Welcome to the second sample chapter (of two) of the first draft of The Sorcerer's Widow, a short Ethshar novel. See the Technicalities page for an explanation of how this worked, the official blog for discussion and questions.
The dead sorcerer's house was the largest of the four that surrounded the square, though still not exactly a mansion. A line of black ash marked the front door, indicating that the occupants were in mourning. Ezak rapped gently, careful to keep his knuckles well clear of the ash.
"Who is it?" Dorna's voice called.
"Ezak of Ethshar."
"Just a moment."
Kel wished that Ezak had mentioned that he was there, too; he didn't want to startle anyone. He didn't want to call out himself, though, so he waited silently.
When Dorna opened the door she didn't seem surprised to see him there behind his friend. "Good morning! Come in, both of you," she said, swinging the door wide and moving aside to make room.
Ezak smiled and stepped into the house, with Kel following a step or two behind, but then he stopped so abruptly that Kel bumped into him, knocking him another step forward. Kel looked up at Ezak, startled. Ezak was staring at the room they had just entered. Kel looked around to see what had surprised him.
The room was large, taking up perhaps half the ground floor of the house, large enough that it needed two pillars to help support the ceiling, but Kel didn't think that was so very remarkable. There were two couches, and four armchairs, all upholstered in dark red; there were a few tables of various heights and sizes. The plank floor was mostly covered with an assortment of rugs, and the windows all had dark red drapes, which Kel supposed must be somewhat unusual out here in the country. The walls were largely hidden by shelves full of... full of things.
That must be what Ezak was staring at, Kel realized -- the things on the shelves. And standing in the corners. And hanging from the ceiling. Kel had no idea what the things were, though. They were a variety of colors, and came in a thousand different shapes and sizes -- the ones in the corners were there because they were too big to fit on any shelf, while others were so tiny they were stored in jars. Most of them were shiny, to one degree or another. Some were completely featureless, while others were covered with peculiar decorations and protrusions. None of them were familiar.
"Nabal... Nabal did well for himself, I see," Ezak said, a little hoarsely.
"Yes, he did," Dorna said, glancing around at the mysterious objects. "There are rather a lot, aren't there?"
Kel wanted to ask what they were talking about, but he resisted. That was the sort of question that could get him in trouble. He did not want to ruin Ezak's scheme, whatever it was.
"Yes," Ezak said.
"What brings you here this morning?" Dorna asked.
It took a moment for Ezak to tear his gaze from the shelves and reply, a delay long enough that Kel almost said something himself. He was deterred, though, by not knowing what to say -- why had they come?
"Oh, we just wanted to offer our condolences, and to ask once more whether there is a anything we can do to aid you in your time of sorrow."
"Ah," Dorna said. "As a matter of fact, I've been thinking about your offer."
Ezak swallowed. "Oh?"
"I don't think I need any advice; I can make up my own mind on most matters. If you really just want to be helpful, though -- well, as you can see, my husband had a good many talismans. With Nabal gone, I don't think I want to stay here in the village; this was always more his home than mine, it isn't where I grew up, and everything here reminds me of him. I don't see any point in returning to my home village, either -- my family there has all died or moved away, and after more than twenty years I doubt anyone else there even remembers me. I thought I might go to Ethshar of the Sands, instead, and buy myself a little tea shop there to keep myself busy. I can sell some of Nabal's magic to other sorcerers there to pay for it -- there really isn't anyone around here who could buy them, but in Ethshar there are dozens of sorcerers. The thing is, all these talismans are a lot to move, and a woman traveling alone with valuables is at risk. If you really want to be helpful, perhaps you could assist me in transporting them, and accompany me to the city?" She smiled, and Kel reconsidered his opinion of her appearance -- when she smiled, she was much prettier than he had realized.
"We'd be delighted to give you a hand," Ezak said, smiling back at her.
Kel didn't say anything. Carrying all that stuff looked like a lot of work, but at least it wasn't something that would get him in trouble. He wished Ezak would ask about maybe getting paid for it, though.
"How were you planning to move it all?" Ezak asked.
"Oh, I'll be buying a wagon," Dorna said.
"Ah," Ezak said, looking around.
"A large wagon," Dorna added.
"Indeed. I wonder whether perhaps dear Nabal had any sorcerous devices that might assist us in the task. Perhaps I could take a look...?"
Dorna shook her head. "I think we'll do fine with an ordinary wagon."
Ezak bowed. "As you please." He smiled. "When will the wagon be available?"
She smiled again. "You seem very eager to get started."
"Ah, no! I am in no hurry, my dear. I merely wish to know how soon we must bid the delightful Irien farewell."
The smile vanished. "You know, she's the one thing here I think I'll miss. To the other villagers I was always the sorcerer's wife, someone to be honored and feared, someone you spent as little time with as possible. Irien, though..." She sighed. "Irien was my friend."
"Maybe she could come with you," Kel suggested.
Dorna blinked, startled, though Kel wasn't sure whether she was startled by the idea of Irien accompanying her, or the fact that Kel had spoken for the first time that morning.
"I'm sure she'd rather stay here," Ezak said, throwing Kel a dirty look. "After all, what would an innkeeper do without her inn? She can hardly bring it with her!"
"Maybe there's some magic that would let her bring it?" Kel ventured.
Dorna laughed. "Not that I know," she said.
"Don't be ridiculous, Kel," Ezak said. "Poor Nabal was the sorcerer here, and he's gone. There aren't any magicians here."
"Well, you're here," Dorna pointed out.
"Yes, of course," Ezak said hastily. "But I don't live here, and I'm afraid my modest skills are completely inadequate to the task of moving an inn. Besides, where would she put it? The streets of Ethshar of the Sands are full!"
Kel had no answer to that. Ezak was obviously right; in fact, the more Kel thought about it, the more foolish his suggestion seemed. Dorna was smiling at him, but at least she wasn't laughing outright. He ducked his head and looked around the room rather than meeting her eyes.
There really were a lot of things on the shelves, Kel thought. Were they all magic? If they were, that was a lot of sorcery. Even if Ezak did steal some of it, Dorna would still have plenty left, Kel told himself.
"I don't think Irien would want to bring her inn," Dorna said thoughtfully, "but she might want to come along all the same, if only to visit the city for a few days."
"Can she really afford to abandon her livelihood for that long?" Ezak asked.
"Oh, I'm sure something can be arranged." The sorcerer's widow considered for a moment, then said, "If you would excuse me, I believe I'll go speak to her right now. I hope you'll forgive me if I cut your visit short?"
"Oh, of course, of course!" Ezak forced a grin. "We'll get out of your way. Just let us know when we can be of service."
"You can walk with me to the inn, if you like."
Ezak bowed. "We would be honored."
Kel did not see that it was much of an honor, since all three of them would be going to the inn anyway, but he didn't say anything.
"If you could wait outside while I get my shawl?"
"Of course," Ezak said. He bowed again, but did not move toward the door until Kel tugged at his tunic.
"Come on," Kel murmured. He glanced at Dorna, who was looking both impatient and amused.
"I'm coming," Ezak said angrily, as he straightened.
A moment later the two men were standing outside the front door, waiting. Kel was content to stand there enjoying the morning air, but Ezak leaned over and whispered, "Why did you suggest bringing the innkeeper along? The fewer eyes we have upon us, the better our chances of making a clean escape with all the sorcery we can carry!"
"Oh," Kel said. "I didn't think of that."
"Did you see all those talismans?"
"I guess so," Kel said. "I didn't know what they were."
"Well, neither do I, but so what? We can still sell them. I assume any sorcerer would recognize them, even if we don't. We'll be rich!"
Kel was not entirely convinced. He still remembered what that whip had felt like on his back, and Ezak had been sure that that scheme, selling phony spells to demonologists, would make them rich. Ezak had said that when the spells didn't work, the demonologists would just think they had made mistakes somewhere; he had never guessed that they could ask other demons whether the spells were real. Kel was very much afraid that he was making some similar mistake in this attempt to rob or swindle the sorcerer's widow. What if some of the talismans were used up or broken? What if no one knew what they were? This Nabal had apparently been a much better sorcerer than Kel would expect to find in a tiny village like this, if all those things were really magic.
Kel didn't think Ezak's plan was going to work, but they were here, and Kel was sure that Ezak was smarter than Kel was even if he made mistakes sometimes.
Then the door opened and Dorna emerged, her soft blue shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Kel stepped back out of her way, while Ezak made an elaborate bow and moved as if to take her arm.
She did not accept his gesture; Kel thought she looked amused, or perhaps slightly annoyed. Instead she headed directly for the inn without pausing, leaving Ezak scrambling to follow.
Kel was not in any particular hurry, and it wasn't as if anyone was going very far. He took his time about following the other two, looking around the tiny village.
He could see why Dorna would not want to stay here. In fact, he didn't understand how a sorcerer had ever made a living here in the first place -- or for that matter, how the blacksmith or the innkeeper managed it. There were no other people to be seen in the village itself, though he could see a few figures moving in the surrounding fields. Yes, a road ran through the village, but he didn't see anyone using it. Kel was a city boy, born and raised in the Smallgate district of Ethshar of the Sands, and he didn't really understand why anyone would want to live outside the city walls; how could you make a living without other people for customers? Besides, it seemed so lonely out here!
If Irien didn't want to come with them, Kel was sure Dorna could find plenty of new friends in Ethshar -- but of course, old friends were the best. That was why Kel stayed with Ezak; they had been friends ever since they were boys, not yet wearing breeches. Ezak had protected Kel from the local bullies back on Barracks Street, and in exchange Kel had slipped into places where Ezak couldn't fit, and taken things Ezak wanted.
Ezak had also told stories about his Uncle Vezalis, the traveling merchant, and Kel had happily listened to those, but he had never entirely believed them. Ezak liked to exaggerate, and Uncle Vezalis liked to exaggerate, so by the time a story had gone through both of them it might have grown like a mushroom after a rain. Kel knew he wasn't the smartest person around, but even he knew that some of the stories Ezak told him weren't true.
This time, though, if all those things really were magic, Ezak's uncle apparently hadn't exaggerated at all.
Kel glanced around, and wondered why Uncle Vezalis had ever come to this tiny little village in the first place. Had he come to trade with the sorcerer, or had this place just been on the way to somewhere else?
Then Kel was at the inn door, and Irien and Dorna were talking in the common room while Ezak listened unhappily.
"...eat on the way?" Irien was saying as Kel came within earshot.
Dorna laughed. "You're asking that? Irien, did you think you run the only inn between here and Ethshar?"
"No, no, of course not, but... Dorna, are you sure?"
"Sure I'm going, or sure you should come with me?"
"Yes. To both."
"You know why Nabal stayed here."
"Yes, and I know I disagreed with him."
Kel glanced at Ezak, wondering whether he knew what the two women were talking about. Why had Nabal stayed here?
"That wasn't just bravado? I always thought you were... well, I didn't think you meant it. If you didn't want to stay here, why did you?"
Dorna turned up an empty hand. "Nabal was here," she said. "And now he's gone, so I'm leaving, and I'm asking if you'd like to come with me."
Irien looked up at the overhead beams, then back at the big stone hearth, then back at Dorna.
"I'll come," she said. "I may not stay. I don't know whether I'll like the city, but I admit I'm curious to see it."
"Good enough!" Dorna said with a broad smile. "We'll leave as soon as my wagon is ready."
"It's two days to the cartwright in Vozoril, and two days back, assuming he has one on hand. Four days, then?"
Ezak spoke up. "I would be happy to make that trip for you, if you like."
Dorna shook her head. "That won't be necessary. I'll send word right away. But I was thinking we might buy our wagons from farmers right here, and let them deal with the cartwright. I believe Grondar has one that would suit me."
"That's a thought," Irien said.
"We could load tonight, and leave tomorrow morning."
"You are in a hurry! What about your house?"
"Anyone who wants it can have it."
Irien's expression turned grave. "Dorna, aren't you rushing a little? I know you've never been one to hesitate once your mind is made up, but are you sure you're so eager to abandon everything you've known for the last twenty years? This isn't your grief talking? Isn't there anything in the house you're sentimental about?"
"I'm sure, Irien. These two young men have dispelled any doubts I might have had -- surely, their arrival is a sign from the gods."
Kel shifted uncomfortably and looked at Ezak, who gestured for silence.
"All right, then," Irien said. "I'll start packing, and we'll leave whenever you're ready."
"Good!" Dorna smiled. "I need to go take care of a few things." She turned and swept past Kel, back out of the inn and headed toward her own house.
Kel stepped aside as the widow passed, and watched her go. Now he turned back to find Ezak standing next to him. Irien was nowhere to be seen, and had presumably gone to do the packing she had mentioned.
"Blast it," Ezak said. "She's coming with us."
Kel did not see that there was anything to be done about that, so he did not reply. Instead he said, "I don't think we're a sign from the gods."
Ezak, who had been staring at the departing Dorna, looked down at Kel. "What?"
"I don't think we're a sign from the gods," Kel repeated. "I don't feel like a sign."
"Don't be stupid," Ezak said. "How do you know what a sign feels like? But it doesn't matter what you think, anyway; what matters is that she thinks the gods sent us. If she does, then surely she'll trust us."
That seemed like something of a leap to Kel, but he could not say exactly where the flaw in his friend's logic was, so he did not say anything.
"Come on," Ezak said. "Let's go see what we can do to help." He marched out the door.