Wolves at the Door (part 120)

The next several trips passed without incident. Alternating between the more distant villages and those nearby allowed them a little leisure after each venture into the outside world. Each time they stepped out into the forest afterwards, they found the seasons had advanced a little more. By the time Alfvin was due to return to Gil’s home village, his exile was almost halfway over.

Gil felt an unfamiliar tension as he stepped through the invisible doorway this time. As always, his first concern was to check the time of day – late afternoon – and then the phase of the moon. Getting caught out by an unexpected full moon had led to his exile in the first place, and it was not a mistake he would make twice. If there was a full moon in the offing, he would step back across the threshold. Not necessarily to hide from the moon, though sometimes he would stay there to wait it out. Just as often he would leave his gear with Alfvin and step right back into the night, to run free through the forest in the moonlight.

No such decision to make this time; a pale moon was already in the sky, which meant it would not be full for nearly another week. A short trip like this was unlikely to take even two nights. But the tension in his stomach had nothing to do with the moon, or the sun. The last time he had returned to his village had been under armed guard and had ended with his being banished for three years.

Of course, he would not actually be returning this time. He would have to keep well clear – more so than ever here, where he was so much more likely to be recognised. But he was glad that Alfvin would be able to get word to his family that he was alive and well. Gil had even purchased a few little luxuries to be delivered to them, as thanks for dealing with the mess he had left and as proof that he was not just surviving, but making a decent living in exile. He had briefly considered whether to send them something magical in nature, but quickly decided against it. He was making a living, but hardly rich. And more importantly, such a gift could cause trouble for his family. He had brought them enough of that, without giving their neighbours cause for suspicion or jealousy. Better to send something useful or beautiful, just exotic enough to come from some far-off land where he could plausibly be spending his years of banishment.

When they finally drew near the village after travelling most of the night, the tension rose. Waiting in the woods a mile away, he felt restless. Every moment he expected to be discovered, even though the whole village was likely still asleep. He would have felt safer at a greater distance, but there was a limit to how far Alfvin would be able to walk in the morning light to find him. He had warned Alfvin not to tell his family he was nearby. If they took it into their heads to come find him, who knew who else might follow? Most of the village’s inhabitants had no quarrel with him, but would feel duty-bound to get rid of an outlaw. But there were a few who might see it as an opportunity to get rid of him permanently, with the full blessing of the law.

Gil stayed restless and paranoid the whole time he waited, but when a figure finally approached, it was not Fargrim come to shoot him down but Alfvin, returning alone as planned.

Blind as Alfvin was in the growing sunlight, Gil pushed him hard all the way back.  He did not draw an easy breath until they were back at the campsite in the forest, within easy reach of the invisible doorway that would let them escape to another world.

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Wolves at the Door (part 119)

As it turned out, the water-clock caused no problems. Gil experimented with it on their next trip, with some success. The water drained gradually from the punctured bowl into the undamaged bowl below. The process was slow enough that he was sure it must have taken more than an hour, though it was hard to judge accurately. That would be the trick: calibrating it so he could be confident exactly what portion of a day it measured. It was certainly long enough to be useful. The downside of that was that by the time it had fully emptied, his arms ached from holding one bowl above the other.

When the last of the water had emptied from the top bowl, he dropped it, finally letting his arms relax. It was not that the bowl was heavy – the thin copper weighed very little, and its contents had grown lighter as the experiment progressed. But the effort of having to not only hold the bowl, but hold it steady, level and in one place was excruciating. Now it was over he lay down, letting his arms flop on the ground like dead weight as he considered how to avoid this pain in future attempts. Perhaps he could build a frame to hold the bowl in place so he would not have to. Some kind of tripod might work, as long as it did not obstruct the flow of water in the centre. He should start looking for some suitable sticks to build it with, but that would involve moving his arms.

Eventually he found the will to get up and move again. But as soon as he started, he stopped again. Not out of tiredness this time, but curiosity. Some of the water had splashed out of the lower bowl as the one above had dropped down on it, but that was not what drew Gil’s attention. What was interesting was that while he had been resting, the process had begun again, but in reverse. The empty bowl was sinking, ever so slowly, as the water gradually drained back in through the tiny hole in its base. If this approach worked just as well, it might turn out to be more practical. It may look less dramatic than the small but steady stream from above, but it had the advantage of not leaving Gil’s arms feeling like jelly.

Had the timekeeper’s stall had any clocks that worked in this reverse fashion? Gil did not recall seeing any, but for all he knew there could have been dozens of them there, quietly doing their thing while the more spectacular and visible cascades of water drew the eye. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that the display had been more showmanship than engineering. Which was not to suggest that the timekeeper’s clocks had not been remarkable and accurate. But it was not enough to be remarkable. The customers had to feel how remarkable it was. Somehow Gil could not help thinking that the timekeeper may have had fewer customers if all there had been to see was a single bowl, sinking with imperceptible slowness into a bucket of water.

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Wolves at the Door (part 118)

Yes, they explained to Pol, they had seen his companion.

No, he would not like what they had to tell him.

Yes, they did mean that they had seen her being evicted by unseen forces.

No, they did not know what had precipitated the extraordinary action.

Once he had taken in the news, Gil expected him to run after her, but instead he just stood for a while, with his eyes closed. Eventually he came to some decision, declaring that he knew what to do, as his eyelid snapped open and he leaped into action. But even now he was headed in the wrong direction, rushing back to the marketplace. Gil’s opinion of him dropped. How could he leave her to deal with the consequences on her own? But a short while later, he was back, dashing past them once more and through the doorway into which the girl had disappeared. Had he just needed to buy some apology gift first? Whatever it was, it had added days to the time she would have to wait for Pol to show up. Gil hoped it was worth it.

Eventually, Alfvin was free to resume his explanation.

“Before I begin, I want you to remember how much you like this place, and how much you would hate to be ejected as we just saw, and be unable to return here for your entire life. Keep that in mind, and I think this conversation should be less perilous than I once feared.

“There is one more detail about this place that I have not yet shared with you. I am almost certain it will not become pertinent. But in case I am mistaken, I would not wish ignorance to be your undoing.

“You have seen the many doorways that open from this place onto a hundred different lands. What I omitted to mention is that each one also opens into a different time. If you were able to traverse these doorways, you may find yourself in Rome at the time of Caesars, or the far east in the far future. Sometimes when people find this out, they think they can take advantage. Change the future… or the past. The difference is a matter of perspective. That is what can threaten this place’s existence, with results like those we have just seen.”

Gil considered this for a moment.

“But I can’t go through any of those doorways. So how would it even become an issue?”

“Sometimes things happen in unexpected ways. Some of the people you meet here have come from what you would consider the past; others from your future. Likewise the imported goods you may buy. For example, if the water-clock you wish to emulate is an invention from the future, that could cause you trouble. Likely not so dramatically as for Pol’s young friend, but you might find yourself unable to build one when you return to your own world and time. It is best to recognise when the potential for problems exists, so you can let go of your plans instead of making things worse. The more you resist in such a case, the worse things will get for you.”

The new information gave Gil a new perspective. He had been surprised by Alfvin’s apparent lack of curiosity about many of the wonders of this place. Perhaps it was not a lack of curiosity after all, but rather an excess of caution. Apparently if one did not first check its source, a little knowledge could be a dangerous thing.

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Wolves at the Door (part 117)

Soon Gil found what he needed: a pair of copper bowls, exactly the same size, so they fit snugly one inside the other. The thin metal should be malleable enough to pierce without having to knock too big a hole in it. Instant clock: just add water.

While he was telling Alfvin what he intended to do with them, he saw the strangest sight this world of wonders had yet produced. The girl that they had seen with Pol was sliding backward towards the doorway by which she had entered. Her arms and legs flailed as she went, vainly trying to gain purchase enough to stand upright. She was clearly not moving under her own power, but rather it was as if an invisible hand had grabbed her by the scruff of the neck. Gil could not help thinking of a fish, caught on the hook and struggling impotently to change direction as the line drew it inexorably back toward the fisherman.

“Should we help? Can we help?”

“Almost certainly not, on both counts. Trying to stand in the way of these forces could only lead to trouble for us.”

“Where’s Pol? Shouldn’t he be looking after her?”

“Indeed he should. I should have known she would break the rules, or come to some other harm in his care. He is a well-meaning dilettante, but a dilettante nonetheless. I may have occasionally fallen short in my responsibility to you, but I take it seriously. I fear the same may not be true of him.”

By this point, she had almost reached the doorway.

“Will she be all right? Isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Physically, she will be fine. If you had to choose any surface to be dragged across, you could pick one softer and gentler. She is simply being returned to where she came from. No doubt she will live out her life there as she would have, had she never discovered this place. The best we can do to help is to let Pol know what has happened to his young protegee while he was otherwise occupied. Doubtless he will have apologies to make.”

While they spoke, the girl had slid back through the doorway and disappeared into the mist beyond. Gil frowned as he thought about what had just happened.

“That was one of the safeguards you told me about, right? Built in to the magic of the doorways to protect themselves from threats? How could a little girl like that be a threat to this whole world?”

Alfvin sighed.

“I suppose I must tell you the rest of it sooner or later. I had hoped that I could protect you by not planting the thought in your mind. No doubt Pol also took that approach, and we have just seen the results.”

He looked away. Gil thought he was just gathering his thoughts, but as he continued, it became apparent that he had seen something.

“I promise, I will explain it all. But first, here comes our inattentive would-be mentor. I am afraid we shall have to break the bad news to him.”

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Wolves at the Door (part 116)

On their next trip back to their own world, Alfvin and Gil returned to one of the closer villages.  Or rather, Alfvin returned, while Gil waited nearly a mile away.  Having been recognised once on a road when he had expected to pass unnoticed, Gil was not taking any unnecessary chances this close to his old hometown.

Along the way, Gil told of what he had learned on his solo exploration, and Alfvin had to grudgingly admit the value of the translator Gil had bought.  After all, the short trading journey would allow more time between trips to spend on other side of the doorway where such an item might be useful.

Once they were back in the marketplace and the usual business had been taken care of, they indulged in some shopping for leisure.  Alfvin picked up a used translator, while Gil browsed the stalls that sold mundane goods until he found something that would serve his purpose.

While they were shopping, they ran into Alvin’s friend Pol again, coming in through one of the other stone doorways.  He was not alone; he led a girl who must have been several years younger than Gil.  Once more they engaged in the banter that was so foreign to Gil, though he made a token effort to join in this time.  From the way the girl kept looking around, Gil guessed that it was her first time here.  He wanted to make her feel welcome, though perhaps he was inspired by the novel  feeling of not being the most clueless newcomer for once.

She may have been new to this world, but she clearly knew her way around this kind of conversation better than Gil.  When Alfvin tried to apply some charm, she cut him down expertly.  For a moment his friendly demeanour dropped, anger and confusion showing clearly on his face.  Only for a moment though; he quickly regained his composure, but by then Pol was rushing her away into the crowd.

Gil had had to stifle a laugh at his friend’s discomfiture, but there was also a very serious side to it.  Every time Alfvin visited a village to trade, he depended heavily on his charm.  And not just for trading: his very life may depend on his ability to charm the young girls of the villages, to get what he needed from them.  If he could not count on that, what would he have to fall back on?  Things could very quickly get very ugly indeed.

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