Riddle in stone book 1, p.1
Riddle In Stone (Book 1),
RIDDLE IN STONE
By Robert Evert
Book One of the Riddle in Stone series
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1008
New York, NY 10016
Copyright © 2013 by Robert Cimera
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
For more information, email email@example.com.
First Diversion Books edition February 2012.
This book is dedicated to my wonderful wife and two incredible sons.
It is also dedicated to homeless pets everywhere. Please support your local humane societies and shelters.
“Blood was spurting out of him, saturating the ground where he lay crumpled in the bushes,” the evening’s hired storyteller, Harden, said, his voice wavering with emotion. Standing alone on a long wooden table in the middle of the Wandering Rogue’s crowded common room, he knelt in the circle of lantern light as if he were comforting a dying comrade. Around him in the smoky dimness, a couple hundred of Rood’s townsfolk leaned forward, spellbound.
“And then my brother slowly opened his eyes, and he said to me with his last gasping breath, ‘Harden . . . tell Rose, tell her that I—’”
Harden sprang to his feet, his booming voice startling the audience. “But another of the goblins’ accursed arrows tore into his chest, my brother’s blood splattering across my face as I drew my trusty sword . . . ”
From his usual spot in the far corner of the tavern, Edmund watched Molly wait on Bert the cooper a couple of tables away. She filled the elderly man’s stein to the rim, smiled at him, and made her way to the next customer.
Quickly, Edmund drained the rest of his warm beer. Pushing aside the books he brought to read during the meal, he placed his glass in the middle of the table so that she couldn’t miss the fact that it was empty.
Okay. Just relax. Just relax and try to sound confident. Be confident!
“ . . . with my dead brother still in my arms, the terrible goblin horde charged at us, waving their cruel scimitars over their heads and screaming as if they were possessed by the Evil One himself!” The speaker swung an imaginary sword over his head and shrieked a high-pitched war cry that sliced through the darkness. Cowering, those around him covered their ears.
The people at the table behind Bert didn’t require anything else to drink, so Molly continued down the aisle. One more table to go before she got to Edmund.
Relax. Just relax. Remember to breathe. And don’t say anything stupid!
“ . . . at least forty of the foul beasts stormed up the hill upon which just me and my three surviving comrades stood drenched in blood . . . ”
Molly began filling the glasses of the customers in front of Edmund. When she looked up, her gaze met his. His heart thumping, he couldn’t help but smile at her. She smiled back.
After saying something to the customers in front of Edmund, Molly nodded and started to leave their table.
Okay . . . here she comes!
Relax. Just relax. And for the love of the gods, don’t stutter!
As she approached, Molly playfully pretended as if she didn’t see Edmund or the empty glass sitting next to his stack of books. As she passed him by, she bumped into his shoulder.
“Oh, excuse me, my dear sir!” she whispered in exaggerated surprise. “I didn’t see you sitting here all by yourself! How could I have missed such a handsome gentleman?”
“ . . . the first goblin fell dead at my feet,” the storyteller went on, “my fine blade planted in its cloven chest . . . ”
“Hello, M . . . M . . . Molly,” Edmund said, trying to remember to breathe.
Winking at him, she bent forward to retrieve his glass. Edmund’s grin widened when he inadvertently caught a glimpse of her ample breasts rebelling against the fabric of her tight dress.
What the hell are you doing? Chivalrous men don’t leer! Look away! Look away!
Averting his eyes, he mentally reproached himself for what he was thinking.
Golden-brown beer rose higher in his stein as she poured.
Hurry! Say something. Compliment her. Women love that kind of thing!
“Uh…uh,” Edmund said, struggling to find something to say. Then he blurted out, “Th-th . . . that’s . . . that’s a b-beaut-beautiful, a beautiful dress you’re wearing.”
“This?” She tossed her hips to one side, showing Edmund her profile. “A special man gave this to me for my birthday.” She winked again.
“W-w-well . . . well, you look beaut-beautiful.” He shifted his gaze nervously several times, unable to find a part of her that didn’t make him babble like an idiot. “But it, but it . . . isn’t, it isn’t the dress that does it.”
Should I have said that? Did that come out wrong? Oh, I’m so stupid! Damn it!
Putting her hand on his shoulder, Molly let it slide down his back a couple inches. Wonderful warmth radiated throughout Edmund’s body. His ears tingled.
“Why Ed, I do believe you are trying to make me blush!”
However, it was Edmund who was blushing. He felt as if burning light were radiating from his face.
“Look . . . M-Molly. I . . . I want to ask you something.”
Molly’s eyebrows rose, a devilish smirk appearing on the corner of her red lips. “Oh?”
Edmund fumbled with his full glass. “I . . . I was just w-wondering . . . ”
He spilled some of the beer on the table. Molly quickly mopped it up before the puddle could reach his books. When she brushed up against Edmund’s arm, her hand lingered a moment longer than necessary.
Breathe! Remember to breathe!
“I . . . I was just w-w-wondering . . . ” Edmund sucked in an uneven breath. “Well. That, that, that is to say . . . I was just w-wondering if—”
“You!” the storyteller bellowed, pointing at Edmund from across the common room. “You, there in the back!”
Jerking up, Edmund knocked over his glass, sending a wave of foaming beer onto the person sitting in front of him. He glanced around, hoping that the speaker meant somebody else. But everybody was looking straight at him, including the cursing customer with beer dripping down his back.
“Yes, you,” Harden shouted. “The fat fellow in the corner. You’re interrupting me. If you have something to say, say it and be done with it! Otherwise these good people deserve an uninterrupted tale.”
Rood’s townsfolk glared at Edmund.
Next to him, Molly knelt, mopping up the beer dripping to the dirty wooden floor. Edmund tried not to glance down her dress, but failed on several occasions.
“Now, are you going to let me continue?” the storyteller shouted. “Or am I going to have to give you what you deserve?” He clenched a sizable fist.
A sense of excitement rustled through the dark room. A fight was as good as a tale for entertainment, though it wouldn’t have been much of a match given the speaker’s young, well-muscled body versus Edmund’s short stature and generous middle-aged gut.
Edmund glowered at the storyteller.
Go ahead. Show everybody what a fake he is! Him at the Battle of Bloody Hills! He doesn’t know a damn thing about it. Ask him who his commanding officer was or what his company was called. Show everybody that he’s been making everything up all night. Go ahead!
The speaker hopped effortlessly from his makeshift stage. There was a screeching of benches being pushed aside as a lane leading to Edmund appeared through
Don’t cause trouble. It isn’t worth it. Don’t say a thing.
“Well?” the storyteller asked, tattooed arms folded across his chest.
Edmund shook his head. Reaching for his glass, he lifted it to his lips with a trembling hand, forgetting that all of his beer was on table, floor, and the person sitting in front of him.
Everybody was still staring.
The storyteller tapped a foot.
You’re going to have to say something.
Just focus. Nice . . . smooth . . . speech.
He took a deep breath.
“I,” Edmund began, softly. He coughed and tried to speak louder, praying that he would get the words out intact. “I, I . . . I’m s-s-s . . . s-sor-sorry. Pl-pl-please . . . please go on.”
The storyteller turned to the audience.
“Did you all hear that?” he asked in mock astonishment. “The fat fellow is s-s-s-s-sor-sor-sorry!”
Edmund swore under his breath.
Nearly everybody from town was at the tavern. For years, they had all come to Edmund if they wanted their children to learn their letters, or if they needed a legal document read, or if they needed something translated into the Common Tongue. They all came to him for help when they needed it. But now they were laughing, taking the side of a complete stranger rather than standing up for him.
Ingrates. Where are you when I need you?
The speaker pointed to the door at the back of the room, the door to the kitchen that only the staff of the Wandering Rogue were supposed to use. “Why don’t you j-j-j-just g-g-g-get out!”
Tell him to go to hell.
By the glowing fire pit, a boy of eight years or so was pretending to stutter. Several of his friends giggled.
Go ahead! Show everybody what a liar he is. Tell everybody that he’s been making the entire tale up! He doesn’t know a thing about the Battle of Bloody Hills. You have the books and maps to prove it!
Slowly, Edmund got to his feet.
Some children snickered.
The storyteller took an angry step toward Edmund. Women on the other side of the room scrambled on top of their benches, hoping to get a better look at the coming carnage.
“I said, get out!” He jabbed a finger at the door to the kitchen again.
The room held its breath, waiting to see what would happen next.
Fight him! Punch him in the nose! You’ve been coming here every day for the past twenty years. You have every right to stay! Punch him in the nose and watch him—
The storyteller lunged forward, snarling.
Gasping, Edmund shot to the back door, nearly tripping over the bench in the process.
There was an eruption of howling laughter and clapping. Somebody stomped their foot.
“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” the speaker announced to an even greater avalanche of applause as the kitchen door slammed shut, “is how you deal with stuttering morons!”
Edmund tried not to run as he pushed his way through the Wandering Rogue’s crowded kitchen, but wasn’t able to slow himself down. A serving tray fell clattering to the floor. Cooks yelled. Without looking back, Edmund hurried outside through the servants’ entrance.
Panting, he stopped to listen.
The storyteller wasn’t pursuing him.
With a humph, he sat on the tavern’s rear steps and stared up at the pale blue stars shimmering in the autumn night. They were of no help to him. He dabbed the sweat from his forehead with a silk handkerchief.
Well Ed, you’ve make a jackass out of yourself again. You’re never going to live this one down. You should have fought him.
He’s a trained solider! He would’ve cleaned the floors with me. Besides, there’s no use fighting a man like that. They never change.
But at least you would still have your dignity.
Behind him, the screen door creaked opened. Edmund spun around, ready to run. But it was only Molly, silhouetted against the yellow lantern light streaming out from the bustling kitchen. She grimaced, strands of her auburn hair slipping out of its ponytail.
“You okay?” she asked, brushing her hair behind her ear.
Inhaling, Edmund stared back up at the stars and nodded, though he wanted to say otherwise.
“Should I bring your dinner out here or are you coming back in?”
Edmund considered his options. “I, I, I think . . . I think I’ll just go home,” he said, although the thought of spending another night sitting alone in his empty house made his soul dim.
“All right. If that’s what you want.”
From inside the tavern, the storyteller was addressing the common room in an embellished stutter. The crowd hooted and cheered. Edmund frowned at the ground.
“Look, Ed . . . ” Molly began softly.
He waved his hand. “I, I had it c-coming. I disrupted him. I shouldn’t have.”
She squeezed his shoulder. He felt like melting.
“Don’t worry about it. In a couple days, he’ll be off to Havendor and all of this will be forgotten.”
Havendor! He’s half my age and has seen more than twice as much of the world as I have. What I wouldn’t give to see Havendor!
You’ll go some day.
Edmund nodded again, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to say anything clearly.
Kissing the bald spot on top of his head, Molly patted his shoulder. “I better get going. Have to earn a living and all that.”
“W-w-wait,” Edmund said before she could disappear back inside.
Molly’s eyes gleamed in the starlight, her smile making his heart sing.
“I-I know that you are busy with the, the throng and all. B-b-but I was hoping that you could talk with me for a moment. I’ll give you the b-best tip that I have ever given you if you stay.” He forced a grin.
“I have a minute,” she said, leaning up against the door. “Maybe two if you keep me interested.”
“Interested,” Edmund repeated to himself.
Go on! Tell her!
“What do you want to talk about, Ed?”
“L-let, let me ask you something.” Standing, he inched closer to her. “Wh-wh-why, why do you think I come here night after night? I mean, with my books and all. I mean, I could easily read at home. Why do you think I come here?” He longed to take her hand in his, but didn’t.
“I would guess for the same reason I come here.” She touched his forearm.
Edmund’s eyebrows rose in hope and anticipation.
“We’re waiting for somebody to sweep us off our feet and carry us away from this horseshit of a town.”
Edmund began examining the uneven step he was standing on. “Oh.”
“Don’t be ashamed, Ed. I know you’re looking for a way out of here. Most of us are. Hell, I certainly am. This isn’t exactly the most exciting place in the world, am I right? And no men here are knocking down my door no matter what I try.”
I’d batter down an iron door with my bare hands for you.
Edmund played with his trouser pocket. “Wh-what makes you think that? I mean about me wanting to leave?”
She tapped her temple playfully. “A woman knows these things. Besides, on the rare occasion when a merchant or adventurer or government official comes through this place, you practically beg them to take you with them when they leave.”
Edmund’s eyes widened.
“Oh, I’m mostly teasing you. You don’t actually beg. But everybody knows that you want to leave. Heck, I remember when I was a little girl you used to tell me how you were going to go adventuring and find some such hidden treasure or lost sword or some priceless relic that only your precious books talked about. You were quite the character back then, very unique, especially for this tiny place.”
His head lifted. “Were? And, and, and . . . now?”
His eyes followed the gentle curve of her hips as she hurried into the kitchen. He wanted to say something. He wanted to stop her and finally reveal his heart. But, as usual, the words never managed to get past his spastic lips. The screen door banged against its frame behind her.
You should’ve said something.
The timing wasn’t right.
It’s never right.
“Never in a million years,” somebody said, laughing in the darkness.
Shaking himself out of his thoughts, Edmund sat on the steps, ignoring the smirking stable hand standing by the stable door.
“Not even if you were the head librarian of the King’s personal library,” the begrimed man went on.
“I, I don’t know what you mean, Norb.” Edmund replied. “And I’m n-n-not, I’m not a librarian.”
The stable hand sat next to him, the stench of body odor and horse manure making Edmund’s eyes water. “Oh, then teacher, if librarian doesn’t suit you. Heaven knows you have enough books in that house of yours to make a library. But don’t go pretendin’ that you don’t get me. Not you, Edmund. You’re a man, and a smart one at that. I see how you look at Mol and those breasts of hers.”
“I never!” Edmund said, his blood running cold.
“And you never will.” Norb chuckled. “And it’s not why you think.”
Remaining indignant, Edmund didn’t take the bait.
“It’s not your s-s-stutter, my dear teacher,” Norb continued.
“S-s-scholar,” Edmund stammered defiantly. “I-I-I’m, I’m a scholar. Not a t-t-teacher or a librarian. I’m a scholar.”
Inside, the storyteller was recounting how he singlehandedly fought three scimitar-waving goblins all at once.