In honor of the 20th anniversary rerelease of The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., we’re offering the following free excerpt of Chapters 1 and 2 from the first book in this classic series. Enjoy!
GROWING UP, I always wondered why everything in Wander-naught 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 Ifinished 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?”
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 spodess 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 Corso. 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. Td 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 cafd, 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.
“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.
Aunt Elisabet always kept the washstones polished, the ketdes sparkling, and the gray stone 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?
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 Fm 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?“
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.
The Magic of Recluce © copyright 1991 L.E. Modesitt, Jr.