Blood in snow the riddle.., p.1
Blood in Snow: (The Riddle in Stone Series - Book Three), p.1
BLOOD IN SNOW (THE RIDDLE IN STONE SERIES - BOOK THREE)
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Blood in Snow
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Blood in Snow
By Robert Evert
Book Three of the Riddle in Stone series
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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New York, NY 10016
Copyright © 2014 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.
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First Diversion Books edition July 2014
Lester the Jester stepped into His Majesty’s Royal Meeting Hall, wearing clothes stained with travel and boots still damp with mud.
Sitting on his throne, King Lionel wiggled his well-manicured fingers through a shaft of red light streaming through the stained glass windows. He poked the air as if trying to touch the edge between light and shadow, while some lesser nobility stood before him, prattling on about a land dispute with some other lesser nobility.
“I don’t care,” the King said.
“I beg your pardon, Your Highness?”
“I don’t care,” the King repeated, louder. “Why don’t you and this Lord Something-or-Other fight to the death and decide the matter that way?”
The lord blanched. “Sire, it’s … it’s only a grazing meadow.”
The King tossed his hands up. “If it is not worth dying for, then why are you bothering me with this? Go kill him or stop whining. Honestly! Now leave me be.”
The lord hesitated, and then bowed. “Yes, sire. Very wise. Thank you.”
“Your Majesty,” an advisor said from one of the long ornate tables lining the hall, “your next appointment is in twenty minutes. Lord Barnum would like to speak with you about his son.”
King Lionel groaned. “Which one? Barnum has more bastards than … than … than something that has a lot of bastards!”
“Yes, sire. He should be here momentarily.”
“Oh, very blasted well.”
The King resumed poking the red light streaming across his lap as the advisor returned to his stack of papers.
Lester watched him, shook his head, and muttered, “Idiot.”
He scanned the room.
At the tables along the walls, the King’s advisors were all pretending to be busy.
Lester inhaled deeply, smelling whatever the cleaning wenches used to polish the marble floor. He took off his weatherworn cloak and tossed it into the corner.
“As good a time as any.”
The dwarf began to run and, leaping into the air, flipped end over end down the length of the grand hall, twisting and turning. Hitting the ground, he tumbled to the raised dais upon which the King sat and bounded to his feet, hands splayed apart.
“Ta-da!” Lester said.
The King gave his jester a weak smile and went back to studying the ray of colored light.
“Are you okay, Your Highness?” the dwarf asked.
“You aren’t in uniform,” the King said. “Where is your hat and your funny shoes with the bells on them?”
“I’m wearing them.” Lester gestured to his travel clothes with a theatric sweep of his hand, eyes glinting.
The King glanced up and shrugged. “Oh, yes. I see.”
Climbing the steps to the throne with exaggerated lunges and dips and swirls, the glimmer in the jester’s eyes brightened.
The King grunted.
“Want to see me hurt myself?” Lester leapt into the air, flipped, and fell to the floor, landing hard on his back at the King’s feet. He spread his hands out again.
The King took no notice.
After pretending to hoist himself up with an invisible rope, Lester leaned against an imaginary table. “Want me to set fire to the pants of one of your advisors?” he whispered conspiratorially.
The King half-snorted, half-smiled.
“Master Jeremy certainly deserves it,” the dwarf went on. “Why, I bet he’d run around like a flaming chicken!” Lester ran frantically around the throne, squawking and clucking like his tail feathers were on fire. Several of the advisors looked up briefly, then went back to their tasks.
King Lionel waved a listless hand.
Lester stopped and, sneaking a glance at the inattentive advisors, began to sway and shuffle his feet, brown eyes turning a cold blue.
“I must say, you’re handling this entire Highlands situation with remarkable calm. I’m surprised you haven’t sent an army up north to deal with the traitors.”
The King lifted a sleepy head. “Traitors?”
“Yes,” Lester said. “The people of Rood have revolted, sire. They have declared themselves their own kingdom.”
“What!” King Lionel shouted. The advisors started to stir. “When did this happen? Why wasn’t I informed?”
“I’m sure you were informed by the Royal Messenger who just left here.” Lester swayed and dipped and spun in a circle, eyes still twinkling. “They’re thumbing their noses at you, sire. It’ll never do.”
“This’ll never do!” The King slammed his fist onto the richly carved wood of his throne’s armrest. “Traitors! Traitors!”
Thinking the King was talking about them, the advisors shuffled their papers faster.
“Yes,” Lester said. “Why, I’m sure you’ll want to send knights up there right now and—”
“I’ll crush them like bugs!” The King leapt to his feet. “The vermin! Try to revolt will they? I’ll kill them all!”
This seized all of the advisors’ attentions. The Senior Advisor, Master Griffin, rose and approached the dais.
“No, no,” Lester said quickly, trying to finish before the Senior Advisor came within earshot. “Capture the instigator; capture him and bring him back here in chains! That’s what you want to do. His name is Edmund! He has one eye, and stutters.”
King Lionel thrust his fist in the air. “I’ll bring him back in chains!”
“Yes, bring him back here. Don’t kill him. His name is Edmund.”
“I’ll bring this Edmund The One-Eyed back here in chains! Then I’ll kill him!”
“What?” The dwarf watched Master Griffin climb the steps. “No. No, you don’t want to kill him. You want to—”
“I’ll burn his other eye out! I’ll cut off his hands! I’ll feed him to my dogs! Curse the miserable traitor! I’ll make this Edmund suffer like he’s never suffered before!”
“No. No, Your Highness—”
“Your Highness.” Master Griffin bowed before the throne. Lester’s eyes suddenly dulled to brown. “Is everything all right, Your Majesty?”
“All right!” the King thundered. “All right! Why, the people of the Highlands have revolted! And you ask if everything’s all right?”
Master Griffin considered the dwarf standing next to the King and sighed. “I’m sure it was just a bad dream, Your Eminence. Nobody is revolting.” Then he added, “Except for your Court Jester.”
Lester stepped behind the throne and made an obscene gesture.
“All is well, Your Majesty.” Master Griffin took no notice of the dwarf. “Perhaps after today’s business is conducted, you should go on a hunt or a—”
“How could you dare to say such a thing?” The King’s face turned as red as the light streaming through the arched windows. “Didn’t you hear? They’re revolting! The miserable traitors! I just received a message from a, a …”
“Royal Messenger,” Lester whispered.
“A Royal Messenger!” King Lionel shouted. “The Highlands are in flames! There are killings, and rapes, and murders—and I’m not involved!”
He snapped his fingers at one of the boys sitting on the floor by the far doors. The boy raced to the dais.
“Ready my horse!” he hollered. “Summon my knights! All of them. We ride to battle!”
The boy sprinted out of the hall as both Lester and Master Griffin attempted to calm the King.
“I’m sure you don’t really …” Griffin began, as the other advisors murmured in astonishment. “That is to say, sire, I didn’t see any messenger, royal or otherwise, enter this chamber. I think you are—”
“Nonsense! Lester was standing right here when he came in!”
Everybody looked at Lester as he stammered, “Yes … yes. That’s … that’s true, Your Majesty. Tall fellow, with two eyes and a mouth. Breathed in and out, in and out. It’s hard to forget him. But I think it would be best if you stayed. You were just saying to me that you were going to—”
“Nonsense!” the King cried. “Battle is at hand! And I have a traitor to torture and kill. Now get out of my way, I have a war to win! A war, I tell you!” Tossing his red-and-gold robe dramatically to one side, the King of Eryn Mas stomped out of the hall as everybody else dropped to their knees.
“Well, that didn’t go as expected,” the jester muttered to himself.
“What did you do?” Master Griffin demanded.
Lester shoved a finger at the Senior Advisor’s nose. “Bugger off and mind yourself, or you’ll end up someplace nasty.”
Master Griffin recoiled.
Lester marched to the open doors and, mocking the King, tossed an imaginary robe to one side. “Now get out of my way, I have a war to win! A war, I tell you!”
He stomped off to report what had happened.
Edmund sat among the ruins of the great tower that once stood watch over Rood centuries earlier. It was a pile of moss-covered rubble now, and he halfheartedly considered how he might use the huge stone blocks to rebuild the village. But he knew that wasn’t the reason he’d climbed up the hill.
As a child, he’d come to the ruins to think, or to get away from the constant teasing of his classmates, or to daydream about becoming a world-famous adventurer. Now he just wanted to hide from the endless parade of people who wanted his input on everything under the sun, from the critical to the trivial—which was good, in a way. Rood was starting to take shape: The burned-out buildings had been torn down, foundations cleared of reeking debris; the third barracks and smithy were being built; furs for winter were being made into clothing. Everything was moving at an incredible rate. But as much as the people depended upon him, as much as they all swarmed around him from morning until night, asking him question after question, he felt alone, utterly alone. This feeling only intensified when he watched Pond, Abby, and as many guards as could be spared ride south that morning to buy supplies. They’d be gone for a month at least, and Edmund didn’t want to think about Pond and Abby being together for that long. It was petty, he knew, but he couldn’t help but worry they’d come back married, ending his chances at winning Abby’s heart.
He stroked Becky’s head as they sat, his back against a huge stone slab, studying the yellow and orange and red leaves gliding in the warm autumn breeze. There were so many of them; it was like he was sitting in a slow-moving, colorful rain.
His gaze shifted to the forests covering the rolling hills to the north and east, their dwindling canopies a collage of bright color. He smiled, his heart lightening somewhat.
By the gods, this is what makes the Highlands so damned special. Nowhere on the continent could you see beauty like this.
More leaves drifted by.
They rustled on the ground, sounding like ham sizzling on a hot skillet.
He inhaled the dry, earthy scents of autumn, the resolve to rebuild Rood hardening within him.
He knew King Lionel would try to retake the Highlands, not because it provided him with anything he wanted, but because Lionel was a warrior, and warriors always needed to fight over something. There was also the issue of his honor; he wouldn’t simply let part of his kingdom slip away.
Edmund did some quick calculations in his head. The earliest the King could hear about their little revolt would be in two months; people who fled Rood after the goblin attack wouldn’t reach Eryn Mas any quicker. After hearing what they had to say, Lionel would naturally want to send somebody to investigate, maybe a small force of riders. But by then, winter would be well underway and they’d have to wait until spring. Riders would come north in the warmer weather, see what had happened, then ride back to Eryn Mas to make their report, which would take another two months. The King would need to marshal his forces, and by then, winter would have come again; Lionel certainly wouldn’t be stupid enough to send his army north in the winter. It’d be at least the spring after next before anything happened, and considering how quickly things were being built in Rood, Edmund thought he and his friends could give King Lionel a real fight—if they prepared properly. They had a year, maybe two, and by that time, they’d have Rood ready and a couple hundred men armed with unbreakable swords and armor.
From the hilltop, Edmund considered his home a mile or so to the west.
The lands surrounding Rood’s walls were littered with jagged stumps and deep gashes where trees had been dragged away. It looked like a hideous wasteland of wooden tombstones, but cutting back the woods was important for Rood’s survival. They also needed the timber to build housing for everyone they expected to come north for the free land.
He inspected the town.
Even from a distance, Edmund could see people hurrying to and fro like stirred-up ants, stripping the felled trees of bark and branches, making lumber suitable for building. He could hear the ringing of hammers, the sharp thud of axes, and the rhythmic back-and-forth of saws. As he watched, beams for the third barracks’ roof were raised into place, while just outside the town walls, a group of men practiced their archery skills.
Then he noticed the house built on his family’s former land: Molly and Norb’s house.
It stood by itself—a silent, dark lump amid the activity.
Told by Pond how Edmund gave his house to Molly before the goblins destroyed Rood, the townspeople had voted to give the land back to Edmund. But after seeing its brightly painted nursery, he couldn’t go back inside. In fact, he could barely look at the lopsided building without fighting to inhale. He hoped it would just fall down or get swept away by a terrific wind.
He wrenched his gaze away in disgust and guilt and inadvertently glimpsed the mountains forming the bluish-gray horizon to the northeast. Goblins would be coming soon. They’d never leave him in peace, not while he knew the secret to making Iliandor’s steel; however, an army with unbreakable swords and armor would take care of them, too. Or at least, so Edmund hoped. He first needed men who could fight.
An image of the empty crib in Molly’s nursery popped into his mind. He tried to shake it out.
You have to do something, you know that, right? You can’t ignore the fact they have Molly’s daughter. You have to rescue her!
How? I can’t just storm a tower filled with goblins by myself!
You did for Molly.
Putting his head into his hands, Edmund fought the urge to cry.
He looked up, the bright autumn sun warming his otherwise cold face. Fluffy white clouds drifted through a perfectly blue sky. A bent line of geese flew south, honking as they went.
Why can’t I feel happy on a day like this?
You’ll never find peace until all of this is over. You have to rescue—
“I have to save the town!” he shouted to the hills.
Surprised, Becky leapt up and searched for the cause of the outburst; upon seeing none, she licked Edmund’s face.
Choking back laughs and sobs, he hugged her tightly.
“Horic called you a werehound,” he said, scratching the wolf-like dog roughly behind the ears. “I’m not sure what that means, but I’m glad you’re on my side, girl.”