Royer had been a wolf for a while now. His travelling companion disappearing in the thick brush by the road for periods of time left Hector in his own thoughts. His horse usually left him to his own devices, and they had not met anyone else on the road for a long time. The only sounds were the soft creaking of the leather saddle and the hooves beating out a slow rhythm against the ground. Once in a while, the wolf came out of the vegetation, sometimes with leaves and twigs in his fur, and looked up at Hector with a sharp set of teeth and a red tongue hanging out of his mouth. He wagged his tail as if to ask Hector if he needed anything. Every time, Hector smiled at him and shook his head.
Since they had left Niedermark, the hunter found himself deep in contemplation time and again. He usually left the past where it belonged and concerned himself with matters at hand. Why had times long gone snapped at his heels so often during these past few days? He was only trying to do his job and that did not involve reminiscing about his youth.
When Royer appeared the next time, Hector lifted his hand in a greeting. “Let’s stop here for today,” he said. “Will you help me set up camp?” They had taken a different route north and had managed to cover a long distance today, so they could afford a good break. And it did suit Hector rather well to have time to get to know the wolf man before they reached Frankfurt. Some would support his decision fully, but others would be sceptical. They would see in time. Understand, as Hector did, that Royer was not just a werewolf. He was a man who sometimes was a wolf.
The weather was good, so there was no need for an extensive camp. A fire and a bit of shelter would suit their needs. Hector steered them away from the road to a spot with enough trees to give them some privacy from other travellers.
Royer changed his shape while Hector dismounted. The hunter studied him from behind Roan. It was fascinating, that was certain, and the process did not look painful and gruesome like it did for the few werewolves whom he had seen change. Royer’s body contorted, his face grimaced, but he did not scream or howl or writhe in agony. It was controlled and … Hector shook his head. Natural was a strange word to use for a man who turned into a wolf and back again, but it was the first that came to mind. Royer was what he and Peter had been searching for, a kind of werewolf who had not become one by being bitten. The doctors suspected that werewolves had evolved from something, and their tests on regular wild wolves and domesticated dogs had yielded no results. Hector was no scholar, but it did not take a doctor to realise that Royer was something special.
The wolf man stayed in the strange shape that was neither man, nor wolf. He looked almost human, but his feet were still paws, his hands had claws for nails, and his canines were abnormally long. Hector cleared his throat. He was glad that werewolves did not look like this. He was glad that he didn’t have to kill them like this. And he was glad that Royer was not his enemy.
“Is something wrong?” said the wolf man.
Hector loosened the girth and took off the saddle. “No,” he said. He had years of practice when it came to concealing doubt or fear or even anger. A normal human being would not have sensed his hesitation. But Royer could sense his emotions. Hector had experimented earlier that day with trying to wish that Royer returned to him when he was running around somewhere as a wolf. And it had worked. Hector had been almost frightened. “I was thinking,” he continued, “that we should find some dinner.”
“Find?” echoed Royer. His mouth opened in a big smile that reminded Hector most of all of a dog full of anticipation. It was maddening.
“Yes.” Hector removed the bit from the Friesian’s mouth and picketed him to a tree trunk. The horse would get a few handfuls of oat, but there was plenty of grass to eat as well. “I was thinking of a small hunt. There must be a hare around here somewhere, don’t you think? How do you hunt? As a wolf?”
“Yes, it’s easier that way.”
Hector nodded. He would not eat from an animal caught and killed by the wolf man. He was simply not going to take that risk. Who knew what could be in the saliva if it entered the blood stream of the prey. So he’d better get to it first. “Then let’s go.” He patted his rifle.
Royer fell to his hands and knees and turned back into a wolf. Hector put an ordinary bullet into the chamber of his rifle. No need to waste precious silver on this. Then he walked away from the camp with an enormous wolf by his side. This was the kind of hunt that ordinary people could engage in, but it was strange to have any kind of companion. He had been on his own for several years.
What would happen when they reached Frankfurt? So far, he had only thought of Peter’s research. He knew that the doctor was constantly working on improving medication, but Hector was not certain what he would do with this particular kind of werewolf. If Royer and his kind were even werewolves and not something entirely else. But what about Royer? He had nothing to go back to, he had said that, but what would he do once Peter had examined him? Run away and live in the forest near Frankfurt? Hector shuddered at the thought. There were too many hunters for that to be safe. Would he want to stay in Frankfurt and live as a man? Hector shot his wolf companion a glance. The wolf examined the ground now, then looked up at Hector and seemed to gesture with his snout to the right. Hector nodded and followed him. When he looked closer, he could see small paw prints and hare droppings on the ground.
If Royer wanted to stay, the organisation would grant him sanctuary. Hector would see to that. They could always use another hand in the stables or the kitchen. Or perhaps he could become an assistant to the foundry workers since he wasn’t allergic to silver. Meike was perpetually busy seeing to their silver bullet needs, refining the moulds and trying to come up with improvements to the designs.
The wolf sniffed the ground again, then raised his head to catch the scent of the prey in the air. He did not seem to doubt where to go for long. Hector only caught on to the traces moments after the wolf. Chilling. He was an excellent tracker as well as an accomplished marksman, but the wolf was decidedly better. Some hunters had dogs with them to help tracking. But it had always felt eerie to Hector to bring a dog to help finding and killing a werewolf. How would it feel to hunt werewolves with … He stopped himself. That was not relevant. They were hunting a small rodent now, not a monster. As travelling companions, not hunting partners.
Suddenly Royer stopped in his tracks. His ears turned, and one front paw lifted. Hector heard a twig break in front of them. He reached down and touched Royer’s back, wordlessly willing him to stay. The wolf did not look up at him, but the feeling that Royer knew and accepted what he meant crept into his mind.
And there it was. A lone hare hopping past them on the ground several paces away. Hector took aim, waited for the hare to give him a clean broadside shot, and banished the fear that Royer would run anyway. He did have the mind of a man, and a man would not run out there when a hunter was aiming the rifle and getting ready to fire.
The shot rang out, and Hector lowered his rifle. He began to make his way through the undergrowth to the hare, but Royer dashed past him. He reached the prey and picked it up in his mouth. His tail was swinging back and forth. If a wolf could grin, it must look like this.
“Well done,” Hector said, forcing a smile. “Let’s get back to the camp. I’ll take that.”
At first, the wolf looked as if he would refuse to let go, but then he dutifully let Hector take the dead hare from his mouth.
Hector closely examined the animal while Royer changed back to his human form and put on his clothes. Would it be safe to eat? Since it had been dead before Royer had sunk his teeth into it, his saliva would not have entered the blood stream. Still, when he had skinned the animal and roasted it over the fire, Hector carefully took the part of the hare for himself that had not been touched by Royer.
“You told me that you know some werewolves,” Royer said when they had finished eating. He placed each of the hare’s bones in a clean and neat pile on the ground next to him.
“Yes,” Hector replied and licked his fingers.
“How?” Royer was staring enquiringly at him with his head cocked to the side. Not entirely unlike a curious dog. “I mean, I thought you killed werewolves. That is why my people stays away from yours. But you said I’m not like the ones you kill.”
The hunter cleared his throat. “Well, yes, you are not. That’s true. But it’s not quite as simple as that. A werewolf is not one thing. Some are wild predators all the time. They cannot be reasoned with or controlled. Others are people and only change at full moon. They don’t control it and become feral then. I know two werewolves who are human most of the time.” He looked over his shoulder to check on his horse. The Friesian was busy scouring the ground for grass.
Explaining all this to Royer felt awkward. The wolf man looked at him so intently, soaked up everything he said as if it held utmost importance. Perhaps it did. Royer did say that he had seen how humans lived and learnt their language to be able to talk to them when he visited their settlements, but he had never had anything to do with hunters, and he did not appear to have much knowledge of the kind of werewolves that they hunted.
Despite whatever had happened to get Royer captured and caused his brethren to flee, he only appeared to think about it when he was reminded. The rest of the time, he acted this way - interested, alert, content. There was a house of cards that would not last for very long if Hector had ever seen one. They never did last. You thought that you could keep the feelings locked away, but if something awful happened, they would sneak up on you sooner or later and take hold of you until you could no longer think and ran out of excuses not to look back and face them.
“Know? How well?”
Hector’s attention snapped back to Royer. “They both work for the organisation and are highly respected,” he said. “One of them has saved my life on a few occasions. He is a good friend.”
Royer smiled. “It’s interesting that people who hunt and kill werewolves also hire them … If they are there of their own free will?”
“They are not prisoners. Except a few days every month, but they have signed papers that allow us to lock them up when they are a danger to themselves and to others.” They were also branded with the symbol of the Frankfurt organisation to make certain that no hunter mistook them for prey if they should ever escape during full moon. It had never happened, but everybody agreed that it was better to be safe.
“Will I meet them?” Royer asked.
“Yes, I think you will,” Hector said. He certainly would. Especially one of them.