5.18 – Closed Circle

Irding and Erik skidded across the room and into the wall on the far side, the impact knocking the wind from the younger man. That was most likely both of them with some broken ribs, Erik thought.

Both men spoke at once as they came to their feet. “What did you think you were doing?”

“Saving you!” The answers came in unison, as well.

Erik paused, staring at the son he only recently learned he had, and a laugh as big as he was bubbled up from deep within his belly. Irding looked faintly outraged.

“There’s no doubt we’re related, you and I,” Erik said as the laughter simmered down into a chuckle and his ribs burned.

Now it was Irding’s turn to laugh, clutching his own side. “We are a pair, aren’t we?”

Erik nodded, still catching his breath a little. “Now let’s see if we can’t find the rest of them.”

***

When Einarr vanished in a flash of light, Jorir and Runa rushed after with wordless cries of alarm. It was only after Jorir blinked the specks of light from his vision that he realized he was in a room with only his lord’s chosen wench for company, and no exit. “Well ain’t that a fine thing.”

Runa stamped a foot in frustration even as she scanned the room, looking for some sort of clue as to what had happened, or how to get out. “Quite a fix we’re in, yes.”

Jorir hummed. That wasn’t exactly what he meant, but telling a Singer exactly what he thought of her when they were trapped in a room alone together did not seem like his best course of action.

They circled the room in silence, inspecting every inch of wall and floor for a clue to the key out. Soon, a tendril of song reached Jorir’s ear. He was instantly on edge. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to focus, if you don’t mind. I think I’ve found something, but I’m not sure what it means.”

“Read it aloud?”

Runa furrowed her brow. “Are you sure?”

If the inscription were magic, reading it aloud could have unpredictable consequences. Unfortunately, as a result of his curse, whenever Jorir attempted to read runes he saw only a blur. “Not like I can read anything in this tower.”

She cleared her throat and read:

Alone I wage war,
wounded by steel,
wounded by swords.
Weary of war,
weary of blades.
I battle often.
All I see
is savage fighting.
No assistance will come
for my cursed self,
ere I demise
amidst men.
But the enemy strikes me
with sharp edges:
smiths made those
with mighty hammers.
They batter me in cities.
I shall abide
the meeting of foes.
Among healers
I never met
in men’s towns
those who with herbs
could heal my wounds.
But the wounds and cuts
become wider
through death-blows
day and night.

Jorir frowned. As martial as that was, little wonder some pampered princess wouldn’t get it. Only, he was going to need a minute to put it together as well. “It’s to be riddles, then. Be mindful of tricks.”

“Naturally. The ravens aren’t likely to have set this up on their own.”

He nodded and lapsed back into silence. Something incapable of healing, at least in the conventional sense. Probably something inanimate, then, like some kind of armor. “…A shield, I think. A chain shirt would fall apart before a wound in it would widen.”

The blurry patch on the wall began to glow blue, and a very solid-looking shield appeared on the wall.

“Huh. Well that’s unexpected.”

Runa seemed less impressed: still there was no door whatsoever.

“Shall we see if there are more?”

“Not like we have another option.”

Someone needed to break her of that moody petulance, preferably before she married Einarr, and preferably not him. He didn’t think he could explain to his lord or her father why he’d boxed her ears, and he was certain that would end up happening. “Well, lead on then, miss indispensable.”

Her eye twitched, but for now she said nothing. Now they walked together around the perimeter of the room, each watching for the next riddle as best they could.

Jorir spotted it – on the floor at their feet this time, and only because there was a wide expanse of stone that seemed to have no texture to it. “Milady.”

Runa stopped and lifted a questioning eyebrow at him. Somehow, when she did it, it felt as though she were being imperious.

He tried not to twitch. “Look down.”

“Who are those girls,” she began. “That go for the king? They charge the unarmed chief. The black fighters defend all day while the white ones attack.”

Jorir snorted, fingering the king he still carried with him. “Rather short and rather obvious.”

“Rather. It’s a game of tafl.”

The blurry patch of the floor began to glow, red this time, and before Jorir could blink he found himself surrounded by man-sized tafl pieces. “What in the world…?”

He was almost knocked over when the floor tile he stood on began to shift on the floor, jerking as it negotiated its way around the other tiles. The stone at their feet was now black. Others, he saw, had turned to white.

“I don’t like the looks of this,” Jorir muttered.

“Nor I.”

The block they stood upon was navigating its way to the center of the room, where it finally stopped. As the rest of the floor pieces came to their final resting places, Jorir saw that they were surrounded by the black pieces, all of which stood taller than Runa. Outside those, he was sure, were the white attackers.

“My lord says you can play?”

“Rather well, if I do say so myself. Einarr can’t beat me anymore.”

“Wonderful. Can you see the board?”

“Not at all.”

Jorir spat a curse. Fat lot of good it did for either of them to know how to play when neither could read the lay of the land.

One of the black pieces rotated on its base, and a hole opened up near the top, where a man’s face might be. “Do not be alarmed. At the beginning of each turn we, your warriors, will report to you the state of the battle.”

Runa drew herself up, looking every inch a noble. “Very good. Standard rules?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Jorir hated to ask, but it was better to know in advance. “What happens should we lose?”

“Any captured piece will be destroyed.”

“But what of us?”

“Any captured piece. This includes the King.”

Jorir swallowed hard even as Runa gasped.


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