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 86)

In the end, Gil made it back to his home base before dark, but not a lot before. He had not needed to sacrifice his catch along the way. But now that he had brought it back, what to do with it? He had originally intended to butcher it after returning, but the trip had taken so long that there may not be enough day left to complete the task. Even if he could, what would he do with the meat? If he just left it around the camp, he might find it all devoured by morning. That would defeat the purpose: he might as well leave the intact carcass lying around to snack upon. If he wanted to save any meat for tomorrow, he would have to hide it.

It was a peculiar feeling, trying to out-think his future self. But if there was one thing he could do better than the beast, it was thinking. He may be slower, weaker, less in tune with the forest. The beast may even have the edge when it came to endurance, but it was no strategist. It would not be able to reach anything he hoisted into the upper branches of a tree, but it would know they were there. It seemed churlish to tease his other half like that, especially considering who had caught the deer in the first place. In the end he compromised: cutting and saving the skin and the largest joints, and leaving the rest within reach. He just hoped that having food easily accessible would not make him too lazy to prowl the forest. The whole purpose of this expedition was, after all, to acquaint himself with the wild beast within. If it turned lap-dog, feeding on scraps, then what was the point?

Once all that was done, he barely had time to hunt around and recover the spear he had dropped last night. Fortunately he had not taken it far. The light was already fading, but that had been the last of the crucial jobs. Finally he could sit down and rest, for a moment at least.

Gil had been on the go for two days and a night. More than anything, he just wanted to lie down and sleep. Ironically, the approaching night may deny him that opportunity. Then again, surely even a beast needed to sleep sometime. Perhaps it was a good thing there was leftover meat close at hand. A quick snack followed by a long nap in the moonlight seemed very appealing. There was still a little time before the moon rose. Maybe he’d just get a head start on that nap while he waited.

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Wolves at the Door (part 82)

Wolf is not the most appetizing of meats, but hunger is the best sauce. Once the first cuts had been cooked and eaten back at camp, Gil had to figure out what to do with the rest. Leftovers had never been a problem before. In the end, he hung it up as high as he could manage, in a tree some distance away. If it was going to attract scavengers, better that they not stumble right in where he was sleeping.

In the morning, the remains seemed undisturbed. He set about the task of butchering as best he could. He was hardly an expert, but he had seen it done before. Not with a wolf, but the principle was the same. The smaller game he had already trapped had been good practice for his knife work.

He managed to get most of the hide off in one piece. If he could work out how to process it into usable fur or leather, it might be more valuable than the meat. The only problem was, he knew even less about tanning than butchering. He knew it involved urine and dung-water. Though he hadn’t watched the process back in his village, there had been no mistaking the smell. The good news was, the ingredients were plentiful, even out here alone in the woods. The bad news was, he didn’t really know what to do with them. Figuring it out by trial and error would not only be disgusting, it would most likely ruin a lot of skins before he had any success.

He was pretty sure that the process started with salting and stretching the hide, before the really nasty stuff began. Gil had no salt, and the salt water of the sea was many miles away. He also lacked any stretching equipment, or the knowledge to build it. He would have to settle for cleaning the inside of the skin as best he could and drying it. If that worked, he could take some time to consider the next steps; if not, the question would be moot.

The whole job took much longer than he had expected, and was far more physical. By the time it was done, he was tired, sweaty, and caked in blood. He had thought waking up after a full moon was disgusting; this was so much worse. It was hard to look at the raw meat with any sort of appetite right now, but once he had scrubbed his skin clean he may think differently. And when the meat was cooked, he may even feel that it had all been worthwhile.

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Wolves at the Door (part 73)

Gil was tired, shaky, and in pain, but that was nothing new. All things considered, it was no worse than the way he had woken up most mornings recently. At least he wasn’t naked, and he was pretty sure that the danger to his life had passed. He could even view the pain with some perspective. A week ago it would have been the worst he had ever endured, but his horizons had been expanded since then. Now it only ranked second, though its after-effects were likely to stay with him much longer.

He had forced himself to eat, despite his lack of appetite, and soon the numb light-headedness began to fade. Alfvin had made no effort to recover his knife, but kept up a steady monologue that helped Gil calm down while he ate.

“I really should have warned you what to expect, but I was quite distracted by the hunger. It is not always like that. There is a reason why I usually prefer to approach young women. The sight of a man looking at them with hunger in his eyes is one they are familiar with. They feel the fear, but it is mixed with excitement. And so the pain – or at least some of it – spills over into pleasure. Men are rarely so accommodating.  If the… subject is unwilling, then it is, alas, unmitigated fear and pain.

“You, on the other hand, are something quite unusual. You volunteered for the experience, but did not give yourself over to it. You felt the fear, but stood up to it. You felt the excitement, but did not embrace it. And your pain…”

“Was just pain. Maybe a little discomfort and embarrassment in the mix. But, as you know, I’ve had worse. At least I didn’t have to wait as long to regain the use of my hands this time.”

“Yes, though the physical injury will take longer to heal. It is small, but you will need to be careful not to aggravate it. If I had taken more time to prepare, I could have saved you some of the pain by using a sharp knife. But a dirty knife would likely do you more lasting damage than the rest of the experience combined.”

Gil didn’t want to send Alfvin on another guilt trip, but needed to acknowledge what had just happened.

“You nearly did some very lasting damage as it was.”

“I doubt it would have come to that. You may have passed out, taken a little longer to recover. But I am almost certain it would have been no worse than that. Nonetheless, I was carried away, and I am glad you drew my attention to the fact.”

“I’m not sure I share your optimism, but then the same goes for my impending execution a few days ago. It feels to me like I’ve narrowly escaped death twice: once at your hands and once by your intervention. But maybe you’re right and I’m exaggerating on both counts. Either way, I figure this makes us even.”

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Wolves at the Door (part 72)

Whatever his other flaws, Gil could not fault Alfvin’s truthfulness – on this occasion at least. The pain was sharp when it came, but after a while it dulled, and Gil felt it less than the awkwardness of his situation. His mind even began to wander a little. He started to wonder if there would be anything he could do if the meal went on too long. There were surely weapons among the equipment he was carrying, but he could not remember where. If it came to that, he might have to grab the knife that Alfvin wore at his belt and fight him off with it. That is, if he had the strength for it. He had done nothing strenuous all day, but he was beginning to feel quite tired. Maybe he should sit down for a while. His knees buckled slightly, but pressed tightly between Alfvin and the tree, he couldn’t slump very far.

When the tingling numbness started in his fingers and foes, he knew if he didn’t act now it might soon be too late. He pushed with one hand, as the other fumbled for the knife. There was no reaction at all. Gil gave up on pushing and grabbed at the back of Alfvin’s head. He could barely feel the hair, but he twisted it around his fingers and yanked. That drew some reaction, though a groan of pleasure was not what Gil had been aiming for. Clutching the knife-handle with his other hand, Gil hoped that he would be able to keep hold of it long enough to put it to use, but as he drew the blade, he felt Alfvin ease back.

Immediately, Gil’s knees collapsed and he sank to the ground. Somehow he kept hold of the knife and clutched it between his two numb hands as he sat, shivering, staring at the one who had reduced him to this state.

For his part, Alfvin stood back, licked his lips, then licked his thumb and pressed it into the wound in Gil’s neck. The sudden stab of pain was so startling that Gil might have stabbed back reflexively, if his hands hadn’t still been half numb.

“Relax. This will help the wound heal. I apologise, I was hungrier even than I realised. Rest for now; in an hour or so you will be up and about again. In the meantime, you should eat something to regain your strength.”

When Gil could focus again, he saw that the old Alfvin was back, smiling and rummaging through their baggage with his free hand. The ravenous beast was gone – or at least, submerged once more beneath the friendly facade.

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