Quests of the kings, p.1
Quests of the Kings, p.1
Quests of the Kings
Quests of the Kings Trilogy - Book One
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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Copyright © 2017 by Robert Evert
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition March 2017
Also by Robert Evert
The Riddle in Stone Series
Riddle in Stone
Betrayal in the Highlands
Blood in Snow
To my wonderful wife and two great kids…and to everybody who read my first series, Riddle in Stone. Thank you all for your support!
Natalie elbowed her way through the growing crowd, while her friends, Hadley and Ida, fell farther behind, unable to keep pace with the surging tide of people flowing into Upper Angle’s village green. “Oh, hurry up, you two!”
“Wait!” Ida shouted from somewhere within the mass of moving bodies. “Nat! Wait!”
Natalie passed through the old iron gates and stepped aside, letting the stream of people rush to the stage from which the heralds would read King Michael’s latest proclamation.
“Nat!” Ida shouted again. Natalie reached between two annoyed men and seized Ida’s arm. “Ow!”
“Get Hadley,” Natalie said.
Ida grabbed Hadley’s hand. Nat pulled them both to safety.
“Thanks.” Hadley doubled over, sucking in cool autumn air. “I thought we’d get trampled by those oafs, for sure!”
Ida straightened her bonnet. “By the gods, those men reek! Don’t they ever take baths? It was like being trapped in a giant, sweaty armpit. How do I look?”
“Like a princess.” Natalie stood on tiptoe, trying to peer over the horde of mostly working-class men and young boys. “Blast it! We’re never going to see anything from back here. Curse the gods for making me short.”
“Being short has its advantages, you know,” said Ida, who was barely over five feet tall herself.
“Being short is a plague.” Natalie scanned a nearby maple, but climbing it wouldn’t help. Not enough of its red leaves had fallen. She’d never be able to see through them. “It’s worse than being a woman.”
“What? You’d rather be a tall man?” Hadley scoffed, following Natalie along the wall enclosing the city’s park.
“Then you’d surely stink more than you already do,” Ida added.
“What?” Ida said. “I’m just saying that you stink of horses and manure. That wouldn’t happen if you took a more sensible job.”
Natalie waved for them to follow. “Mucking out stalls puts money in my pocket.”
“But it’s boys’ work!” Ida insisted.
“That’s exactly what I’ve been saying, Nat. Why don’t you get a different job? I hear Boris is hiring young women at The Dead Dog,” Hadley said.
“Boris told me I wasn’t pretty enough to be a serving girl.” Natalie studied the wall, and then the stage around which thousands of Upper Angle’s townsfolk were gathering. “Let’s go a little more this way.”
Ida huffed. “He didn’t say that!”
“He most certainly did. He told me to come back after this”—Natalie slapped her muscular thighs—“moved up here.” She grasped her petite chest.
“Then, he said that he had boys working in the kitchen who looked more like girls than I did.”
“Well,” Hadley said hesitantly, “you could work on a few things. Your hair, for example.”
Natalie brushed strands of her mouse-brown hair back behind her ear. “Oh, Had, I love you to death—but don’t get started about that. Not again.”
“I’m just saying it’d look far prettier if you didn’t pull it back into a ponytail. You need to let it grow and fall forward.”
“Yes!” Ida agreed. “Let it grow longer so it curls over your shoulders, like water cascading over falls. That’s how all the noble women wear it nowadays. Have you seen Lady Camille’s hair? It’s stunning.”
“Oh!” Hadley exclaimed, clutching Ida’s arm. “I heard that it’s actually a wig! Can you imagine? She’s probably bald as a cucumber without it.”
“That’s not nice,” Ida said. “I think Lady Camille is very becoming. Besides, wigs are all the rage with nobles now.”
“To hell with the nobles,” Natalie said. “And my hair doesn’t curl. It—” She shot her fingers out in all directions. “Besides, long hair is hot, and it gets in my way. Remember what happened with the loom?”
The other two giggled. Natalie slid them an irritated glance.
“You have to admit,” said Hadley, “that was funny. How long were you stranded there?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Natalie waved a dirty hand again. “Come on, keep up! I want to find someplace where we can see the stage before they start.”
Hadley and Ida hurried after Natalie as fast as their billowing dresses would allow.
“And then there’s your choice of clothing,” Ida went on.
Natalie tossed her arms to the blue sky. “I’ve already told you—boys’ clothes are more functional. Do you think I could muck out the stables in a dress?”
“Then get a different job!”
“Look,” Natalie said, “Henry pays me more than I could get anywhere else. And besides, he lets me tend to the horses. He’s even let me ride them from time to time. I’m actually getting good!”
“But you’ll never meet a man dressed like…” Hadley gestured to Natalie’s entire body. “And smelling like…”
Natalie clenched a fist. “I don’t want to meet a man!”
Hadley laughed. “Of course you do. How else will you get married?”
“I’m not getting married.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Hadley rolled her eyes. “I forgot. You want to die alone.”
“I’d rather die alone than live with a chain around my neck. Now come on.”
Ida raced to catch up. “What about Artis? He’s cute enough. And he worships everything you touch.”
“Oh, gads!” Natalie cried. “Let’s not talk about Art. I’ve been trying to knock that lovesick look off his face since we were kids.” She made an exaggerated expression that resembled constipation more than love. “Hurry. They’re about to begin.”
Hadley and Ida struggled to keep up as Natalie jogged along the interior perimeter of the park’s wall.
“Art isn’t that bad,” Ida protested. “As far as men around here go, I mean.”
Natalie stopped and peered toward the stage, shielding her eyes from the late morning sun rising over the forested hills, the autumn canopy a hundred shades of red and yellow and orange. “Yes, he is. Trust me. Let’s go a little farther.”
“But you said you liked him,” Ida said. “You said you two were going to get married!”
“I was seven!”
Hadley panted as she jogged along. “Honestly, I don’t know what’s wrong with you, Nat. Don’t you want nice clothes and a decent roof over your head? If you found the right man willing to overlook your, well, your…uniqueness, you wouldn’t have to work so hard.”
“Men also keep you warm at night,” Ida said. The others turned to her in surprise. “Or so I’ve heard!”
Natalie grunted. “The only things men are good for are getting you pregnant with lots of babies, then dying on you when you need them the most.”
Ida’s and Hadley’s strides faltered as they exchanged grimaces.
“I’m sorry, Nat,” Hadley said, trying to catch up. “How’s your mother doing?”
“She’s fine.” But there was anger in Natalie’s tone and her feet stomped hard against the ground.
“And how about your brothers and sisters?” Ida asked. “How’s Robbie?”
Natalie turned again. “Look, I know where this is going. We’re fine, all right? I’m fine. My mom’s fine. Robbie and the others are fine. In fact, we’re better than ever. I’m making more than enough to get us everything we need, so just drop it, okay? We’re fine!”
“We’re trying to help.”
“Well, don’t!” Natalie exhaled, shoulders sagging. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be like this all the time. It’s just really hard right now, you know? Some days I feel like…like I’m about to explode.” She rubbed her tired face and muttered, “Sometimes I feel like a trapped animal.”
Ida put a hand on Natalie’s arm. “Is there anything we can do?”
Natalie shook her head, frizzy hair slipping out of her ponytail. “No.” She sighed. “We’ll be fine. I’m taking care of everything…and it isn’t like it’s all bad. The other day, Robbie and I played hide and seek in the woods.” She allowed herself to smile a little bit. “That was nice.”
“Do you still hide in the same place as when we were kids?” Hadley asked.
Natalie nodded, her smile growing. “In the old oak tree. I always cover my eyes and pretend he can’t see me. He does his gurgling laugh.”
“Sounds sweet,” Ida said.
“It is.” Fighting off tears, Natalie brushed the hair out of her face.
“If you ever need us to watch him…” Hadley began.
“Or any of the others,” Ida added quickly. “Jonathon is always a hoot!”
Natalie nodded again, determined not to cry.
“Thanks for caring,” she managed to say. “You two are the best friends any stinky girl could hope for.”
“Whew!” Hadley pulled away and pinched her nose. “You do stink.”
Natalie laughed in spite of herself. “Sorry.” On the stage, minstrels began to play a bouncy tune. What might have been a dwarf in a brightly colored hat danced a ridiculous jig, feet and hands flailing every which way. “All right, this is good enough,” she said. “Let’s climb up.”
“Climb up…where?” Ida asked.
Natalie nodded to the stone wall they’d been following.
“Up there?” Hadley gaped. “Are you out of your mind?”
Natalie leapt and, seizing the top of the wall, scurried up it like a disheveled squirrel. She grinned down at them. “There you go! Easy as getting out of bed. Here, let me help.” She lowered a hand to the other girls, who simply blinked at it.
Ida backed away. “If I fell from there, I’d break my neck.”
“So don’t fall,” Natalie said.
“I”—Ida cringed—“I couldn’t. Besides, we shouldn’t be up there. It’s against the rules.”
“What rules? Besides, other people are doing it.”
Around the village green, a score of younger children had also perched on top of the wall, trying to get a better view of the morning’s festivities. Ida flung her arms toward them as though her point had been made. “They’re all boys!”
“What does that matter?” Natalie cried. “It isn’t like they climb with their pricks.”
Hadley and Ida gasped, then giggled.
Ida’s face deepened to a dark shade of scarlet. “The things you say…”
“Oh, who cares what I say?” Natalie replied. “It’s what people do that matters. Now give me your hand. I’ll help you up.”
Hadley glanced at the dirt-encrusted fingers again.
“Oh, come on. It washes right off. I promise. Your Royal Highness won’t smell like the poor peasant girl.” Natalie turned mocking. “Or don’t you think you can climb this high?”
Hadley’s frown broke into a wry grin. “So help me, if any boys come over to look up my dress—”
“Keep your legs together for a change and you’ll be fine.”
Hadley and Ida gasped again, then roared with laughter.
“I’ll have you know, I’m not that kind of girl,” Hadley said, still laughing.
“That’s not what Billy’s saying.”
Hadley huffed in feigned indignation. “You do it a couple dozen times with a boy and they think you’re a whore!”
“Whore or not”—Natalie wiggled her fingers—“give me your damn hand. I’m getting dizzy leaning over like this.”
“Fine. But my death is on your head.” Hadley took Natalie’s hand and, with a jump and a pull, found herself atop the wall.
“See,” Natalie said to Ida, lowering her hand, “It isn’t hard.”
Ida peered nervously about. “If we get arrested…”
“Oh, stop worrying about the rules for once. Learn to live a little.”
Ida took the offered hand and scrambled up the wall.
“Ew!” she said, when she finally made it to the top. “I’m sitting on bird poo!”
“You’ve sat in much worse.”
“But it’s sticky!”
“Well!” Hadley looked around. “This is much better. We can actually see the falls from here.”
They watched the Green River tumble down from the rocky northern bluffs and plunge hundreds of feet into a cloud of shimmering mist before forking around the hills upon which Upper Angle had been built. On the biggest hill to their left, the castle of King Michael loomed high above them.
Natalie nudged Ida playfully. “What did I tell you? Now even us short folk can see.”
“Us short folk?” Ida tried to wipe the bird droppings from the top of the wall without getting more on her hands. “I’ll have you know I’m completely average—in height, that is.”
They all laughed.
Hadley sighed. “It’s so pretty outside the city. Maybe we could go walking in the woods today. I love smelling the trees. There’s nothing like the earthy scents of autumn.”
Natalie surveyed the steep slopes of the surrounding hills. It would be a nice day for a walk, especially along one of the rivers. The smell of the trees, the soft wind rustling the colorful leaves, the peace that came from being out of the city. “You two can go,” she said, hiding her disappointment. “I have to get to work in a little bit.”
“When was the last time you had a day off?” Ida asked. “I mean, a real day off, where you didn’t work any of your jobs? When was the last time you did something for yourself and had fun?”
Natalie knew the answer. She’d been working every damned day since she was twelve, ever since her father had died from an infection caused by a rusty nail.
“Let’s not talk about work,” Hadley said, coming to Natalie’s rescue. “It’s too beautiful a day!” She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, letting the bright morning sun warm her face. “Pretty soon winter will be here, and everything will be cold and dreary. Oh, how I wish I could live farther south.”
“By Elsmoor,” Ida agreed. “Can you imagine being able to walk along the beach and swim in the warm ocean all year round?”
“And the Elsmoorian men are all muscled,” Hadley added, “with deliciously brown skin!”
“Deliciously brown skin?” Natalie chortled.
“What? It’s very appealing.”
“The reason why Elsmoorian men are so muscular,” Natalie said, “is because they spend their days working on boats, rowing. Notice I said working! Not strolling about, buying everything that strikes their fancy.”
“Oh, I don’t mind if my husband works,” Hadley corrected her. “As a matter of fact, I’m going to require it. That way he’ll get out of the house long enough for me to spend some time with the houseboys!” She bounced her eyebrows suggestively.
“You’re going to have houseboys, are you? And how’s your Prince Charming going to pay for all of this, pray tell?”
Hadley gave an exaggerated shrug as though the question were asinine. “He’ll be a prince, of course!”
“Well, of course! Why did I even ask?” Natalie watched an eagle glide on the breeze high above the valley. “I’m just surprised you’d settle for anything less than a king.”
“Too much responsibility. Having to go to all of those balls and banquets and such. I’ve heard that’s why Queen Muriel drinks so much.”
“She doesn’t drink!” Ida said, sharply.
“Does too!” Hadley replied. “Everybody knows it. Why, the other day, I heard—”
“Girls!” Natalie cut them off. “It's too nice a day to argue.”
Ida smoothed out her dress. “At any rate, I think marrying some sort of shopkeeper would be best. They can earn a lot of money, but they don’t come home all exhausted and smelly.”
Natalie shook her fists toward the fluffy white clouds drifting overhead. “Can we please stop talking about boys and marriage? There are no Prince Charmings! And the only person you can count on is yourself.”
“And good friends,” Ida added.
Natalie wrapped her arms around Ida and Hadley, pulling them closer. “And good friends. That I believe in!”
Together, they sat on the top of the wall, studying the restless crowd and listening to the music, while the wonderful scent of fresh cinnamon bread wafted over from a nearby bakery.
“It’s amazing how many people come to these things,” Hadley said, breaking their silence. “I had no idea the quests were so popular.”
“What, this?” Natalie made a curt grunt. “You should see when they’re burning a witch or strangling a thief; the place is so filled you can barely move.”