A Legend of Ethshar
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Kel shaded his eyes and gazed at the little cluster of buildings. "Is that it?" he asked.
"I suppose so," Ezak replied, walking steadily up the path. "We followed the directions."
"It's tiny," Kel said, hurrying to catch up. "I see..." He paused and counted silently, jabbing his forefinger at the air, then said, "I see just six houses."
"Four," Ezak corrected him. "One's an inn and one's a blacksmith's forge."
"Four," Kel said, musing. "Four? Just four houses?"
"Just four. But there are at least thirty or forty families on the farms around it."
"This sorcerer lived in one of the four?"
"That's what my uncle said."
"Who lives in the other three?"
Ezak turned up an empty palm. "Who knows? Farmers, I suppose." He gestured at the surrounding fields. "Somebody must be growing those crops, after all."
"Oh." Kel looked around at the vast expanses of knee-high green stalks. "Is that wheat?"
"I don't know," Ezak said. "Do I look like a farmer to you? I haven't been outside the city walls any more than you have. It could be wheat or beans or pumpkins, for all I know."
"I don't think it's pumpkins."
"Neither do I. Now, smile and wave -- there's someone looking at us." He suited his own actions to his words, and Kel, seeing the two women standing in the cleared area among the six buildings, waved vigorously.
"Do you think one of them is the sorcerer's widow?" Kel asked, lowering his hand.
"Probably," Ezak said through his forced smile.
The two women were definitely watching the two young men approach; one of them waved back, a single quick gesture. The women were of very different heights but appeared to be similar in age -- past the flower of youth, but not yet gray and wrinkled.
A moment later the two men marched onto the little patch of bare earth that served as the village square and the village's only street, then stopped and stood facing the two women. Kel realized the shorter woman was no taller than he was himself.
Ezak slid his pack from his shoulder and said, "Hai! We're looking for the home of Nabal the Sorcerer."
The two women glanced at each other; then the taller, darker one said, "I'm afraid Nabal's dead."
"Yes, we had heard," Ezak said. "We came to pay our respects, and to help build the pyre."
"You're too late for that," the dark woman said. "We spread his ashes on the fields a sixnight ago."
"Ah, what a shame!" Ezak slumped visibly. "He was a good man."
The shorter woman spoke for the first time. "You knew Nabal?"
"We were apprentices together," Ezak said proudly.
The two women glanced at each other. "You don't look old enough," the tall woman said.
"Well, he made journeyman when I was still just starting," Ezak said, spreading empty hands. "We actually only overlapped from Festival to Greengrowth the year I was twelve, but I used to hang around and pester him when I was little."
"What did you say your name was?" the shorter woman asked.
"Ezak of Ethshar," Ezak said. "Ezak the Sorcerer."
"Who's he?" the taller woman asked, pointing a thumb at Kel.
"Oh, that's Kelder. He's a friend of mine -- it's a long journey to make alone."
"Kelder. Just Kelder?"
"We call him Kel," Ezak offered.
Before anyone asked, Kel volunteered, "I can talk. I just don't, much."
"And to whom do we have the honor of speaking?" Ezak asked quickly.
The taller woman said, "Irien the Innkeeper." She gestured toward the nearest building. "I have a room if you need one. This is Dorna. Nabal's widow."
"Ah!" Ezak turned to the shorter woman and bowed deeply. "My sympathies on your loss."
"I'm sorry, too," Kel murmured.
"Thank you," Dorna said, with a bob of her head.
"I'm sorry we missed the funeral," Ezak said. "I really did want to see his soul on its way. Is there anything we can do for you, then, to make up for our tardiness?"
"No, I don't think -- "
"Could you perhaps use our assistance with his talismans?"
"No, I -- "
"I mean, you've lived out here all your life, while we're from Ethshar -- perhaps we could give you some advice on how to get the most money for whatever trinkets he might have had."
"Honestly, I'm fine," Dorna said. "I haven't decided yet what to do with his things. There's no hurry."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to rush you," Ezak said. "You take your time, of course. Meanwhile, dear Irien, you said you have a room? Even if we've missed the funeral, we've no need to rush off -- this is such lovely country around here! Such fresh air!"
"I have a room, if you have money."
"Of course." Ezak jingled the purse on his belt. He knew half the "coins" in it were just metal scraps he had picked off a tinker's floor, but the innkeeper didn't.
"This way," she said, gesturing.
The two men picked up their packs and followed her into the inn.
Ten minutes later they were alone in a gable room overlooking the village square, Irien having promised to bring them up a pitcher of wash water. Ezak settled onto the surprisingly-generous bed.
"I don't think the widow recognized your name," Kel said, as he looked out the window.
"Of course not," Ezak said. "I never met this Nabal. My uncle knew him because they did some trading, that's all."
"You said you knew him."
"I want her to trust us. It'll make it easier to get all his magical things away from her."
"It's funny that you lie to her to make her trust you."
"Well, life can be strange. It seems to work that way."
"Thank you for not telling her my full name."
"You're welcome. What should I tell her if she asks, though? There could be half a dozen people named Kelder around here; she may want an appellation."
"Anything. Just not Kelder the Blabbermouth."
"Or Kelder the Bastard, either. We'll just say Kelder of Ethshar, then?"
"That's good. Are you going to steal the sorcerer's things?"
"I'm hoping I can convince her to give them to me, or maybe sell them cheap, but I'll steal them if I can't get them any other way."
"I don't want another flogging."
"I don't want you to get one. I don't intend to get caught this time."
"You didn't intend to get caught last time."
"Well, I didn't get caught, did I?"
"But I did."
"Yes, and thank you again for not telling anyone it was my idea."
Kel turned up a palm. "It wouldn't have done any good. They were going to flog me anyway. I didn't want to be a blabbermouth."
"Thank you, all the same. So what did you think of the sorcerer's widow?"
Kel considered that for a long moment before replying, "She isn't very pretty."
"She isn't ugly, either, and I suppose old Nabal didn't have much to choose from out here in the middle of nowhere. She probably looked better when she was younger."
"Maybe he didn't worry about looks."
Ezak grimaced. "He was a sorcerer -- the only magician in the village, maybe the only one in the entire region. He must have had his pick of all the girls here, so she must have been the best available. Which doesn't say much for the local women, does it?"
"Maybe she's smart, instead of pretty."
Ezak snorted. "If she was smart, would she be living out here? This Nabal couldn't have been all that bright, either, even if he was a sorcerer."
"Then how did he get to be a sorcerer?"
Ezak turned up an empty palm. "He served an apprenticeship, like anyone else. You don't need to be a genius to get through six years of running a master's errands, or nine, or whatever it is for sorcerers. All you need to call yourself a sorcerer is your master's say-so and a talisman or two." He glanced toward the window. "But according to my uncle, this one had a lot more than one or two. Uncle Vezalis said this fellow had dozens of talismans he'd picked up somewhere. Those are what we're after. This Nabal claimed he'd found a cache of stuff some Northerners hid during the Great War, but he was probably just trying to make it sound better than it was. I'd guess he inherited them when his master died." He flung himself back on the bed.
"His master died?"
"I assume so. I don't really know."
"You said you served under the same master -- shouldn't you know whether he died?"
"Blood and death, Kel, I don't even know his name! If anyone asks us about him, we're just going to have to be vague, and change the subject as quickly as we can."
Kel considered that for a long moment, then said, "I don't think coming here was a good idea, Ezak."
"What are you talking about? Of course it's a good idea! A poor country widow with a houseful of sorcery -- we'll be rich!"
"I don't like your story, Ezak. I don't think you know enough to fool her."
Ezak sat up to stare at his companion. "I most certainly do," he said. "I don't need to know the master's name; I can just call him 'Master.' And I don't need to know whether he really died; if I get it wrong I can just say I was misinformed. My story is that I served my apprenticeship and then headed for Ethshar -- I wouldn't be up to date on the local news."
"Do you know where Nabal served his apprenticeship?"
Ezak waved vaguely. "Some other village near here."
Kel did not reply in words, but the expression on his face made it clear he was not impressed with this answer.
"Kel, it'll be fine," Ezak said. "She's just a country bumpkin. It'll be as easy as finding sand on a beach."
"I don't want another flogging."
"Look, even if it doesn't work, we won't be flogged! You think they even have a magistrate around here? Look at this place! If anything goes wrong, all we have to do is leave; no one's going to bother coming after us. They won't have any way to know which way we've gone!"
"They could use magic to find us," Kel said.
"No, they can't," Ezak said, grinning. "The only magician this village ever had was Nabal the Sorcerer, and he's dead."
"I thought..." Kel began, but then he stopped. It was obvious even to him that a village this small couldn't support more than one magician. "I still don't like it," he said.
"You don't need to like it, you just need to do what I tell you to, and we'll both be rich. Now, let me think just what..."
He never said just what he wanted to think about; a knock on the door interrupted him, and he admitted Irien with a pitcher and basin, and a few small towels.
"Thank you, my dear," Ezak said, bowing deeply. Kel said nothing, but just watched, and nodded when the innkeeper looked his way.
"Supper's an hour after sunset," she said.
Kel glanced out the window again, and saw that the sun was brushing the treetops on the western horizon.
"Thank you," Ezak repeated. "We'll be down soon."
Irien left them, and Ezak closed the door behind her. "It was a long walk from Ethshar," he said. "I'm going to take a nap before supper. Wake me, will you?"
"All right," Kel said, as Ezak climbed into bed.
That was the last thing he said for the next hour, as he sat by the window, staring out at the countryside as the sunlight gradually faded from the sky, and darkness crept over the fields and houses.
At supper Ezak asked Irien whether Dorna might be joining them, and was clearly disappointed when Irien said no. The sorcerer's widow kept early hours, the innkeeper said, or at any rate did not often venture outside after dark. If the two strangers were determined to see her, Irien said, they could call on her in the morning.
Ezak assured her that they would do just that, and thanked her for the suggestion. He was obviously eager to see more of Dorna, but Kel did not see what the hurry was about. This delay would give Ezak more time to plan, and Kel thought he could use it.
He did not say anything at the table, of course; in fact, his dinnertime conversation was limited to asking for plates to be passed, or thanking Irien for the various foods. Back in the upstairs room afterward, though, he asked why Ezak was rushing so.
"Two reasons," he said. "Firstly, the longer she has to think about it, the more likely she'll settle on some way of disposing of her husband's magic where we can't get at it. And secondly, we just barely have enough money left to pay the bill for two nights here; if we're still here for a third, everything gets more complicated."
"Oh," Kel said. "So you want to steal the sorcery and get out quickly?"
Kel nodded. That made sense to him. There was only one thing more to say.
"Good night," he told Ezak, as he climbed into bed.
I went through a period when, after a hiatus of a couple of years, I started writing short Ethshar stories for various anthologies I'd been invited into; that's when I wrote "Night Flight" and "Weaving Spells" and "Ingredients". And there was a fourth one -- I don't remember what the anthology was, but I started writing a short story called "The Sorcerer's Widow."
I'd had the premise gradually growing in the back of my head for awhile -- a couple of guys assume that a magician's widow is harmless without her husband, just a silly housewife they can rob. I'd seen plenty of real-world instances of people underestimating women, and I wanted to write about one in a fantasy context. So I started writing it without a detailed outline, just that basic idea, planning to make it up as I went along.
(I often write short stories that way. I generally outline longer stories. But there are exceptions in all categories.)
Anyway, I started writing "The Sorcerer's Widow," with Ezak and Kel showing up on the not-yet-named widow's doorstep, and it kept going, and the plot started to work itself out in my head, and I realized, "This isn't a short story."
I thought it was going to be a novelet, and the anthology wanted short stories and I didn't have time to write a novelet so I put it aside.
That was in 1998 or '99, I'm not sure exactly.
I didn't get back to it for some time; I had plenty of other projects occupying my time. Eventually, though, after completing The Unwelcome Warlock, I wanted to get another Ethshar serial under way fairly quickly, because I was afraid that readers would think The Unwelcome Warlock was the end of the series. And I wanted to do a small, intimate Ethshar story, because The Unwelcome Warlock was so big and sweeping, and I didn't want people to think that was how the series would be from now on.
There were several stories I could have written, but the one that caught my fancy and struck me as just the right thing was The Sorcerer's Widow. Which I now thought (correctly, as it turned out) would be a short novel.
So I launched the serial in 2012.
Usually, when I'm serializing a novel, I need an outline, though I may not follow it very closely. For The Sorcerer's Widow I still didn't have one; I winged it.
Which makes it amazing it turned out as well as it did!
- Copyright 2013 by Lawrence Watt Evans.
- The first draft of The Sorcerer's Widow was written as a reader-supported serial on this website -- see "About the Serial," or the "Serial Box" blog. The serial began April 27, 2012, and was completed on July 20, 2012. I then sold the finished novel to Wildside Press.
- The final revised and edited version was first published in trade paperback in January 2014 by Wildside Press, ISBN 978-1434441751.
- Published as an ebook July 2013 by Wildside Press, no ISBN.
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