5.19 – Deathmatch Tafl

“Any captured piece will be destroyed.”

Jorir frowned. This may not have been the first time he played tafl for his life, but it was certainly the most overt. And while he had a partner, he had no way of knowing if she was as good as she claimed and little reason to trust her word.

“We don’t seem to have much choice in the matter,” she murmured. “I know you don’t like me, but for Einarr’s sake I think we have to try, don’t you think?”

He grunted. “Fine. Just don’t get in my way.”

“So long as your tactics are sound, I won’t have to.”

It was an effort not to react. She sounded confident enough, at any rate. He turned his attention to the faceless piece that had stood silent since its pronouncement. “Knight. How are our enemies arrayed?”

“We are encircled, Lord, though the path to the northwest appears broader than that at the other corners.”

Jorir shook his head. “Obviously a trap. We break for the s-”

“Northeast,” Runa interrupted.

“That will take us right into the path of the pieces waiting to ambush us.”

“But southeast, which you were about to suggest, is the expected path, and they would be able to turn the ambush there just as well. This way the forces to the west must race to catch up.”

Jorir frowned. She made a decent point, but… “Send two volunteers to the southeast, to draw our enemies’ attention. The rest of us will make for the northwest. If that meets the lady’s approval?”

“I dislike sacrificing pieces so early on, but it is a good play.”

“We are agreed, then. Two men lead a diversion to the southeast. We will then proceed to the northeast.”

“Very good, Lord,” answered the knight.

The order was passed through the ranks, and in short order the knight opened his mouth again. “Our diversion has been spotted by the enemy, Lord. Do you wish to offer a riddle?”

“For what purpose?” Runa knit her brow at the odd request. It was an innocent question, but it sounded more akin to a demand.

“For confusing the enemy, Lord. Our diversion will be more effective if they fail to answer it.”

“A tempting prospect,” she mused.

“Even if we are riddling against Wotan?”

Runa shrugged. “What if the enemy guesses the riddle?”

“Then our diversion will be ineffective, of course,” answered the ever-helpful knight.

Jorir shook his head. “Not worth it, then. If I’m going to sacrifice a piece, I’m going to get some benefit out of it.”

“Very good, Lord.” The knight fell silent, but only for a moment. “Ah, it seems our diversion has encountered the enemy. That would I have which I had yesterday; heed what I had: men’s hamperer, word’s hinderer, and speeder of speech. Answer well this riddle, for the life of your pawn depends on it.”1

It’s a good thing I like riddles, Jorir thought. Two possible answers came to mind, but one seemed considerably more likely. He answered before Runa could open her mouth, “Ale.”

The wench had the audacity to scowl at him: he was certain she’d have answered a Singer, but outside of longship crews very few men wished for their return. Any tongue-lashing she might have delivered, though, was cut off by the knight’s answer.

“Very good, Lord. A magnificent victory.”

Jorir grunted. “Fine. Continue with the plan as stated.”

The second member of their diversion took advantage of the lay of the board to attack one of those laying in wait for the first, and another riddle was posed.

Harshly he clangs, on hard paths treading
    which he has fared before.
Two mouths he has, and mightily kisses,
    and on gold alone he goes.2

Jorir smirked, but let Runa think on this one a bit. For anyone but a blacksmith, it would be a well-chosen riddle. Eventually she shook her head.

“A goldsmith’s hammer.”

“Very good, my Lord. Our diversion seems to be working: how shall we proceed?”

“Northeast, as quietly as possible,” Runa answered without hesitation.

“Very good. Might I recommend offering a riddle, to keep their attention on the diversion?”

Jorir frowned, but Runa nodded. “I have one,” she whispered.

“Very well.”

“Very good, Lord. With what challenge will you cloud the enemy’s eyes?”

Runa cleared her throat and began to intone:

I watched a wondrous creature, a bright unicorn,
bearing away treasure between her white horns,
fetching it home from some distant adventure.
I’m sure she intended to hide her loot in some lofty stronghold
constructed with incredible cunning, her craft.
But then climbing the sky-cliffs a far greater creature arose,
her fiery face familiar to all earth’s inhabitants.
She seized all the spoils, driving the albescent creature
with her wrecked dreams far to the west,
spewing wild insults as she scurried home.
Dust rose heavenward. Dew descended.
Night fled, and afterward
No man knew where the white creature went.3

In spite of himself, Jorir was impressed. Leave it to a Singer to come up with a monstrously hard, beautifully poetic riddle. Soon enough, however, the answer came back, echoing across the field of play: the moon, chased by the sun.

Jorir groaned. Runa, though, looked only a little disappointed and still composed. Perhaps she was as good as she claimed – or perhaps she only had a good game face.

“I suppose it can’t be helped. Only a little harder of a fight this way.”

They crept towards the northeast corner, and it was as though their diversion had never happened. Before long, the diversionary forces were cut off and Jorir ordered them to return to the main group. One of them made it: the other ran up against a hard limit. No piece could survive their third defense, no matter how well they riddled.

That broke Runa’s calm. Jorir grumbled about it’s poor form – if such was the case, it should have been divulged up front – but Runa’s face grew icy cold with anger.

“All right, dwarf. So much for caution. Now we drive through.”


1: From “The Riddles of King Heithrek,” translated on http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/onp/onp17.htm#fr_4
2: ibid
3: Riddle from http://www.thehypertexts.com/The%20Best%20Anglo-Saxon%20Riddles%20and%20Kennings.htm


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