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.
“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.”
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
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