Sybel lived alone on Eld Mountain, close to the rival kingdoms of Mondor and Sirle. She was the daughter of a solitary wizard who raised her in much silence by himself, as her mother had died giving birth to her. Her father, Ogam, was the bastard son of a wizard, who had left Mondor when he was young, built a house on Eld Mountain, and began calling long-forgotten animals out of ancient lore. Sybel inherited the fantastic collection of animals her grandfather and father had collected, and her father trained her how to call animals and hold them. She spent her days with the animals, but primarily calling the Liralen—a great white bird.
One day Coren from Sirle arrived at her gate, fresh from a battle with Mondor, and carrying a baby which he said was the son of Mondor’s wife by one of the nobles of Sirle. Coren persuaded her to care for the baby, which he said would have been killed by King Drede of Mondor, partly because its mother had died in childbirth, just as hers had. Surprisingly, Coren, who was no wizard, knew the forgotten names of the beasts. Sybel grew to quickly love the baby, but sought out the witch Maelga at the foot of the mountain for advice on caring for the child. Maelga stole a cow for milk, leaving a jeweled ring in exchange (causing the farmers to leave their barn doors open hopefully for months afterwards). When not caring for the baby Tamlorn, she stole ancient books from wizards in her search for the Liralen. Maelga warned her that she might mistake a powerful wizard for a weak one, but she was unconcerned.
Sybel’s collection had Gyld the green dragon who slept in a cave in the mountain dreaming of the gold he once had; Cyrin the ivory-tusked boar who spoke in riddles and knew the answers to all questions except one; Gules Lyon, a radiantly golden lion from the South who was wise; the falcon Ter, who had torn apart the seven murderers of a wizard; the cat Moriah who knew many spells and charms; and the black swam Tirlith, who had carried a daughter of a king from her imprisonment in a stone tower.
Tam grew and played with one of the shepherds on the mountain. One night, when Tam was about twelve, he came running back to say the the dragon had hurt a man, who it turned out, was Coren, who had seen Gyld take back his gold one night and had been attacked. Maelga and Sybel helped dress his wounds. After Maelga had left, and Sybel was in the garden with one of the animals, Tam talked with Coren, who told that he was a king’s son. Warned by Cyrin, Sybel came back, and questioned Coren. Coren said that his brother, Rok, king of Sirle, had required him to get Tam and Sybel to come back to Sirle. The ruling brothers of Sirle hated Drede, because he had killed one of their brothers (the one who had loved Drede’s wife). Sybel refused to be party to their hate and bitterness, and she especially refused to let Tam be taught the ways of men and their hatreds and bitternesses. So Coren left when he had healed, but before he left, he asked Sybel if she could call a man to her as well as an animal. She said she could, although she had no desire for one. (Indeed, on their first meeting Coren had said she resembled an ice flower, and had hesitations about leaving the baby with her, except there were no other options.) Coren asked her to call him if she needed him. After some argument she agreed that she would, but did not think she would need to. He replied that someday she might appreciate someone who came willingly when she called.
Tam began to develop a strong desire to see his father, and for his father to approve of him, although he struggled because he loved Sybel very much. Sybel knew she could not keep him, so a few months later (in the middle of winter) she called King Drede and Tam left with him. She gave Ter to Tam, and said that Ter could send messages to her (as they talked with their minds). Then she stared at the fire for two days straight until her animals urged her to eat something. Just then Coren arrived. He said heard her call for him. She said that she had not called. He said that he although he was a fighter, he heard the silent things, and he sometimes went to ancient spots, to listen. He once heard a falling leaf whisper the name of a prince that the Liralen had helped (and he had seen the Liralen in a dream, which had impressed Sybel). He said that he had heard he cry out in her loneliness. He made dinner for her, and she was warmed both by his coming and the meal.
Now just before Coren arrived, Sybel had been in the garden and had sensed a presence that she had felt repeatedly before. And she went to her glass-domed room her father had built for her and search through all her books for a passage, which contained a coded name: Rommalb, because to say it was to summon the creature. She spoke its name, Blammor, and it appeared (saying it was not uncalled) and offered its name and its service to her. It said it was attracted because she saw it for what it truly is, even though usually people saw what they feared most and generally died straightaway. It said that the only thing it required from her was her fearlessness. While Coren had been preparing the food as Sybel slept, Cyrin came to him and bantyed riddles with him in relationship to his love for Sybel. He said one which Coren did not know the answer to, and when Coren asked for the answer, to boar told him to ask Sybel the creature she had named earlier that day. Coren did so, and Sybel replied with its name, which summoned it and Coren almost died of fear, but he realized Sybel’s hearth was not a place of death, so he must need to find its name, and when he said it, he was fine. Rommalb asked Sybel, as it always did, whether she needed anything else, and vanished when she said that she did not.
Coren said that he loved Sybel, despite the fact that she had no love for any man (since they all hated and schemed). Coren said he would give up his quest to kill Drede and find a way for someone else to kill him; Sybel was not okay with that, either. She said she was not good at loving and advised him to find a woman in Sirle who could love him back. He said that he had found no other people (including, and especially, his brothers) who appreciated the silent whispers of forgotten things. So he left, but said that he would return when she needed him, and she replied again that was not necessary.
Tam came very briefly and asked her to come with him. When he left, she called to Ter and said that someone was calling her, and to stop him. The call, insistent, continued. Ter falcon was taken from her, and she knew she could not resist. Eventually she called Coren, who arrived, much to her surprise, immediately. He had known she needed him three days prior and had been trying to ride to her, but had been stuck in useless meetings of Rok’s. She explained that she was being called; he tried to offer his sword, but she asked what good would a sword be against a wizard? She wanted to send him away, but he insisted on staying. But she selfishly wanted him with her anyway. He sat vigil outside her bedroom door that night, but when the insistent call came to Sybel, she dressed, and he was asleep as she unwillingly went. She was glad, because she did not want to see the wizard destroy his mind.
When King Drede came for Tam, Sybel had casually mentioned that she had called him. Maelga said that it makes people with power uneasy to know there are people with power over them, and she was right. Furthermore, Drede loved Sybel (she was related to his wife), although he was unable to give her freedom in love because he was afraid of her choosing to not love him, as his wife had chosen. So he found a wizard to call her, and to change her mind so she would also love him. She begged him to let him talk to Drede, not to destroy her mind. So the wizard called Drede, and she begged him not to destroy her mind, promising to serve him. Drede said he could not trust her, especially since Prince Coren of the rival kingdom loved her, and refused. But after Drede had gone, the wizard said he would not destroy her mind, as he had known somewhat of the hopelessness she felt when the Liralen refused him. This wizard had silently watched her quietly steal one of his books, but he did not know who she was, and it took him some time to find out. He saw her mind was unique among everyone he met, his equal, and assured her that she would come to love him. He came to her, but his lust slackened his hold over her briefly and in that moment she spoke Rommalb’s name. The wizard died, and Ter tore his body apart. Ter wanted to kill Drede, too, but Sybel forbid it: Drede was hers.
When she came back, Coren was there, glad that she was there. He said he would give up his hatred of Drede for her, and he never wanted to be in a place where he could not help her. He asked if she would marry him and she agreed, saying that she did not want to watch him ride away again. So they rode back to Sirle, happy, and announced the news to Coren’s family. They were married in a brief ceremony, where they gave each other their names. Then they started planning for a garden for Sybel’s animals. The dragon was a little difficult to house, but they settled on making a cave for him in the basement of the castle. Then they went back to the house, and Coren packed all her books on the back of the dragon, and they flew—a glorious flight—to Sirle.
A little later she came to Rok one night and said she wanted to kill Drede. She offered her help and the help of her animals, on the condition that Coren not know and that Tam was not used against Drede. She wanted Drede to suffer knowingly, as she had. Rok knew about her story with the wizard, and asked if she had married Coren to get revenge. She said yes, she loved him, and were he gone, she hunger for his goodness, kindness, and wisdom. She said she was afraid that if Coren or Tam ever found out she had used them, they would be hurt beyond repair and she would lose all that she loved in the world, but she was willing to pay that price. Rok accepted eagerly.
Sybel and Rok plotted their war. Sybel called two neighboring kings who were pledged to Drede and they came, although one mentioned he was surprised at how he had changed. They assembled an army. Coren began to get suspicious: Sybel would ask to speak to Rok alone, and there was tidings of war. Coren overheard something and Sybel accidentally removed it from his mind, immediately in pain that she had done so. Cyrin spoke several riddles to her of warning, and told Maelga, who walked all the way to Sirle. Maelga spoke to Sybel in the garden, and Sybel acknowledged that she was on a dark path, that she was doing exactly what upset her about how people outside acted, even that she now was using the power whose use she had condemned to Coren, and that Coren might not want her afterwards, but refused to reconsider.
While they were talking Coren overheard the truth from one of his less cautious brothers who was drunk. By this time Coren was committed to fight, although he was not excited about it. He came back to Sybel and asked if it was all true. She said it was, and told him everything. He was extremely hurt, as predicted, and he was confused about what to do because love does not leave, but he was hurt. In fact, he had given up his anger and revenge because she valued the opposite, and now here she was doing the thing that she had hated.
The war planning went on. The night before the war she was woken by Rommalb, and she saw the fears of all the wizards who had died of it, and then she saw a moon-white bird with its neck broken, and she could not pay that price. So she dressed silently, called her animals to her and released them (telling Ter not to harm Drede: he was hers, and she could not pay the price for her revenge), because she had assigned them parts in the war the next day. The dragon took her back to the house on Eld Mountain and then left.
Seven days later, Tam, now the King, came to her house and on not getting a response, climbed the walls, broke a window, and went in to find Sybel staring at nothing, thin and gaunt. He touched her and asked her to come back to herself. Although Sybel had used him and placed him and danger and assumed he would refuse to love her, he said that he needed to have her to love, and said she should eat something, so they went to Maelga, who cooked them dinner, and after Tam went back to be king, Maelga spoke with Sybel about how to heal. So Sybel just felt the pain, and did things with Maelga. Eventually she missed the animals and she decided to call the Liralen again. And Coren showed up at her doorstep again.
The animals gave a gift to Sybel before they left, and prevented the war from happening. The animals like the boar and lion could make themselves magically alluring, and most of the army went chasing after them. The dragon destroyed the rest of the army. Rok aged ten years, and could not speak of the journey yet. Coren came to his senses after a day or two, when he realized who that boar with the tusks that looked like the moon and the silver hair was, and he went home to wives weeping for their husbands, but none for him. He did not think he would hear her call again and was not sure if he even wanted to, but when he heard it, and thought of her alone in the house without her animals he had to come, because he had seen a reflection of himself in his pain and anger and he saw Drede, so he gave it up. She told him what had happened the night that she left, the night before the war, and Coren said that her downfall was that she held Rommalb, but had neglected to give it what it required, so it had appeared to her. She said it was only her mourning for the Liralen that saved her.
Then Coren was frustrated did not think she needed him, since she had always handled her life herself. She said that she had indeed done that, but she did need him, because living for yourself is empty, and also because she needed him to forgive her. They forgave each other, and professed their love again. Coren asked her to come back with him, and she joyfully accepted. Then he said that she was his Liralen (she was white, with white hair). Then Sybel realized: Rommalb was the Liralen. She spoke its name, and to Coren’s amazement, a white bird appeared, telling her it had always been there, but she had never been able to see it. It asked again how it could serve her, and she asked it to take them home.
This is a romance novel, reminiscent of The Dragon Riders of Pern is, but in addition it is also a tale about the nature of man. So the plot does follow a romance plot, but unlike the usual plot, the problem is not that she misjudges the man. She judges Coren correctly. But while he grows to have the character she desires, she becomes what she had condemned. McKillip appears less concerned with why even the purest of have evil in our hearts, but, given that it happens, how do we handle it. Still, it seems McKillip locates the (or perhaps just a) cause of people treating each other evilly is that we have been hurt and want to hurt the person back. But what happens is that we become scheming and conniving, using power and afraid of power being used on us, and the people we love are collateral damage in the self-destruction of our goodness. It seems that forgiveness is the antidote, although that is less clearly portrayed.
The story feels like a long myth or fairy tale. The setting is geographically small, with few people (500 men counts for a large army, which is small even for the Middle Ages), and the only details we are given is a few Great Deeds of long-forgotten animals, and some actions that Cyrin makes into riddles. The setting is sketched with mythic stories, and populated with the mythic animals from those stories. It feels similar to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, which is a quest composed of an amalgam of Chinese fairy tales.
Similarly to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a beautiful story. This is partly because love is expressed a lot: Maelga loves Sybel as a sort of child; Sybel loves Maelga as a mother, Tam as a child, her animals, and eventually, Coren. Coren simply but vulnerably consistently expresses his caring love for Sybel, and the animals also love Sybel, even though they are bound to her. Another aspect is that the characters are vulnerable, and simply express it, but they also have wisdom and compassion for each other. Even as Sybel offers Rok what he has been dreaming of for thirteen years, he asks if she is willing to pay the price for it. Similarly, the selfish wizard is admits he has no pity, but he also appreciates the beauty of Sybel’s mind and refuses to mar it. Everyone, even the selfish wizard is authentic—that is, they act according to their true self—and they are transparent and vulnerable. How someone can be so wise to write this book at what I think would be age twenty-five is beyond me, but it certainly is beautifully expressed wisdom, simple and compassionate.