Recluce Tales: “The Forest Girl”

For over a thousand years, Order and Chaos have molded the island of Recluce. The Saga of Recluce chronicles the history of this world through eighteen books, L. E. Modesitt, Jr.’s most expansive and bestselling fantasy series. Available January 2017 from Tor Books, Recluce Tales: Stories from the World of Recluce collects seventeen new short stories and four popular reprints spanning the thousand-year history of Recluce.

First-time readers will gain a glimpse of the fascinating world and its complex magic system, while longtime readers of the series will be treated to glimpses into the history of the world. Modesitt’s essay “Behind the ‘Magic’ of Recluce” gives insight into his thoughts on developing the magical system that rules the Island of Recluce and its surrounding lands, while “The Vice Marshal’s Trial” takes the reader back to the first colonists on Recluce. Old favorites “Black Ordermage” and “The Stranger” stand side-by-side with thrilling new stories. Below, we’re excited to share “The Forest Girl,” a  new story about a historical figure before he became a legend to be feared… and respected.

 

THE FOREST GIRL

Under the Rational Stars, far, far away,
There lie the lands of Cyad, cold without fey
Under the Rational Stars, well within day,

There wait in chill light words no druid should say.

I

“Alyiakal… have you finished your studies?” The majer looks into the small library after supper on a spring evening.

“Yes, ser.” The youth straightens in the chair behind the writing desk.

“What have you learned?”

“That chaos must be directed by the least amount of order possible. The greater the order, the more likely it is to weaken the force of chaos.”

“What does that mean?”

“Mean, ser?”

“If you’re going to aspire to the Magi’i, boy, you can’t just parrot the words.”

“So what do the words mean, ser?” Alyiakal is careful to keep his tone polite. He doesn’t want another beating.

“You tell me.” The majer’s voice is hard. “Magus Triamon says that you can sense order and chaos. Your mother would have been disappointed by such sophistry.”

Alyiakal holds the wince within himself at the reference to his mother. “Chaos has no order. It will go where it will. Order is necessary to direct chaos, but order reduces chaos. The skill is to direct chaos without reducing the power of chaos.”

“Alyiakal… you understand. From now on, every stupid question will merit a blow with a switch or lash.”

“Yes, ser.”

“Your supper should have settled. It’s time for your blade exercises and lessons.”

“Yes, ser.” While Alyiakal is almost as tall as his father, he is barely fifteen, and slender, lacking the physical strength of his father. Until the last season, he had dreaded the blade lessons. Although they practiced with wooden wands, he had always ended up with painful bruises. Now, as he walks to the rear terrace of the quarters, he is merely resigned to what may be. He understands all too well that if he fails to satisfy the Magi’i he will follow his father into the Mirror Lancers.

The practice wands—wooden replicas of Mirror Lancer sabres—hang on the rack by the door. As Alyiakal eases his wand from the rack, he considers his lesson. Order must direct chaos, but it also must direct a blade, for an undirected blade cannot be effective. Can he use his slight skills at sensing order to determine where his father’s blade must go? He takes a deep breath. It is worth the effort. He cannot be more badly bruised than he has been in the past. He makes his way to the terrace and waits.

He does not wait long, for the majer appears in a moment, his own wand in hand. “Ready?”

“Yes, ser.”

Instead of concentrating on his father’s eyes, he tries to sense where his father’s wand will go before it does. For the first few moments, he is scrambling, dancing back, allowing touches—but not hard strikes. Then… slowly, he begins to feel the patterns and to anticipate them.

He slides his father’s wand, and then comes over the top to pin it down, but he cannot hold the wand against Kyal’s greater strength, and he has to jump back.

“Good technique… but you have to finish!” The majer is breathing hard. “Keep at it!”

By the end of half a glass, Alyiakal can slip, parry, or avoid almost every attack his father brings to bear, but he is sweating heavily, and his eyes are blurring when Kyal abruptly says, “That’s enough for this evening.”

Alyiakal lowers the wand.

“You worked hard, and your defense is much better. Just apply yourself that hard to your studies, and you shouldn’t have that much trouble.”

“I’m still bruised in places, ser.”

“At your age, that’s to be expected.” His father nods. “You’re free to do what you will until dark. Don’t go too far. If you’re going to walk the wall road, don’t forget your sabre.”

“Yes, ser. I won’t.” Alyiakal is sore enough that he isn’t certain he wants to go anywhere. At the same time, being free for a glass or so is a privilege not to be wasted. Still…

He decides to at least take a walk, if only to show that he appreciates and will use the privilege. He follows his father inside and carefully racks the wand, then goes to wash up and cool down.

Less than a quarter glass later, he walks out the front door, the ancient Mirror Lancer cupridium blade in the scabbard at his waist. He does not breathe easily until the officers’ quarters at Jakaafra are more than a hundred yards behind him. Before long he is walking southeast along the white stone road paralleling the white stone wall that contains the northeast side of the Accursed Forest. That wall is five cubits high and extends ninety-nine kays southeast to that corner tower where it joins the southeast wall.

He glances to his right. Between the wall and road, there is neither vegetation nor grass, just bare salted ground. To the left are fields and orchards, and a few cots and barns, fewer with each kay from Jakaafra… until the next town, kays away.

He keeps walking along the road flanking the white wall, glancing back, but he sees no one, and no Lancer patrols, not that he expects any. While his eyes remain alert for any movement, especially near the wall, his thoughts consider what had happened during his blade practice… and how he had not previously thought of using order to help in using a sabre.

How else might I use order? He doesn’t have an answer to that question, but he does not have time to pursue it because, some fifty yards ahead, at the base of the sunstone wall is a black beast, a chaos panther, lowering itself, as if to spring and charge him. He draws the antique Lancer sabre, knowing that its usefulness against such a massive beast is limited at best.

Then… the black predator is gone, and a girl—a young woman, he realizes—stands beside the wall. He starts to walk toward her… and as suddenly as she was there, she is gone. He looks around, bewildered, but the salted ground between the patrol road and the wall is empty—for as far as he can see. Carefully, if unwisely, he knows, he moves toward where both the black catlike creature and the young woman had been. Once there, he studies the ground. There are boot prints, but no paw prints, and the boot prints lead to the wall, not away from it, as if someone had walked from the road to the wall. He can find no boot prints leading away from the wall.

A concealing illusion? It had to be, but he can sense neither the heavy blackness of order nor the whitish red of chaos.

Finally, he turns and begins to walk back home, thinking.

 

II

Alyiakal blots the dampness from his forehead as he steps into the coolness of the quarters. The walk from the dwelling of Magus Triamon in Jakaafra proper was not short, and the summer day had been warmer than usual… and summer around the Accursed Forest was sweltering on the best of days. After standing for a moment in the small entry, he walks into the library, takes down two night candles in their holders and sets them side by side on the writing desk. Then he uses a striker to light one, an effort that takes more than a few attempts.

Following Triamon’s instructions, he concentrates on the lit candle, as much with his senses and thoughts as with his eyes. In time, he begins to get what is almost an image of golden reddish white around the tip of the candle wick… as well as a faint blackish mist above the point of the flame. Yet he sees neither the white nor the black with his eyes. Of that, he is certain… but they are there.

Next, he concentrates on replicating the pattern of golden whiteness around the tip of the wick of the unlit candle. Sweat beads on his forehead. Nothing happens.

“You must not be doing it right,” he murmurs to himself.

He shakes his head, then closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath. Finally, he concentrates once more. The wick of the unlit candle remains dark.

Do you need to look at the candle?

This time, he closes his eyes and tries to visualize the dark wick, and the pattern of golden whiteness around it. He opens his eyes quickly, only to see a tiny point of redness, visible to his eyes, wink out.

“You can do it,” he says quietly, redoubling his efforts.

Sweat is running into his eyes a quarter glass later when the candle flickers alight… and stays lit. Alyiakal only allows himself a brief smile and a moment of rest before he blows out the candle and repeats the effort. After a deep breath, he once more blows out the candle… and relights it—just by focusing order on chaos.

He hears the door open, and the heavy footsteps of his father, steps seemingly far too ponderous for a man as small as the majer.

“What are you doing with the candles?” asks Kyal, not quite brusquely.

“Practicing an exercise that Magus Triamon showed me.

He told me to work on it until I could do it instantly.”

“Lighting a candle?”

“Lighting it without a striker, ser. He says it’s the first step in mastering chaos.”

Slowly, Kyal nods, as if he is not certain about the matter.

At that moment, there is a series of knocks on the front door, followed by a loud voice. “Majer! Ser!”

The majer turns and walks swiftly from the archway to the front door, which he opens.

Alyiakal does not follow, but listens intently.

“Majer Kyal… ser… it’s happened again.”

“What?” snaps the majer, whose voice is far larger than his stature.

“Another dispatch rider is gone. The morning patrol found his mount and the dispatches. There’s no sign of him. The men claim they saw a black chaos cat, one of the big ones. It was prowling outside the wall, just to the southwest of the northern point.”

“Send a squad with fully charged firelances. I’d like a report of what they find. Or what they don’t.”

“Yes, ser.”

Kyal closes the door and walks back to the archway into the small library. “We’d best eat early. There’s no telling when we’ll get another chance.” He pauses. “Are you finished with the exercises?”

Alyiakal nods. “I did what the magus wanted.”

“You can tell me about it at supper. We need to wash up. I’ll tell Areya to get the plates ready.”

When the two are finally seated at the table, Areya sets a platter of mutton slices covered with cheese and a yellow-green glaze of ground rosemary. One smaller platter holds lace potatoes, and another thinly sliced pearapples.

Kyal serves himself, then passes each platter to Alyiakal. “What about the exercises?”

“Every flame holds both chaos and order, but there’s much more chaos. Magus Triamon taught me how to sense both order and chaos in the flame. He says that’s the easiest way to sense them at first. Once I could sense them, and he made sure of that by swirling the patterns, he made me try to move the chaos myself. Then he sent me home with the exercise. That was to light a candle, and then learn to light another one by duplicating the pattern of chaos around the wick. It took a while, but I did it three times in a row. Next, I have to light a candle without using another candle as a pattern.”

“Do you think you’ll ever be able to match a full magus?” asks the majer.

“Magus Triamon thinks I can… if I keep working.”

Kyal nods slowly. “I’d advise you to work very hard, son.”

“I will, ser.” After a silence, Alyiakal looks at his father. “Is that because I will not match you in might, ser?”

Kyal laughs. “Oh… you’ll be able to do that in another year or so. It looks like you’ll be taller and broader than me. No… it’s because too many Mirror Lancers are being killed fighting the barbarians who swarm across the grass hills. We need better weapons. Perhaps you’ll be able to become a great enough magus to create them. Even if you don’t, the Magi’i are the ones who keep our weapons charged.”

“You don’t want me to be a Lancer officer like you?”

“I’d like it very much. But the son of a Lancer majer from Jakaafra is likely to do no better than his sire, if his talents are limited to the blade and skill at arms alone. Why do you think I insist on your reading about tactics and logistics?”

“But… Magus Triamon…”

“You may become a great magus. You may not, but a Lancer has three weapons—his sabre, his firelance, and his mind. Firelances are powered by chaos. If you do follow in my steps, the more you know and the more you can do with chaos, the better you will be with your weapons. The more you study with the magus, the more you will know what I cannot teach you, and that will sharpen your mind even more.” Kyal clears his throat. “There is one more thing. All the senior Mirror Lancer officers come from the great families of Cyad. If you wish to rise farther than I have, you must become more capable than all of them. You must be so clearly so superior that none can contest you.” Kyal smiles wryly. “That, you will find, is true in all areas where a man must make his way.” His words turn sardonic. “At times, even that is not sufficient.”

Alyiakal sits, silent. Never has his father talked so bluntly.

“It’s time you began to learn more of how the world works… really works. Now… eat your supper. I’ll have to leave soon to see what that squad has found. You can walk a bit tonight, but go the southeast way.”

“Yes, ser.”

“And be careful.”

“Yes, ser.”

Once they finish eating and the majer leaves the quarters, Alyiakal fastens on the old swordbelt and scabbard, checks the sabre, and then slips out into the early evening air, still steaming, but not quite so unbearable as it had been several glasses earlier. Once he is away from the quarters buildings of the Mirror Lancer outpost, he studies the wall even more closely, but he sees no sign of anyone or anything on the road or near it.

Then, in the early twilight, when his eyes move from the small stead on his left to the cleared and salted strip of land on his right, he sees a large black panther cat crouched at the base of the sunstone wall. Where did that come from?

He stops and studies the beast. While his hand rests on the top of the hilt of his sabre, he does not attempt to draw the weapon. The black panther cat’s eyes remain fixed on him. There is something… something he cannot fathom… yet he has no doubt that his sabre will likely not suffice against such a creature. What will?

Fire! All wild animals fear—or are wary of—flame. Can you create a flame large enough to startle it? He smiles. It cannot hurt to try.

He looks directly at the panther cat, then concentrates on replicating the flame pattern of a candle—a very large candle.

A flare of light flashes up in front of the creature… then vanishes.

Alyiakal feels as though his head has been cleft in two, and for several moments he cannot move.

Abruptly… the giant cat vanishes. A black-haired young woman, scarcely more than a girl, he thinks, stands there. She laughs. “Fair enough!”

“Who are you?” he asks, moving forward, if slowly.

“A girl of the forest and the town,” she replies. “Nothing more.”

He laughs softly. “Nothing more? When you can take on the semblance of a giant black panther and then vanish?”

She frowns.

Now that he is closer, he sees that her eyes are as black as her hair, for all that her skin is a lightly tanned creamy color. “I saw you do that eightdays ago. You didn’t really vanish, did you? You just made it seem so.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I followed your boot prints, and you climbed over the sunstone wall into the Accursed Forest.”

“It’s not cursed. It’s just different.”

“You’ve actually been in the… forest… and you’re alive?”

“You sound so surprised. Why?”

“Lancers die every season from attacks by the black cats or the stun lizards.”

“That’s because they consider the cats and lizards enemies, and the cats and lizards can feel that.”

“I think it’s more than that,” says Alyiakal, looking directly at her. Up close it is clear she must be at least several years older than he is; it is also obvious that she is striking. Not pretty, but something beyond. What that might be, he is far from certain.

“Can you use that blade?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Then you must be Alyiakal.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Magus Triamon said it was a pity you were already so proficient with such a weapon. No one else near Jakaafra uses a blade and can also sense both black and white.”

“You’re obviously far better at that than am I.”

“I’m older.”

“Not that much,” he protests.

“You’re young, and you’re kind. Trust me. I am older.”

“What do you do in the forest?”

“You don’t have to do anything in the forest.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

She smiles. “No, I didn’t.”

“Then show me.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“If anything happened to you, your father would seek those responsible. Magus Triamon would have to flee or die, and I could never see my parents again—if they survived your father’s wrath.”

Alyiakal thinks, then says, “Could you show me some of the forest from the wall?”

A smile that becomes a wide grin crosses her lips. “You’d do that after all the Lancers your father has lost?”

“How do you… how much do you know about me… and my father?”

“He’s in charge of the Mirror Lancers here in Jakaafra, and you live with him in the quarters, and you study with Master Triamon.” She shrugs. “Other than that… very little, except that you have courage and are willing to look beyond walls.”

“Will you show me?” he asks again.

“Since you’re asking. But you must promise not to enter the forest.”

“You said it wasn’t dangerous.” He offers an impish grin.

“It isn’t… if you know what you’re doing. You don’t.”

Alyiakal can accept that. “I won’t.”

“Then climb up.” She turns and scrambles up the sunstone so quickly that she is looking down at him before he even begins.

He discovers that the stone is smoother than it looks. He almost loses his grip twice, but soon he is perched on the flat surface of the wall beside her, looking into the part of the Accursed Forest that cannot be seen from the wall road.

Less than thirty yards from the base of the wall beneath Alyiakal is the rounded end of a pool, whose still waters look to be a clear deep green in the gloom created by the high canopy of the taller trees and the lower canopy formed by the undergrowth, trees still taller than any Alyiakal has seen anywhere outside the Accursed Forest. A long greenish log lies half-in, half-out of the water, except that when the log moves, Alyiakal realizes that it is a stun lizard, not that he has ever seen one, but only drawings of the beasts.

“The stun lizard… are they all so big?”

“That’s a small one. Some of them are more than ten yards from snout to tail, and they can stun an entire squad of Lancers.”

“How do you know that?”

“Shhhh… watch.”

An enormous black panther cat pads along the side of the pond opposite the stun lizard, which freezes back into resembling a log. A cream-colored crane with silver-green wings alights at the far end of the pond, standing motionless for the longest time. Then, suddenly, the long beak stabs into the water and comes up with a squirming flash of silver.

“Try to see the order and the chaos in each of them,” she suggests.

Alyiakal had not thought of that, and even as he wonders why he should, he attempts what she has suggested. At first, all he can sense is swirling flows of order and chaos… but as he keeps watching, he can soon discern that the order and chaos within each of the forest creatures is locked in a tight pattern, and that while the patterns are different, there is something about them that is the same.

“You need to go,” the woman who looks like a girl says quietly. He glances to the west. While he cannot see the sun, the angles of the shadows tell him that it is far later than he realized. Has that much time passed? He looks to her. “Thank you.”

After he drops to the salted ground beneath the wall, he looks back up. She is still there, looking at him.

“You didn’t tell me your name,” he says.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s better that way.”

“Why don’t you want me to know your name?”

“I don’t care if you learn my name… just so long as you don’t discover it from me.”

Then she smiles… and vanishes.

For several moments, Alyiakal can sense a web of darkness on the wall, but he sees nothing. Then the darkness drops away, leaving the top of the wall empty of order… and her.

He turns and begins the walk back toward Jakaafra, walking quickly and hoping he will not be so late that Areya will tell his father.

 

III

When Alyiakal arrives at the small square dwelling under the canopy of the overarching oak trees on twoday, as often occurs, he has to wait for Magus Triamon to open the door and admit him. Rather than sit on the bench on the porch, he finds himself pacing back and forth until Triamon opens the door and appears.

“You seem eager this morning,” says the gray-haired magus as he ushers Alyiakal into the study.

“I came across another student of yours, Master Triamon.”

“Oh? Which one?”

“The black-haired young woman.”

The gray-haired magus nods and smiles. “How did you meet her?”

“She gave the image of herself as a great black panther cat. I created an image of a large flame. She dropped the image and laughed.”

“You must have amused her. Otherwise, you never would have seen her.”

“Who is she?”

“That, my young pupil, you will have to discover for yourself.”

“She said the same thing. Are you both so frightened of my father?”

The magus shakes his head. “Your father is but an officer, a strong and honest one. But he is a Mirror Lancer, and one does not anger the Mirror Lancers.”

“Why would telling me her name upset anyone?”

“She has the gift of the Magi’i, and the powers of altage and those of the Magi’i would be less than pleased if I facilitated any acquaintance between the two of you.”

“But I’ve already met—” Alyiakal breaks off the remainder of what he had been about to say as the import of what Triamon said sinks in. Then he asks, “Because you are of the Magi’i?”

“Exactly. There are… agreements…”

“That’s absurd. I don’t intend to consort her.”

“Consorting is not precisely the problem.”

“Then why are you teaching me?”

“To determine if you can become a magus. If the Magi’i accept you, then the Mirror Lancers will not want you. If your talent is only minor, such as lighting candles and healing, then you will never become a magus, and you are acceptable to the Mirror Lancers.”

“Just acceptable?”

“They prefer Lancers who have no talent with order or chaos, but limited ability, especially healing, is acceptable in junior officers.”

“Then why should I study with you?”

“Why indeed?” Triamon smiles.

“Another answer I must find for myself?”

“In the end, we all must find our own answers.” Triamon’s smile vanishes. “Do you wish to proceed with your lessons?”

“Why would I not?”

“Good. Today, we will begin work on the importance of focus…”

After his glass of instruction and practice with Triamon, Alyiakal makes his way to the market square, rather than return immediately to his quarters.

He begins his inquiries with the woman who sells grass and reed baskets.

“Good woman… would you know the black-eyed young woman with black hair?”

“The child of forest and night?”

“Yes… I believe so.”

“No… I have seen her. I do not know her.”

“Do you know her name?”

“No. It would not be wise to ask.”

“Thank you.” Alyiakal makes his way to the next stall.

He visits more than a score of carts and stalls before he comes to the one-eyed beggar propped against the wall. He has always avoided the beggar before, but ashamed of himself for his lack of compassion in the past, he places a copper in the near-empty bowl.

“Heard your question of the weaver, boy. They all fear her, you know?”

“You don’t, I think,” replies Alyiakal with a half-smile.

“What’s to fear? Her name is Adayal, and her father is a carpenter. Her mother… who knows?”

“Thank you.” Alyiakal puts another copper in the bowl.

“Just be careful in what you’ll be wanting, young fellow. Great wants call to great danger.” With that, the old beggar closes his one good eye.

Great wants call to great danger? How could wanting to know Adayal’s name be a great want?

With a smile he turns and heads back toward the quarters, hoping to arrive before his father.

 

IV

Despite all his walks along the wall, and his forays into the town, the summer days pass, and his instruction from Magus Triamon widens, so that he can call up a limited concealment and more illusions than merely flames. Even so, Alyiakal does not see Adayal, or any large panther cats, either. Often he climbs the wall of the Accursed Forest and perches or sits there, watching what goes on beyond, trying to hold a concealment as he does, but when he does, he finds he cannot see, and can only sense through his limited use of order. But for all his efforts, he does not encounter the forest girl. He thinks of her as such, even though it is clear that she is truly a woman.

At breakfast on threeday of the seventh eightday of summer, the majer clears his throat. “I received a dispatch late last evening. You were not around.”

“You said I could walk so long as I was careful.”

Kyal continues without addressing Alyiakal’s observation. “I’m going to have to leave this morning and accompany Third Company to Geliendra. Commander Waasol wants to see all the majers posted to duty near the Accursed Forest. Areya will come in to fix your dinner. You’re to fix your own breakfasts and keep up with your lessons. I’ll likely be gone an eightday. I’ve sent word to Magus Triamon. You’re to see him both morning and afternoon. I’ve told him to keep you challenged and busy. You’re to do exactly what he tells you.”

“Yes, ser.” Alyiakal does not point out that he has never not followed the instructions of the magus. He also does not mention the times when he has done things that would have been forbidden, had he asked.

After breakfast, Alyiakal bids his father good-bye and then practices perceiving order. Two glasses later, he leaves to walk to his morning lesson with Magus Triamon. On this day, he does not have to wait, and Triamon ushers him into his study almost at once.

“There are many shades to chaos,” begins Triamon. “To be even the lowest of healers, you need to know the shades and what each signifies.”

“Why do I need to know about healing? Are not the most valuable talents of a magus those that can be used to store and channel chaos?”

“They are… but you are more grounded in order, and order suits healing. If the Magi’i accept you for training, the more you know the better, and because many Magi’i deal more with chaos than is healthy, you should know your limits. Without understanding healing, you will not. If you do not become a magus, then you will be a Lancer, and it will help if you can aid healing of your men. That will keep you from losing too many rankers and give them cause to support you when you need it.”

Alyiakal frowns.

“Mirror Lancer officers will always need the support of their men at least once, if not more often. The ones who don’t get it generally die before they make majer.” Triamon’s words are delivered in a dry sardonic tone that emphasizes their verity.

Alyiakal starts to protest, then closes his mouth. His father does know field healing, even if he does not have the skill of even a beginning healer magus.

“The lowest and least focused chaos is a dull red, infused with gray. Sometimes, even a bad bruise will show this…”

Alyiakal forces himself to concentrate.

 

V

Even with two lessons a day for close to two eightdays, Alyiakal has more than enough time to continue his walks along the wall, but he sees neither Adayal, nor any large panther cats, either. He still studies the creatures of the Accursed Forest from the wall, and he can now distinguish most of them by their patterns of order and chaos, or rather chaos held in patterns by order. But summer gives way to harvest, and Alyiakal has yet to see Adayal, even though he now knows her dwelling… yet she is never there… or she has created a concealment so perfect that his order senses cannot penetrate it. How is he to know which it might be, or both… or neither.

On the second threeday of harvest, early on another evening when his father is away, Alyiakal has removed himself from the quarters to a place on the wall from which he can watch one end of the pool some thirty yards away, the same pool that Adayal had shown him the first time he had looked into the Accursed Forest. He can barely make out the stun lizard half-concealed by a fallen log, although it is small, from what he has seen over the past season, only two and a half yards from nose to tail. That is more than large enough to stun a man and a large horse.

He hears a rustling and the faintest of scrapings on the stone… and Adayal sits on the wall beside him.

“You have grown,” she says. “There is an order about you.”

“Magus Triamon has been teaching me how to use order to manipulate chaos so that the chaos does not break down the order of my body.”

“You’ve learned well.”

“I’ve been looking for you all summer and since.”

“I know. Would you like to walk through a little part of the Accursed Forest with me?”

“Have I learned enough to be safe?”

“Enough so that I can keep you safe. Perhaps more.”

“I would like that.”

“Then let us go…” She slips down from the wall onto the mossy ground beside the sunstone.

Alyiakal follows, and when he stands beside her, she reaches out and takes his hand. “This way.”

“Should I hold a concealment?”

“There is no need of that.” Her voice is throaty yet warm.

She leads him down a path. “Look carefully, beyond that fallen trunk…”

He studies where she has pointed, then sees a tortoise, or perhaps it is a turtle, whose shell stretches two full yards with a pattern of light and dark green diamonds that hold the faintest light of their own. Farther on, he sees two gold-and-black birds perched on a limb, the like of which he has never seen.

Adayal stretches a hand out. “Wait.”

Alyiakal waits. His mouth opens as a giant serpent slithers across the path some fifteen yards ahead of them, its scales a mixture of greens and browns that blend so well into the forest that he can only make out the part of its body crossing the darker path.

In time, after she has shown him more creatures than he ever would have believed existed in such a small part of the Forest, they come to a tree whose trunk contains a small door. Adayal opens the door and gestures for him to enter.

He senses nothing within and follows her gesture. Once inside, after she closes the door, he can still see, because of a faint greenish illumination that somehow surrounds them.

“There is something else you need to learn, Alyiakal,” she says gently, turning to him. “I would not have you too innocent or too unlearned about women… or learning from rough Lancers.” She reaches up and draws his head down, and her lips are warm upon his.

“Slowly… ,” she murmurs drawing him down onto the soft pallet he had not noticed. “Slowly… let me show you.”

Alyiakal, surprised beyond belief, does… so afraid that the moments that follow will end, but they do not, not for glasses.

Finally, she draws her garments back on and around her. “I shouldn’t keep you any longer. Try to keep some of that sweetness.”

He dresses slowly, not wanting the night to end.

After a time, they both stand at the base of the wall, outside the Forest. Alyiakal looks through the darkness, sensing Adayal as much as seeing her. He remains stunned by both the warmth and the fire Adayal had shown, and touched by the gentleness behind both.

“That is how it should be between a man and a woman,” she says softly. “Never forget.”

“How could I?” Abruptly, he adds, “You’re not leaving Jakaafra and the Forest, are you?”

“No. I am part of the Forest, and it is part of me. I will always be here.”

For all of her words, he can sense a sadness and a regret.

“You must go,” she says. “It is late.”

Too late, he thinks as they separate and leave the wall in different directions.

It is well past midnight when Alyiakal slips back into the quarters, only to find too many lamps lit. He sighs, if silently, and makes his way into the study.

“Where have you been?” asks the majer.

Alyiakal inclines his head politely, hoping his father will answer the question himself, as he sometimes does.

“Out walking the wall road, no doubt, and peering into the forest.” The majer shakes his head. “No matter.”

Alyiakal tries not to stiffen at the resigned tone of voice.

“I’ve been talking to Master Triamon. He says that you have some talent. He also says that you’re not suited to the Magi’i. You are too ordered, and your interests lie elsewhere. He feels that you’d never be more than the lowest of the Magi’i, if that.”

Alyiakal does not sigh in relief, although relief is indeed what he feels. “Yes, ser.”

“That being so… young man, next oneday you’re leaving for Kynstaar.”

“Kynstaar, ser?”

“That’s where they take the sons of Lancer officers and see if they can train them to be officers. Some of what they teach, you already know. Much you don’t. It’s time to see what you can be. There’s nothing more you can learn here.”

“Yes, ser,” replies Alyiakal, although he has his doubts about that, given what he has learned earlier in the evening, but there is little point in protesting. Already, he knows to pick his battles. That much he has learned from his father, from watching the Accursed Forest… and from Adayal.

 

VI

On fourday, Alyiakal searches Jakaafra for Adayal, but can find no trace of her. Nor can he do so on fiveday, or sixday. On sevenday, he leaves the quarters just after dawn, determined to find her.

She is not at her parents’ house, nor anywhere along the wall.

Finally, he walks to where she had found him on threeday. She is not there. He looks to the wall, then nods. He quickly climbs the wall and stops on the top. Does he dare to enter the Forest without her protection?

Do you dare not to?

He takes some time to create a concealment around himself, not one like he has raised before, but one more like the interlocked patterns of the great Forest creatures. Hoping that it will suffice, he eases himself down into the forest and onto the shorter path, the one Adayal had led him back to the wall along at the end of their evening. He cannot see, not with his eyes, but must rely on his senses. He walks as quietly as he can, not wishing to alarm any creature needlessly, but he must see Adayal one more time.

He slips around the last curve in the path before her tree bower… and senses that she stands by the door, as if she has expected him.

He hurries to her, dropping the concealment, then stops as he sees the sad smile. “Adayal… I have to leave.”

“I know. I knew then.” She smiles more happily. “You can walk the Forest now, whenever you wish.”

“I learned it from you.” Quickly, he adds, “I have to go to be trained as a Mirror Lancer officer… if I can be.”

“You will be, if that is what you want.”

“Will you be here when I finish training? I want you to be with me.”

“Alyiakal, you have seen me. I cannot be far from the Forest, and you are meant for one kind of greatness. I cannot share that greatness. Nor would you be happy if I were by your side, because I would be but half there.”

He finds he can say nothing.

“I will walk back to the wall with you,” she says gently. “I cannot tell you how it moved me that you would enter the Forest for me.”

Alyiakal’s eyes burn, but he nods. He does not trust himself to speak.

She takes his hand in hers, and they begin to walk.

Two large tawny cougars, perhaps half the size of the great black panther cats, appear and walk before them.

“They… they do your bidding.”

“No… they are here to honor you. For your courage and your understanding of the Forest.”

Alyiakal has his doubts, but he does not voice them.

When they reach the wall, there is a flicker, and Adayal appears as the great black panther cat and springs to the top of the wall. Alyiakal studies her with his senses, but she is indeed what he sees. He climbs to the top of the wall, where Adayal has returned to being the black-haired, black-eyed, beautiful woman who has loved him.

“Do you see now?” she asks softly. He nods.

“Do great deeds, honest deeds, and do them with all your heart. You can.”

Now. After a long moment, he slips down the wall and then steps back to look at her once more.

The two tawny cougars have joined her on the top of the sunstone wall, flanking her. She looks down at him, then speaks softly, as if to a beloved, yet her words are clear in his ears and thoughts. “You are a part of the Forest, and part of it will always be with you.”

“Because of you.”

“And you,” she replies.

She stands there for a moment, then reappears as the great panther, framed by the two smaller tawny cougars. An instant later, the top of the wall is vacant.

Alyiakal just stares for long moments that seem to last forever, her words reverberating in his thoughts. Finally, he takes a deep breath.

After a last look at the empty wall, Alyiakal turns and begins the walk back to Jakaafra.

North of the Rational Stars, far, far away
There lie the lands of Naclos, warm and so fey
North of the Rational Stars, well beyond day,

There wait in tall trees words no altage dare say.

“The Forest Girl” © L. E. Modesitt, Jr., 2017

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