“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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Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have  other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

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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Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by! Today’s riddles are brought to you by the Exeter Book and Odin’s Riddles, found on aethelraed.ddns.net

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have  other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.