Wolves at the Door (part 30)

Alfvin grinned at Gil and held out his catch proudly.

“Well rested, I trust? You must have been most exhausted. I was quite remiss in pushing you to guide me through the day.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle. But I am glad of a good night’s sleep. Have you been up long?”

“Most of the night. I should not think there is more than an hour or two left before dawn.”

Sure enough, by the time the fish had been cooked and eaten the sky was beginning to lighten. Gradually Alfvin began to wind down, though he remained more relaxed than yesterday. Before he settled in to sleep through the midday sun, Gil wanted to check what his plans were.

“I take it you’re not intending to visit any more villages tonight?”

“No, we have almost more than we can carry as it is. By this afternoon, I think it will be time to haul it all back across the threshold.”

Gil had expected the return journey to be difficult, even without this much baggage. He was glad Alfvin had insisted they rest here before starting out.

“Okay. Once I’m done playing tailor, is there anything else I should do to prepare?”

“That depends. Are you a fisherman?”

“I know how. Not sure how successful I’ll be, but I can give it a try.”

“Good. Anything we do not eat will be easy to sell. But we will want to cook it before we leave, so keep the fire going. I think the wood here should be sufficient, but if not, take the axe and cut some more. While you are about it, you could cut a few decent-sized poles of young wood. I doubt we could carry more than two or three, but there is always a demand for tent poles, tool handles and the like.”

But first things first: he had clothes to make. Gil gathered the needles and thread Alfvin had brought from the village, along with the knife. Hefting the roll of cloth in his other hand, he strode off to find a clearing where the light would be stronger. It looked like being a busy day, so he’d better get started.

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Wolves at the Door (part 29)

For once, it was not cold, or light, or strange noises that woke Gil up. He had simply had enough sleep. It had been a long time since he had woken up that way, and a long time since he had felt this good.

The fire must have kept him very warm; during the night, he had shrugged off half of the cloth wrapped around around him. He remembered half-waking a couple of times in the night, but in between he had slept deeply.

Once again, Alfvin was gone, but this time there were no noises indicating where he might be. It was still dark, so Gil was not inclined to go looking for him. There were fresh logs on the fire, so he hadn’t been gone long.

With nothing else to do while he waited, Gil thought about how he would turn his wrappings into clothes when there was enough light to work by. He figured the main thing was not to cut the pieces too small: baggy pants could be cinched in or adjusted, but making tight clothes larger would not be an easy matter.

Soon his mind began to stray to the hunger growing inside him. He wondered if they would be able to catch anything fresh to eat, or if the bag of food from the village was all they had. Alfvin had said he had lived a solitary life in the woods for years before discovering the doorway; he must be a skilled hunter to have survived that long. But he had brought little gear with him, nothing larger than the axe he had used to chop firewood. With no bow or spears, he wouldn’t be doing much hunting. Unless he had brought fishing gear, or something to make traps with? But that was probably wishful thinking from an empty stomach.

It was some time before Alfvin returned, but when he did it was with his usual cheerful demeanour restored. The taciturn manner of the previous afternoon had disappeared with the tiredness and vulnerability that had brought it on. Now, he was back in his own element and confident again. His confidence was not misplaced: he had been productive since waking. He carried a skin full of water and a couple of generously-sized fish.

The day had started well, and was already getting better, even before the sun had risen.

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Wolves at the Door (part 28)

Gil woke to a soft light. Another confusing morning. His body ached, but it was the honest ache of physical exertion, not the shivering weakness that had greeted him the last few days. He had trouble remembering where he was, but only for a moment. His head was clear – or as clear as it ever was upon first waking. And when he stretched, it seemed almost novel to feel that he was not naked this time. As he unwound the roll of cloth that he had wrapped around himself to keep warm, he saw that it was not the twilight of early morning, but of impending darkness.

Looking around, he saw no sign of Alfvin. But since his head was not aching, the dull thumping noise he could hear must be coming from outside of his skull. Following the sound, he found Alfvin at work, cutting wood with a small axe.

“Been awake long?” He had to call out to be heard over the impacts, so much louder close at hand.

“Not very long. I thought I might let you sleep. I apologise if the noise awoke you, but it was unavoidable. Soon it will be dark, and if we wish the wolves and the frost to let us be, then a fire will be needed.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“I have almost enough firewood to start with, but you can grab an armful and carry it back with you. I shall join you shortly.”

Gil nodded, and grabbed as much wood as he could carry. He heard something skittering out of sight in the darkness, and was glad they had hung up the food bags where most of the wildlife would be unable to reach.

By the time Alfvin was done, Gil had cleared an area and built some of the lighter pieces of wood up ready to light. He was gathering rocks to line the edge of the fire with and returned to find Alfvin crouched over the lit fire. The delicate little flames still needed some coaxing to take a bite of some larger logs. Under Alfvin’s care, the fire was established before long and Gil was glad of the heat it radiated.

The remnants of daylight had faded by now. Neither of them was fully rested, so they brought their gear closer to the fire and Gil once more used the cloth to wrap himself up in a kind of cocoon. With the warmth of the fire at his back and the dancing light flickering on the trees in front of him, it should have been easy to get back to sleep. But he kept wondering where he would be if he had not stumbled through the doorway in the woods.

Would he have been able to escape the wolf pack that had been chasing him? Even if he had, how would he have handled waking up naked in the forest again? And this time with no home to return to and no chance of finding the clothes he had left behind. In the two weeks that had passed since then, there was a good chance he would have fallen victim to starvation or frostbite.

Even now he was almost entirely dependent on Alfvin. Gil would have been unable to make the fire on his own, with no tools. But he had been given an opportunity, and he needed to make the most of it.

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Wolves at the Door (part 27)

Between the two of them, they managed to follow the trail with a minimum of backtracking. In places, they had to cross open areas too large to go around. On these occasions, Gil led the way, as Alfvin followed with one hand on his shoulder. He was already practically blind in the sunlight, and the sun was still some way from its zenith.

The night before, Alfvin had set a pace that even Gil’s distance-hardened legs had struggled to keep up with, while simultaneously delivering a lecture in his characteristically florid style. Today, he lagged behind, and answered Gil’s occasional questions tersely. Gil could not help thinking that it was more than tiredness, or the weight he carried, or the need to look out for the trail ahead. Being so vulnerable, having to rely on Gil’s eyes instead of his own seemed to have sapped Alfvin’s usually plentiful enthusiasm.

It was slow going, and by the time they found the two marked trees at the end of the trail it was well past midday. Gil felt exhausted, and Alfvin seemed almost asleep on his feet. But he was still awake enough to insist that they find a camp site some way removed from the invisible doorway. Near enough to reach it in an emergency, but not so near that the signs they left behind would attract attention to it.

Gil offered – though not entirely convincingly – to keep watch for wild animals through the afternoon, but Alfvin said there would be no need.

“Judging by the weather, I should think that bears have already retired for the winter, and it will be some hours before the wolves are abroad. Best to get some sleep while we can, and be rested if we need to keep watch this evening.”

Gil did not insist. He was looking forward to his first decent night’s sleep in three days.

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Wolves at the Door (part 26)

The sun had not yet emerged above the trees, but there was plenty of light to see by, and the people of the village were beginning to go about their business. Alfvin was not keen to wait around any longer than he had to, so Gil was left once more to kill some time alone. At least he didn’t feel quite as cold now, though the growing light may have been less responsible for that than the meal he had just eaten.

Wishing he could have gone into the cleared area of the town to feel the pale morning light on his face, Gil had to content himself with walking a ways back along the road that had brought them here. Fortunately none of the locals seemed inclined to early-morning travel. Perhaps they were too distracted by the pale stranger come to town bartering magical goods.

Gil had been back and forth over the same stretch of road a half-dozen times before Afvin returned, arms laden with goods. True to his word, he carried a couple of bolts of coarse cloth, along with several more bags. After handing some over for Gil to carry, he was eager to get under way.

Their pace as they travelled north was more leisurely than it had been coming the other way, and before long the sun began peering over the forest to the east. Gil was enjoying the feel of its feeble warmth on his face, but Alfvin was not so eager. As the sun inched higher, he edged to the right, until he had to walk off the road completely to stay in the shade of the trees.

Gil was curious.

“Is it that bad? I know you said your eyes were sensitive, but it’s not even that bright.”

“It is not yet debilitating, but already it is enough to cause discomfort. I had hoped we would be off the road earlier than this.”

“It can’t be much farther. But personally, I like it. It feels like ages since I felt the sun.”

Before long, they spotted the scarred tree marking the point where they had emerged from the forest the previous night. Alfvin was much more comfortable once they were back under the cover of the trees, though as the sun rose higher he still winced at the occasional shaft of light breaking through.

“Keep your eyes open for the next marked tree. I fear I may miss it, distracted as I am.”

“How do you usually manage during the day? Or do you just have to hunker down and wait until evening?”

“I can get about well enough in the forest, but not as well as I would by night. Still, I would ordinarily make camp by mid-morning. But with your help, we can return to the portal and make camp there. I always feel more secure with an escape route close at hand.”

“If we get back there, do we need to camp? I thought we’d go straight through.”

“Not yet. You have clothes to make, and I have things to do also. On the other side, time is a precious commodity. Given the choice, I prefer to perform time-consuming tasks here, where there is more to consume. If it were not for the cold, I would always sleep on this side. The cold … and the discomfort … and the danger, of course.”

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