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Wellspring of Chaos

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Wellspring of Chaos

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Author: L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Publisher: Tor, 2004
Series: The Saga of Recluce: Book 12
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Kharl is the best cooper in Brysta, one of the major cities in Nordla, and his life has been as ordered and dependable as his barrels. His trouble begins when he saves a neighbor's daughter from the violent advances of two upper-class men. Then he rescues an actual rape victim he finds unconscious in an alley, a blackstaffer -- a young expatriate mage -- from Recluce, and that makes his wife very uneasy. The culprit in both cases turns out to have been Egen, the cruel and corrupt son of the local ruler. When the blackstaffer is mysteriously murdered in Kharl's cooperage, Kharl is jailed, tried, and flogged, and in a shocking turnaround released--and his consort executed for the murder, which she did not commit. Egen again. Kharl ends up on the run, with just a handful of coins and a few clothes, but he also takes the slain woman's black staff and her book, The Basis of Order, which explains the principles of its power. The diligent cooper is about to learn a new, very different skill.

Wellspring of Chaos is the twelfth book in the Recluce Saga and takes place roughly 60 years after the close of The Order War (Recluce #4). It is Modesitt at the top of his form, returning to his most famous fantasy world, yet does not require previous knowledge of Recluce to be enjoyed. It's publication is sure to be one of the fantasy milestones of the year.



Kharl stood at the front window of his shop, looking westward for a moment at the wedge of twilight sky visible between the slate roofs of the buildings on the far side of the narrow Crafters' Lane. A single lamp was visible through the middle window of Gharan's quarters, above the weaver's shop. Next door, at Hamyl's, both the lower floor and the rooms above were dark. That wasn't surprising, Kharl told himself, since Hamyl's consort had taken the children to her parents' holding to help with the early-midsummer gathering. That had left the potter free to indulge himself at the Tankard, and the lane peaceful, since Kharl's neighbor, the scrivener Tyrbel, was a widower and kept a quiet establishment.

Lowering his eyes, the cooper glanced at the five barrels in his display, all tight cooperage from the best white oak, ranging from the hogshead to the standard barrel and down to the quarter barrel and the fine-finished fifth barrel with the brass spigot, used by anyone who wanted to store and dispense expensive liquids, mostly spirits. Then he barred the front door and closed the shutters behind the lead-glassed panes that his grandsire had installed before Kharl had been born. At that time, glass windows had been considered particularly foolish for a cooper, unlike a goldsmith or an artisan--or even a weaver or a potter--who had to display work to attract buyers. Times had changed, and most shops along the lane had come to display their wares behind windows.

"A barrel's a barrel. So's a hogshead. People buy barrels because they need barrels." Kharl smiled as he recalled the acerbic words of his grandmother, who had never let his grandsire forget what she regarded as the foolishness of the glass.

Foolishness? Kharl didn't think so. He still got orders from passersby who otherwise hadn't thought about barrels. Not many, never more than one an eightday, and sometimes only a few a season. Over time, though, the windows had paid for themselves.

He picked up the lamp and walked toward the rear of the shop, past the high racks that held the billets he would form into staves. Most of the billets were oak, white for the tight cooperage and red for slack. There were also some billets of tight-grained black oak, and a few of chestnut. He passed the workbench and the tool rack, with every tool in place. On the left side of the rear wall was the small forge where he sized and shaped the hoops for tight cooperage. Beside the forge on the brick flooring was the fire pot and, beside it, the steaming ring. The faintest smell of ashes and charcoal drifted toward Kharl from the banked coals of the forge.

Just short of the rear wall, and the door to the loading dock, the cooper stopped and looked at the fifteen white oak barrels waiting there. Each was identical to the next, with the iron bands, set just so, and the smooth finish, with a medium toasting on the inside. Korlan was supposed to pick them up in the morning--pick them up and pay the balance due. The vintner had taken the first fifteen barrels an eightday earlier. Kharl only hoped that the vintner did not come up with some excuse, as he had the summer before, waiting almost two eightdays before showing up, but, then, that was the problem in dealing with someone who lived more than ten kays to the south of Brysta.

Kharl half smiled, then nodded, and turned, the carry-lamp in hand, to head up the stairs.

"...silvers and coppers are not for me,
but a pretty girl whose charms are free..."

He frowned. Had he heard singing in the alley? The Tankard was four doors toward the harbor, but seldom did roisterers come wandering down the alley, even early in the evening. Kharl cocked his head.

"...for when there's no lamps to see,
any woman's as fair as fair can be..."

"No...let go of me!"

The woman's voice--no, it was a girl's voice--was familiar, but Kharl could not place it. He moved to the far side of the loading dock and swept up the cudgel in his left hand, then, leaving the lamp behind, eased the door open.

"Let me go!"

"...mean you no harm, little woman." A raucous laugh followed. "We'll even pay you for what you give others for free..."

"Let go! Let...mmmpphhh..." The girl's words were choked off.

Kharl closed the door behind him so that he would not be silhouetted by the light from the lamp. He glanced toward the Tankard, but saw no one. He looked back to the north. There, less than a rod away, perhaps less than ten cubits, in the fading light and the dimness of the alley, were three figures that Kharl could barely make out. Two men held the girl, a thin figure with dark ringlets over a green summer blouse. The hair and the blouse belonged to Sanyle, the youngest of Tyrbel's daughters.

One of the men had Sanyle's arms cruelly twisted behind her, and the other had his hand on her shoulder, pulling the summer blouse down. Both men were laughing.

Kharl took three quick steps, then two more, bringing the cudgel up.

The nearer man, the one who had started to rip away Sanyle's blouse, turned. A blade hissed from the scabbard at his belt.

Kharl took another step and struck the blade and the man's hand with the cudgel before the man had finished turning toward the cooper. The shortsword dropped on the cobblestones of the alley with a muffled clank.

"Ah...swine-slime...misbegotten..." The youth jumped back, cradling his hand. The dark blue velvet of his tunic was almost lost in the dimness.

The second man let go of Sanyle, and his right hand darted toward the hilt of his blade.

"Don't..." growled the cooper. "'Less you want a broken arm. Just let her go, and back away and head back where you came from. Have fun with your own or those you pay."

As soon as the man had released her, Sanyle slipped away into the shadows. There was a glint on the heavy brass key she held, and then the rear door of the structure beside the cooperage opened, and quickly shut.

"You can't do this." The taller young man, who was still half a head shorter than the cooper, kept his hand on the hilt of his blade, but did not draw it. "You don't know who you're talking to..."

"Doesn't matter," growled the cooper. "Don't force girls barely old enough to know the difference 'tween boys and men."

"They're all the same."

Kharl raised the cudgel slightly. "Back off, little man, 'less you never want to use that arm again."

The shorter youth scooped up the fallen blade with his left hand and backed away. After a moment, the taller one followed.

Kharl stood watching until the two were out of sight, and until the alley was quiet once more. Then he turned and reentered the cooperage, wondering from what merchants' houses had come the overdressed and spoiled youths. With a snort, he set down the heavy cudgel and barred the door.

After reclaiming the lamp, he started up the steps to the quarters above the cooperage. His boots thumped heavily on the wood, and the fourth step creaked, as it had for years.

Charee stood just inside the door at the top of the stairs. Shoulder-length black hair was bound back from her face, making it seem even narrower than it was. Her green eyes were cool. "Your supper's cold. Thought you were coming up sooner."

"I was. Heard something out back. Wanted to make sure that it wasn't someone trying to break in. Just a pair of youngsters thought they were men, drinking too much for ones so young." Kharl had no intention of saying more about the would-be bravos. For all her virtues, Charee lacked one--that of circumspection. The young men could scarcely have picked out one crafter in gray from another, not unless Charee told the entire lane. Because she well might have, while suggesting that Kharl was being foolish, Kharl saw little point in calling attention to the incident. Sanyle would doubtless tell her widower father, but the scrivener was more than taciturn, as were his children.

"Won't you ever leave well enough alone, Kharl? Leave the roisterers alone. Or if you must, call them to the attention of Lord West's Watch. That's what he draws his tariffs for. You've got a consort and sons that need you..."

"My hard-won coins, leastwise." Kharl shut the door to the stairs and the shop below and walked toward the washroom on the right side of the landing.

"Let's not be starting that again."

Kharl forced a smile. "I won't, dearest. I need to wash up." The pitcher on the wash table was full, and the basin empty and clean, with a worn but clean gray towel and a narrow bar of fat soap laid out on the left side. He closed the washroom door and began to wash, enjoying the faint rose scent that came from the petals in the soap. It took time to get the sawdust off his face and hands and arms, and out of his dark beard, short-cropped as it was.

When Kharl stepped into the main room, it was still warm from the day, but the harbor breeze blowing through the open windows offered a welcoming coolness, even if it did bear the scents of salt and fish and caused the two wall lamps to flicker.

The cooper walked toward the round table where Arthal and Warrl waited, their eyes following him, but not exactly looking at him.

"Did you finish your lessons?" Kharl's eyes fixed on Warrl, his younger son, by three years.

"Yes, ser. I did." After a moment, the younger boy asked, "How much longer will I have to go to Master Fonwyl?"

"Until he says you can read and write well enough to pass the craft-master's tests." Kharl seated himself.

"I don't see why," interrupted Arthal. "It's not as though we'll ever have the golds to post the bond for mastercrafter."

"Maybe so, and maybe not," replied Kharl. "But if you get the chance, I don't want you looking back and complaining that I didn't prepare you. Reading and writing aren't something you can pick up easy-like when you're older."

"But what use is it if you're not a mastercrafter or a merchant or a lord? You scarce have a chance to read a broadsheet--"

"But I can, and once or twice it's saved me good coins. Enough." Kharl managed not to snap. "Let's enjoy supper."

As if she had been wait...

Copyright © 2004 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.


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