The wolf was curled up on the bed when Hector returned. But he had been sensible enough to lock the door before he fell asleep so no one else would see him like that. When the hunter entered, Royer woke up, jumped from the bed and wagged his tail.
“I’m sorry,” Hector said. He had purchased a mug of beer downstairs and brought it with him. Now he put it on the rickety table. “I didn’t find the werewolf. I need to go out again tomorrow.” He put the rifle and his revolver belt on the table as well and began to undress, stifling a yawn.
Meanwhile, Royer was starting to transform. He stopped halfway between wolf and man in the shape that seemed even stranger to Hector than an actual wolf. He returned to the bed, and this time he sat down with his legs crossed. His hands rested on his knees and displayed claws better fit for an animal, but his face was that of a human. “It’s fine. It is your job,” he said and cocked his head to the side a little. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Hector said and took the mug once more. He was. Just tired and frustrated, but frustration never helped anyone find a werewolf. “Did you want something to drink too?”
“No thank you.” Royer seemed both curious and relieved. It surprised Hector at first, but he supposed it made sense. He was the young man’s only hope now that he was so far away from his own people. If a werewolf killed the hunter or he was injured, Royer would be alone in a world he didn’t know.
“Hopefully I can find it tomorrow,” Hector continued and took a mouthful of beer. He needed to relax and fall asleep quickly. He emptied the mug in a couple of more gulps and went to bed.
They had a late breakfast together the next day. Royer was chewing his bread and drinking his tea almost without a word. Was he worried about Hector? Or was something else the matter? A suspicion was starting to snake its way into Hector’s head. Peter tended to get distant just before full moon. Perhaps the same thing happened to Royer. When they were back in their room, he asked.
For a while Royer said nothing. “I will have to turn tonight,” he then admitted. “I won’t be able to turn into a human for a few days after that.”
Hector nodded. How long was a few days? Well, the most important thing right now was not when Royer could control it again, but when he turned into a wolf. “When tonight?” he asked.
“At sunset. I think,” Royer said.
“I will do my best to be back before that,” Hector replied and smiled, although he couldn’t make the grimace seem entirely right and reassuring. “If I don’t make it in time, you need to lock the door again and stay in this room,” he added. He did not like the idea of leaving Royer behind, not at all, but what choice did he have? He would just have to do his best to find the damn werewolf and make it back in daylight.
Hector gently touched Roan’s sides with his spurs, and the Friesian trotted off. It was still early afternoon. If only he got back before sunset, there would not be a problem. He had almost nine hours. Once in a while, the horse and his rider would stop so Hector could examine the ground and make certain that they were still heading in the right direction. They were getting closer to the forest now, but a number of trees had been cut down in this area over the last couple of years, making plenty of room for him to ride through.
The sound of the hooves on the soft topsoil in the forest was dull, and the further into the woods they came, the more hushed the sounds became. Now and then a squirrel dashed up a tree trunk or a flock of birds took off. Everything seemed normal. Hector breathed in deeply. No strange smells. Only leaves and soil. The sun had passed its highest point in the sky a while ago now. If only that werewolf would show itself soon … But rushing was useless. It would not make the wolf appear sooner. And right now it was most likely asleep. The kill would be simpler if it was.
A couple of hours later, Hector noticed a huge tree trunk on the ground. The tree had been pulled up by the roots, and they were stretching out in all directions like a strange net or a parody of a canopy. Hector stopped Roan. If the werewolf had looked for a place to hide or rest, this was perfect. There had to be an indentation in the ground where the roots had been, and they provided shelter and shade by sticking out like that. He sniffed at the air. Yes. There was a smell of predator here. A vague scent of animal and urine. He listened. It was a even more quiet now than it had been earlier. If he knew that there was a predator close, then the birds and animals that could be its prey knew it too. Their silence indicated that he was right. He dismounted and put the Friesian’s reins around a branch. He touched the horse’s neck, had a small nudge as a reply, and then began to walk around the fallen tree in a big arc.
He was eager to get it over with and get back to Royer, but he could not afford the risk of being careless. So he went slowly around the tree and avoided stepping on twigs that could warn the wolf of his presence. There was practically no wind to reveal his scent. He readied his rifle and held it in his hands, ready to raise it to his shoulder and shoot if he suddenly had to move quickly.
There was indeed a wolf in the indentation under the roots. Hector knelt. He was far away, but not too far for the bullet to hit. He studied the animal. Like that, it looked like a regular wolf. A rather big one, but an ordinary one nevertheless. But it was not part of a pack, and Hector had followed its tracks from the road and the crime scene. It had to be the werewolf.
A werewolf like Peter. And like Royer.
No. Hector clenched his jaw. Not at all like them. Peter was special, and Royer was something entirely else. None of them were uncontrolled, wild murderers. Peter was a normal man most of the time, and Royer could control his transformations. This one had been a wolf for more than three days now, and that meant it was not just a man or a woman who was temporarily incapable of thinking and acting like a human being … And even if it had been one of those werewolves … Well, this was his job. There was no choice. Being bitten was a death sentence for most people. Only a few were treated in time. Peter was privileged. Royer was another race or kind of werewolf. The hunter raised his rifle and aimed. Why all these thoughts? It wasn’t like him. He pushed away the contemplations, braced himself for the recoil, took a deep breath and let his finger squeeze the trigger.
The shot echoed in the forest. Birds took off in the distance, cawing frantically. The werewolf uttered a roar and got to its feet. Hector’s first bullet had only hit it in the shoulder. It would take more than that. He quickly reloaded the rifle. The werewolf was not heading for him. It was going to flee. Hector shot again, but it didn’t stop the wolf.
He stood up and followed it with the rifle over his shoulder. While he was running, he drew his revolver to be safe. If it turned around, he needed to be quick. The werewolf was heading further into the woods and away from Eberfeld. Hopefully it was only a matter of time before it collapsed. It left a clear trail of blood behind, so at least it would bleed to death fairly quickly.
There was no reason to be careful not to make a noise now. Twigs and branches crunched under Hector’s feet, and he jumped over vegetation and rocks on the ground. The werewolf was almost out of sight now, but the trail was easy to follow, and he could hear it break through the vegetation ahead.
When he saw it clearly again, the wolf had slowed down considerably. The hunter stopped long enough to take a deep breath in order to steady his hands, aim the revolver and shoot. This time he could see how the brains were blown out of its skull like a greyish red cloud, and the wolf fell to its side.
Hector was ready to shoot again. It would not be the first time a wolf was not instantly killed, even from such a wound. But it seemed to be. He bent over the animal and put the revolver back in its holster. It was a female wolf. As a human, it could have been anyone. A housewife, a noble lady, a nanny or another hunter. But it had been robbed of all identity, and now it was just the werewolf. The dead werewolf.
He inspected the bullet wounds a little closer. The first one was lodged in a muscle, but had not kept the werewolf from running. The second one had taken off most of its ear. The last shot had killed it effectively.
Hector allowed himself a small break. Severing the head from the body was one of the most efficient ways to make certain that the creature was dead. It was traditional practice to bring back the head to prove that it had been slain, but nowadays and in this part of Europe, hunters were trusted and not required to carry around a severed head. Hector sometimes burned the remains of werewolves to get rid of them entirely, but it was far too dry to do it here. He couldn’t risk starting a wildfire. Dragging it back to Roan to take it somewhere else would take too long. As it was, the sun had not set, but it would soon. He wasn’t going to make it in time. But Royer would lock the door and wait, and everything would be fine. Hector drew his hunting knife, unceremoniously put his knee on the werewolf’s bloody head and plunged the knife into its neck.
The blade went through muscle and sinew, and Hector pushed it through the vertebrae. Finally the head came off. Hector wiped his knife in the werewolf’s fur, sheathed it and began the walk back to Roan with the head dangling from his hand. He may as well bring it.
Roan was waiting where he had left him. He was chewing on a twig with small, green leaves. Hector greeted him and wrapped the werewolf’s head in one of the rolled up blankets that he kept strapped to the saddle. Then they began to make their way back to Eberfeld. The sky was still blue, but when he looked up, Hector saw the full moon rise.
As soon as they reached the main street of Eberfeld, it was obvious that the town was full of commotion. People were shouting, running around. Some of them practically in circles. What now? Was it the bloody blanket containing the dead werewolf’s head? No, it couldn’t be. Something else must have happened. Another werewolf attack? He had already taken care of the culprit. But there could still be more wolves out there … It just did not seem likely. Then there should have been more attacks or sightings earlier on.
A group of people hurried up to him before Hector had even dismounted. They looked upset. Scared. Angry.
“What is going on?” asked Hector as calmly as he could muster. He dismounted and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Werewolf! At the inn!” a man cried out.
“It ran away!” chimed in another.
Hector’s fingertips dug into his upper arms. He needed to stay in control. “Really? I have the head of the werewolf right here. The one who killed that woman a few days ago.” He nodded towards the blanket tied to the saddle. “Now tell me calmly what has happened.”
They gave him three or four explanations at the same time. There had been a werewolf at the inn, one person said. It had eaten Hector’s partner and then fled from the town. Another claimed that it was really the partner who had turned into a wolf. A third said that it had not fled, but had been shot and was lying wounded inside the inn.
“And who found this werewolf?” Hector asked, masking his mounting worry with an almost sarcastic tone.
“And where is he now?”
“At the inn.”
Hector nodded. “Here is the guilty werewolf. You can give it to the doctor if you like. It is proof that I have taken care of this town’s problem.” He turned back to the horse and loosened the blanket. No one looked like they wanted to take the bundle from him, and he really didn’t have time to tell them that a severed head wasn’t going to bite, so he dropped it in the middle of the street. It landed with a wet thud. “If you will excuse me. It seems that I have more pressing matters to attend to now,” he said. It took every bit of self-control not to jump onto Roan’s back and gallop back to the inn. What had they done to Royer? If they had harmed him … If they had killed him … Then the whole journey would have been in vain. He would have broken his word. And worse … Hector gritted his teeth. No, Royer had better not be dead.