Wolves at the Door (part 92)

That night, Gil took some time packing up all his gear. It was a lot to carry, but anything he left behind might be here for months or even years before he returned. Wild animals, roaming hunters, rust, rot – one of them would surely ruin it if he left it unguarded.

Though he had not thought of it in weeks, the stone he had marked with a rune was still stashed away safely. Gil transferred it to somewhere it would be more accessible. Finally he was ready to make the slow but difficult journey.

When they emerged from the stone doorway into the land of clouds, it felt at once both strange and familiar. Instead of making him wait around this time, Alfvin had Gil dump his gear in Alfvin’s tent, where it would be safe. Then they both went to sell off the goods Alfvin had brought back. No matter how intriguing the merchandise he saw, Gil kept his arms glued to his sides. There would be no accidental triggering of magical burglar alarms this time.

After Alfvin had liquidated his stock, he once more transferred a little of his profits into Gil’s stone. It was about half full, but Gil had no idea what that would buy here. The items Alfvin was buying to take back as trade goods all seemed to cost considerably more. Healing stones seemed to be a staple of his business, along with a few non-magical goods, imported for their high quality and decorative value.

Once Alfvin was satisfied with his purchases, he surprised Gil by suggesting they return.

“So soon?”

“Unless there is something else you wish to do first.”

“No. I just thought, since you were away so long last time…”

“Last time, I was exhausted and needed to sleep. Now, I have no such need.”

At Alfvin’s suggestion, Gil recovered some of his equipment before they set out. Apparently they would be venturing farther from the door in the woods this time. They had already done the rounds of the nearest villages, but those were not the only ones on Alfvin’s list. Adding an extra day or two of travelling did not bother Gil, but they would be traversing unfamiliar territory, and that gave him pause.

Perhaps his infamy would not have spread that far, but after the encounter on the road last time he was not inclined to rely on luck. If he had to lead a helpless Alfvin helpless through unknown land, they would be going very slow indeed.

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Wolves at the Door (part 91)

Gil stopped cold.  He held his arms away from him, to show he was not armed.  His mind raced, trying to remember what the laws said about outlaws and roads.  For the most part, outlaws could be shot on sight.  Killing an outlaw was not only allowed, it was a praiseworthy act.  In some cases, it was even a civic duty.

Things were a little different for temporary outlaws like Gil.  As the elder had said, there was an expectation that he would return after the three years were done.  If he survived, that is.  If he kept to himself and troubled no-one, he could reasonably expect that nobody would trouble him.  So long as he kept to the utangard.

Did that include roads though?  They may not be enclosed by fences, but they were threads of civilisation connecting other innangard places.  Of course, most of the places a road ran through were decidedly utangard.  Because of this dual nature, an outlaw was allowed to travel by road – with limitations.  Nobody wanted to be on the road with an outlaw.  So on meeting law-abiding folk, the outlaw was obliged to vacate the road until they had passed.

“Easy now… we’re not looking for trouble.  We’ll just let you have the road to yourself now.”

Pushing Alfvin ahead of him, he moved as quickly as he dared towards the edge of the forest.  Once there they broke into a run, until they were deeper in the trees than an arrow-shot could possibly reach.  Then they settled back to a more comfortable pace, though their hearts took longer to follow suit.

Gil was extra alert the rest of the way back.  At one point their path crossed another road, and he lurked nervously at the edge of the tree line, obsessively watching the road until he was sure nobody could be within sight before hustling Alfvin quickly across to the other side.

As soon as they were safely back at camp, Alfvin curled up to sleep immediately.  Gil was not far behind, after a long night and day on foot.  The stress of the encounter on the road had not helped.  If the traveller had been a little more aggressive and a little less patient, Gil could have been lying dead in the road right now.  Nobody would have blamed him for shooting an outlaw.  Perhaps he had only held back because he had been outnumbered.

It made Gil reconsider his position.  Three years was a long time.  Even if he stayed off the roads, he was bound to cross paths with other hunters from time to time.  That would be dangerous enough as an outlaw.  If it happened under the full moon, he certainly wouldn’t get the benefit of any doubt.  Even wearing a belt, a wolf was always fair game.

He felt he still had a little more to learn here, but he was also missing the company of people, even people as peculiar as those inhabiting that strange other world.  It was time to go back.

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Wolves at the Door (part 90)

The familiar old routine was a comfort to Gil.  Running all night was not as satisfying as when he did it under a full moon, but it was exhilarating in a different way.  He would never have dared such speed in such darkness without Alfvin’s sensitive eyes to guide them, but he trusted they would not steer him wrong.

When they reached their destination, Gil stopped as soon as the settlement was in sight.  The chances were slim that anyone would recognise him and know him for an outlaw, but why take the risk?  At least the weather was mild, even before dawn.  There was still some half-hearted moonlight out in the open, but Gil stayed under the cover of the trees.  Being alone in the forest was something he he gotten used to by now.

He waited patiently while Alfvin conducted his business – and, no doubt, his other business.  Gil wondered idly if it was always slave girls, or if some well-born lass, virtuously starting her day before dawn, would find herself having to conceal a wound on her neck for the next week or two.  Slaves, at least, could always conceal it beneath their iron collars.  That is, if anyone even looked at them closely enough to make concealment necessary.  For his part, Gil had never paid thralls that much attention.

When Alfvin came strolling back down the road, Gil emerged from the trees to join him.  There was some risk in travelling by road, but it would make their journey much faster and easier.  Besides, it would only be until the sun rose high enough to force Alfvin back into the woods.  It was unlikely they would meet anyone on the road this early.

Unlikely, but not impossible.  As they rounded a bend in the road, they discovered that somebody else had been travelling overnight.  The man was close enough for Gil to see that it was nobody that he knew, but apparently the lack of recognition was not mutual.  Word had evidently gotten around, because in a matter of seconds, Gil found himself looking down the shaft of a drawn arrow.

“Halt, outlaw!  Not one step further!”

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Wolves at the Door (part 89)

The warmth of Gil’s campfire was hardly necessary as summer drew nearer, but it beat sitting in the dark.  The stars peeked between the trees, but the waning moon would not rise for a few hours yet.  Time to turn in. When the nights had been longer, he could afford to spend hours huddled by the fire or roaming the woods.  Now, the darkness was a precious commodity.  If Gil did not make the most of it, the rising sun would wake him cranky and half-rested.  He was just about to settle down to sleep when he heard the noise.

He might have taken it for sticks collapsing as they burned, but it had not come from the direction of the fire.  Gil laid his hand on the nearby spear and crept away from the fire, away from the noise.  His eyes were so adjusted to the firelight, he could barely see his feet once he retreated from its glow.  Fortunately he knew the terrain well enough that he could walk it with his eyes shut.  Best not to actually do that, though, with who-knew-what prowling around out there.

He ran a mental checklist of likely suspects.  Bears would be active in this season, but would probably make more noise.  They were known for their ferocity, not their stealth.  The wolf pack might have returned for a rematch.  If they were confident enough or desperate enough to approach the fire, then he was in for a tough fight.  No matter how well he knew the area, they would have a decided advantage in such darkness.  It could be a different wolf pack from an adjoining territory, but that wouldn’t change the outlook much for Gil.  Perhaps it was none of these, just a small animal stumbling around, making noise out of proportion to its size.  Or perhaps…

“What, no greeting? I am most disappointed.  And after I went to all the trouble of following the invitations you carved in the trees.  Surely you have not gone away, leaving such a roaring fire unattended?”

Relief washed over Gil like an ocean wave.  He stood upright and walked back into the firelight.

“I’m… happy.  To see you.”

Gil stumbled over the words, out of practice after months alone out here.

Alfvin made a show of examining the sky.

“I see no moon out, so I can only assume your wits have atrophied in the absence of my stimulating conversation.  What has it been for you, a month or two? A cruelly long time to be deprived of my presence.  Frankly, at this point a full moon might make you more eloquent.”

Gil chuckled.  He suddenly realised that he hadn’t laughed in months either.

“Let’s fix that.  You remembered what I said?  Are you on your way somewhere?”

“I remember like it was yesterday.  Of course, from my perspective, it was, so no great surprise there.  I had it in my mind to go north-east.  That’s the next village up in the rotation.”

“Are you in a hurry, or can you stay a day before we set out?  If we’re going to be travelling all night and all day, I could use some sleep first.  You’re probably well rested already, but we can spend the night catching up and then both sleep through the day.”

Alfvin readily agreed to the plan.  He had found Gilfrid alive, reasonably sane and glad to see him.  Whatever he had been expecting to find on returning here, the reality seemed to come as a relief.

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Wolves at the Door (part 88)

The days grew longer and the nights correspondingly shorter.  Gil began to have more success at hunting.  It was hard to tell if it was the increased familiarity with the landscape, the extra daylight hours to track his quarry or something less quantifiable.  Perhaps as he grew more comfortable with the beast as a part of him, he allowed himself to think the way it would.  Whatever the reason, he had bagged a couple more deer before the month was done.  He was edging ever closer to self-sufficiency.

With more skins to play with, perhaps he should start experimenting with processing them further.  Now was probably the time to do that.  The full heat of the approaching summer would only make the experience that much more unpleasant.

When the full moon approached, he was ready with a tight rope belt threaded through a couple of crude slippers he had made from one of the raw hides.  Proper boots would be too bulky to carry, and he did not want to risk losing them in the night.  If the slippers proved too much of a hindrance, they would be no great loss if he found a way to slip out of the belt and leave them behind.  If he still had them in the morning, they would be better than nothing for the return journey.

The slippers turned out to be a success, though the smell of the rawhide was more distracting than he had anticipated.  Gil wondered how he had appeared to the other forest-dwellers: wearing not only a belt, but what must have looked like leather pouches hanging from it.

The image gave him more ideas: if the belt consisted not of a rope but a tube of cloth, then he could carry more clothing stuffed in the tube without it dangling from the belt and hampering his movement.  Maybe it would even help to contain the smell of the hide shoes.  If he could carry a knife that way, his return journeys each morning need be neither naked nor defenceless.

According to the stories Gil had heard, many berserkers ended up giving in to the condition, becoming more beast than man, no matter the time of day or month.  But he felt that he was negotiating a peace between his two selves, allowing the beast to run mostly-free in the night, while not leaving him completely helpless come morning.  Getting killed  in the post-moonlight hangover would benefit neither of them.  Maybe Gil was kidding himself, thinking it was something that could be negotiated with.  But if negotiations failed, the power to banish it entirely lay just on the other side of the doorway.

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