With the morning light came the sound of metal striking metal from deep within the cave, rousing Einarr from his uneasy rest. The glow of fire lit the walls, even though Einarr’s had long since burnt itself to ash.
The noise became more distinct as he crept down the narrow, winding passageway. I wonder what sort of smith would set up in such a place?
Several minutes passed, and Einarr knit his brows. The tunnel had already continued on far longer than he had expected, but still he heard the rhythmic clinking sound of a distant forge hammer from up ahead.
The tunnel jogged sharply left, and then directly back in the other direction before opening out into a broad cavern. Like the tunnel behind him, the walls of the cavern did not appear to be man-hewn, and yet the sheer scope of the room suggested that very fact.
He pressed on, stepping softly over the smooth stone floor and moving from stalactite pillar to stalagmite as he crept across the room toward the source of fire at the center of the cavern. The clanging sound never faltered.
As he crept ever closer, the source of the noise resolved itself into a sensible form. The fire burned hot, and next to the fire was an unusually short anvil. Working at this anvil, on some project Einarr could not determine, was a black-haired dwarf. Unless Einarr missed his guess, not all of the dwarf’s visible scars were from his forge.
“You may as well come the rest of the way in,” the dwarf growled. “I already know you’re there.”
Einarr blinked, a little nonplussed. The dwarf shouldn’t have been able to hear him over the noise of his anvil. He stepped out from behind the stone pillar he had sheltered behind. “Yes, of course. My apologies, sir dwarf, but I did not expect to find anyone smaller than a tree on the island.”
The dwarf laughed, but was no mirth in it. “Sit down. Have a drink, rest a bit by the fire.”
“Am I to understand that you’re extending hospitality to me? That, according to the dictates of the gods, you will see to it that I come to no further harm on the island?” He could not keep the disbelief from his voice.
The dwarf snorted. “Fine. Don’t, then. Why are you here.”
“I don’t suppose you’d be able to tell me how to get to Fraener’s Hall, would you?”
“You want to go to the jotün’s hall, do you? Can’t see why anyone would want to do that.”
“Even still, I fear I must go. Do you know the way?”
“Oh, aye, I can take you there. But it won’t be for free. And you probably won’t thank me for it if I do.”
“Of course it won’t.” He sighed: all he had on him was the rope and the sack with Runa’s gift. “I’m afraid I haven’t anything of value on me. Perhaps some sort of a contest? A… game of wits, perhaps?”
“You would riddle with me?” The dwarf sounded unnaturally gleeful at the prospect. “If you win, I will take you there. If you lose, I will give you to the master for dinner.”
Einarr suppressed a groan. Why is it always riddles? I hate riddling. “Come now, are we barbarians? What think you of tafl?”
The dwarf’s face took on a crafty look. “Unfortunately, my board is missing a piece.”
“Is it the king?” Bless you, Runa. How did you ever guess?
The dwarf nodded sagely. Einarr pulled the king from out of the sack where it rested.
“Let’s play. My king, my defense.”
“As you like.”
The dwarf moved away from the fire and spread his board out on the ground of the cave. He set out the game pieces in an unfamiliar pattern. No matter, though; the layout determined tactics, not strategy, and the key to this game was fluid tactics. Einarr studied the board as the dwarf worked, mentally trying and discarding several opening moves.
The dwarf played cautiously at the outset – too cautiously, Einarr thought. Within five moves he’d nearly opened his path to the edge of the board. He was just starting to get cocky when he noticed the smirk his opponent wore. In the next move he was cut off from escape.
By his tenth move, Einarr was beginning to sweat. He hadn’t lost yet, but the dwarf was making him work for it harder than anyone other than Runa had in a long time.
Five more turns passed, with Einarr’s guards getting picked off slowly but surely. As he sat, contemplating his next move, a feeling of deja vu struck. I’ve seen this pattern before. …That’s right. A slow smile spread across his face, despite his attempts to quash it. I tried to corner Runa with this once. Tried, and failed miserably. In three turns she’d crushed the offense, with no more pieces left than he had now.
“Not really sure you have anything to be smiling about,” the dwarf said.
“Mm? Oh, I’m just thinking about the bragging rights I’ll have when I escape your master’s pot and poison the soup on my way out.”
“Are you now.”
Einarr didn’t think the dwarf believed him, but he looked up from under his eyebrows at his opponent and made the first move. “I am. It’s not what I came here for, but how many people can say they slew a jotün in his own hall?”
The dwarf continued on as he had been, apparently not recognizing the shift in tactics. “Not all that many, I’d wager.”
Einarr made his next move. “Now, now, one wager at a time. Raichi, by the way.” Einarr knew he looked smug as he signalled his impending victory, and right now he didn’t care.
The dwarf looked confused, still not seeing the same hole in his line that Einarr had missed those few months ago. He moved to block what he thought Einarr was doing, which left exactly the path free that Einarr had left for Runa.
“Tuichu. I win.”
“So you do.” The dwarf blinked, poleaxed.
“So now you will take me to the jotünhall, as we agreed, and I will not have to figure out how to poison your master.”
“Of course, my young sir. If you will just follow me?” The crafty note was back in the dwarf’s voice. Einarr would have to watch him.