Wolves at the Door (part 127)

“Before we begin though, we should ensure that I do not inadvertently steer you astray. After all, customs vary with time and place, and the duels I fought were long ago and far away. We called it holmgang, because the duels were always fought on an island with nowhere to escape to. Is that the case here?”

Gil sat back while his father and Alfvin compared notes on duelling rules. Much of it was probably repeating what his father had already told him, but Gil found he was more able to pay attention now that a shred of hope had crept back into his heart.

“The term is familiar, but there’s no suitable island nearby. Duels are generally fought at the nearest crossroads instead.”

“That will suit us nicely. Getting there while it is still morning will be challenge enough, without adding a boat ride. Who strikes the first blow?”

“The challenged party: in this case, young Gilfrid here.”

“Good. We may need every advantage we can get. One sword and three shields?”

“Mostly. A second sword is allowed, but rarely used. No oversized weapons.”

“To the death?”

“No. Well, not usually. The loser is whoever’s blood first stains the ground. If that happens to be all their blood, then I guess that’s to the death. But it’s not required.”

Alfvin considered this.

“I am unsure whether that is good thing or a bad thing. I suppose it depends if you win or lose. But does this Fargrim character seem the type to accept losing with good grace?”

“Hmm… that’s a good point. With such a crowd around, there’s only so much he could do, but it only takes one hit to kill a man. Gil, if you should get in a winning touch, then don’t get careless. A man with no reputation left to lose may lash out.”

Gil had not considered the possibility that he might win the duel and lose his life. Of course, until Alfvin had arrived, he had not considered winning a possibility at all. He had allowed himself to be buoyed up by his friend’s optimism, but suddenly the danger seemed very real once more. No matter what the rules of the duel might say, this was deadly combat. Personal honour may be at the heart of the dispute, but it was not something he could take for granted in his opponent.


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