Wolves at the Door (part 142)

The crowd erupted immediately. Amid the uproar, it took Gil a moment to realise he was not dead. The bent, blunted sword had hit him hard, but had not cut deep. If he was bleeding, it had not yet run down to stain the mat under his feet. If seemed a shame to take a hit like that and still have to go on fighting. But those were the rules, so Gil retrieved his sword from where it had lodged in the ground.

When he turned to find his opponent, the mat was empty. Fargrim had dropped his sword and was pressed against the ropes, as far from Gil as he could get. He was no longer trying to hide his fear.

“No! How did you do that? The moon is gone. You’re supposed to be weak now!”

When he saw Gil step towards him, he stopped babbling and dove through the ropes, squeezing his way through the press of spectators.

Gil was relieved that he wouldn’t have to continue the fight, even if he didn’t quite understand why. Indeed, the whole afternoon passed in something of a blur. He was officially proclaimed the victor, and as such performed the post-duel sacrifice. He was unable to avoid the congratulations of the crowd. But as long as they did not squeeze his aching side, they could slap his back as much as they liked.

Then the celebrations had really kicked off, with plenty of feasting and drinking. That might have had something to do with the blurriness of his recollections. There had been singing, and – gods help him – dancing. At least everyone else had been drunk enough not to object. Fuzzy memories could sometimes be a blessing, as well as a curse. Somewhere along the line, the moon had risen. The urge to run had been strong, but not as strong as the lure of the food and drink right in front of him. This time, when he woke up sore and naked with a splitting headache, he was far from being the only one.

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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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Wolves at the Door (part 61)

They reached Gil’s home town late in the afternoon. He made sure to be a model prisoner on the way. His captor may only be a farmer, but he was armed and Gil was not. Gil had never excelled at fighting, even in the most favourable circumstances. Naked and bound, his circumstances were far from favourable. The last thing he wanted was for the approaching evening to make the man anxious, because his safest option would be to kill the prisoner before there was any risk of his getting free. Regardless of whether he was coming or not, Alfvin’s advice had been sound.

Predictably, it caused quite a stir in the village when their missing boy was marched into town, bound and naked, by an armed stranger. Without Alfvin’s silver tongue, it took some time to mollify the crowd and explain the situation. Gil wondered briefly what would happen if he denied everything and claimed the man had kidnapped him. But he could never bring himself to utter such falsehoods. To do so would be the antithesis of everything he believed in. Not to mention the consequences that would ensue. Not just for his captor and himself, but for his family and his whole town. There was every chance that it would escalate into war between the two communities, as Alfvin had warned. In any case, the chances were slim that he could escape before night fell and revealed the truth of his situation to everyone.

Gil could barely look his family in the face when they came out to see him. When he did, he saw how deeply conflicted their feelings were. There was relief that he was still alive. There was pride at the thought that their family had produced an ulfhedinn once more. But they were also deeply shamed by his current circumstances.

Once they understood the allegations, the populace soon reached a consensus of opinion. The most implausible part of the stranger’s story would be tested as soon as the moon rose. If that turned out to be true, then Gil’s fate could be decided in the morning. If not, it would be his accuser who went on trial.

As he was leashed to a couple of nearby trees, Gil keep an eye out, hoping that Alfvin would show up at last. But if he did, it would be hard to tell. It seemed that everybody in the village had turned out to watch the show. It was hard to blame them; certainly this was the most exciting thing that had happened here within Gil’s lifetime. Had he not been the entertainment, he would definitely have been part of the audience. He tried not to dwell on the number of weapons his erstwhile neighbours had brought along with them.

At least he wasn’t naked this time; they had allowed his mother to bring him something to wear as well as something to eat. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he wasn’t naked yet. If the ropes didn’t get in the way, then come nightfall, these clothes would be shed as others had been before.

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