case of the baker.

“The coasters belong to the Brotherhood, although they fish as well as watch the offshore waters, and each ship that flies the flag of Recluce carries a member of the Brotherhood as well as a junior master.”

“How many are there?”

“Enough,” answered my father. “Enough.”

I could tell that was all I was going to get, just from his tone, and, on my last night, it seemed stupid to refight a battle that would only end up frustrating us all. So I had some more duck, and slathered another slab of the dark bread with the cherry conserve.

“Any new neighbors?”

“There’s a young couple building a place on the empty lane, the one that overlooks Lerwin’s orchards.” My mother was more than glad to lapse into small talk.

My father shrugged and reached for the cherry conserve.

Maybe we were too dissimilar. Or too much alike.

I had a third helping of the duck, as good as my first slices. I also enjoyed the lime tarts.

And, for the most part, that was dinner before I went off to Nylan.

IV

SUNRISE FOUND ME awake and washing up, not that early rising was ever a problem.

As I splashed the cold water over my face to wash away the soap and scattered whiskers not already carried away by the razor, I could sense someone watching—obviously my father. My mother generally rose later than he did, although neither one would have been considered a night dweller.

I said nothing as I toweled myself dry, and made sure the razor was also dry and packed into my wash bag. Neither did he.

Without looking, I could tell he was smiling, and I refused to acknowledge his presence.

“I hope you have a good journey, Lerris. So does your mother.” His voice was calm, as usual, and that irritated me even more. Here he was, seeing me off to dangergeld and all the dangers it entailed, as if I were headed back to Uncle Sardit’s on a trivial errand.

“So do I. But I’d settle for survival.”

“Don’t ever settle for just survival, son. Survival isn’t life…but I didn’t come down to preach. Do you want something to eat before you leave?”

“Rather not leave on an empty stomach,” I admitted, following him to the kitchen where he had laid out an assortment of fruits, two heavy rolls, and some cheese and sausage. The square, perfectly-fitted red-oak table was bare except for the woven straw mats and the food.

He nodded toward the tiled counter under the open window, where a brown cloth bag rested. “The bag has some additional provisions for eating along the way.”

The cloth sack was already bound, but looked as though it contained at least as much as had been set on the table.

He set down a full mug of freshly-drawn water, knowing I preferred that to tea or wine, especially in the morning.

I ate, and he sat on one of the kitchen stools, saying nothing, for which I was grateful. What was there to say? I was required to undertake the dangergeld, not him, on pain of exile.

Eating what I could didn’t take that long.

“Thank you.” I gathered the sack under my arm and headed down to pick up my pack and staff.

To make Nylan by midday meant moving out without wasting more time. And what else could I say?

As I stood there on the stones, ready to walk away from my parents, and my mother who hadn’t even gotten up to say good-bye, I wondered if this would be a final farewell, or what.

“She’s awake, Lerris. But she will not let you see her cry.”

Flame! I hadn’t asked that. Why not?

“Because she is your mother. You ask us to accept you as you are. Cannot she be what she is?”

There it was again—that gulf that we never seemed to cross.

“Whether we do cross it, Lerris…that depends on you. We both wish you well, son. And we hope…”

I ignored the break in his voice as I turned away. Why in hell was he upset? Why didn’t he understand?

I didn’t look back, nor did I wave. My first steps were fast as I marched down the lane, but my legs let me know quickly that I was pushing, and I eased up before my strides took me clear of Wandernaught. I ignored the low hill and the black-columned temple upon it. What had listening to all the talks on order done for me?

For some reason, the staff felt even heavier in my hands than the pack did upon my back. As my thoughts seethed, something occurred to me. My father had responded to my feelings, but had I actually spoken them? Or did he know me that well?

I forced a shrug. Where I was going that didn’t exactly matter. Not at all.

The morning was warm, warmer than I would have liked, and I opened my shirt almost to my belt, but the pack weight on my back left my shirt damp. The cloak I would need in the months and years ahead, assuming I lasted that long, was folded and rolled inside.

As early as I had left, there was no one else on the High Road, although in the orchards to the south of Wandernaught the growers were already among their trees, going about their business.

The High Road is just that—a solid, stone road, wide enough for four wagons abreast. It provides the central thoroughfare for Recluce, the one to which all major local roads can link, and all communities are responsible for its upkeep. When I was with Uncle Sardit, I spent a few days helping to replace and reposition several of the granite blocks, but the stones are so solid and massive that they don’t need to be replaced often. The biggest problem is keeping the drains clear so that the rains don’t erode the roadway on which the capstones are placed. Even that would be hard, because the entire roadbed is solidly constructed and faced with heavy riprap.

The next town toward Nylan from Wandernaught is Enstronn, more of a crossroads than a town, where the East-West Highway, almost as grand as the High Road itself, crosses the High Road.

Outside Enstronn, on the west side, I caught up with a low wagon carrying a load of early melons. The driver was walking beside her horse, singing softly.

“…as if I cared, as if I dared,

And the stars are ice, while the High Road’s run,

and the winter reigns for the summer’s sun.”

The song was unfamiliar, and I dragged my feet a bit as I neared her. For some reason, I wished I could put away the staff, but it was too long to carry easily while bound to my pack.

Her voice was pleasant enough, although from behind she seemed older than me. But she heard me and stopped singing, looking back at me from under a broad-brimmed hat trimmed with a wide band of blue-and-white fabric.

I slowed my pace to match her steps.

Dark hair, narrow face, and she looked about the age of Corso, mid-twenties.

“Up early. Must be important.” Her smile was nice, too.

“Dangergeld,” I admitted.

“You’re a bit young for that.”

“Not totally my idea.” I swallowed as I answered. What right did she have to judge me?

Her eyes widened as they focused on the staff I still held loosely in my left hand. “And the staff, that is yours?”

“Yes.” I wondered why it mattered at all whether a black lorken staff was mine. A staff was a staff. Right now it was a bother, though I knew I would need it once I actually left Recluce.

Her smile turned sad, somehow. “You’d best be going, then…and…if I could ask a favor…?”

That stopped me. Ask me, not much more than a youngster, for a favor?

“If it’s something I can do…”

“So cautious…yes…it’s not much…I’m sure you can. Should you ever run across a red-haired man from Enstronn—he went by the name of Leith—just tell him that Shrezsan wishes him well.”

“Shrezsan…?”

“That’s all. Perhaps too much.” Her voice was businesslike. “Now, best be on your way to Nylan.”

“You sing nicely.”

“Perhaps another time…” She turned to look at the horse, flicking the reins.

Clearly dismissed, I shrugged.

“Perhaps another time, Shrezsan…”

She avoided meeting my eyes. So I picked up my stride to a traveling pace and passed through Enstronn without saying a word. That was easy enough, because no buildings may be closer to the highways or the high roads than six hundred cubits.

I spoke to no one else on the High Road for some time, instead turning over thoughts in my mind and finding no answers. No one seemed to like the dangergeld. But everyone accepted it as necessary. And no one could or would explain why—just great windy platitudes about the necessity of order in the continuing fight against chaos. So who was against order? Who in his right mind wanted total chaos? And what did the dangergeld have to do with any of it?

I walked and asked questions that had no answers. Finally, I just walked.

V

JUST BEFORE MID-MORNING, when it became clear that I was going to be arriving in Nylan at least close to on time, my stomach began to protest.

After passing through Enstronn, I had also passed by Clarion, and a place called Sigil. Despite the elegantly-lettered sign, I had never heard of Sigil, and that meant it couldn’t amount to much. Though I strained my eyes to the north of the High Road, and while I could sense that a few houses lay in that direction, I had been able to see nothing.

Beyond Sigil the road grew less traveled, and slightly more dusty. The sun continued to beat down on the dust and on me.

Ahead a blur appeared on the right side of the High Road. Even before I could see it clearly, I recognized it for a wayfaring station. A wayfaring station on the way to one of the main ports of Recluce?

Few citizens of Recluce travel that much, and the masters allow even fewer outside traders upon the isle. They always seem to know when strangers land on the open south beaches or sneak through the fjords punctuating the mountainous north coast. The mountains form a shield against the worst of the winter storms, but they also trap the warm damp winds from the south, which is why the highlands are so damp—almost a jungle in places.

The traders who have leave to travel Recluce are seldom young, and they always say little. Usually they are buyers of art, of pottery or other crafts. Sometimes they sell the southern jewels, the yellow diamonds and the deep green emeralds, that occur only in the far reaches of Hamor.

I wondered once why everyone used the same coins, before I discovered that everyone didn’t. Most countries, except for the Pantarrans, use coins similar to the Hamorians—just like we did—copper, silver, or gold pennies. They all have different writing, but the weights are the same—unless someone’s clipped the coins. Why? Probably because almost everyone sells to Hamor. Even the Austrans, for all their pride, use coins of the same weight. They call them different names that no one uses—even in Austra.

With so few people traveling beyond a few towns, I used to ask about the High Road, and why it had to be so grand. My father just shook his head. Uncle Sardit never even answered.

As my sore feet brought me nearer to the wayfaring station, the thought of a short break became more and more welcome.

The stations are all alike—tiled roof over four windowless walls, a door that can be barred, and a wide covered porch with stone benches. No furnishings inside, not even a hearth or chimney for a cook fire. Strictly for a quick rest or a place to wait out bad weather.

After pulling off my boots, rubbing my feet, and taking a sip of warm water from the water bottle as I sat on the back stone bench closest to Nylan—the coolest one—I opened the provisions my father had provided. The leftover duck was still good, and there were the last two flake rolls, one plain and one stuffed with cherry preserves. I finished up by eating one of the two sourpears and saved the other.

As I took the last bite of the fruit, I could feel someone approaching. So I looked to the west. Sure enough, a man was leading a horse and covered cart. While he looked to be a trader, I took the precaution of pulling my boots back on, wincing at the blisters I was developing. After that I replaced the provisions bag in my pack and tossed the few scraps out for the birds, out beyond the road.

The staff leaned up against the bench, where I could reach it easily, and my pack was ready to go. I just wasn’t.

“Hello there,” he called from the wagon post. The man was young for a trader, younger than Uncle Sardit, but with black ragged hair, and a close-trimmed full beard. His short-sleeved tunic was of faded yellowish leather, as were his boots and his trousers. He had a wide brown belt on which he wore a brace of knives. Shoulders broader than Uncle Sardit, and muscles to match.

“Good day,” I answered, politely, standing. “Heading inland from Nylan?”

“Couldn’t be from anywhere else, now could I?” He laughed as he said it, while he tethered the horse, a dark brown gelding. “And you?”

“From the east…”

He finished with the animal and stepped up the two stone steps. “Young for a myskid to be traveling, aren’t you?”

For some reason, his tone bothered me, and I stepped back, ready to pick up the staff. “Some might say that.”

“Never seen a place like Recluce. Nobody travels.”

“Not many.”

“You’re about as friendly as the rest, aren’t you? Don’t think much of the rest of the world, I guess.”

“Really don’t know much about it,” I admitted.

“First one I’ve seen who’s willing to admit that there is a world off this overgrown island.”

I didn’t say much to that. What was there to say?

“Strange place. The women won’t look at you unless you take a bath at least three times a week, and they don’t talk to you anyway, except to buy or sell. Those characters in black, they have everyone scared, I guess. Even the empire doesn’t mess with them.”

“Empire?”

“Haven’t you heard of Hamor? The Empire of the East?” By now, the trader had put one foot up on the other end of the bench.

He was just like all the other traders. Boring. He’d seen something I had not, and that made him feel better.

“You don’t like me, boy? Just like everyone else? If you want my jewels, or you want to sell something—Tira! You don’t have anything worth selling, except maybe that staff. Good work, there.”

He reached for it, as if I weren’t standing there.

The staff was somehow in my hands, although I didn’t remember grabbing it, and I had brought it down on the back of his extended wrist.

Crack. Hsssss.

“Another damned devil-spawn!…” He backed away, his unhurt hand on a knife.

I could tell he was deciding whether to throw it, and I could feel my guts tighten. I hadn’t meant to hit him, or do whatever the staff had done.

“The masters wouldn’t like it if you did.” It was a struggle to keep my words even, but I managed it.

“Devils take your masters…” he gasped. But he didn’t use the knife. He took another long look at me.

I brought the staff down. It felt warm to me, as though it had been in the sun or next to the fire.

“So you’re another one of them…” He was slowly backing away from me, although I had not moved.

“I’m nothing…yet.”

“Damned isle…” He was next to his horse.

I swung the pack onto my back and started toward the near steps, the ones closest to Nylan.

“You can stay. You need the rest.”

He watched me, but said nothing else.

I could feel his eyes on me, and the hate, deep as the North River in flood, and almost as wild. But I put one sore foot in front of the other, wanting to get as far from the waystation and the trader as possible.

Were all traders like that, underneath, when they thought people were helpless? And why had the staff burned his wrist? I knew woods, and some about metal, and the staff was just that—lorken and steel…wood and forged metal. Almost a work of art, and that was why the trader had wanted it, but no more than wood and steel, certainly.

I knew some staff-play, just because my father had insisted on it as an exercise. That had been years ago, before I had been Uncle Sardit’s apprentice. I guess you don’t forget some things, but even remembered practice and fear wouldn’t make a staff burn someone.

Could it be that the trader was a devil? I couldn’t believe that, much as the old legends spoke of devils that burned at the touch of cold iron.

I shivered as I walked, despite the sunshine, the heat, and the dust. Did all the reaction of the woman on the road and the trader have something to do with me? Or with the staff? But there was no magic in Recluce, and I was certainly no magician.

I shivered again and kept walking.

Copyright ©  1991 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

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