Wolves at the Door (part 56)

“A chicken? I killed a chicken?”

“Not just a chicken. My best chicken.”

The man expected Gil to show remorse, but that was difficult when all he felt was a flood of relief. As most of the guilt lifted from him, he began to think of his own situation. Relief would not get him out of these ropes, but contrition might.

“I’m so sorry. Is there any way I could make it up to you?”

Gil’s jailer looked him over.

“Seems to me, you don’t have a lot to offer. And if you do, I don’t want to know where you’re keeping it.”

“Perhaps I could do some work for you.”

“Could be that’s what you’ll end up doing. I can always use another thrall. But it’s not for me to decide. The community will have its say. You might be a danger to the whole town. After all, today it’s our chickens. Tomorrow it could be our sheep. Next week, our children. Who knows?”

Gil was horrified.

“I wouldn’t…”

But he had to stop there. He wouldn’t what? Drag away a human being to eat? Just a moment ago, that’s exactly what he thought he had done. The truth was, he had no idea what he might do when the moon was high and full.

“Besides which, I know I was real lucky to catch you sleeping. You may look like a boy, but you’re a mighty dangerous beast. If you get out of those ropes we might not be able to catch you again. So I don’t think we’ll be taking any chances.

The man watched Gil closely as he tried to find a way to get comfortable, or as comfortable as he could with his hands tied behind him like that. It seemed he would have a long wait ahead of him.

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Wolves at the Door (part 55)

Naked: check.
Weak: check.
Aching: check.
Cold: check.

The feeling was becoming so familiar that it was almost comforting. Almost.

It wasn’t all familiar though. The ropes were an interesting twist on an old theme. Gil’s feet were tied together, as were his hands behind his back. An armed man sat nearby, turning to watch when he heard Gil moving.

“If I were you, I wouldn’t try to escape. You won’t like what I have to do.”

“What’s going on? Why am I tied up like this?”

“You’ve got some nerve, acting all innocent with the evidence still all over your face.”

That didn’t clarify anything. Gil couldn’t see his own face, and could feel nothing but the dull ache that covered his whole body. With his hands bound behind him, he couldn’t use them to check.

“What are you talking about?”

But then he noticed it: he still couldn’t see or feel anything, but his nose was unobstructed. There was no mistaking the smell of blood so close at hand.

“What happened? Why am I bleeding?”

“Don’t waste my time. You know perfectly well that’s not your blood.”

“Oh, dear gods. What did I do?”

It was one of the fears that has driven him to leave home: had he attacked some innocent person in his mindless frenzy? Just the thought of it made him retch.

“You’re serious, aren’t you? You really don’t remember it at all?”

“What… who was it?”

“Poor old Berthild. You dragged her out into the woods and tore her to shreds.”

Gilfrid heaved again, emptying his stomach onto the ground nearby.

“If I … did that, and you caught me, why am I still alive?”

“Give it time. Rest assured, you’ll pay for your crimes.”

The guard grew quiet, perhaps reflecting on the life of Gil’s victim.

“I’m so sorry. Was Berthild part of your family?”

“Practically. None of the other chickens will ever measure up to her.”

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Wolves at the Door (part 30)

Alfvin grinned at Gil and held out his catch proudly.

“Well rested, I trust? You must have been most exhausted. I was quite remiss in pushing you to guide me through the day.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle. But I am glad of a good night’s sleep. Have you been up long?”

“Most of the night. I should not think there is more than an hour or two left before dawn.”

Sure enough, by the time the fish had been cooked and eaten the sky was beginning to lighten. Gradually Alfvin began to wind down, though he remained more relaxed than yesterday. Before he settled in to sleep through the midday sun, Gil wanted to check what his plans were.

“I take it you’re not intending to visit any more villages tonight?”

“No, we have almost more than we can carry as it is. By this afternoon, I think it will be time to haul it all back across the threshold.”

Gil had expected the return journey to be difficult, even without this much baggage. He was glad Alfvin had insisted they rest here before starting out.

“Okay. Once I’m done playing tailor, is there anything else I should do to prepare?”

“That depends. Are you a fisherman?”

“I know how. Not sure how successful I’ll be, but I can give it a try.”

“Good. Anything we do not eat will be easy to sell. But we will want to cook it before we leave, so keep the fire going. I think the wood here should be sufficient, but if not, take the axe and cut some more. While you are about it, you could cut a few decent-sized poles of young wood. I doubt we could carry more than two or three, but there is always a demand for tent poles, tool handles and the like.”

But first things first: he had clothes to make. Gil gathered the needles and thread Alfvin had brought from the village, along with the knife. Hefting the roll of cloth in his other hand, he strode off to find a clearing where the light would be stronger. It looked like being a busy day, so he’d better get started.

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Wolves at the Door (part 29)

For once, it was not cold, or light, or strange noises that woke Gil up. He had simply had enough sleep. It had been a long time since he had woken up that way, and a long time since he had felt this good.

The fire must have kept him very warm; during the night, he had shrugged off half of the cloth wrapped around around him. He remembered half-waking a couple of times in the night, but in between he had slept deeply.

Once again, Alfvin was gone, but this time there were no noises indicating where he might be. It was still dark, so Gil was not inclined to go looking for him. There were fresh logs on the fire, so he hadn’t been gone long.

With nothing else to do while he waited, Gil thought about how he would turn his wrappings into clothes when there was enough light to work by. He figured the main thing was not to cut the pieces too small: baggy pants could be cinched in or adjusted, but making tight clothes larger would not be an easy matter.

Soon his mind began to stray to the hunger growing inside him. He wondered if they would be able to catch anything fresh to eat, or if the bag of food from the village was all they had. Alfvin had said he had lived a solitary life in the woods for years before discovering the doorway; he must be a skilled hunter to have survived that long. But he had brought little gear with him, nothing larger than the axe he had used to chop firewood. With no bow or spears, he wouldn’t be doing much hunting. Unless he had brought fishing gear, or something to make traps with? But that was probably wishful thinking from an empty stomach.

It was some time before Alfvin returned, but when he did it was with his usual cheerful demeanour restored. The taciturn manner of the previous afternoon had disappeared with the tiredness and vulnerability that had brought it on. Now, he was back in his own element and confident again. His confidence was not misplaced: he had been productive since waking. He carried a skin full of water and a couple of generously-sized fish.

The day had started well, and was already getting better, even before the sun had risen.

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Wolves at the Door (part 28)

Gil woke to a soft light. Another confusing morning. His body ached, but it was the honest ache of physical exertion, not the shivering weakness that had greeted him the last few days. He had trouble remembering where he was, but only for a moment. His head was clear – or as clear as it ever was upon first waking. And when he stretched, it seemed almost novel to feel that he was not naked this time. As he unwound the roll of cloth that he had wrapped around himself to keep warm, he saw that it was not the twilight of early morning, but of impending darkness.

Looking around, he saw no sign of Alfvin. But since his head was not aching, the dull thumping noise he could hear must be coming from outside of his skull. Following the sound, he found Alfvin at work, cutting wood with a small axe.

“Been awake long?” He had to call out to be heard over the impacts, so much louder close at hand.

“Not very long. I thought I might let you sleep. I apologise if the noise awoke you, but it was unavoidable. Soon it will be dark, and if we wish the wolves and the frost to let us be, then a fire will be needed.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“I have almost enough firewood to start with, but you can grab an armful and carry it back with you. I shall join you shortly.”

Gil nodded, and grabbed as much wood as he could carry. He heard something skittering out of sight in the darkness, and was glad they had hung up the food bags where most of the wildlife would be unable to reach.

By the time Alfvin was done, Gil had cleared an area and built some of the lighter pieces of wood up ready to light. He was gathering rocks to line the edge of the fire with and returned to find Alfvin crouched over the lit fire. The delicate little flames still needed some coaxing to take a bite of some larger logs. Under Alfvin’s care, the fire was established before long and Gil was glad of the heat it radiated.

The remnants of daylight had faded by now. Neither of them was fully rested, so they brought their gear closer to the fire and Gil once more used the cloth to wrap himself up in a kind of cocoon. With the warmth of the fire at his back and the dancing light flickering on the trees in front of him, it should have been easy to get back to sleep. But he kept wondering where he would be if he had not stumbled through the doorway in the woods.

Would he have been able to escape the wolf pack that had been chasing him? Even if he had, how would he have handled waking up naked in the forest again? And this time with no home to return to and no chance of finding the clothes he had left behind. In the two weeks that had passed since then, there was a good chance he would have fallen victim to starvation or frostbite.

Even now he was almost entirely dependent on Alfvin. Gil would have been unable to make the fire on his own, with no tools. But he had been given an opportunity, and he needed to make the most of it.

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