Wolves at the Door (part 19)

Gil’s eyes had grown so accustomed to the omnipresent white glow that it was hard to tell at first whether he was looking on a scene of day or night. The light filtering through the treetops seemed dim by comparison. But as he felt the chill of the forest breeze on his legs, his eyes began to adjust. He could see a little better, but the deeper shadows remained impenetrably dark. What light there was remained dim. Definitely not sunlight. He froze for a moment, expecting his conscious thoughts to begin melting away, as they had at sunset for the past two nights. But he remained himself as he looked around. There was no sign of the wolves that had pursued him here. There was also no sign of the world he had just stepped out of. No sign at all of a portal behind him.

Releasing Gil’s hand, Alfvin drew a knife from its sheath on his belt and strode to the nearest tree. He scored a deep cut in its bark, then made the same mark on another tree on the opposite side.

Always remember where you come from.” Gil quoted Alfvin’s words back to him.

“Exactly. On this side or the other, the principle remains the same.”

“If you come through here often, why not mark the location with something more permanent?”

“A valid question. But there are a number of reasons why that is not as practical an idea as you might suppose. Firstly, I do not wish to encourage curiosity. The more obvious and permanent the marker, the more out-of-place it would look in a forest. If you saw an empty stone doorway out here, how could you resist walking through it? Secondly, I need to mark not only this location, but to trace our path so we can find our way back to it. Marking the trees is the most practical solution. There are other reasons, but they will be easier to explain later.”

“Tracing our path… to where?”

“That, I need to discuss with you. I have not pressed for much information on your background, but now it becomes relevant. Did you come from a nearby village?”

“Nearby? To be honest, I’m not sure where we are. But I got here in one night, so I guess that’s nearby, more-or-less.”

“And where is this village of yours?”

“Let’s get one thing straight before I tell you that. I can’t go back there. I left for a reason, and I intend to stay away.”

“Of course, I would not force you to return. But if you know the local area, you can direct me to other villages in the surrounding territory. To find them however, we need a point of reference.”

Gil breathed a little easier. The last thing he wanted was to have to answer questions about why he had disappeared.

“Okay then. Like I said, I don’t remember a lot of the night. But I started out heading east. After that, who knows? I may have run in circles.”

“Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. In any case, we shall head west, and sooner or later we may find ourselves somewhere you recognise.”

Under the forest canopy, Gil could not see enough of the sky to tell which direction that might be. But when he looked down again, he saw he would have to hustle to keep up with Alfvin, who was striding off without hesitation between the shadows of the trees.

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