Genre: Young Adult fantasy
Title: The Blood of Runes
Pippa rolled the dice and winked.
She slid a tafl pawn three spaces across the checkered board, eyeing the
prize knife. Elaborate scrollwork snaked around its handle and a curious
rune decorated its blade. Her older brother, Jamie, would love to add it to
his collection. He always sought weapons with character.
A ruffian sat across from her and scratched the faded scars puckering his
nose. He leaned over the game board and rolled the dice. Six marks. Sailors
trying to earn some quick coin exchanged bets and told him to move this
piece or that. They shouted drunken suggestions at Pippa too. She ignored
them, because she already had a strategy to capture the King-piece. Her
opponent moved a white pawn by six squares and muttered something in Norse.
His sharp gaze met hers with a look that said “That’ll show you!”
She’d relish his moment of shock when he lost.
“Hmm, tricky move,” Pippa said. She bowed her head to hide an impish smile.
Jamie had taught her how to master tafl, which her opponent foolishly agreed
to play. He originally suggested a test of riddles, but the last time Pippa
attempted a riddle contest she lost a silver bracelet.
She scanned the mead hall, making sure Jamie wasn't around, because she
wanted to surprise him with the weapon.
Her father would have been furious at her for gambling. Furious, but proud
when she won the knife. Many young women played tafl—Pippa wasn’t an
exception—but she did it often. Maybe too often. Playing the game required
focus to anticipate future moves, and during those brief, intense points of
concentration, Pippa forgot her father’s crazy beard and warm smile. The
At least for that moment.
Longing for her father’s smile made her chest ache, so Pippa lifted a cup of
frothy ale. The faint scent of aged oak conjured images of summertime
mischief with her brother, when they had snuck a taste of ale from the
brewer’s barrels. She drank it with a single swallow and banged the emptied
cup next to the game board. Everyone around her cheered. She reached for a
nearby flagon and refilled her cup. Pippa could enjoy two drinks, maybe
three, without muddling her senses.
She tapped her foot to the warbled rhythm of a panpipe, thrilled with her
imminent win. With her turn came a squall of suggestions from the crowd, yet
one spectator remained aloof. The figure stood near the fire. He fussed with
voluminous robes until they lay just right. By the look of his unscathed
leather boots and the flashing gold rings on his fingers, he wasn’t a farmer
or seafarer. She squirmed under his stare. A heavy hood framed his face, but
his eyes glimmered as he watched the game…and her.
She turned back to the board and rolled the dice. The ruffian was an idiot,
but he needed to think he had a chance. Otherwise, he might end the game.
She started to reach for a red pawn, hesitated, made a show of sighing and
tugging on her bottom lip, and then reached for another. Pippa moved it
seven squares, diagonally. He’d fallen for her act, but her heart still
The ruffian cracked his fat knuckles. “I need a break.” His voice sounded
harsh, like the jagged edges of raw, unforged steel scraping against stone.
A raider, no doubt. Fresh from a viking. Just passing through, like everyone
else in the buzzing mead hall. He clearly didn’t expect to lose to a
She pretended to shift uncomfortably on the wooden bench. “Já, I could use
time to think on my next move.”
He slapped his knee in agreement and retreated to the fire with his friends.
She shut her eyes. She would have won two turns ago, if he hadn’t bumbled
into a lucky move. If she won the game, she’d claim his knife. If he won the
She shuddered, determined to avoid that possibility.
Pippa stole another glance at the hooded stranger.
With a flick of his wrist, the stranger beckoned the innkeeper to him. They
spoke, huddled, heads bent. The innkeeper, a short man with a beard like a
bird’s nest, cocked his head toward Pippa.
The stranger smiled at her and nodded. Pippa looked away, reaching for her
ale and burning to know why she had garnered his attention. She held the
drink to her lips and watched him over the rim of her cup.
He hardly noticed the girl who served him a horn of mead before she scurried
back into the crowd. Then the stranger moved to a remote corner. Away from
the music and gaming and girls casting suggestive glances. With his eyes
fixed on Pippa, he waved a lazy hand over the mouth of his horn, and a thin
column of mead coiled up from the vessel.
She blinked. With a quick, twirling finger, the mead made a loop in the air
and wove between his fingers before splashing back into the horn.
Pippa dropped her cup. Ale drenched her lap and trickled down her trousers.
Disbelief must have shown on her face, because the stranger chuckled and
tipped his horn to her. She wiped away the ale and fidgeted with her cloak,
not understanding what she had witnessed. Pippa had seen extraordinary,
incredulous things, but nothing like twirling mead. She worried her lip.
Maybe she shouldn’t have come alone. She may have enjoyed too much ale after
all. Though, the room wasn’t tilting and the faces around her weren’t
smeared in a blend of drunken color.
Ale soaked her shirt, too. Even if Jamie didn’t find her in the mead hall,
he’d certainly smell it on her.
A rowdy lout scooted down the bench to sit beside her. He leaned close—too
close—and draped an arm around her shoulders. The lout smelled like pickled
fish. She crinkled her nose when he slurred gibberish in her ear. Pippa
might have shrugged him off if she wasn’t so stunned by the stranger’s
A heavy hand landed on her back.
She turned to find Jamie looming over her, his face scrunched in an
unpleasant grimace. He flung the lout’s arm off her shoulders.
“What are you doing here?” Jamie asked, sounding both relieved and
frustrated. He didn't wait for a reply. “You’re leaving.”
He had no reason to be upset. “I'm fine,” Pippa said. “Besides, I have a
present for you.”
“She's not going anywhere until the game’s finished,” the scarred ruffian
said, emerging from the far corner. His eyes flicked from her to Jamie, who
returned an unreadable, glassy stare.
“You.” Jamie pointed at Pippa and then the door. “Out.”
“If I win I get his knife.” She jutted her chin toward the game board,
wanting him to see how close she was to victory. “And if I win in less than
fifty moves, I get his fox fur as well.”
“What if you lose?”
Pippa’s cheeks warmed.
The ruffian shrugged. "I claim her best dagger.”
Jamie narrowed his eyes at her.
“But if she doesn’t succeed in fifty moves,” the ruffian continued, scars
wrinkling as he leered in her direction, “she still gets the knife, but I
also get a little…private time…with her in the back room.”
“What!” Jamie’s face flared.
Pippa pinched her eyes shut and cursed under her breath.
Jamie’s fist landed in the man’s jaw, snapping his head back and knocking
him off his feet.