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
2: ibid

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The tune the musicians played was an unfamiliar one to Einarr, but that hardly mattered. The rhythm was heavy enough no-one could mistake it, and the fundamentals of the hall dance were in the central competition. Everything else was just warm-up.

What quickly became clear was that Einarr had his work cut out for him if he wanted to have a chance against this crew. Even in the early rounds of the dance, the wraiths’ contortions in the center of the circle were almost inhuman. Don’t get swept away… like I could forget who I was competing against.

As if to underscore his thought, the contestant in the center took hold of his ankle with one hand and then jumped through the gap. This would have been ordinary enough if he hadn’t then taken that same foot in an arc over his head and back down to the floor in front of him. It was a move Sivid might have been able to use if he were ten years younger.

Once the show-off had left the floor, Einarr decided it was time to toss his cap in the ring. He pranced out, and bounced down into a crouch and back as he made an initial circuit. Impressing anyone in this circle, except perhaps Tyr or Jorir, would be a challenge, but even if he was no Sivid, he prided himself on his agility. A handspring followed a cart-wheel followed a back flip, and at the end of it he kicked for what would have been the rafters in an ordinary hall. He held his hands out to the side as he twirled another circuit about the ring and retook his place. If the Allthane’s men did not seem overly impressed, neither did their faces appear bored.

Good. A spirit would always have an advantage over a living man in the hall dance, as they were not subject to the physical limitations of the human body: the trick would be to make that advantage not matter.

More celebrants entered the ring for their warm-up after Einarr’s performance – to his surprise, Jorir did as well. Tyr, old salt that he was, had not ventured into the center since Einarr had been a deck hand. Still, it would be interesting to see how a dwarf fared in the hallingdanse.

Based on his warm-up, he might have a better chance of impressing the spirits than Einarr did, simply because the moves favored by dwarves were by necessity different from those that worked best for men of somewhat taller stature. For his warm-up, he spent a great deal of time walking about on his hands, performing all manner of kicks as he did so, and rolling through no fewer than three different bridges.

Eventually, however, it became plain that no-one else intended to join in the competition, and the competitors moved into their more impressive displays.

The show-off from before proved that he was the one to beat. His second round opened with a series of the stomach-churning leg rotations he had shown before, and became stranger from there. The culmination, to Einarr’s mind, was when the pole was set up for him to kick for the rafters, and instead he did a truly beautiful flip over the pole.

Einarr could not quite repress a growl. For all that the ghosts did not have the same physical limitations he did, he was reasonably certain not all of them realized they were dead. Including, he thought, the one who went to such pains to display inhumanly impressive feats of agility.

For three more rounds, both he and Jorir managed to hold their own in the hallingdanse, but he was running out of both stamina and ideas for new feats to try. Probably this circle would have given Sivid a run for his money, and that man was the best living dancer Einarr had ever seen. At the end of the third round, he arranged to re-enter the circle next to his liege-man.

“You aim for one of us to win this, right?” He whispered as other contestants took their turns – those who had not bowed out after the show-off’s latest performance, that is. The number of entrants was dropping rapidly.


“Next round, let’s sword-dance.” It had been a stroke of genius on his father’s part last winter, if a bit unconventional – but unconventional was what they wanted here.

“With live steel?”

“Unless you happen to have a pair of staves handy. I don’t think the locals do.”

Jorir nodded. “I shall enjoy testing my blade against you once more, then.”

Einarr offered a cocky grin. “You mean when I actually care about looking good? Perfect.”

“Next round then.” Jorir inclined his head towards his lord, and Einarr matched the gesture before turning his full attention back to the dance in the center.

It was plain that they had not hidden their intentions from everyone in the circle, but those nearest did not seem inclined to share the surprise with those further away. The show-off gave his most impressive showing yet, of course, and Einarr suspected most of the other contestants would have dropped out after that performance, but the anticipation in the circle of what the newcomers would do was palpable.

Einarr grinned. Thus far he had ventured forth earlier than Jorir, and so as with last winter he would be the challenged party in the sword dance. That suited him just fine: for a man to challenge a dwarf, while not actually unfair, seemed distasteful at first glance. For a dwarf to challenge a man, however, was right and proper – as it was when the man, hard-pressed, managed to defeat the dwarf. That was simply how the stories were meant to go, and a crowd such as this would surely enjoy such a tale.

Now it was Einarr’s turn to enter the circle. Still wearing a grin, he did a hop-skip out into the ring.

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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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