-- Paul di Filippo, Science Fiction Weekly
The story begins when a young man nicknamed "Breaker" is asked whether he wants to become the Chosen Swordsman. There hasn't been a Dark Lord in over a century, so he thinks of it as a ceremonial position.
He gradually learns that it's a bit more complicated than that.
And really, there's not much more I can tell you at this point -- about the only other thing I can do is attach an excerpt from the opening chapter...
The Wizard Lord
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
excerpt from Chapter One
Five people were sitting on a bench at the far end of the terrace rail, Breaker noticed, by the door to the outside road. One was the village's elder priestess, the sigil of office glowing faintly upon her forehead, while the other four were cloaked, and three of them were elaborately adorned with protective ara feathers. Breaker was fairly sure he recognized one of the feathered ones as the Greenwater Guide, the man who worked the southeastern road out of Mad Oak, past the eponymous tree itself, but the others were unfamiliar -- presumably travelers the Guide had led, probably on their way to Ashgrove and perhaps beyond, since Breaker could think of no reason strangers would be stopping in Mad Oak.
Or perhaps they had just come from Ashgrove and were bound for Greenwater. That was actually a little more likely; from Greenwater one could travel on to the Midlands and the southern hills and all the wide world to the south of Longvale, while beyond Ashgrove were just half a dozen towns in Longvale and Shadowvale before the safe routes ended.
Whatever their destination they clearly were travelers, since two of them wore ara feathers, and even cloaked, Breaker doubted there was a man in Mad Oak he wouldn't have recognized. He wondered why the travelers weren't claiming their share of the beer; they were certainly watching the harvesters drink, and Elder Priestess would have let them know they were welcome to share in the land's bounty.
And why did one traveler not have ara plumes on his cloak to ward off the hostile magic of the wilds between towns?
"Hey, Breaker!" called one of the young man's companions. "If you keep staring at those people, we may just have to throw you over the rail to the ler to apologize for your rudeness!"
The other young men laughed as Breaker turned around angrily. "I wasn't staring!" he said. "At least, no more than they were staring at us."
"All the same, you don't seem to be paying attention to the rest of us -- or to the beer, and that's an insult to all the work we did today to earn it. Maybe we should heave you over just on general principles."
"You think you could throw me over the rail, Joker?" Breaker demanded.
"Oh, not by myself," Joker retorted. "But I'm sure some of these other fine fellows would be happy to help."
Breaker's momentary annoyance was already spent; he smiled. "Now, why would they want to help you, Joker? There isn't a one of us you haven't tormented this summer!"
"But at least I do the beer justice!" He turned and held out his mug. "Brewer, another round!" The brewmaster obliged him, opening the tap as Joker thrust the mug into position.
"They are staring at us, aren't they?" remarked Elbows, another of the group, looking past Breaker at the strangers.
Breaker turned again. He was almost beginning to get dizzy, looking around at everything like this, and he frowned at himself. This was supposed to be a celebration with his friends -- it had been a good year and a good harvest, thanks to the ler and the Wizard Lord and plenty of hard work, and they had the summer beer to drink up to make room for the brewer's next batch. In an hour or so they would be dancing with the village girls, begging kisses and maybe something more than kisses, and here he was looking at the sky and the ler and the travelers and everywhere but at his companions and the beer. He felt somehow detached from his surroundings, as if he were a mere observer rather than a participant, and he didn't know why; it certainly wasn't a common sensation for him. It was as if the ler were trying to tell him something, but he couldn't imagine what.
He gulped the rest of his mug, but did not immediately turn back to refill it.
The strangers really were watching the harvesters with an intensity that seemed out of place.
"If you want some beer, come ahead," Breaker called to them. "We can spare you a few pints."
The travelers glanced at one another, exchanged a few words Breaker could not hear; the priestess leaned over and whispered something equally inaudible. The Guide -- Breaker was sure now that that man was the guide who worked the roads to Ashgrove and Greenwater -- threw up his hands, rose from the bench, and stepped away, clearly dissociating himself from whatever the others were discussing.
Then the strangers rose, all three of them, and began walking toward the party of harvesters. The priestess hesitated, then arose and followed them.
Breaker watched their approach with interest. He set his empty mug down on the nearer of the two tables the brewmaster had set up, and put his hands on his hips.
The two of the strangers who wore feathers, a man and a woman, also carried staves -- not simple walking-sticks, but elaborately carved and decorated things as tall as their bearers, with assorted trinkets dangling from them here and there. The third figure was a big man, bigger than Breaker himself, and as he walked his featherless cloak fell open to reveal a heavy leather belt with a scabbard and hilt slung on one hip -- a large scabbard, though the cloak still hid its actual length, and an unusually large and fine hilt.
And all three of them, Breaker saw now that their faces sometimes caught the lantern-light as they moved, were old, easily as old as the grandmothers chattering by the hearth. That was odd; travel was usually considered too dangerous for the elderly.
But then, Breaker was already fairly certain these three weren't just traders or wanderers; he had a thought or two as to who they might be, though it was hard to believe. He stepped aside, to let them at the keg of beer, but the old man with the staff spoke.
"We didn't come here for beer, I'm afraid."
"Though we do appreciate the offer," the old woman added hastily. She glanced around. "We are grateful to the ler of this place for making us welcome, and would not spurn any hospitality they might see fit to give us."
"If you want to talk to the ler, you want to talk to the priestess," said one of Breaker's companions, with a nod at the woman behind them. "We're just honest working men with beer to drink up."
"And it's honest men we seek," said the man with the scabbard.
Breaker and his fellows glanced at one another.
"If you're looking for workers, we've already done our share," Brokenose said. "Filled the storehouses to the rafters, we did."
"And how do you propose to tell whether we're honest?" Joker asked. "Take our word for it?"
The man with the staff held up a hand. "We aren't looking for workers -- not the sort you mean, at any rate. We just need one man, in all Barokan."
Joker grinned. "Is your granddaughter that ugly, old man, that you need to go searching from town to town to find her a man?"
"Why don't you keep your wit to yourself, lackbeard?" the man with the scabbard replied. "It's not as if you have much to spare."
That got a better laugh than either of Joker's sallies, to the local youth's annoyance. Breaker smiled, but did not actually laugh; instead he said, "Why don't you save us all some time, and just tell us what you want of us?"
The man with the staff glanced at the old woman, but before either of them could speak the man with the scabbard said, "All right, then -- how would one of you like to be the world's greatest swordsman?"
The laughter stopped abruptly, and smiles faded. The young men all stared at the old fellow with the scabbard -- with, as Breaker had already realized, the sword. That wasn't just a big knife on his belt; it was a sword.
And those staves -- the other strangers weren't just travelers carrying protective charms, were they? If this was the Swordsman, then these two were probably either others of the Chosen, or they were wizards -- and the staves implied wizards. Breaker had never seen a wizard before. Oh, he had heard stories, but so far as he knew, no wizard had set foot in Mad Oak in more than fifty years.
"Are you serious?" Brokenose asked, breaking the silence.
Elbows looked past the three strangers and asked Elder Priestess, "Is he really the Swordsman?"
She held up empty hands. "It could be illusions and trickery, but so far as I know, they are what they claim to be."
The Swordsman opened his cloak and pulled it back to display the entire scabbard he wore. The sheath was almost three feet long, and if the blade matched, then the weapon he bore was unquestionably a sword.
Breaker had never seen a real sword before. He and his friends had fought duels with sticks as children, of course, despite maternal demands that they not do anything so dangerous as waving sharp sticks near each other's eyes, but the longest steel blade he had ever seen was Skinner's knife, the length of his forearm. He stared at the brass-and-leather hilt.
"I am indeed the Chosen Swordsman," the Swordsman said, "and I have come here to find my successor. So, does any of you care to claim the title?"
The little crowd fell silent once again; Breaker sensed his friends moving away from the strangers, backing off from this outrageous intrusion on their celebration. He glanced around.
Brewer had stepped behind the table that held the beer kegs, separating himself from the entire conversation. The musicians on the far side of the pavilion were staring; the grandmothers had stopped rocking their chairs to watch. The harvesters had formed up into a tight group, a closed barrier against the strangers.
And Breaker had somehow wound up a little to one side, outside the group.
Joker was front and center, with Brokenose and Elbows on his left, Spitter and Digger at his right, and the rest of the party behind, while Breaker stood off to the left, toward the rail overlooking the valley.
That odd sense of detachment, of being separate from the others, welled up again, and again Breaker wondered whether it might be a message from some ler. None had ever taken any interest in him before, and no one had ever suggested he might have any priestly talents, but they were everywhere, and saw everything, and guided the townsfolk's lives; perhaps one was trying to guide him now.
And whether a ler was involved or not, the idea of spending the rest of his life here in Mad Oak in Longvale, growing barley and beans and watching the seasons wheel around until his soul finally fled into the night, never seeing what lay beyond the horizon, suddenly seemed horrific beyond imagining.
And surely, if he were the Chosen Swordsman, one of the eight designated heroes, he could travel wherever in Barokan he pleased, and do more than tend crops until he died. He could go anywhere, speak to anyone, even the Wizard Lord himself.
"I'll do it," he said.
That's it; here's your list of handy exits: