What Makes A Riddle?

Leopold squeezed sideways through a narrow stone gap. Fortunately he’d lost a little weight these last few days. There wasn’t much to eat atop Mt. Icehollow.

He made it through at the cost of a few buttons from his doublet. They clattered to the floor, rolling off in all directions. A small price to pay. He patted himself down on the other side, making sure nothing else was out of place. His boots were fine. His pants were fine. His pack was back at the entrance. His sword was still there, and his satchel of silver was still strapped tight against his hip. Ah! He’d almost forgotten.

He reached into his doublet, retrieving a folded mass of felt. He shook it out, and it expanded to take the shape of a truly stunning cavalier hat. He settled it onto his head, and spent a minute or two fiddling to make sure the swoop was on his good side.

It was a pity ancient fortresses never seemed to come with mirrors. There wasn’t anyone to consult either. He’d come alone to Icehollow peak, as any sane adventurer did for a job like this.

He missed his party, and not just because of his vanity. If he’d had them, or even just lovely Esmerelde, things wouldn’t be so cursedly dull. After pushing through the crack, he could have twirled his moustache and said something witty. Like, um, “That was a close scrape!”. Perfect. That was a good one. A bit of an eye-roller, but it would get a laugh, especially if he said it while looking down at his missing buttons.

But instead he sighed, made another minute adjustment to his hat, and continued onward. The sooner he finished, the sooner he could start the long trek back to civilization.

He was close now. He’d paid a pretty penny for the location of the tunnel that lead to the foot of the fortress. The gates had been barred long ago, but he’d scaled the curtain walls with raw agility. And he’d just now found his way through the maze of cracks in the walls of the collapsed keep.

As he walked, he heard what he’d been hoping for. A sound like the wind whistling through a frozen forest. It died down, then picked up again, the tempo regular.

He quieted his footsteps and quickened his pace. Normally he’d take his boots off for this part, but normally the floor wasn’t cold enough to give him frostbite.

He emerged from the hallway into the inner sanctum. A dome of rock arced high overhead. It was enormous, built from nothing but cleverly interlocking stones ripped from the mountainside. Large cracks spiderwebbed across it, the sky visible beyond, but still it held.

Leopold gathered himself, and drew his eyes downward. In the center of the inner sanctum was his prize.

An enormous pile of silver. Silver coins, silver bars, silver crowns and scepters and pendants. All sizes and shapes were there, jumbled together into a flat mound, shining in the daylight that peeked through cracks in the ceiling.

Atop the silver, so well-camouflaged he had to squint to make it out, sat the hoard’s guardian. A frost dragon. Its scales were the same shiny gray color as the precious metals below it. Leopold could only see it at all because the scales were too large, and too regular, to be piled coins.

Well, that and the puffs of icy air that escaped from its nostrils at regular intervals. The dragon was sleeping.

Leopold crept closer, watching the ground with every footfall. He stepped around rocks and cracks, heel to toe even in his tall boots, and crept around to the back of the hoard. The air chilled has he approached, the wyrm sucking in what little heat remained on the mountain with every breath.

Leopold skirted the edge of the hoard, squinting at the shiny pile. Where was…there! Sticking out from under the dragon’s tail, near the bottom of the mound, was a shining silver rapier. Leopold had been worried he wouldn’t be able to find it, but the second his gaze swept over the magnificent blade, he was transfixed. It called to him, its surface glittering in the sun like music.

Stealing from a dragon, even a sleeping one, was foolishness of the first order. They felt the loss of wealth as keenly as a human felt the twist of a knife. Even if the rapier was a small fraction of the creature’s hoard, taking it would be like poking a human in the arm with a needle. Hard to sleep through, is the point.

But Leopold had come prepared. He unslung his satchel of silver from where it sat pressed against his side. It weighed more than the rapier by a fair bit, as intended. He’d left himself plenty of margin for error.

He reached for the rapier with one hand, silver clutched in the other. His fingers stung in the cold, but he ignored them. With one hand he grasped the rapier, slowly pulling it from the pile, and with the other he moved the satchel closer to the hoard. The dragon wouldn’t feel a thing.

“Clever,” a voice said behind him, the timbre so low it shook his bones. The words were acompanied by a puff of frost that rolled over his back and settled as ice on the hair of his arms.

Leopold leapt to the side, throwing his satchel toward the hoard as he tucked into a roll. He came to his feet, new silver rapier pointed toward the dragon as he lowered his weight and bounced on the balls of his feet.

The dragon was awake. It still sat lazily on the pile of silver, only its long neck having moved to bring its head around. It stared at Leopold with eyes the size of his head. The creature’s lips drew back to show its teeth, in what was either a smile or an expression of hunger.

It didn’t seem to be attacking. Leopold hesitated for a moment, then took off in a mad dash for the hallway he’d come from.

The dragon roared behind him. A gust of bitter, icy wind blasted past Leopold, coating the exit in a thick sheet of ice. Just the speed of the air blowing by buffeted him to the floor.

He rolled again as he hit the ground, coming back to his feet and skidding to a halt in a cloud of dust and rocks. He quickly turned to face the dragon, which still hadn’t moved a muscle aside from its neck and head.

“Clever enough to run, too,” the beast said in its deep voice. “What brings you to death’s door, little one?”

Leopold’s mind raced, proposing and rejecting gambits until it settled on one. “Oh mighty Wyrm,” he began, “oh he who was old when the world was young–”

The dragon yawned, mouth opening wider than Leopold’ horse was tall. “Speed it up,” the creature said, smacking its lips.

Leopold felt sweat bead on his brow in spite of the bone-chilling cold. He sped it up. “I have brought you a gift of silver, to enlarge your mighty hoard.” He gestured at the satchel on the ground. “If you will but permit me to descend the mountain with this small sliver of your wealth, a pittance, really, I will return with–”

“No,” the dragon interrupted him lazily. It huffed, finally moving its enormous body to readjust on its bed of coins. It looked comfy. “I don’t think I will.”

“Er, of course.” With one last longing look at the silver rapier, Leopold tossed it across the room to land once more in the Dragon’s bed of silver.

“As you say. In any case,” Leopold began to edge toward another hallway he could see off to the side, “I’ll just be going now.”

The dragon shook its head back and forth. “Such a talkative little one. And so quick on its feet. Tell me, do you know the game of riddles?”

Leopold stopped. “The game of riddles?”

“Yes, the game of riddles. Surely men still play the game of riddles?”

“Er, we tell riddles, yes.”

“Then, little one, as I am feeling generous, I will make you an offer. Entertain me, for a while, and if you best me in the game of riddles, I will let you go free – to find and bring me more silver for my hoard.”

Leopold considered. “And if I lose?”

“Then I will eat you.”

“I see. And if I refuse?”

“I will eat you.”

“Mhmm, mhmm. And were I to win, but fail to acquire enough silver to satisfy–”

“I would be obliged to leave my mountain to eat you, and would be very cross.”

Leopold nodded as if this made all the sense in the world. “I accept.”

“Wonderful. Clever and sensible. I shall go first.” The dragon cleared its throat, the sound like an avalanche.

I have an eye but cannot blink,

Cannot glance and cannot stare,

To clothe you all I rise and sink,

But I myself am naked and bare.

What am I?

Leopold nodded again, stroking his chin and repeating the words over and over in is head. “How long do I have?”

“Until I get bored, naturally.”

That was actually fairly generous. Dragons were patient, if nothing else. Leopold began to ponder. What had one eye? A cyclops? No, too direct. Old fashioned riddles like these were usually thinly-veiled metaphors. His brain started to generate phrases. Apple of my eye. Eagle eyed. Eye of the storm. All eyes on you. To pass through the eye of a–


“A needle,” he said confidently.

The dragon nodded. “Well done. And what is your riddle, little one?”

Leopold hesitated. A scheme was forming. “Two questions, if I may, great one. What makes a riddle a riddle, in your wise and considered opinion?”

“Ah, semantics. As old as the riddle game itself. The matter has long been settled. A riddle is any question whose answer is difficult to find, but once spoken, is easily seen to be true. What is your second question?”

“Is mathematics known to you, great one?”

The dragon scoffed. “I have lived since your kind swung through the treetops. I know more of mathematics than your greatest scholars will ever discover. Speak your riddle.”

“Of course, of course,” Leopold said, multiplying furiously in his head. He hoped this worked. If it didn’t, he’d probably have a few more chances before the dragon got serious about trying to stump him. “Here is my riddle. Which two numbers, multiplied together, give 82835737?”

The dragon blinked, slowly. “That is not a riddle.”

“Apologies, your greatness, but I believe it is. The answer is difficult to find, but once I tell you the two numbers, I am certain one as ancient and learned as you will be able to check that they multiply correctly. By your own words, it is a riddle.”

The dragon harrumphed, blowing more white mist out of its nose. “Your riddle is ridiculous. Choose another.”

“Is that how the riddle game is played, great one? I confess I have never played with a veto rule before…”

“Listen, you drooling dullard–” The dragon paused, breaking off mid-sentence. After a moment, it smiled again. Damn those teeth were sharp. “I retract my objection, little one. The answer is ‘1’ and ‘82835737’. Now it is my turn. Which two whole numbers greater than 1, when multiplied together, give 98931797?”

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. Leopold closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He still had a chance here. Let’s see, that was about a hundred million, so if he started with 10000*10000, and lowered the left number until it multiplied out too small, then raised the larger number until it multiplied out too big…

Leopold stood there, doggedly multiplying numbers, until his fingers grew numb from counting in the air. The dragon waited patiently before him, still smiling.

He was testing 9532*10379 when he was interrupted by a deep voice. “I’m bored now,” the dragon said casually. Then it lunged, and Leopold’s feet moved on instinct, but it was like trying to outrun a flash of silver light. The beast’s maw closed over him. Enormous teeth bit into the floor to carve gashes in the stone. With a single swallow, the dragon ate Leopold up.

It slunk back to its mighty hoard, pawing at the coins like a cat before settling down to rest. A single icy burp escaped from its mouth, and then it thought no more of Leopold.

The little one’s “riddle”, however, occupied the creature’s thoughts as it drifted off to sleep. Was it a riddle? Of course not. But then why not? He would dream on it, and perhaps discuss it with his cousins when he saw them, in a century or three.

Written on February 24, 2021