Text version

the comic's manuscript, without pictures

7. The clearing in the woods

The next day, Adrien returned to the main hall with his hair still slightly wet from his morning shower. He found Valerion already sitting on his armchair at one end of the table; when he saw Adrien enter, he put down the book that he had been reading. "Good morning", Valerion said. "How are you doing today?".

"Fine, thank you". Adrien stretched his arms as he walked towards the table and sat onto the armchair at the opposite end - he allowed himself to sink a little in the cushioned seat before lifting himself up.

"I hope you have completely recovered", Valerion said.

"I have", Adrien said with a vigorous nod of his head. "As far as I can tell, at least. And how are you doing?".

"Great. Thank you for asking", Valerion said - and his smile seemed to become a little bit brighter. He folded his arms over the table: "Are you going to have bread and jam for breakfast?".

"Oh -- yeah", Adrien said with a little chuckle. "Can it be strawberry?".

With a flick of Valerion's fingers, the table was set up - on Adrien's side, sliced bread on a wooden cutting board, a glass of water, a knife on a napkin, a plate, and a jar of strawberry jam; on Valerion's side, a cup of coffee and some biscuits on a small plate. Valerion took a sip out of his coffee cup.

"You don't put any sugar in that?", Adrien asked, one eyebrow raised.

"No, I prefer it without", Valerion said, smiling with his eyes. He took another sip. "Do you like coffee, Adrien?".

"Sometimes", Adrien said, tilting his head. "Not every morning, but yeah, sometimes".

"If you ever want some, let me know".

"Of course", Adrien smiled. "I'll have to ask for some sugar, though", he added with a chuckle as he twisted the cap of the jam container open.

Adrien was finishing with his first slice of bread and jam when he saw Valerion put down his cup and sit still for a bit, his head turned towards one of the large windows in the hall. "Today", Valerion started, "I feel that today would be a good day to take a pause from practice. What do you think?".

"Oh! Yeah, why not!", Adrien beamed. Then he raised one eyebrow: "I mean, if it's about what happened yesterday, I'm fine now, so we could also continue studying --".

"I know you could", Valerion said softly. "But... I was just noticing how nice the weather is today", he added with a rarefied smile to his eyes. "The air is clear and the trees are swaying in the breeze. It would be a shame to spend such a fine autumn day indoors, wouldn't you say so?".

"...Right!", Adrien said. He picked up another slice of bread and began spreading jam on it. "So, what were you thinking?...".

"What about a nice walk in the woods?", Valerion said as he picked up his coffee cup again - a strange kind of giddiness in his voice. "We could even bring some food and something to read outside, if you'd like".

"That sounds fantastic! I can't wait", Adrien exclaimed, slathering the edge of his plate with jam in his excitement.

Valerion chuckled from behind his cup of coffee. "I can tell", he said.

*****

After breakfast, each went back to their respective room for a change of clothes, as their robes would not be comfortable to wear on a walk. When Adrien was ready, he ran back downstairs, almost tripping as he descended the spiral staircase that led to the main room. He pushed the wooden door open; Valerion was already there, standing by a bookshelf as he picked what books to put in his bag. Adrien stopped in his tracks, taken aback: without the loose fabric of his robes concealing his form, Valerion seemed so different that Adrien needed a moment to understand that he was looking at the same person with whom he'd had breakfast before.

Valerion turned towards him, a puzzled expression making its way into his serene smile. "What is it?", he mumbled.

"Oh -- nothing", Adrien chuckled, "it's just -- uh -- I -- this is going to sound really weird, but -- it's weird to see you having -- well -- legs".

Valerion folded his arms; his face twisted into a silly smile. "What, you thought I had wheels?".

Adrien burst into laughter; "For all I know!", he said, raising his shoulders.

Still laughing a little, Valerion turned towards the bookshelf again and resumed his search. Adrien watched him for a while, smiling, but saying nothing. "By the way", he finally said, "you're looking really good today!".

Valerion replied with a smile that soon grew into a grin, and then into a chuckle. "Because I have legs?".

Adrien giggled, one finger curled against his mouth. "Yeah, legs suit you!".

Valerion laughed. "Oh, you...", he said, slowly shaking his head; then he smiled. "But thank you", he added with a courteous tilt of his head. He set a book into his grey sack: "That should be the last one", he commented. "I already put in the food, so we should be ready to go". He began to walk towards the main door, and Adrien followed; they stopped in the foyer, where each retrieved his coat from the spiral-shaped iron hangers that adorned the stone walls.

Valerion pushed the heavy door open - a beam of white sunlight blinded Adrien for a moment; then his eyes focused on the landscape past the wooden door - the path that led down the hill and onto the next and to the village, each side padded with grass, then encased by a lush forest; the series of hills that rolled away in the distance and faded into the pale blue of the horizon - some covered by forests, some grassy and rocky, all different shades of green, yellow, and brown; and then the sky above - reflected in the rain puddles that punctuated the path in front of him, patterned with white, feather-like clouds that rushed into each other, changed their shapes and names, then vanished into the wind. Adrien stepped outside; he closed his eyes, savoring the feeling of the fresh air on his skin - clear, turned effervescent by the recent rains. He hadn't been outside since the day he'd first arrived to the tower; his only experience of the outdoors in those two weeks had been the gentle waving of the trees which he could see from the windows of the tower. How glad he was to be outside again.

Valerion closed the door and walked down the front steps and towards the path. "Well, here we are", he said with a smile. "Let's go". He walked off the path and to the right side, towards an opening between two bushes; Adrien followed him at a speedy pace.

"I'm glad that we're getting to walk outside now that the weather is so fine", Valerion said as he stepped over a boulder, "Soon it will be the season of snow, and walking in the woods won't be as pleasant for a long while".

Adrien lingered behind for a moment, then he ran to his side. "Soon?", he said, one eyebrow raised. "But it's only September".

"The first snows are usually in mid-October", he replied.

"Really!", Adrien exclaimed, his eyes wide. "Wow".

"Is it not like that where you come from?".

"Not at all", he said. "Ordly is a town by the sea. We don't really get much snow".

"Well", Valerion said, "then here things will be quite different. I hope you do enjoy the snow, because you're going to see a lot of it", he chuckled.

"I don't mind it", Adrien said, "it's the cold that comes with it that I like less...".

"The tower is heated, so you don't need to worry about that", Valerion said with a smile. "Now, I can do little about the outside weather - I'm not that powerful of a sorcerer...".

Adrien giggled a bit in reply; then his laughter faded into a pleased smile as he kept walking. His attention was now taken by tall trees and strange mushrooms and wet moss-covered rocks, by every scent of every flower, and by every song of every bird. Even though they were moving at a leisurely pace, Adrien had to keep his reflexes sharp and his eyes open, as the path was more overgrown than he had expected - sometimes they'd have to lift a low branch to pass underneath, sometimes they'd encounter a shrub that had grown into their way and that they'd have to carefully dodge; Adrien had to stop several times to disentangle his hair from this vine or that twig. As they proceeded deeper into the forest, the light filtering through the trees became dimmer, and the path less defined; Valerion had to make sure that they were still following the right way several times before continuing.

"Wow", Adrien commented, "These woods are so wild. I've never heard so many birds sing at the same time!".

"It's almost deafening, isn't it?", Valerion said with a chuckle. "Well, consider this - the tower was built as a hunting outpost".

"Really!", Adrien exclaimed.

"Yes. It used to be owned by a marquess - he would come here in the summer to hunt, since the wildlife is so lively here".

"Wow, really! And what would they hunt?".

"Mostly boars and deer, from what I understand - and bears, I think".

"There are bears here?!", Adrien gasped. "Is - is it really safe to be here in the woods?", he added, alarmed.

"It's alright; we have magic to defend ourselves with", Valerion calmly replied.

"I -- You trained me against paper balls, not bears!", Adrien squeaked. "And -- and I left the staff in the practice tower!".

"Don't worry", Valerion said, soothingly touching Adrien's shoulder, "I can take care of us both. Besides", he added, smiling, "I do think you could defend yourself against a bear. The spell wouldn't be any different...".

"Yeah, but paper balls and bears are not the same thing at all!", Adrien laughed.

"How so?", Valerion said with an impish smile.

Adrien chuckled a little as he tried to think of a clever answer. "To start with, paper doesn't have teeth and claws...".

"That depends entirely on what you write on it", Valerion giggled.

Adrien laughed as well. "And you say that as a writer... Have you ever written anything with teeth and claws?".

Valerion took in a deep breath. "I can't say I have", he said with a faint smile.

They kept on walking through the forest, at times talking with each other, at times silent to admire the wonders of the nature around them. After a while, Valerion came to a sudden stop; he bent down and sat on his haunches - "Look", he said, "Chestnuts". Adrien scanned the ground, and for a couple seconds he saw nothing but dry leaves; then he noticed a spiny chestnut bur camouflaged among the leaves - and then he realized that the whole forest floor was peppered with these burs, their fruits appearing in slivers past their barbed shells. He looked up, and saw that they were standing underneath a massive chestnut tree - doubtlessly a hundred years old at the very least, judging from the size of the trunk. Adrien sat down and picked up a spiky ball, placing it gently on the palm of one hand. "Wow", he whispered. "Can we take them home?".

"Sure", Valerion said; he took the bag off his shoulders, placed it on the ground in front of himself, and opened it. He drew out a smaller cloth bag, which he unrolled and smoothed out. "Good thing I brought this", he smiled, his head slightly tilted. "Just put them in, and we'll open them later".

Adrien placed the bur into the bag; then he started walking towards another chestnut to collect, but stopped midway. He turned around: "Should I pick them up with my bare hands?", he said, raising one eyebrow. "Probably not, right?".

"Let me cast a protective spell on you", Valerion said. "Just show me your palms", he said as he stood up. Adrien walked towards him and showed him his hands; with both his index fingers, Valerion began to draw a circle on each of Adrien's hands - but Adrien giggled and pulled back.

"Aaah! That tickles!", he laughed, scratching his hands.

"Sorry, sorry", Valerion chuckled. "I can't do much about that - you'd have to cast your own defense against tickling", he laughed.

Adrien laughed and showed his hands again; then he tried to hold his breath as Valerion drew his spell one more time - and Adrien still giggled and squirmed a bit, but this time the circles lit up on his hands; the spell was successful. Valerion drew two circles on his own hands as well, then he kneeled down again.

"Alright, let's see if we can fill this bag".

Their empty sack slowly became full as they searched and collected chestnuts. At one point, Adrien strayed from the path a little - underneath another massive tree, he found a place where there were so many burs, he barely could see the leafy floor.

"Valerion!", he called, "Over here there are so many!".

"Good find!", Valerion answered; so he gathered his things and joined Adrien in his search. He sat down next to him and picked up a particularly large bur, which he turned in his hands with interest before tossing it in the bag with the others.

"Do you have any plans about what to do with them?", Adrien asked.

Valerion paused. "To be honest, I'm not sure", he finally said. "What about you? How do you like chestnuts?".

"Roasted, for example", he said, cheerful. "But I like them in pretty much any preparation. Chestnut preserve... chestnuts with meat... chestnut cake...".

"I've never had chestnut cake", Valerion smiled. "It sounds delicious. Do you know how to make it?".

"Oh! Yeah, I do", Adrien said. "It's not that hard, either. Do you want the recipe?".

"Please", Valerion said.

Adrien chuckled. "I will, then", he said. "I'm glad you appreciate it".

They resumed searching for chestnuts, and it wasn't long before their bag was crammed full. Valerion pulled the drawstrings that would close it, and he was about to place it on his back when he turned to Adrien. There was a pause, then he spoke:

"By the way, Adrien, may I ask you to call me Val? I'd much prefer it".

His voice had been a bit softer, and his eyes a bit brighter, as he made his request. "Yes, of course", Adrien said; he smiled broadly, and that smile was returned to him.

"Thank you. I never liked the name Valerion much".

"Really?". Adrien tilted his head. "I think it's a fine name", he said.

"Yes, but -- perhaps it is too fine, and it -- it simply does not feel right", Val said.

"It's alright. I understand", Adrien said with a smile. "But -- wait -- you're carrying both bags? Come on, give me one", he chuckled, "I mean, what am I here for?".

Val giggled as Adrien tugged the bag off his shoulders. "If you insist...".

They traced their steps back to where they had stepped off the path, and resumed walking; now the trail twisted and turned as it ribboned downhill through the forest. "Anyway, it won't be much longer", Val added.

"To where?".

"The path ends in a glade", he smiled. "It's a beautiful place; I think you'll love it".

"I'm sure I will", Adrien grinned.

After a few more steps, Val came to a sudden stop; something else had caught his attention. "Do you hear that?", he said. Adrien paused; faint, but clearly there, he could hear the enchanting sound of running water. "We must be closer than I thought", Val said, speeding up his pace. Soon, they reached a small stream - its cold waters ran fast as they found their way downhill, creating a series of small waterfalls as they draped over ledges and boulders, then disappearing past a bend.

"It's just on the other side of this stream", Val smiled. He bent down and, with his fingers, drew a circle on the toes of his shoes.

"Oh!", Adrien exclaimed, his eyes wide, "Defense against water?".

"Correct", Val smiled. "Hold on, I'll cast it on your shoes, too". Val walked towards the point where the stream was shallowest and the path took the form of flat stones over the water; some of them were dry on top, indicating that it was safe to cross. He quickly found his way to the other side - his steps precise and elegant as he walked in front of Adrien. They continued walking; the path in front of them became broader and brighter, and then --

"Here we are".

Adrien stepped forwards; now they were in a clearing, a window to the sky. In the center, there was a large tree stump surrounded by a patch of soft green grass and flowers of all colors and shapes. Val took the bag off his shoulders and left it on one side of the stump, then sat down with his back against the mossy trunk; Adrien followed suit and went to sit next to him - and just sitting down felt wonderful, with the grass bending gently under his legs, releasing its fresh scent.

"So, what do you think?", Val smiled, his head tilted on one side.

"It's gorgeous", Adrien said. "Thank you so much for bringing me here".

"Don't mention it", Val said. "You have been studying indoors for too long, anyway".

"Well, I guess it has been a while, yeah". Adrien leaned back and looked around; his gaze latched onto a blue cornflower by his feet, then onto a patch of clovers with their soft pink flowers; and then onto the bushes and the trees around - junipers, oaks, poplars, and alders, forming an array of every shade of green. He smiled; then he sprung up and walked towards a tree, a great grin on his face. He looked up in the branches, then turned to Val. "Apples!", he exclaimed. Val stood up and followed him. Looking up at the tree, there were fruits hiding among the leaves - some green, some marbled yellow and red; but most of them were too high to pick.

"Would you like me to get some?", Adrien said, his eyes bright with excitement.

Val giggled. "Go on", he said. "Be careful, though".

"Of course. I'm always careful", Adrien said, tilting his head on one side.

"Oh, no...", Val whispered; but he had been chuckling as he did so. Adrien pulled the ribbon out of his hair and redid his ponytail - this time tight and up to the nape of his neck. Then his expression turned serious; he stepped back from the trunk, then sprinted forwards - one step, two steps, and up the trunk and onto the stump of a broken branch; then higher - he leaped up, his feet light as he skillfully found his way. He reached a fork in the branches; he looked around, then carefully climbed onto the thicker one, crawling until he found a good stopping place. He sat on the branch, his legs hanging down, and he chuckled as he waved down at Val, who was now several meters underneath him.

"Adrien, that was amazing", Val said, grinning. "You're almost a squirrel".

Adrien chuckled; then he turned around and crouched on the branch to reach a nearby apple - when he tugged at it, it came right off the branch. "There we go", he said, showing the apple to Val; then his eyes went wide - the apple slipped out of his fingers and began to float downwards towards Val's open hand, which was now surrounded by a faint blue glow. Val caught the apple, then he laughed.

"Could I have another?", he chuckled, looking up at Adrien with a mischievous expression as he made the apple bounce in his hand.

"Hey!", Adrien exclaimed, laughing, his hands on his thighs, "That was --".

"Rather convenient, isn't it?", Val laughed.

"That's not the word I had in mind!", Adrien chuckled. Nevertheless, he crawled again onto the branch and picked another ripe fruit; and Val made it float down again, this time to his other hand.

Adrien then plucked a third apple, which he brought to his mouth before it could be magicked away from his hands; and Val burst into laughter again.

"Anyway, you should really try the apples", Adrien mumbled with his mouth full, "this one is really good".

Val nodded, then took a bite out of the first of the two apples that he had taken from Adrien's hands. "Delicious", he commented. "Thank you for climbing up there".

"It's not like it was a sacrifice", Adrien chuckled. "I kinda wanted to anyway". Adrien finished eating his apple and flung the core behind himself, then he crawled backwards down the trunk, expertly landing on his feet.

"Welcome back", Val smiled. "We already had the appetizer, so would you like to move to the lunch?".

"Please!", Adrien grinned.

*****

After their meal, they rested in the glade for a while; they talked and laughed and enjoyed the beauty of the nature surrounding them. They lay with their back on the grass and their arms behind their heads; and Adrien was about to doze off when Val suddenly sat up. "We should head back to the tower", he said. "I think it might rain".

"Aw, that's too bad", Adrien said. He slowly stood and picked up the bag, then turned towards the path behind; but Val stopped him.

"Let's take a different path this time", he said, gesturing at another way that opened past a large tree trunk. "It is less scenic, but much shorter".

They walked uphill for a while - at a good pace, as Val feared it would rain sooner rather than later. They encountered the stream again; and Adrien had just crossed it when he saw something that made him stop. It was a small tree with long, blade-shaped leaves of a lovely deep green and clusters of gorgeous pale pink flowers, each one a star of five petals arranged in a spiral. "How beautiful", he whispered. He closed in towards the flowers, mesmerized; they gave off a faint, sweet scent. He ran one finger on the smooth petals. "What are they?".

"Those are oleander flowers", Val said.

"So beautiful", Adrien whispered, touching another flower. Then he turned to Val: "Can I bring them back?".

"You may, but -- ah -- be careful. They're poisonous".

"Poisonous!?", Adrien gasped, pulling his hand away from the flowers as if they had scalded him.

"Only if you eat them", Val added, soothing. "You can touch them; it's alright".

"Ah -- I -- I see", Adrien said, standing a bit further away from the plant than he had been. After a few moments of uncertainty, he closed in again and found a branch that he could take; he severed it with a powerful twist of his arm. He turned the cutting in his hands and looked at the flowers from all angles before searching for another branch to pick.

"You had never seen an oleander before?", he heard Val ask from behind him.

"I don't know, I'm not sure. I don't know too much about plants that I cannot eat", Adrien chuckled. He picked another branch, which he added to the first one; and then a third, making a small bouquet of dark green leaves and pale pink flowers. He looked at them once more, a slight sigh escaping him. "They really are so beautiful... and poisonous, you say. Well, that is often how it is", he whispered, caressing the silky petals. "I'm still bringing them with me". Clutching the flowers next to his chest, he turned around and resumed his walk with Val; and neither said much for a while, but Adrien did notice the faint, somewhat ethereal smile on his mentor's face.

"...But I don't think I had seen these before. Though, I'm not surprised that I went straight for them", Adrien added, his cheeks a bit red. "I have always had a fascination for dangerous things...".

Val chuckled softly. "Such as?".

"Like snakes, for example".

Val smiled. "Snakes are beautiful animals. I like them too", he said, tilting his head on one side.

"Yeah, I thought so", Adrien smiled, thinking of the staff with the entwined vipers that Val owned.

"However", Val said, "please don't go out of your way to pester snakes...".

"No, don't worry, I'm not that bad!", Adrien chuckled. "In fact, this reminds me... This happened when I was in my second year of high school, so I must have been... fifteen", Adrien began. "So, one morning I'm going to class as usual; I go up the stairs, and there's this whole crowd in the hallway, screaming and yelling... I get there, and I see that there's a grass snake in the middle of the floor!".

"A grass snake?".

"Yes! And everyone is arguing about what to do with it, if it's venomous, if they should stomp it, smash it with a broom, throw rocks at it, and it's just -- it's just a mess. So I arrive, and I say, 'That's just a grass snake, it's not dangerous at all, it's more likely to play dead than to hurt anyone', and some guy from the other class is all, 'Oh, then why don't you go pick it up since you're talking like that', and, well, I say, 'Alright then'. So I go there and I pick up the snake and I bring it outside, and no harm done", Adrien smiled.

"Amazing", Val commented, his eyes wide. "You just picked it up with your bare hands?".

"Yeah, well, the snake was even half-asleep, it wasn't trouble at all", Adrien giggled. "Then at the end of the day, Barbara from the next class comes next to me and tells me that she was so glad that I took care of it, she was about to do something herself... We went out to lunch and in time we became friends, then -- we started dating. All because of that snake", Adrien laughed, one hand against his mouth.

"That is the sort of thing that often happens in the strangest of ways", Val smiled. "So, are you still together?".

Adrien's eyes went wide, and his face a bit red. "Ah -- no, no -- we're still good friends, though. That was many boyfriends and girlfriends ago", he added with a chuckle.

"Oh -- I apologize", Val hurried to say.

"No, it's alright", Adrien smiled. "Luckily, there's nobody waiting for me back home".

"Luckily?", Val asked, puzzled.

"I mean... I wouldn't want anyone to be -- all alone, because of me... I wouldn't want anyone to be waiting for me for so long", Adrien explained.

"I see what you mean", Val nodded. He paused for a moment; then he smiled once more. "And what other dangerous things do you like?".

Adrien smiled, a bit flustered. "Well, you know this already, but -- fire, for example".

All of a sudden, there was a flash of bright white light, then silence; both Val and Adrien stopped in their tracks. Soon after, they heard the crack of lightning and the boom of thunder; then a rustle of leaves as a flock of scared birds fled from the nearby trees.

"What about thunderstorms?", Val whispered.

Adrien chuckled nervously. "I like them best when I'm safe indoors", he replied, twisting his fingers as he spoke.

"I strongly agree", Val nodded. "Let's hurry".

*****

Val locked the door to the tower, then took off his coat and hung it by the wall. It was wet with only a few drops of rain; they had arrived just in time. He shook off what little water had clung to his hair, then smoothed everything back in place; meanwhile, Adrien was setting the flowers and the bags down on the table - with a turn of his hand, Val transported the sack of chestnuts down to the kitchen. In the few minutes that had passed since they had come inside, it had started to pour; the water now ran heavy over the windowpanes, completely obscuring the view outside.

"And to think it was such a nice day before...", Adrien commented.

"The weather changes quickly here", Val said. "Too bad about our outing". He opened the remaining bag and took the books out, turning them in his hands with a little smile on his face. "We didn't touch them at all, in the end", he chuckled.

"That happens a lot", Adrien smiled. "When you put something in your bag thinking it might be useful... you can be sure that you're not going to need it".

"And vice versa", Val added.

"Yeah! So the best option would be to always bring everything you could possibly need, so you will be sure that you won't need anything", Adrien chuckled.

Val moved his fingers, and the books took flight to their places in the bookshelves; then he hid the bag inside a cabinet. "That is a good philosophy to have, albeit a rather heavy one", he smiled.

"Well -- you will teach me how to make heavy things become light, right?", Adrien said, his head tilted on one side.

"Yes", Val chuckled. "Yes, that is part of our course. You will get there, I'm sure... And then it will just be a good philosophy to have".

Now only the flowers were left on the table. Adrien picked them up again, looking at them with fondness; then he raised his head. "Where should we put them?".

Val looked around the room: there were all sorts of objects on the bookshelves - gems, hourglasses, boxes covered in intricate symbols, strange spheres that seemed to pulsate with a supernatural light, and things that Adrien could not tell what they were at all. At last, Val nodded; at his bidding, a flute-like glass vase that was on top of one of the bookshelves left its place and began to hover down and towards him, eventually landing on the table with a faint tinkling noise. "This should do", he said. He picked the vase up, then ran one hand over it; water appeared underneath his fingers where he touched, filling the vase. Adrien walked towards him and carefully placed the flowers in the water.

"Beautiful", Val commented. "Although, we should put them somewhere else; I'm not too comfortable with having poisonous flowers on the dinner table", he chuckled.

"Yeah, me neither", Adrien said.

"If you'd like to bring them to your room...".

"Ah -- no, no -- then you wouldn't be able to see them", Adrien smiled. "Is there a place for them here?".

"There must be", he said, and he searched the room once again; then he picked up the vase and began to walk towards one of the windows - in front of which there was an armchair paired with a small round table; he set the vase onto the wooden surface. "What about here?".

"That looks nice", Adrien said. "Thank you".

A flash of lightning turned the oleander flowers blinding white for an instant; their bright purple shadow cut through the light - then the boom of thunder followed; it made the windows shake slightly. Val chuckled faintly. "That one was close". He looked at the clock on the wall - its ornamented hands marked a quarter past six. "Anyway, we could even have dinner, if you'd like", he said.

"Yeah, why not", Adrien smiled.

Val nodded. "What would you like?".