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.