Wolves at the Door (part 61)

They reached Gil’s home town late in the afternoon. He made sure to be a model prisoner on the way. His captor may only be a farmer, but he was armed and Gil was not. Gil had never excelled at fighting, even in the most favourable circumstances. Naked and bound, his circumstances were far from favourable. The last thing he wanted was for the approaching evening to make the man anxious, because his safest option would be to kill the prisoner before there was any risk of his getting free. Regardless of whether he was coming or not, Alfvin’s advice had been sound.

Predictably, it caused quite a stir in the village when their missing boy was marched into town, bound and naked, by an armed stranger. Without Alfvin’s silver tongue, it took some time to mollify the crowd and explain the situation. Gil wondered briefly what would happen if he denied everything and claimed the man had kidnapped him. But he could never bring himself to utter such falsehoods. To do so would be the antithesis of everything he believed in. Not to mention the consequences that would ensue. Not just for his captor and himself, but for his family and his whole town. There was every chance that it would escalate into war between the two communities, as Alfvin had warned. In any case, the chances were slim that he could escape before night fell and revealed the truth of his situation to everyone.

Gil could barely look his family in the face when they came out to see him. When he did, he saw how deeply conflicted their feelings were. There was relief that he was still alive. There was pride at the thought that their family had produced an ulfhedinn once more. But they were also deeply shamed by his current circumstances.

Once they understood the allegations, the populace soon reached a consensus of opinion. The most implausible part of the stranger’s story would be tested as soon as the moon rose. If that turned out to be true, then Gil’s fate could be decided in the morning. If not, it would be his accuser who went on trial.

As he was leashed to a couple of nearby trees, Gil keep an eye out, hoping that Alfvin would show up at last. But if he did, it would be hard to tell. It seemed that everybody in the village had turned out to watch the show. It was hard to blame them; certainly this was the most exciting thing that had happened here within Gil’s lifetime. Had he not been the entertainment, he would definitely have been part of the audience. He tried not to dwell on the number of weapons his erstwhile neighbours had brought along with them.

At least he wasn’t naked this time; they had allowed his mother to bring him something to wear as well as something to eat. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he wasn’t naked yet. If the ropes didn’t get in the way, then come nightfall, these clothes would be shed as others had been before.

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Wolves at the Door (part 60)

The next morning, Gil woke up. That in itself was cause for optimism. What had woken him was having his arms wrenched behind his back to be re-tied. That part he wasn’t so thrilled with.

He saw Alfvin still sitting guard nearby. Gil wondered what his plan was. He had talked of marching Gil back to his home village, but that must have been a bluff. Travelling by road, the journey would take almost the whole day. There was no way Alfvin could make that journey blinded as he would be by the sunlight. It also seemed unlikely that he would want to make that weakness more generally known.

Sure enough, Alfvin was soon agitating to get the trip under way.

“We should set out without delay. It would not be good to find ourselves still on the road with him when night falls. And you,” he addressed Gil directly, “do not dawdle along the way, or pragmatism may yet win out.”

Turning back to the farmer who was tightening the knots, he continued:

“I must go back and collect some things from my camp site before setting out. I suggest you start without me, and I dare say I shall catch up on the road. Unless a naked, tired, and bound boy is too much for you to manage alone for a while?”

The man with the rope swallowed his objections at that challenge. Uneasy as he may have been, he was not about to admit that his size and weapons were insufficient to ease his mind.

“All right, but don’t hang about. If this one decides to try his luck while there’s only one of us guarding him, I may have to kill him, and then we’re both out of pocket.”

As Alfvin disappeared into the woods, Gil wondered what he would actually do. They would not see him on the road, that much was certain. If he wanted to get to Gil’s village in time to do anything useful, he would have to set out immediately. He would make better time through the thick of the forest than Gil and his captor would on the roads, but after a few hours he would be unable to see well enough to continue. By the time he was able to resume the journey, they may have already reached their destination.

Of course, that presumed that he even wanted to help. He had turned the tide of public opinion last night, but he had already been on the scene. And he had done only as much as he could without jeopardising himself or his reputation.

A few days ago, Gil had thought of himself as a good investment on Alfvin’s part. But that investment was beginning to look more like a liability. The simplest course of action would be to cut his losses and return to the doorway in the woods alone.

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Wolves at the Door (part 59)

Alfvin’s first suggestion was to change the way they had bound Gil.

“When the moon rises, the bindings on his hands and feet will come loose. There is nothing we can do to prevent that. In contrast, anything around his neck will become so tight as to strangle him. Anything too tight will just make him fight harder to be free. I would suggest adding a loose harness around the waist, shoulders and legs, anchored to something sturdy like a tree, or better yet several trees.”

After they had tied the knots, Alfvin made a point of examining them. While he was close enough to avoid being overheard, he whispered quickly to Gil.

“Whatever made you flee your own village, I trust it is not worse than dying here.”

Gil had to think about that for a minute, but eventually he had to agree. He did not relish the thought of returning home in these shameful circumstances, but his only other option would be to attack these innocent farmers and force them to kill him. There was little glory to be had in such a death. Perhaps there would be an opportunity to escape on the road. Or perhaps he needed to face up to his responsibilities, both here and at home.

Alfvin even managed to get him fed, once he explained to the villagers how it would serve their own best interests.

“I saw this creature last night. He was not particularly vicious, but hungry. And a hungry wolf is a dangerous wolf.”

“He’s not getting another one of my chickens, I’ll tell you that right now.”

“There is no need to sacrifice so much. We can sate the beast by feeding the boy. Mix up a pot of gruel, and make him eat as much as possible before nightfall. A heavy wolf will be a slow wolf.”

While they were reluctant to invest further in his welfare, this seemed a cheap way of sedating the beast before it arrived. And for some, the idea of force-feeding him appealed to their need to punish.

Gil bore the treatment as best he could. Food was food after all, and he had used the same strategy himself to curb his night-time excesses. Bloated as he felt, he made a concerted effort to keep the food down and ignore the enjoyment that his discomfort seemed to bring to his captors.

For the first time, he began to look forward to the impending darkness and whatever it brought with it. The night would not be pleasant, but if he was lucky, he would wake in the morning with no memory of it.

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Wolves at the Door (part 58)

Gil’s heart sank, but Alfvin was not finished with his speech.

“That is what you are thinking, is it not? Unfortunately, it is not true. As I said, I trade with many of the nearby villages, and now that I see this boy in human form, I recognise him. He comes from a village to the north-west. Killing him may solve your immediate problems, but you may have trouble explaining to your neighbours why you executed one of their sons. Particularly one who is yet to come of age and should therefore have the right to expect mercy, if not forgiveness. Even more particularly, one of their sons who is ulfhedinn and so may become one of their most valued citizens, once he is fully grown.

“Personally, I would like to be compensated for the food he took. If not by the boy himself, then by his family. But if you kill the boy and start a war with his hometown, it seems unlikely that I will receive any payment, and nor will you. Then again, as I have said, I am only a stranger in town. If you decide that you prefer war and the slaughter of children, that is your prerogative.”

The crowd began to murmur again once he had finished, but their mood had been cooled off by his words. Some may have been uneasy with the reminder that they were, after all, talking about killing a child, not a man. Others may have been concerned with the possibility of reprisals from his clan. But there were some who remained resolutely practical.

“That’s all well and good, but it’s not your village he’s tied up in now, is it? What happens tonight when he’s a beast, not a boy? It’s easy for you to give advice, but we’re the ones who have to deal with it.”

“I assure you, I have no intention of letting you guard him through the night alone. If you mess it up and let him escape, then my compensation disappears with him. No, my spear and I will be here all night. Join me or not, as you please. And when the danger has passed, we can march him back to his village and demand the restitution we deserve.”

The more belligerent elements were slightly mollified. Alfvin pressed his advantage.

“That being said, I am not quite done giving advice. I do not pretend to be an expert, but I know a little of the ulfhednar, and I saw this one in action last night. I believe I can suggest some precautions that will lower the risks.”

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Wolves at the Door (part 57)

The population of the town gathered in the afternoon to decide Gil’s fate. The farmer who had stood guard over him testified to how he had heard the uproar as a wild beast had attacked his animals, and gone out to defend them. He had been too late to save his dear Berthild, but had glimpsed the culprit escaping into the woods. When there was enough light to follow, he had found the naked stranger amid the evidence of his crime.

There followed some discussion among the townspeople who wished to determine which crime that was, exactly. Was this boy some kind of ulfhedinn turned feral? Was he perhaps a witch, a practitioner of seidr who had sent a wolf-spirit ahead to steal the chicken for him? Or had the beast been an actual wolf, which the boy had somehow controlled or been in league with, again by the use of seidr? Each possibility had different implications for his degree of culpability, and also for the type of danger he presented to them in the future if they let him live.

Gil wasn’t sure whether he should try to argue on his own behalf – if they would even be willing to listen. The underhanded nature of the theft was perhaps a more serious charge than the fact itself. Declaring himself to be ulfhedinn would clear him of the intent to steal. But it would also be admitting that he had been out of control last night, and would be again in a few short hours. Under that sort of time pressure, the crowd may well decide it was more practical to lop off his head before sundown, rather than take the risk of their bindings being unable to hold such a beast.

Indeed, the discussions were beginning to lean in a worryingly pragmatic direction when he heard a familiar voice. Gil began to breathe a sigh of relief, until he heard what the voice was saying.

“I may be a stranger in town, but I travel these parts from time to time, and a few of you may remember me. Nonetheless, I also have a stake in this matter. This same beast took food from me also, this very same night. It seems that I am the only one who got a good look at him in his wolf-skin though. I can assure you it is the same individual. Look at this pathetic creature! He is barely capable of controlling himself. How do you imagine he could send wolves or spirits to do his bidding? Never mind that he appears to be underage, and therefore not fully responsible for his crimes. He is also a stranger and would not be missed. Killing him now would certainly solve some of your problems.”

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