Tag: tafl

5.20 – Tuichu

Runa was terrifying when she was angry. Jorir once again wondered if Einarr knew what he was getting himself into with her. They charged forward, and at every opportunity offered a riddle. Sometimes she even managed to best their opponent, which was really quite impressive when he considered their opponent was, if not Wotan himself, then the god’s familiars.

Unfortunately, before long her mad charge left them in a bit of a pinch, and every time he tried to contradict her tactics she bulled forward. She had been too reckless with their riddling as well, and even between the two of them they had not been able to guess all their opponent’s riddles. Finally, he snapped. “Runa!”

“What.” Even her voice was icy.

“At this rate ye’ll get us both killed. Calm down. Look around.”

She stopped, took a deep breath, and surveyed the pieces surrounding them. Then she frowned. They were not lost yet, but significant portions of the enemy force were visible through their guards.

“The game was weighted against us from the beginning. Ye should have known this, and then you go off half-mad when it’s proven? This isn’t some match against a love-lorn suitor aiming to gain your favor, lass.”

She exhaled, loudly. “No. No, you’re right. Father would be upset if he knew I could still be goaded like that.”

“He’ll be more upset if you never come back. Put your head on straight.”

“Of course. My apologies.”

Jorir snorted. “Now. Between the two of us, let’s find a way out of this mess. It’s hard to say for certain, but I don’t think we’re set up to use that gambit Einarr pulled on me.”

“I don’t suppose it was a particularly clever feint, relying on the opponent misjudging your creativity?”

“I suppose you could call it that.”

Runa laughed. “Pretty sure I taught him that.”

Jorir rolled his eyes. “Nevertheless, I don’t think we’ve got the arrangement for it.”

“The gambit is not in the lay of the board, the gambit is in one’s wits. Help me think, then: we’ve more than enough pieces to pull this off yet.”

Optimism. That is what Einarr saw in her. Optimism and determination, more than stubborn pride. Perhaps she was a better match than he had believed. With a will, they set to winning the game. There were twice he disagreed with her chosen move, but she gave him time to disagree now, and saved not two but six pieces for it. More than a game for their lives, he was having fun.

“Reichi,” they announced together, five moves after Jorir had woken Runa from her rage.

“Very good, Lord. We’ve nearly made it!” The knight sounded cheerful again, after having been nearly cowed before, and distressed over their apparent drubbing.

“Don’t celebrate just yet. He can still block us.” Jorir peered ahead across the field of play, watching for their unseen opponent’s next move.

Sure enough, one of the white-clad pieces jumped into the center of the path, blocking their route.

“Reichi,” echoed across the battlefield. If they weren’t careful, this exchange could go on for ages.

“How many pieces do we have left that can weather more than one fight?” Jorir demanded of the black knight.

“Three, Lord.”

“How many in range to take that one,” Runa said, pointing at the offending piece.

“One, Lord.” Why the knight treated them as one person, Jorir could not guess, but it had been consistent through the game.

They shared a glance and a nod.

“They should take it, then.”

“Very good, Lord. The riddle, then:

What marvel is it which without I saw,
    before break of dawn?
Upward it flies with eagle’s voice,
    and hard grip its claws the helmet.1

Jorir frowned and buried his chin in his hand. Runa crossed her arms and her eyebrows.

“A dragon with a sore throat?” Jorir shook his head. It didn’t fit with the others they’d heard. “No, too irreverent.”

“Can’t be a kalalintu, either. No-one would compare them to eagles,” Runa mused. “A weathervane?”

“Quite a lot of these have been martial…”

Runa offered “A javelin?”

“Javelins don’t really have a voice when they fly…” Jorir raised his head, his eyes sparkling with realization. “But arrows do. Are we agreed?”

When Runa nodded, he turned to their knight. “Our answer is, an arrow.”

“Excellent, Lord.”

One move further on and they were able to declare reichi again. This time, the opponent did not immediately move to block their path. Jorir scowled across the board. “Carefully, now. I smell another trap.”

“You’re right. He should have moved to block our way again.”

And yet, the only thing they could do was move forward, toward the edge of the board, victory, and the rest of their lives.

“Tuichu,” they declared in unison.

A voice boomed across the playing field.

“You have done well, and reached the edge. Before the game is through, there is one final riddle you must prove. Answer well and true, for this storm shall not be weathered.”

Runa growled, the sound as threatening as a wolf puppy’s. Jorir just rolled his eyes. “Well, let’s have it, then.”

The words rang out over the field:

Two brides did bear, white-blond their locks,
and house-maids were they— ale-casks homeward;
were they not shaped by hand nor by hammers wrought;
yet upright sat he on the isles, who made them.2

Jorir blinked once, then again, searching for anything in the words that would give him a hint and coming up empty. “Nothing martial, this time,” was all he could offer.

Runa, though, had the expression he had seen more than once during this maddening game of Thought and Memory’s design. Thus far, it had always been followed by brilliance. Finally, she looked up and directly at the black knight.

Jorir held his breath. He had no answer to give, but should she miss this one…

“You speak of two swans, heading to the shore to lay their eggs. Correct?”

No answer came. Jorir tensed, half expecting the black knights surrounding them to topple and crush him.

Instead, the tafl board vanished. They stood facing a door.


1: From “The Riddles of King Heithrek,” translated on http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/onp/onp17.htm#fr_4
2: ibid


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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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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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5.14 – Raven Dreams

Jorir held out a hand to stop the other two even as Runa charged forward. “Hard enough to get through this without anyone else stirring the air. No sense facing more than you have to.”

Erik grunted. Irding, youth that he was, looked as though he wanted to scoff – right up until he opened his mouth.

Jorir snorted as realization dawned on the young man’s face. “Besides. As his man at arms, I’m next.”

Irding drew his brow down, a different thought occurring to him. “How do you know what we face will be bad?”

“I don’t, really. But we’re being tested by a pair of ravens. That tells me we’ll be seeing death and battle.”

Erik’s face was set in a grim mask, visible even through the beard. “The dwarf is right, son. Best brace yourself.”

Irding shifted uncomfortably and said no more. Jorir turned his attention back to the room full of glowing bubbles. With a hum so low it was nearly a growl, he started forth, his mind carefully blank of everything save the obstacles in his path.

He had hoped, briefly, that his reduced stature would make his passage easier, but it was not to be. He stepped forward and held his breath as an errant bubble passed right through his leg without popping. Nothing happened. Okay then. It’s not just if they touch you. He ducked and weaved and rolled his way across the room, until he finally saw a clear path to where Einarr and his Lady waited. Jorir breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped through the door to guard them, facing the top of the stairs beyond.

Erik and Irding were not far behind him, looking shaken by whatever it was they had seen but not otherwise harmed. It seems I was lucky.

“Shall we continue?”

“Yes, my lord.” Jorir began his steady tromp up the stairs, positioned in the middle of the steps so that none of the reckless youths behind him might dash past. Erik would never learn that he, too, fit that description by Jorir’s reckoning.

The second door they came to looked nearly identical to the first. Jorir stretched and caught hold of the door pull: on the other side was another room filled with the same glowing bubbles as the first floor. Jorir quirked an eyebrow.

“Again?” Irding said from behind. “This tower isn’t half so dangerous as I expected.”

Jorir allowed himself the luxury of a mental groan. Thanks for that, man. At the very least he could be the one to test that, instead of his lord. “Might I have the honor of going first, my lord?”

Einarr gestured forward, and Jorir stalked in. He dodged the first bubble that came for him, and the second, but unlike the first floor it was as though these were actively seeking his head. It wasn’t long at all before three right together rushed towards his face.

He could not dodge: there was nowhere to go. Instead, he gritted his teeth and closed his eyes as the cold, filmy membrane covered his face.

When he opened his eyes, he stood before a very familiar and much-hated forge in a monstrously large cave. Something that happened while I was Fraener’s slave, then? There were no shortage of other places his trial could have taken place: at least here there were a limited range of indignities he could have to relive.

Footsteps sounded from one of the natural side passages. From the sound alone he could tell it was not the giant. Men, then, come to steal from Fraener much as I tried. That doesn’t narrow it down much. “You may as well come the rest of the way in,” he growled. “I already know you’re there.”

The man who stepped forward out of the darkness beyond his forge-fire’s light was the last one he expected to see: red-haired, obviously strong but not over large, with a distinctive sword at his hip. Einarr?

“Yes, of course. My apologies, sir dwarf, but I did not expect to find anyone smaller than a tree on the island.”

Jorir laughed, but there was little mirth in it. “Sit down. Have a drink, rest a bit by the fire.”

Einarr blinked. He was suspicious, of course. He had every right to be, under these circumstances. “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?”

Jorir snorted. It hadn’t been poisoned the first time, technically. Just a brew that didn’t tend to agree with humans. “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 jotünhall, 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.”

Einarr sighed. “Of course it won’t…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? If you win, I will take you there. If you lose, I will give you to the master for dinner.” It had been a very long time since Jorir had anyone to match wits with: Fraener was stone dumb, and most of the men who came treasure hunting here preferred to solve problems with their swords. As for feeding him to the giant, it was one of Fraener’s requirements of his thraldom.

Einarr grimaced. “Come now, are we barbarians? What think you of tafl?”

“Unfortunately, my board is missing a piece.”

“Is it the king?”

Jorir nodded, and Einarr produced the piece from the pouch hanging limply from his belt. “Let’s play. My king, my defense.”

“As you like.”

Jorir tried to remember how he had played that day, in order to keep as close to the memory as possible. Something about Einarr’s play, though, seemed… wrong. In spite of how this went, it began to look as though he would win. “And here I thought you must be good at this game.”

“Ordinarily, I am.” Einarr’s brow creased, and Jorir saw sweat begin to bead there. He would lose in three. Jorir made his next move, and then finally his lord’s face cleared.

Jorir blinked, and then they were at the top of a tall spiral staircase, Sinmora’s tip digging in to his back while he fumbled for the key. He had lost – hadn’t even cheated to ensure the memory played out properly: why was this different?

…Oh, right. Maybe because the next thing that had actually happened was, he had tried to kill the man on the staircase, fearing Fraener’s wrath.He would have serious trouble doing so now.

“Hurry it up,” Einarr growled.

Jorir removed his key from the lock and hid it back inside his shirt. “Tell me, sir raider, if someone came to steal from your Captain, what would you have done?”

“Slain the man before I played a game of tafl with him. Go on.”

“Go to hel.” The dwarf spun on his heel, the hand that had been reaching for the handle instead unhooking the axe from his belt. He leaped at Einarr, axe swung high overhead.

Instead of the expected parry, Einarr danced back two steps. Jorir’s eyes widened as he saw he was about to plunge over the edge of the stair.


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3.28 – Duelling the Shade

Einarr prowled around the clearing formed by the Allthane’s shades, his focus narrowing in on his opponent. With Troa and Jorir at his back, he had nothing to fear from the ring of enemies and so he waited, watching for his chance.

The Allthane’s sword may have grown rusty, but Einarr thought the man’s spirit still remembered the fight all too well. And then there was the shield-bearer. He had neither axe nor sword nor knife in hand… that Einarr could see. The hand that gripped the shield could hide a small blade, after all, and he did not miss the sheath that hung empty at the man’s belt.

Treachery? Einarr pursed his lips. Fine. He tensed his thighs, his eyes darting between the two. As his eyes fixated on the Allthane, Einarr hurtled forward. He raised Sinmora overhead –

— And struck for the shield-bearer, who had moved to intercept the blow he thought Einarr intended to land. Sinmora’s blade sank into the emaciated flesh of the shade’s shield arm but did not shear through as it had before. Einarr growled and kicked at the shade’s half-severed arm, pulling his sword free. The brittle bone beneath snapped under the force of the kick. Einarr bared his teeth at the revenant.

Neither broken arm nor feral grin seemed to faze his opponents, however. The shield-bearer did not even drop the shield, although one more good hit would give the creature no choice. But now the Allthane was whirling around his shield-bearer, his sword a blur in the sickly green light, and it was all Einarr could do to catch the blows on his own sword or shield.

He growled as the Allthane’s blade hacked at him, as viciously as a warrior under the battle fury. In a moment when the Allthane’s blade was stuck in his shield, Einarr cut for the revenant’s knees.

The shield-bearer slid between them at the last moment and Sinmora clanged against the steel boss of the shield. Einarr turned the backswing to cut again at the creature’s battered arm as he raised his own shield overhead.

The Allthane’s blade came loose. So did the shield-bearer’s arm, still attached to the shield. A hand axe fell onto the back of the boards. Einarr looked up in time to see the Allthane’s blade descending toward his shoulder. He sprang backwards and the blade made sparks against his chain shirt.

Einarr grimaced now. The Allthane really was a cut above the rest of his men. Even the shield-bearer seemed more fragile, although not by much. And Einarr would have to take out the shield-bearer before he could go after the Allthane – at least if he wanted to avoid an axe in his back, that is. Momentarily he regretted the lack of the battle-fury, but Reki was only one woman. The rage would do him no good against wisps of fog.

Einarr flexed his fingers against the grips of both sword and shield. Two on one was hardly his ideal duel, but he could do it. The shield-bearer picked up the shield with his remaining arm: Einarr’s first task was to take him out of the fight. Even without the axe that had fallen to the sand below, he could keep Einarr from his goal.

Einarr shrugged his shoulders, hoping to be rid of the feeling of baleful eyes watching. Which, of course, they were, but they were also becoming a distraction. Only two of the revenants mattered right now, and they were inside the ring with him. Einarr growled as the shield bearer took up his place in front of the Allthane.

From the corner of Einarr’s eye, he saw Jorir kick back one of the circling observers. Not alone.

He spat. “What sort of a coward uses a shield-bearer in this day and age?”

Neither Allthane nor guard rose to the bait. Well, he hadn’t really expected the taunt to work: those two operated off of a different era’s morés. The shield-bearer squared his stance and raised the battered shield into position.

Einarr brought his own shield up to guard his neck and shoulders even as he launched himself back into the attack. At the last instant he turned his shield to the side to strike the Allthane’s shield high with his edge. He heard the splintering of wood as they struck, and lashed out with Sinmora to take the shield-bearer’s head.

The Allthane was chanting again, but that did not stop his shield-bearer from crumpling to the ground at Einarr’s feet. He kicked the shield away from the center of the circle.

While Einarr was preoccupied there, however, the Allthane’s chanting voice had come around behind him. A prickling on the back of his neck was all the warning he had that a strike was imminent.

Einarr dove forward. Dread constricted his throat.

Steel clashed with gold, and the sound rang like a bell behind Einarr. He rolled to his feet.

Behind him, standing where Einarr had not a moment before, Jorir had caught the blade. The Allthane pressed against the golden shield from the Jotun’s horde, and the shield seemed made of golden flame.

“Now, milord!” The dwarf strained under the pressure the Allthane exerted against the shield.

The Allthane stared not at the dwarf, or even at his foe, but at the shield itself, and the circle of revenants cringed away now. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

Einarr leapt forward and brought his long sword up for a mighty cut. Sinmora slashed through the Allthane’s scraggly neck.

In the same instant, Troa’s blade cut halfway through the shade’s emaciated side. Troa spun past the crumpling Allthane and pulled his sword free as Einarr’s momentum carried him several paces towards the ring of shades that still surrounded them.

He wanted to be annoyed at Troa. The man had interfered in a duel, after all… but a duel against the shade of a cannibal? The man had lost all honor in life, and shown little after death. Einarr’s breath came quick and heavy now, but he did not drop his guard. The shades encircling them began to waver, now. Some wandered off into the mist. Others, the show over, rejoined the main battle. Their nearest target? The three men in their midst who had just slain their leader.

Troa and Jorir took up their positions on Einarr’s flank again, just as they had fought their way over here.

“How can someone so accursed good at tafl be so very bad at field strategy?” Jorir grumbled.

Einarr had no answer for him, but now the revenants began to close in on them again and there was no time left to answer.


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3.21 – Enticement of Food

Einarr once more offered Jorir the hilt of his sword in token of their pledge, and the dwarf grasped it without hesitation.

“A test, my lord?” Jorir raised an eyebrow, his voice held low.

“I was the one on trial, I think. Well, we gave them a story, anyway.”

“You!” The show-off from the circle thundered, striding into the ring in his spectral fury. “That was no challenge. You planned this!”

“Are not sword dances typically agreed on?” Einarr kept his voice light. If he played this right, the only one to lose honor would be the enraged ghost. “What matter if it was friendly or otherwise?”

“The sword dance is a sacred trial by steel, and you have defiled it! What dispute was this meant to settle?”

“Good sir, I believe you are mistaken. The sword dance is a ritual, true, but one which contains a story. Have we not accomplished that?”

The figure of the show-off wavered, turning almost transparent even as it tried to elongate.

“Stand down!” The voice of the Allthane only seemed to bellow, but it was sufficient to bring the spectre back to its human form. “You forget yourself, and you forget the point of the hallingdanse. The newcomers have impressed me, but you have only served to remind us all of things better left forgot.”

It worked?

“The hallingdanse is over, and the table yet groans with the weight of food. Surely by now our guests have worked up an appetite.”

“Ah…” Even as Einarr was about to object, the light shifted and the room was once again dominated by the feast table and the glow of light reflected off of gold. Even knowing the smells were illusory, the sight of platters of fish – real fish, not the dolphin centerpiece – and the steaming confections like nothing Jarl Hroaldr had ever served now made Einarr’s mouth water. It was true: the hallingdanse had left him hungry.

Jorir, too, stared at the table with wide eyes. He swallowed before turning his head to look at his liege lord. Einarr met his liege man’s gaze and nodded: by winning the hallingdanse, they had left themselves weak to the lure of the spectral food.

Tyr walked up behind them and clapped their shoulders, grinning at each of them. “Well fought out there.”

“Thanks.” Einarr could not keep the dryness from his voice.

“Ready for the harder battle?”

“Not much choice, now is there?” Jorir drawled.

Tyr’s grin disappeared and he turned his face to Einarr. “Not much, no. Any idea how to break us out of the Allthane’s thrall?”

“Not yet. I’d thought to ask for a boon, but somehow I doubt he would wish to hear what I would request.”

Tyr grunted. “You’re likely right, although you may also be on the right track. Now get out there and mingle: we’ll think of something.”

Einarr grumbled. “I’m sure we will. I just hope we can do it quickly enough.”

“That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”

Einarr harrumphed and made his way back into the crowd of spirits. When one of them thrust a plate into his hand he took it, not looking at what it held, pretending he couldn’t smell it. Likewise when a cup was pressed into his other hand. That at least he did not have to feign disinterest in: he remembered well the appearance of the liquid without its glamour.

A figure cut across his path, intent on something on the other side of the feast, and it seemed strangely solid. He drew his eyebrows down, remembering the half-alive man from the ring of dancers. Survivors? Perhaps of the freeboaters?

If there were freeboaters caught up in the Allthane’s feast, surely he should try to break them free, as well. Perhaps that was where the key lay? Not in his own men’s freedom, but in that of those who had come before?

He shook his head. No, no-one who claimed to be the Allthane would insist on such disloyalty. Still, though, should he win their freedom perhaps he could also win their loyalty.

Still, though, he was not quite back at the beginning. Should he be able to get through to the captive freeboater, the other man might have valuable insights. It was worth a shot.

Now he mingled with purpose. Einarr had been so surprised by the man’s aspect during the dance that he had not remembered his face, and so he studied each and every man he passed with the intent to pierce their disguise.

So intent was he on his task that he nearly tripped over Jorir, who had evaded all plates and instead been caught up in a game of tafl on the periphery.

“My apologies, gentlemen. Don’t let me interrupt your game… Jorir, is that the piece I think it is?”

“Aye. You’d find his ploy familiar, too. Only, after I win, I’ll not be giving my king away.”

“See that you don’t.” Given the associations Jorir had placed on that piece before, the alternative seemed uncomfortably like being given to the ghosts himself. Now he leaned over and whispered to his warrior. “Keep your eyes open. At least one other man at this feast is alive.”

Jorir nodded. “If I see him, I’ll be sure to tell him.”

Einarr clapped him on the shoulder, nodding in turn. The dwarf was clever: that was no misunderstanding. He meandered back out into the crowd, still studying the men about him in search of one who was actually a man.

“What’s this? Even with food in hand, still you do not eat!” One of the spectral revelers approached, his arms outstretched. It took Einarr only a moment to recognize him as the show-off from the ring.

“Mm? Oh, I do have a plate. I’m afraid my friends and I have much on our minds. If we do not eat, it is only because worry fills our bellies.”

“No worries allowed here, my friend.” He stressed that word in an exceedingly unfriendly way. “Eat! I promise, your cares will vanish with the first morsel.”

“Such a thing will not do, I’m afraid.” Einarr glanced about, hoping there was a table within arm’s reach, to no avail. “Some things simply demand contemplation, and to fail to consider them is the height of indiscipline. Now if you will excuse me, there is someone I am looking for.”

“Oh? How fascinating.” The show-off approached far closer than Einarr was comfortable with. He could feel the cold of the grave emanating from the specter’s body. “Tell me who it is, perhaps I have seen them.”

“I didn’t get a good look at their face, and I’m afraid I know no-one’s name here.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem.”

Einarr wanted to groan as a force pressed briefly down against the plate in his hand. When it vanished the plate was lighter.

“He w-” Einarr cut himself off as the show-off’s hand lifted, a mess of unidentified food clutched in his fingers. Einarr pressed his lips together as he realized what the man intended, but not before a morsel made its way through.

“Relax. Join the feast. Have fun.” The spirit smiled maliciously and thumped Einarr on the back as he stalked away into the crowd. Einarr nearly choked trying not to swallow the tainted food. A warm sensation flooded his mouth.


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2.19 – A Moment of Respite

The deck of the dromon and the rolling waves and the salt sea air faded gradually from Einarr’s consciousness to be replaced by the sound of wind through the trees and the rustling of grass in the mountain meadows surrounding them. He looked about to get his bearings: he was several paces farther forward than he had been before the vision, but still on the path. If he judged right, Jorir and Sivid’s hard looks meant they were fighting off the vestiges of anger, and he did not think he’d ever seen Arring look sad before.

He nearly did a double-take when he saw his father, however, leaning against a nearby tree looking, of all things, wistful. Stigander had none of the post-vision fogginess about his gaze, though: perhaps he had woken first?

Einarr opened his mouth to ask, but shut it again. Jorir had said the Oracle disliked it when petitioners spoke of their trials, and he was disinclined to get on the Oracle’s bad side before they even arrived.

Sivid blinked awake, followed by the other two, and Einarr suddenly realized that beneath the unease lingering from the visions, hunger gnawed at his belly. He glanced up: the sun had passed its zenith some time ago, although it had still been morning when the second trial began.

Sivid snorted. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m ravenous. You’ve been here before, dwarf, do we have time to stop and eat?”

Jorir’s eyes narrowed at the mousey man. “We can stop and sup and still make it by sundown, human, if the final trial is a short one. If the final trials run long, we might still be climbing under the moon.”

Einarr shook his head, looking down to hide his amused half-smile from Jorir. “Careful about teasing my liege-man, Sivid. He hasn’t spent the last fifteen years watching your eternal jests.”

Sivid laughed. “Sorry, sorry. No harm meant.”

Jorir harrumphed, but before he could say more Stigander cleared his throat.

“I think it’s worth the risk to break for lunch. I think I see a decent spot just over that way.” Their captain pointed off to the side of the trail, where several flat rocks were just visible above the grass.

Einarr knit his brows. “It almost looks like someone arranged that.”

“Someone may well have.” Jorir grumbled, but Einarr did not think he had taken too much offense at Sivid’s rudeness. The dwarf resettled his pack on his shoulders and took a step toward the spot Stigander had mentioned, followed shortly by the rest of the group.

The rocks did not quite form a perfect ring, and there were more rocks than people by a few, but though the rocks were half-buried it still looked as though the stones had been placed deliberately. Well, the Oracle here is supposedly an elf. Aren’t they effectively immortal?

Einarr slung his pack down next to one of the rocks and reached into one of the pockets for a handful of pine nuts and filberts. “So what can you tell us about the Weaver’s Palace?”

“Unless it’s been rebuilt recently, it’s more like a small temple than any sort of a palace. The Oracle lived in a hermitage off a little ways from the rotunda where she met petitioners – I could just see it between the pillars. Her loom, though…” Jorir shook his head and did not continue.

Arring sat forward. “Her loom?”

“Like nothing I’ve seen before or since. You’ll have to see it to understand.”

“So what did you ask, the last time you were here?” The question had been burning at the back of Einarr’s mind for a while now.

“Ah.” Jorir glanced warily at Stigander, then sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to tell ye eventually. Yer da’s not the only one with a curse to break, y’see.”

Now Einarr sat forward, his eyebrows raised. The hand that was seeking a dried fish stopped.

“My smithing… technically, it’s some of the best… but it will never produce magic, so long as I am bound by that witch’s curse.”

Einarr winced, even as Stigander nodded in understanding. A Singer’s magic was ephemeral. Should it fail, there would be no memorial of the failure. For a smith, though… And worse for a dvergr, whose metalworking was their pride.

Jorir wasn’t quite done. He rolled the tafl king between his hands in silence for a pair of breaths. “And now you’ll be wanting to know the answer she gave me. She told me the Cursebreaker would be the one who gifted me the means of my own defeat.”

Einarr stared as Jorir held the king between thumb and forefinger, lifted for all to see.

“You defeated me at tafl, with a king gifted by the one who will be your queen. That you then gifted it to me in return for my oath binds me to both of you. I still do not understand the impulse that prompted me to swear to you. Perhaps the Oracle’s weaving binds fate just as much as any other Weaver’s does. But you are the Cursebreaker, and I would not be surprised if that is part of the answer your lord Father receives as well.”

Father was staring, too, but not at the dwarf. His eyes were glued firmly on his son’s shocked face. Einarr felt the weight of the stare, but his mind was still processing the implications of what Jorir had said.

“We stopped to eat, though. We should eat and go, or we’ll not make it before nightfall.”


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1.28 – Midden Maze

I’m going to regret this, Einarr thought even as he fell. The darkness was nearly complete. Nearly, because the Isinntog about Einarr’s neck gave off a faint white glow.

Einarr’s legs plunged into the moldering kitchen refuse of the jotün and his dwarf. The smell that assailed his nose nearly made him vomit. Putrid meat, rancid fat, and rotting vegetables all mingled together in a slimy slurry that, by some miracle, only came to Einarr’s waist. He covered his nose and mouth with a hand.

Now what? Einarr cast about with his eyes, looking for anything that might be a way out. A dark patch behind a ledge of stone suggested his route. Getting there was like wading through swamp muck. When he pulled himself up onto the ledge he had to take a moment to remove the worst of the filth from his trouser legs and the tops of his boots.

“Now then,” he muttered. “Let’s see about getting off this rock.” The echo of his jogging footsteps followed him down the hallway.

* * *

It was hard to tell how long he had been wandering in the dwarf’s tunnels, and even harder to tell if he was going the right direction or getting turned around on himself. The glow from the torc allowed him enough light to see by, but even by the brighter torch-light before the tunnels had all looked largely the same. Eventually he came to an intersection where three tunnels converged – and no staircase in sight. He sighed, and dropped a thread from his ragged-at-the-hem trousers by the one he had come from, and another as he left to the right. They were hard to see in the dim light of the torc, but they were what he had to hand.

A few hundred paces down, the tunnel split again, and again he turned off to the right, marking his path. I’ll have to find a seamstress when we get back to Kjell Hall if things keep on at this rate. A simple patch, he could manage. Much more than that, however, he knew he would have neither the skill nor patience for.

The tunnel curved around to the left, and eventually he came to another intersection. When he looked down, he saw not one but two threads lain on the ground.

Einarr’s jaw tightened. Screwing with me, is he? He had gone right last time, and ended up back in the same place, so this time he would go left. Just in case, he dropped two more threads. He stepped into the right-hand tunnel and blinked. Unless he was very much mistaken, the light from the torc was brighter now.

He went through three more intersections, choosing almost at random between his paths. If he noticed the light beginning to dim, he would always have to double-back from that path. Hah! That’s useful.

Eventually he came to a chamber that looked as though someone had flipped the first stair chamber on its head. Paths branched out in all directions, and another stone staircase spiraled deeper into the earth from the middle of the room. There was nothing to differentiate one path from any other on this level, but he could see the glow of torchlight from down below. He removed a longer thread this time, intending to affix it to the top stair.

The sound of leather smacking stone was his only warning. He half-turned toward the sound, but not quickly enough. The black-haired dwarf barreled into his side.

Down they tumbled, Einarr and his barely-glimpsed assailant. If we survive this, I’m going to kill this dwarf, he swore to himself as his shoulder bounced off the edge of a step. That was going to leave a nasty bruise. He tossed his weight to his left to avoid going off the edge.

The staircase was significantly shorter than he had anticipated based on the one leading up into the hall. For this, Einarr counted himself lucky even as he rolled into the wall opposite its end. He stood, shaking his head to try and steady his vision. The white light from the Isinntog was as bright as the torches flickering on the walls of what appeared to be a living chamber.

The dwarf was still dusting himself off, but looked otherwise unhurt by the tumble. Einarr drew Sinmora.

“Give me one reason I shouldn’t run you through, dwarf.”

 

“I want to offer you a deal. Once that torc leaves this island, anyone still here is trapped. He’ll have my head if I’m here when that happens. I can gamble on beating you in a fight, or I can lead you off this rock – provided you take me with you.”

“Why should I trust you? Three times now you’ve tried to kill me, four if we count alerting your master.”

The dwarf barked a laugh. “Because I can see which way the wind’s blowing. Lord Fraener owns me for trying exactly the same gods-damned stunt you’re up to, but I’ll be buggered if I don’t think you might actually manage it. Make me your prisoner and take me to your Captain if it makes you feel better.”

Einarr raised a skeptical eyebrow and did not sheathe his sword.

“This is me surrendering, fool.” As if to prove his point, the dwarf folded his hands against the back of his head. “There’s rope over against the wall if you feel the need to bind me.”

“I might just do that. Drop your axe on the ground and kneel.”

With a shrug the dwarf unhooked the axe from his belt and tossed it off to the side before dropping to his knees. Einarr picked it up as he moved to grab the rope the dwarf had indicated, walking backwards to avoid taking his eyes off the treacherous creature. “You can have this back once you prove yourself.”

The dwarf just shrugged and re-folded his hands behind his head. A minute later Einarr returned, rope in hand.

“Now. Swear to me before the gods that you intend us no ill.”

The dwarf’s face turned sober. “By steel and by stone, by the one bound beneath a tree and she who stirs the winds, I, Jorir, shall cause no harm to you or yours. By axe and by spear, by flame and by frost, I swear myself to your service. So shall it be until the heavens perish or my lord releases me.”

Einarr nodded, satisfied. That was actually more than he’d asked for. He studied Jorir a long moment. Then he offered Jorir Sinmora’s hilt. In spite of himself, he was still surprised when the dwarf clasped the hilt and kissed the hand that held it.

“I, Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, scion of Raenshold, and the blessed ones above have heard your oath, and I swear in their name to honor it. By my hand you shall be given red gold, and rings shall spill from my hands for your fingers. I shall count you among my advisors, and defend you against the ravages of your enemies, for so long as a man have brothers he is well-defended.” He sheathed Sinmora. “So shall I swear, by steel and by stone, by flame and by frost. May she who stirs the winds carry word of my oath, that it may be inscribed before the heavens. The wrath of the heavens is great against those who forsake such vows.”

Now he hesitated. He had taken little from the treasure vault, and all of it as gifts for others – but those items were not all he had on him. He thrust his hand into the sack where he carried the gifts from the vault. “I fear I have little of value which I am free to give at this moment. In token of your oath, please accept the tafl king from our match earlier.”

Jorir’s face took on an odd expression as he accepted the finely carved and polished wood, as though he thought something funny. Einarr, too, found it more than a little ridiculous.

“That piece was given to me before I left on this journey by the woman who will be my bride, so do not scorn it. I’m afraid I’m still going to have to bind you until we’re underway.”

The dwarf shrugged and held his wrists together behind his back.


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1.23 – Dwarven Tunnels

The dwarf stood from his seat at the table and brushed his hands off on his trousers as Einarr pocketed the king Runa had sent with him. He did not miss that his guide hooked an axe onto his belt before setting off, nor that the dwarf evidently felt no need of a cloak where they were going.

“Right this way, sir.”

“After you.” Einarr followed a full two paces behind, shortening his stride to avoid catching up with the trundling gait of the dwarf and dearly wishing he still had Erik along. Don’t let him give in, Tyr. He would just have to watch his own back this time.

The firelight from the dwarf’s forge cast eerie shadows on the cavern walls as he led Einarr further in, toward the hall where his prize lay hidden.

Eventually the cavern narrowed again into a tunnel not unlike the one Einarr had entered from initially. This time, though, within five paces it opened back out into a circular room from which more tunnels set out in all directions. Rising from the center of the room was a giant-sized pillar, into which were carved dwarf-sized steps.

“How long did it take you to learn your way around down here?”

The dwarf snorted. “Long enough to design the place, and not a moment longer. My master has no interest in the subterrain.”

“Is that so.” A man could be lost forever down here… Rather than leaving it to chance, Einarr dropped a loose thread from his tunic near the mouth of the tunnel they had exited. The dwarf’s hand fell from the axe handle as Einarr looked up.

“So you never said what brought you here.” The dwarf was probing.

“You’re right, I didn’t.”

“Well?”

“Surely there are a limited number of options that would bring a man through the storm to Svartlauf?”

“Oh, aye.” The dwarf rested his hand on the head of his axe as he began the ascent. “But since you’ve already said you didn’t come for his head, I think it would be good to know what item I’m helping some stranger to steal.”

“Would it? I would think that would be more damning when he finds out. Assuming, of course, that is in fact what I’m here to do.”

The dwarf snorted now. “I’ve been outside recently enough to know you for one of the human raiders.”

“Oh?”

“Aye. And unless matters’ve changed a great deal in the meantime, a northerner would fall on their own sword before they helped a jotün. So since we’re imprisoned here, and you said you didn’t need to kill Lord Fraener, the obvious conclusion is you’ve come to steal one of the treasures he brought with him.”

The monstrous men of the Grendel came inexplicably to mind. “Things in the north may be a little more complicated than you remember.”

The dwarf hummed and climbed faster.

Eventually, after climbing farther than Einarr would have thought possible from the cave without ever catching sight of the sky, the stairway terminated in a landing and a stone door.

“My master’s hall is through here.” The dwarf stood to the side, resting both hands casually on the head of his handaxe and staring fixedly at the blank stone wall across the landing.

“What… part of the hall?”

“The main chamber. This is my private entrance.”

“In that case, please. Go ahead.” Einarr had no desire to allow the black-haired, scarred dwarf behind him. Whether he loved his master or not, he knew Einarr intended the jotün harm, and there was profit to be had by betraying Einarr to his master.

“I must return to my forge. My master will be most displeased if I am delayed further.”

“I won’t keep you. Only, the landing is narrow and I do not think I will fit past you.” It was a gamble. Dwarves were not often offended at accusations of broadness, but Einarr was not a large man, which could put the lie to his excuse.

Indeed, the dwarf glared at him for a long moment. When Einarr did not attempt to retract his claim, he grumbled and pulled a key on a chain from within his tunic.

“Tell me, sir dwarf, what did you intend to do when I stepped forward and found the door locked? Would I have had time to accuse you of betrayal, or would there have been an axe in my back before I blinked?”

The dwarf only continued to mutter words in his own tongue. The latch clicked.

“Your lack of an answer is answer enough. Now. Go on through.”

The dwarf removed his key from the lock and hid it back inside his shirt. “Tell me, sir raider, if someone came to steal from your Captain, what would you have done?”

“Slain the man before I played a game of tafl with him. Go on.”

“Go to hel.” The dwarf spun on his heel, the hand that had been reaching for the handle instead unhooking the axe from his belt. He leaped at Einarr, blade swung high overhead.


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1.22 – The Cave

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.


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