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Lawrence Watt-Evans

The Unwilling Warlord

PART ONE

Warlord

CHAPTER 1

The 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 backcountry 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 territories, 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

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