The Unwilling Warlord was the third novel in the Ethshar series -- though it's not third in internal chronology. It's the story of a young man who finds that he's the hereditary warlord of a small kingdom that's on the verge of war against two larger neighbors. He has a simple choice -- win the war, or die.
And the only way he can see to win the war is to use magic to cheat.
|The Wildside edition. Cover art is by Dalmazio Frau
|The cover of the Del Rey edition. Cover art is by Darrell K. Sweet.|
|The cover of the Cosmos edition. Cover design by Stephen H. Segal.|
|The cover of the British edition. Cover art is by Norbert Losche.|
|The Russian cover. Art is by Anatoliy Dubovik. This is an omnibus with The Blood of A Dragon, which is the title on the cover.|
A Legend of Ethshar
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Part One: Warlord
he dice rolled, smacked against the baseboard, then bounced back and skittered to a stop. One showed five pips, and the other two each showed six, clearly visible even in the flickering light of the tavern alcove.
The paunchy farmer in the greasy gray tunic stared at the dice for a moment, then snapped his head up and glared suspiciously at his opponent. He demanded, "Are you sure you're not cheating?" His breath carried the warm, thick aroma of stale wine.
The thin young man, who wore a patched but clean tunic of worn blue velvet, looked up from raking in the stakes with a carefully-contrived expression of hurt on his face. His dark brown eyes were wide with innocent dismay.
"Me?" he said, "Me, cheating? Abran, old friend, how can you suggest such a thing?"
He pushed the coins to one side, then smiled and said, "Still my throw?"
Abran nodded. "Make your throw, and I'll decide my wager."
The youth hesitated, but the rules did allow a losing bettor to see the next roll before wagering again. If Abran did decide to bet, though, it would be at two-to-one instead of even money.
That probably meant the game was over.
He shrugged, picked up the bits of bone again and rolled them, watching with satisfaction as the first stopped with six black specks showing, the second seemed to balance on one corner before dropping to show another six, and the last bounced, rebounded from the wall, spun in mid-air, and came down with five spots on the top face.
Abran stared, then turned his head and spat on the grimy floor in disgust. "Seventeen again?" he growled, turning back. "Sterren, if that's really your name," he said, in a more natural tone, "I don't know what you're doing -- maybe you're just honestly lucky, or maybe you're a magician, but however you do it, you've won enough of my money. I give up. I'm leaving, and I hope I never see you again."
He stood, joints creaking.
An hour earlier the purse on his belt had been bulging with the proceeds of a good harvest; now it clinked dismally, only a few coins remaining, as he walked stiffly away.
Sterren watched him go without comment and dropped the coins of the final wager into the purse on his own belt, which had acquired much of the bulge now missing from Abran's.
When the farmer was out of sight he allowed himself to smile broadly. It had been an exceptionally successful evening. The poor old fool had stuck it out longer than any opponent in years.
And of course, where two could be seen having a game, others would sit in for a round or two. A dozen besides poor Abran had contributed to Sterren's winnings.
For perhaps the thousandth time in his career as a tavern gambler, Sterren wondered whether he had been cheating. He honestly did not know. He knew he certainly was not guilty of anything so common as using weighted dice or muttering spells under his breath, but there were magicks that needed no incantations, and he had been apprenticed to a warlock once -- even if it had only been for three days before the warlock threw him out, calling him a hopeless incompetent. His master had tried to give him the ability to tap into the source of warlockry's power, and it hadn't seemed to work -- but maybe it had, just a little bit, without either his master or himself realizing it.
Warlockry was the art of moving things by magically-enhanced willpower, moving them without touching them, and it was quite obvious that a warlock would have no trouble at all cheating at dice. It wouldn't take much warlockry to affect something as small as dice, and it was said only warlockry could detect warlockry, so the wizards and sorcerers Sterren had encountered would never have known it was there.
Might it be that he controlled the dice without knowing it, using an uncontrolled trace of warlockry, simply by wishing?
It might be, he decided, but it might also be that he was just lucky. After all, he didn't win all the time. Perhaps one of the gods happened to favor him, or it might be that he had been born under a fortunate star -- though except for his luck with dice, he wasn't particularly blessed.
He stood, tucked the dice in his pouch, and brushed off the knees of his worn velvet breeches. The night was still young, or at worst middle-aged; perhaps, he thought, he might find another sucker.
He looked around the dimly-lit tavern's main room, but saw no promising prospects. Most of the room's handful of rather sodden inhabitants were regulars who knew better than to play against him. The really easy marks, the back-country farmers, would all be asleep or outside the city walls by this hour of the night; he had no real chance of finding one roaming the streets.
Other serious gamers would be settled in somewhere, most likely on Games Street, in Camptown on the far side of the city, where Sterren never ventured -- there were far too many guardsmen that close to the camp. Guardsmen were bad business -- suspicious, and able to act on their suspicions.
A few potential opponents might be over in nearby Westgate or down in the New Merchants' Quarter, which were familiar territory, or in the waterfront districts of Shiphaven and Spicetown, which he generally avoided, but to find anyone he would have to start the dreary trek from tavern to tavern once again.
Or of course, he could just sit and wait in the hope that some latecomer would walk in the door.
He was not enthusiastic about either option. Maybe, he thought, he could just take the rest of the night off; it depended upon how much he had taken in so far. He decided to count his money and see how he stood. If he had cleared enough to pay the innkeeper's fee for not interfering, the past month's rent for his room, and his long-overdue bar tab, he could afford to rest.
He drew the heavy gray curtain across the front of his little alcove for privacy, then poured the contents of his purse on the blackened planks of the floor.
Ten minutes later he was studying a copper bit, trying to decide whether it had been clipped or not, when he heard a disturbance of some sort in the front of the tavern. It was probably nothing to do with him, he told himself, but just in case he swept his money back into the purse. The clipped coin -- if it was clipped -- didn't really matter; even without it he had done better than he had realized, and had enough to pay his bills with a little left over.
Only a very little bit left over, unfortunately -- not quite enough for a decent meal. He would be starting with a clean slate, though.
The disturbance was continuing; loud voices were audible, and not all of them were speaking Ethsharitic. He decided that the situation deserved investigation, and he peered cautiously around the end of the curtain.
A very odd group was arguing with the innkeeper. There were four of them, none of whom Sterren recalled having seen before. Two were huge, hulking men clad in heavy steel-studded leather tunics and blood-red kilts of barbarous cut, with unadorned steel helmets on their black-haired heads and swords hanging from broad leather belts -- obviously foreigners, to be dressed so tackily, and probably soldiers of some kind, but certainly not in the city guard. The kilts might possibly have been city issue -- though if so, some clothier had swindled the overlord's officers -- but the helmets and tunics and belts were all wrong. Both of the men were tanned a dark brown, which implied that they were from some more southerly clime -- somewhere in the Small Kingdoms, no doubt.
A third man was short and stocky, brown-haired and lightly tanned, clad in the simple bleached cotton tunic and blue woolen kilt of a sailor, with nothing to mark him as either foreign or local; it was he who was doing most of the shouting. One of his hands was clamped onto the front of the innkeeper's tunic. The other was raised in a gesture that was apparently magical, since a thin trail of pink sparks dripped from his raised forefinger.
The group's final member was a woman, tall and aristocratic, clad in a gown of fine green velvet embroidered in gold. Her black hair was trimmed and curled in a style that had gone out of favor years ago, and that, added to the shoddy workmanship of the embroidery and her dusky complexion, marked her as as much of a foreign barbarian as the two soldiers.
"Where is he?" The sailor's final bellow reached Sterren's ears quite plainly. The innkeeper's reply did not, but the finger pointing toward the curtained alcove -- toward Sterren -- was unmistakable.
That was a shock. It was obvious that the foursome meant no good for whoever they sought, and it appeared they sought him. He did not recognize any of them, but it was possible that he had won money from one or all of them in the past, or perhaps they were relatives of some poor fool he had fleeced, come to avenge the family honor.
He tried to remember if he had won anything from any barbarians lately; usually he avoided them, since they were reputed to have violent tempers, and the world was full of gullible farmers. He did not recall playing against any barbarians since Festival, and surely, nobody would begrudge anything short of violence that had happened during Festival!
Perhaps they were hired, then. In any case, Sterren did not care to meet them.
He ducked back behind the curtain and looked about, considering possibilities.
There weren't very many.
The alcove was absolutely simple, comprised of three gray stone walls and the curtain, the plank floor with betting lines chalked on it, and a beamed wooden ceiling, black with years of smoke, that undoubtedly served as a floor for an upstairs room. There were no doors, no windows, and no way he could slip out. No hiding places were possible, since three wooden chairs were the only furniture. Smoky oil lamps perched on high shelves at either end provided what light there was, as well as the fishy aroma that combined with stale ale in the tavern's distinctive stench.
No help was to be had in here, that was plain, nor could he hope to rally the tavern's other patrons to his aid; he was not popular there. Gamblers who usually win are rarely well-liked -- especially when they play for stakes so low that they can't afford to be lavish with their winnings.
Sterren realized he would have to rely on his wits -- and those wits were good enough that he knew he would rather not have to rely on them.
They were, however, all he had, and he had no time to waste. He flung back one end of the curtain and pointed at the door to the street, shouting, "There he goes! There he goes! You can still catch him if you hurry!"
Only two of the foursome paid any heed at all, and even those two treated it only as a minor distraction, giving the door only quick glances. The two immense soldiers did not appear to have heard him. Instead, upon seeing him, they turned and marched heavily toward him, moving with a slow relentless tread that reminded Sterren of the tide coming in at the docks.
The other two, the sailor and the foreign noblewoman, followed the soldiers; the sailor flicked his forefinger, and the trail of sparks vanished.
Sterren did not bother ducking back behind the curtain; he stood and waited.
It had been a feeble ruse, but the best he could manage on such short notice. As often as not, similar tricks had been effective in the past; it had certainly been worth trying.
Since it had failed, he supposed he would have to face whatever these people wanted to do with him. He hoped it wasn't anything too unpleasant. If they had sent by one of his creditors he could even pay -- if they gave him a chance before breaking his arm, or maybe his head. Even if someone demanded interest, there was no one person he owed more than he now had.
The quartet stopped a few feet away; one of the soldiers stepped forward and pulled aside the curtain, revealing the empty alcove.
The sailor looked at the bare walls, then at Sterren. "That was a stupid stunt," he said in a conversational tone. His Ethsharitic had a trace of a Shiphaven twang, but was clear enough. "Are you Sterren, son of Kelder?""
Cautiously, Sterren replied, "I might know a fellow by that name." He noticed the tavern's few remaining patrons watching and, one by one, slipping out the door.
The spokesman exchanged a few words with the velvet-clad woman in some foreign language, which Sterren thought might be the Trader's Tongue heard on the docks; the woman then spoke a brief phrase to the soldiers, and Sterren found his arms clamped in the grasp of the two large barbarians, one on either side. He could smell their sweat very clearly.
It was not a pleasant smell.
"Are you Sterren, son of Kelder, son of Kelder, or are you not?" the sailor demanded once again.
"Why?" Sterren's voice was unsteady, but he looked the sailor in the eye without blinking.
The sailor paused, almost smiling, to admire the courage it took to ask that question. Then he again demanded, "Are you?"
Sterren glanced sideways at the unmoving mass of soldier gripping his right arm, obviously not in the mood for civilized discourse or casual banter, and admitted, "My name is Sterren of Ethshar, and my father was called Kelder the Younger."
"Good," the sailor said. He turned and spoke two words to the woman.
She replied with a long speech. The sailor listened carefully, then turned back to Sterren and said, "You're probably the one they want, but Lady Kalira would like me to ask you some questions and make sure."
Sterren shrugged as best he could with his arms immobilized, his nerve returning somewhat. "Ask away. I have nothing to hide," he said.
It must be a family affair, he decided, or his identity wouldn't be a matter for such concern. He might talk his way out yet, he thought.
"Are you the eldest son of your father?"
That was not a question he had expected. Could these people have some arcane scruples about killing a man's first heir? Or, on the other hand, did they consider the eldest of a family to be responsible for the actions of his kin? The latter possibility didn't matter much, since Sterren had no living kin -- at least, not in any reasonable degree of consanguinity.
Hesitantly, he replied, "Yes."
"You have a different name from your father."
"So what? Plenty of eldest sons do -- repeating names is a stupid custom. My father let his mother name me, said there were too damn many Kelders around already."
"Your father was the eldest son of his mother?"
This made no sense to Sterren at all. "Yes," he said, puzzled.
"Your father is dead?"
"Dead these sixteen years. He ran afoul of..."
"Never mind that; it's enough we have your word that he's dead."
"My word? I was a boy of three, scarcely a good witness even had I been there, which I was not. But I was told he was dead, and I never saw him again." This line of questioning was beginning to bother him. Were these people come to avenge some wrong his father had committed? He knew nothing about the old man save that he had been a merchant -- and of course, the lurid story of his death at the hands of a crazed enchanter had been told time and time again.
It would be grossly unfair, in Sterren's opinion, for his own death to result from some ancestral misdemeanor, rather than one of his own offenses or failings; he hoped he could convince these people of that.
It occurred to him that perhaps this sailor with his pink sparks was that very same crazed enchanter, but that idea made no sense, and he discarded it. It was far more likely that the pink sparks were part of some shop-bought spell.
In fact, they might well be all there was to the spell, a little something to impress the ladies, or anybody else, for that matter.
"His mother, your grandmother -- who was she?" the sailor asked.
His grandmother? Sterren was even more baffled than before. He had been seven when she died, and he remembered her mostly as a friendly, wrinkled face and a warm voice telling impossible tales. His grandfather, who had raised him after all the others were dead, had missed her terribly and had spoken of her often, explaining how he had brought her back from a tiny little kingdom on the very edge of the world, talking about how she got along so well with everyone so long as she got her way.
"Her name was Tanissa the Stubborn, I think; she came from the Small Kingdoms somewhere." As did these four, he realized, or at least three of them. The questions suddenly began to make sense. She must have stolen something, or committed some heinous offense, and they had finally tracked her down.
It had certainly taken them long enough. Surely they wouldn't carry their revenge to the third generation! "She's dead," he added helpfully.
"Was she ever called Tanissa of Semma?"
"I don't know; I never heard her called that."
There was another exchange in the familiar but incomprehensible language, including his grandmother's name as well as his own. By the end of it the woman seemed excited, and was smiling.
The smile didn't look vindictive, but that was very little comfort; whatever crime his grandmother had committed must have been half a century ago, and this woman could scarcely have been born then. She wasn't exactly young, but she didn't look that old -- and she didn't look young enough to be using a youth spell. She must have been sent on the hunt by someone else; perhaps her father or mother was the wronged party. In that case she'd be glad to have the job done, but would have no reason for personal dislike.
A glance to either side showed the two soldiers as impassive as ever, and he wondered whether they understood what was going on any better than he did.
The interpreter, as the sailor apparently was, turned back to Sterren and asked, "Do you have any family?"
"No." He didn't think it was worth trying to lie.
Sterren shook his head.
"What about your mother?"
"She died bearing me." Perhaps, he thought, they would take pity on him because he was an orphan.
"Since you're the eldest, there could scarcely be brothers or sisters if she died bearing you. What about old Kelder, your grandfather?"
It occurred to Sterren, a bit belatedly, that he was removing the possibility of spreading the blame or getting off on grounds of family support, but it was too late already, and he continued to tell the truth. "He died three years ago. He was an old man."
"Uncles? Aunts? Cousins?"
"Your other grandparents?"
"Dead before I was born, from drinking bad water."
"Good!" the sailor said with a smile. "Then you should be able to leave immediately!"
"What?" Sterren exclaimed, "Leave where? I'm not going anywhere!" He made no attempt to hide his surprise and indignation.
"Why not?" the sailor demanded. "You're not still an apprentice, are you?"
"What if I am? Where are you taking me? Who are you?" His remaining assurance faded a little more; they wouldn't dare kill him here in the tavern, probably not anywhere in Ethshar, but if they managed to remove him from the city they could do anything they pleased. There was no law outside the walls -- or at least Sterren knew of none.
"I'm just an interpreter..." the sailor began.
"What were those sparks?" Sterren interrupted.
The sailor waved the question away. "Nothing; I bought them on Wizard Street to help find you. Really, I'm just an interpreter. I'm not the one looking for you."
"Then who are these others, and what do they want with me?"
"The Lady Kalira is taking you to Semma," the sailor replied.
"The hell she is!" Sterren said. "I'm not leaving the city!" He was close to panic; visions of death by slow torture flickered through his mind.
The sailor sighed. "I'm afraid you are, whether you like it or not."
"Why?" Sterren asked, letting a trace of panic into his voice in hopes of inducing pity. "What do these people want with me?"
The man shrugged. "Don't ask me. They hired me in Akalla to get them to Ethshar and find you, so I got them to Ethshar and found you. It's none of my business what they want you for."
"It's my business, though!" Sterren pointed out. He tried to struggle; the soldiers gave no sign they had even noticed. He subsided, and demanded, "You can ask, at least, can't you?"
"I can ask Lady Kalira," the sailor admitted. "Those two don't speak Trader's Tongue, and for all I know they're the ones who want you." He seemed appallingly disinterested.
"Ask her!" Sterren shrieked.
The sailor turned and said something.
The tall woman did not answer him, but stepped forward and spoke directly to Sterren, saying very slowly and distinctly, "O'ri Sterren, Enne Karnai t'Semma."
"What the hell does that mean?" Sterren asked. He was about to say something further when he realized that the two barbarians had released his arms. He looked up at them, and saw that their huge flat faces were broken into broad grins. One stuck out an immense paw and shook Sterren's hand vigorously, clasping it hard enough to sting. Utterly confused, Sterren asked the sailor, "What did she say?"
"Don't ask me; that was Semmat, not Trader's Tongue. I don't speak Semmat."
Lady Kalira saw Sterren's continued incomprehension and said, "Od'na ya Semmat?" When he still looked blank, she said, "Et'sharitic is bad." Her pronunciation was horrendous.
Sterren stared for a moment, then turned to the sailor and demanded, "Is she telling me my native tongue isn't fit for her to speak? Is this some sort of barbarian ritual thing?" He was even more thoroughly confused than before.
"No, no, no," the sailor said, "She's just saying she can't speak it very well. I don't think she knows more than a dozen words, to be honest, and I taught her half of those on the way here."
The Semman aristocrat apparently gave up on direct communication with her captive, and gave the interpreter a long message to relay. He interrupted her twice, requesting clarifications -- at least that was what Sterren judged to be happening, since each interruption was followed by a careful repetition of an earlier phrase.
Finally, the sailor turned to Sterren and explained, "She says she was sent by her king, Phenvel the Third, to find the heir of your grandmother's brother, the Eighth Warlord, who died four months ago. She consulted a magician -- I'm not clear on what sort -- and that led her to you. She is to bring you back to Semma to receive your title and inheritance and to fulfill your hereditary duties as the new warlord -- you're Enne Karnai, the Ninth Warlord."
"That's silly," Sterren replied. He relaxed somewhat. If the story were true, then his worries about vengeance were groundless, and he saw no reason for the woman to bother lying.
"That's what she said," the sailor replied with a shrug.
"What if I won't go?" he asked. While it might be nice to have an inheritance waiting for him, that bit about "hereditary duties" didn't sound good, and he wanted nothing to do with wars or warlords. Wars were dangerous. Besides, who would want to live among barbarians? Particularly among barbarians who apparently didn't speak Ethsharitic.
The idea was ludicrous.
The interpreter relayed his question, and Lady Kalira's face fell. She spoke an authoritative sentence; the sailor hesitantly translated it as, "She says that failure to perform one's duty to one's country is treason, and treason is punishable by immediate summary execution."
"Execution?" The inheritance suddenly sounded much more attractive.
Lady Kalira said something in Semmat; the smiles vanished from the faces of the soldiers, and each dropped a hand to his sword-hilt.
"But it's not my country!" Sterren protested. "I was born and raised here in Ethshar, of Ethsharitic parents!" He looked from the sailor to Lady Kalira and back.
The sailor shrugged, a gesture that was getting on Sterren's nerves. Lady Kalira said, in halting Ethsharitic, "You, the heir."
Sterren looked despairingly at the two soldiers; he could see no chance at all that he could outrun or outfight either of them, let alone both. The one on the left slid a few inches of his blade from its scabbard, in warning.
"Hai! No bloodshed in here! Take him outside first!" The innkeeper's voice was worried.
No one paid any attention to his outburst -- save that Sterran hoped he would call the city guard.
Hoping for the city guard was a new experience for him.
Even if they were summoned, though, they could not possibly arrive in time to do him any good. He had no way out. Struggling to smile, Sterren managed a ghastly parody of a grin as he said, "I guess I'll be going to Semma, then."
Lady Kalira smiled smugly.
Many years ago I read Thomas Costain's multi-volume history of the Plantagenet kings of England -- good reading, by the way, if not necessarily entirely accurate as history -- and was struck by one bit of historical trivia. During the reign of the Plantagenet kings -- or at least some of them -- the title of Marshal of England was hereditary. The Marshal was the commander-in-chief of the English army.
This was not a ceremonial title; it was real. The commander of the English army was chosen according to the laws of primogeniture, with no regard whatsoever for whether the person thus chosen had any talent or interest.
In fact, at one point, William Marshal, who had held the title for decades, died without any offspring, leaving his widow as his only heir. Given the tenor of the times, obviously a woman couldn't be Marshal, which meant that whoever married her would become Marshal. There was quite a competition for her hand.
This struck me as being so stunningly stupid I couldn't leave it alone. I mean, what if he hadn't left a widow, but had had some obscure nephew somewhere? Some poor kid who had no idea he was next in line for the job?
And that gave me the character of Sterren of Semma.
Then I needed some way for him to triumph, if I was going to get a novel out of this. I wasn't about to have him be a born military genius; I don't believe in that sort of miracle. If he was going to win a war, he'd have to cheat.
In a fantasy novel, the obvious cheat would be to use magic, and of course magic is prone to blow up in one's face. I'd long ago worked out the laws of warlockry (in fact, they antedate Ethshar itself by several years, having originally been devised for a completely different project I started back in high school), and it wasn't hard to bring those into the story.
And there it was. And when I came up with the idea for writing the Ethshar series, this was the story I wanted to do first.
Eventually, though, I persisted, and I wrote it, and here it is. The real title was An Unwilling Warlord, but Lester insisted on changing it to the definite article -- we argued about that right up until the last minute, after it had gone to proofs and everything, but he won the argument -- not through logic, but because he was the editor.
Except that two years later he admitted it should have been An Unwilling Warlord after all -- about the only time I ever heard Lester admit he'd been wrong about anything at all.
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