Wolves at the Door (part 136)

It was late morning at the crossroads, and the crowd had thinned out considerably. Many had wandered back to their own business when things had failed to start at dawn. Those who remained were bored, chatting in groups or otherwise entertaining each other. They had waited this long, and they could wait a little longer until noon, when Gil’s failure to show up would become official. Despite the increasingly desperate reassurances from the boy’s father, it seemed a foregone conclusion. Not hard to understand why a young man would get cold feet. His opponent was one of the village’s best fighters after all, and the lad looked much younger than his years. He hadn’t grown an inch since he first ran away, nearly four years ago. It was a shame he would be banished, but there were consequences for saying things you couldn’t back up. Even things that the majority of the village knew, or at least suspected, to be true. The only truth that mattered was what you could prove with sword and shield.

The fighting ground has been constructed and blessed early in the morning. It was marked out with hazel poles and holy ropes, each side about twice as long as a man’s height. It looked a lot like the fridgard that had been constructed for his trial three years ago, but on that occasion the barrier had been meant to keep violence out. This time, the purpose was to keep the violence contained within the ropes. It was the spectators on the outside who would be forbidden from joining the fight.

Inside the ropes, a mat was pegged into the ground to hold it flat. Nobody wanted the duel cut short by one of the combatants tripping on an uneven surface. The light-coloured mat would show up blood clearly when it was spilt, allowing the fight to be stopped and a winner declared. The ropes were just far enough from the edge of the mat so that a wildly-swinging sword was unlikely to injure anyone who wasn’t part of the duel.

The dwindling crowd was so busy pontificating on the moral of the whole unfortunate situation, that many of them failed to notice the subject of their conversation as he walked among them. His father – the only one still actively looking out for him by this point – welcomed him loudly, declaring there had never been any doubt he would be here.

Even though they had been waiting for hours, still there were preparations to be made before the duel proper began. There were the obligatory sacrifices to the gods, as appropriate for such an occasion, and the official recitation of the rules, so that neither participant could claim ignorance. There was plenty of time for Gil to catch his breath, as Alfvin had said there would be.

There was also plenty of time for word to get around the village that the day’s entertainment was back on. By the time Gil stepped through the ropes, the entire population had dropped whatever they were doing elsewhere and rushed back to see whose blood would be spilled today.

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