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       Betrayal In The Highlands (Book 2), p.1

          
Betrayal In The Highlands (Book 2)


  Betrayal in the Highlands

  By Robert Evert

  Book Two of the Riddle in Stone series

  Copyright

  Diversion Books

  A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.

  443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1004

  New York, NY 10016

  www.DiversionBooks.com

  Copyright © 2013 by Robert Cimera

  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.

  For more information, email info@diversionbooks.com.

  First Diversion Books edition September 2013

  ISBN: 978-1-62681-079-2

  PART ONE

  Chapter One

  “Are we … are we almost there?” Pond asked, panting as he scrambled up the hill after Edmund.

  Edmund labored around another tree, sweat trickling into the hole where his left eye used to be. In the shadows caused by the moonlight, he could only see a few feet in front of him, making his progress slow and often painful. Fatigue, however, was his biggest concern. Soon he would have to stop whether he wanted to or not, and he knew at least twenty goblin hunters weren’t far behind.

  “Almost,” he said, ducking under a low branch. “I think … I think I can hear it up ahead.”

  “Hear what?”

  Veering to his left, Edmund set off for a gap between two jagged hills looming in the blackness before them.

  The sound of rushing water grew louder.

  This better not be another dead end. If we get trapped …

  “There’s a river around here,” he said over his shoulder. “The River Celerin. It’s nearby. It’ll … it’ll … it’ll hide our tracks.”

  “Celerin?” Pond repeated. “That’s … that’s a big river, isn’t it? I mean, it … it isn’t just a small stream, right?”

  Edmund grunted, his pace slowing to a limping jog and then to a walk. He stopped and doubled over, sucking in the smell of dry autumn leaves in great, gulping swallows.

  His puppy, Becky, leapt from his arms.

  “I … I don’t know if I can keep this up much longer.” Pond collapsed onto the ground next to him. “I can’t keep running.”

  “Do you want to go back to the goblin pits?”

  Pond shook his head.

  “Then we either run, or we die. It’s that simple.”

  Edmund took a drink.

  “I’m … I’m sorry,” he said, handing the waterskin to Pond. “But, but we … we have to keep running. We have no other choice.”

  Pond took several quick sips, and then poured some of the water over his sweaty face. “We could hide.”

  “They keep finding us. I don’t know how … but … but they always do.”

  They probably smell you. You stink!

  The river will take care of that.

  Becky danced on her hind legs, begging to be picked up.

  “The river,” Edmund said, trying to slow his pounding heart. “The river is our only hope. We … we have to put some distance between us and them. The river … the river will help.”

  Without warning, Becky pounced on one of Pond’s boots, latching on to it as though it were a deadly enemy.

  “For the love of—” Pond pried her off his ankle.

  “You were saying?” he asked, holding the writhing puppy in his outstretched arms, her sharp teeth flashing in the moonlight.

  “I’m not sure how Kravel keeps f-f-find, finding us,” Edmund stammered, arching his aching back. “Maybe he’s … maybe he’s tracking us by scent. Maybe by—”

  Pond cried out. Becky had found a way to bite her captor.

  She sprung free and raced in frantic circles around them, kicking up dead leaves in her wake.

  “Damned dog.” Pond flexed his thumb. A drop of blood pooled above a small puncture mark. “I say we tie her to a tree and leave.”

  Becky leapt on Pond’s shin, growling as she pulled at the previously shredded pant leg.

  “Could you please do something about her?”

  “Here.” Edmund tossed him the knotted remains of a cloak she had previously defeated. “Have her play with this.”

  Becky stopped pulling and watched the tattered cloak dangling in front of her nose, eyes following the swirling olive-green fabric.

  Pond threw the cloak as far as he could. Becky bounded down the hillside, flying after it with reckless abandon.

  “Honestly,” Pond said, examining the holes in his pants, “I don’t understand what you see in the little monster.”

  “I like dogs,” Edmund replied. “Remember what Thorax did for us? We wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for her. Or worse, we’d be living in Kar-Nazar’s wet cells with our hands and feet cut off.”

  Poor Thorax …

  “Thorax was well-behaved,” Pond said. “This one is crazy. Seriously, there’s something wrong with her. It’s like she’s part demon.”

  Becky pranced up the incline, thrashing the cloak from side to side.

  “I’m sorry she’s such a p-p-pain,” Edmund said, trying not to stutter. “I’ll … I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Besides, with her quick ears and keen sense of smell, we can rest easier at night. She’s saved us more than once already.”

  “Sleep easier? Not with her jumping on me every few seconds. I haven’t slept since you got her.”

  “She only attacks when you move. So don’t move.”

  Pond snorted. “Don’t move, you say.”

  Behind them on the crest of a distant rise, a black shape appeared, its humanoid form silhouetted against the bluish stars of the midnight sky. Two more became visible, followed by at least another score.

  Edmund clutched Pond’s arm. “Hurry!” He yanked Pond to his feet. “They’re coming. We have to get out of here.”

  They tried to run, but their bodies would only allow a lurching stumble.

  Becky leapt after them, still growling and thrashing the cloak about.

  “What’s your plan exactly?” Pond asked, forcing himself up the incline. “With the river and everything, I mean.”

  “I figure … I figure we can use its current to float downriver.” The muscles in Edmund’s legs were tightening; in a few minutes, he wouldn’t be able to move at all. “We can float toward the lowlands. It’d be f-f-faster, faster than running, and the goblins won’t be able to follow our trail.”

  Then he added, “If we can just reach one of the logging camps or mining towns to the south, we might finally be safe.”

  Pond appeared visibly shaken.

  “What?” Edmund asked.

  “Well, I’m not a terribly strong swimmer.”

  “You don’t have to be an expert or anything,” he said, praying the river wasn’t far away. “All you’ll have to do is float. The current will do the rest. You’ll be fine.”

  Pond’s sour expression worsened.

  “You don’t know how to swim, do you? Pond! You’re from sea-faring people!”

  “I sold textiles. I’m a merchant, not a sailor.”

  “Pond!” Edmund threw his hands up in dismay. “Can you at least tread water?”

  “Not … not really. No.”

  Shaking his head, Edmund stared up at the moon in desperation. The night was growing old, and the goblins could move quickly in the dark. They’d be on them within the hour.

  Stay and fight, or run. Those are our only options.

  Next to him, Pond was still catching his breath. Even if it were daylight and they were both fully rested, they couldn’t fight twenty goblins and survive.

  “Look, we can’t stay here,” Edmund said. “The river is our only hope.”

  “Well then, let’s give it a go. Who knows, maybe I’m a natural swimmer!”

  Death by goblins or by drowning …

  At least you’d have a chance in the water.

  I do. Pond doesn’t.

  The night breeze shifted through the forest, rustling the leaves at their feet. It also brought with it a pungent odor of rotting meat.

  Edmund sniffed, trying to recall what the stench reminded him of.

  Then he remembered.

  “Get down!” he said, dropping to his knees.

  “Why? What’s wrong?”

  Edmund hissed for Pond to be quiet. He crept to the hill’s summit, peered down the other side, and almost gasped.

  In the valley below, he saw the River Celerin shimmering in the moonlight, and striding through its white water stalked a massive figure, a spear the size of a sapling in his hand.

  “What is it?” Pond whispered, crawling next to Edmund. Through the trees, he saw the problem. “A troll? Oh, well, that’s not good!”

  “Not just any troll,” Edmund said, watching the hideous monster push through the surging current. “That’s the same troll who tried to bury me alive under the tower of Tol Helen. We must be further north than I thought.”

  He retreated from the ridge and moaned.

  “Caught between a troll and goblins.”

  “So what do you want to do?” Pond asked.

  Edmund thought for a moment.

  “We’ll be fine,” he whispered, not believing a word he was saying. “We’ll just swing around to the south. The wind is coming from the east, so he won’t smell—”

  Shrill barking rang out into the night.

  Oh no!

  Edmund lunged for Becky, but she darted out of his grasp, yipping and snarling.

  The troll hesitated midstream, searching for the source of the commotion in the hills to his right. Then he spied the small bundle of grey fur sliding down the slope.

  “Becky!”

  The troll gazed up at the patch of trees where Edmund and Pond hid.

  “Quick,” Edmund said to Pond, “gather those rocks together. Get anything you can throw!”

  “Why?”

  “Just do it! Hit him when he comes within range.”

  “What’re you—?”

  Edmund threw himself over the ridge and plummeted after Becky, who had stopped mere inches from the river’s rumbling current. Ears pulled back and front legs lowered like a miniature bull, she barked at the colossal figure in the water.

  Laughing, the troll considered the puppy and then Edmund as he half slid, half fell down the nearly vertical incline. Edmund tumbled to the riverbank, got to his bloodied knees, and drew forth his notched and slightly bent sword.

  Grinning, the troll waded to shore, his spear at the ready.

  What the hell are you doing?

  Saving Becky!

  You’re going to die. You can’t fight a troll. Not by yourself. Run!

  Shaking, Edmund pointed his sword at the approaching troll.

  “Do you know how to use that meat cleaver?” the troll asked, stepping onto the riverbank.

  “W … w … well, well enough,” Edmund replied, hands tightening around the sword’s rusty hilt. “B-B-Beck … Becky, come!”

  Becky retreated a few paces as the dripping troll lumbered closer, her entire body vibrating with every high-pitched yap and snarl. But she didn’t come.

  What are you doing? Get the hell out of here. Run!

  Run where? Kravel is right behind us. We can’t go back.

  “Becky,” Edmund repeated louder, his voice quavering. “Come!”

  Becky let loose another deluge of barks, hackles raised.

  “It’s either feast or famine in these hills.” The troll winked at Edmund. “It looks like a feast tonight!”

  “M-m-m-maybe.” Edmund brandished his sword in front of him. “But I’m n-not, I’m not cooked yet. You’ll have to catch me first. Becky … come!”

  Becky still didn’t come.

  Her neck craned upward as the troll closed in, the riverbank shaking with each calculated stride.

  The troll hefted his crude spear to his shoulder; just thirty feet from Edmund, he couldn’t miss.

  “Oh, I won’t cook you. I’m going to eat you alive. Bit by bit. Like a rat nibbling on your bones.”

  If you’re going to fight him, get closer! You can’t do squat from here! Make him use that spear for thrusting. At least then you can parry it.

  Edmund inched forward, closing the distance between him and the troll until he was just beyond the spear’s thrusting range.

  “I’m going to tear your fingers off,” the troll said. “Then your stubby little arms.”

  I have to get out of here …

  Focus. Don’t let him distract you. You won’t get many opportunities. So when he attacks, block the spear and stab him. Keep your feet under you. Move!

  Edmund circled a few steps to his left.

  “I’m going to use your skull as a drinking cup,” the troll went on. “Why don’t you run and give me some sport?”

  Yes, run!

  Edmund wiped the sweat from his hands. “It’s too dark. I’d r-r-run … I’d run into a tree.”

  “You aren’t as stupid as you look.”

  The troll jabbed its spear at Edmund’s head.

  Edmund dodged the sharpened point. Becky zipped up from behind and nipped at the troll’s toes, but a flick of his foot sent her flying off into the darkness with a yelp.

  Do something!

  Edmund leaned forward timidly, swinging his short sword, and missed the creature by at least four feet.

  The troll laughed at him.

  You’re never going to touch him from back here! Get closer.

  If I get closer, he’ll skewer me!

  Edmund took a step closer.

  “How did you lose your eye?” the troll asked. He feigned a stab of his spear and, crying out, Edmund hopped back.

  Be calm! Buy time! Look for an opening.

  “Goblins burnt it out,” Edmund said, conscious of the sweat-soaked patch covering the hole where his eye used to be. “Actually, you, you … you met them a while back. Kravel and Gurding?”

  At this, the troll straightened, his expression a mixture of astonishment and trepidation. Edmund shot forward, swinging his notched sword. Recovering from his surprise just in time, the troll blocked Edmund’s blow with the haft of his spear.

  Edmund scurried back out of the troll’s long reach.

  “Kravel and Gurding?” the troll asked, unnerved. “You’re joking.”

  Becky reappeared from the darkness, leaves and thorns sticking in her muddy fur. She snapped at the night air, keeping her distance from the troll.

  “Not at all. A … a c-c-c-couple, a couple of years ago they spoke with you about me. Something about a weapon made of a bluish metal, I believe.”

  The troll flinched.

  “You stutter,” he said, putting together distant memories. “And you have a dog.”

  Get him in the knee! If he can’t run, you might be able to get out of here alive.

  Edmund lunged again, jabbing at the troll’s elephant-like leg. The troll parried with a swipe of his spear, the force of which nearly wrenched the ringing sword out of Edmund’s hands.

  A cloud passed over the bright moon, plunging the valley into deeper darkness.

  The roar of the river continued, unabated.

  “If you know Kravel and Gurding,” the troll said, stepping back still farther, “tell me this. Which is the smart one?”

  Force him into the river. Perhaps he’ll slip on the wet stones.

  You’re as good as dead if you stay here. You can’t fight a troll by yourself. You’re just a stuttering fool of a librarian!

  “Kravel.” Edmund slid to his left. “Kravel was the smart one. Gurding was just an idiot who did what he was told. But they didn’t have a brain between them.”

  The troll withdrew another step, keeping Edmund in front of him.

  “What do you mean, ‘didn’t’?”

  “I killed them,” Edmund lied.

  He sprang forward, the tip of his sword coming within an inch of the troll’s left knee.

  Damn! You’re never going to stab him with this tiny sword. You need something bigger.

  The troll laughed. “You’re a fine liar. I just spoke to—”

  Suddenly something the size of a bat flew through the dimness, sailing just behind the troll’s head and splashing into the river’s foamy current. As the troll spun to see what it was, Edmund drove forward again. This time, his short sword pierced deep into the troll’s enormous thigh. Black blood spurted, sizzling as it hit the damp ground.

  Howling, the troll whirled around, his spear connecting with Edmund’s ribs. Edmund flew backward, bouncing to a stop ten feet from where he’d been, while Becky launched herself at the distracted troll and bit his ankle.

  Holding his aching ribs, Edmund scrambled to his feet and charged. He was just about to impale the troll through the creature’s unprotected belly when something cold smacked against his temple. He fell sprawling to the ground.

  “Sorry!” Pond yelled from the ridge high above them.

  On his back, head swimming, Edmund felt blindly for his weapon.

  “There’s a reward for you,” the troll said, ignoring Pond’s volley of stones and the growling puppy tugging his leg. “A huge reward!”

  Edmund’s fingers wrapped around the mud-covered hilt.

  If only I had a lance or—

  A longer sword? Your spell! Your spell! Use your spell!

  The troll bent over, reaching for Edmund’s throat, and gloated, “You, little fella, are going to make me very, very wealthy!”

  Hand trembling, Edmund pointed his sword up at the troll and uttered the incantation his father taught him when he was a child.

  “Forstørre nå!”

  In a flash, the sword doubled in length, piercing the troll between his eyes and popping out through the back of his skull with a bone-splitting crack.

 
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