A short while later, Hector stepped into the inn. He left Roan outside, still bridled and with his saddle on, although the Friesian no doubt needed a break as much as his rider did. But the hunter had a feeling that they would have to leave again quickly.
The innkeeper sat at a table with a mug of beer in front of him. A couple of fidgety people were standing behind him, offering insecure pats on the shoulder and nervous conversation. They didn’t seem to know if they should comfort him or celebrate him.
“Well then, what happened?” Hector said. He didn’t sit down.
The man was a rather pale and a little bit drunk. “Werewolf,” he said vaguely. “In your room.”
The man stammered out his story. He had heard strange sounds from the hunter’s room. It almost sounded as if an animal was in there. First there were some strange banging noises, and then something with more than two feet was walking about. So he’d knocked on the door and asked the young man in there if everything was all right. But there was no answer. On the contrary. It had gone quiet as the grave as soon as he approached. Then he took his rifle from behind the bar. You never knew if rude guests showed up and tried to demand a handful of free bottles. And of course, the innkeeper had a spare key to every room. He told Hector how he’d sneaked up the stairs, unlocked the door and looked in. At first, the room had appeared to be empty. He had entered with his rifle, but when he turned around, something dashed out past him. A wolf. He had shot at it, but he didn’t know if he’d hit it. He didn’t have any silver bullets, but he hoped that he had at least wounded the monster.
A wave of relief washed over Hector. At least Royer wasn’t dead. He gestured at the innkeeper and marched upstairs with the man at his heels. If Royer was hurt … He had no idea what followed those words. Better not think about it. He surveyed the scene. Royer’s clothes were on the floor, but in a neat and sensible pile. And there did not seem to have been a fight. There was a bit of fur on the floor. But no blood. A bullet from the innkeeper’s rifle was lodged in the door frame.
“I think it was him. Your partner. You did say that he was wounded,” the innkeeper offered. “He turned into a werewolf …”
Hector spun around. “Did this alleged werewolf try to attack you? Or anyone else?”
“No. I scared it off when I shot. It ran away.”
“Do not jump to conclusions,” Hector said a little more sharply than he meant to. It was not strange that people were shocked. But he needed to save the situation before people here concluded that Hector Rothenberg unknowingly had brought a werewolf with him and put the whole town in danger. “I cannot tell you the details. I was on a very confidential mission.” He caught the other man’s eyes and held them for a moment. “But one thing I will tell you. The situation was under control. I had everything under control until you opened that door.”
The man opened his mouth to answer, but then he stopped himself and looked at his feet with a silent nod instead.
“I need to go right away. It is crucial that I find the individual whom you believed to be a werewolf.” His explanation felt hollow and strange. Hector knew it was. But there was nothing else that he could do right now. Hopefully Royer had not been injured. Hopefully he had control of himself and was waiting for Hector somewhere outside the town. But the young man was under his protection regardless of his state, and the hunter had to find him.
He gathered his things and Royer’s clothes and was back on his horse after only a few minutes. A few townspeople told him that they had seen the wolf run away and pointed to the north-east.
This was unnecessarily complicated. It was supposed to have been a calm trip back to Frankfurt. He had not known that they would run into a werewolf problem here, that it would take him so long to solve it, that Royer would turn before he got back, or … Hector breathed in deeply. He was annoyed, and that did not help. He simply had to pull himself together and put that irritation to rest. He had taken the precautions that he could. They had not been enough. And now Royer was gone.
As soon as he was outside Eberfeld, the full moon provided the only light around him. It would have been more sensible to stay put and wait until the next day before he started looking for Royer, but he had a responsibility. He had promised Royer to take care of him. If the young man had not been too panicked when he fled, he might still be close.
Once more, Hector took a deep breath. This time he put his hands to his mouth and yelled out as loudly as he could, “Royer!”
His voice resounded in the silence. Some birds squeaked and flew from a tree in the vicinity. But there was no answer. Couldn’t Royer at least howl or something? Perhaps he was afraid to. Perhaps he was too far away. Perhaps he did not trust Hector anymore. Or he could have been wrong about himself or even have lied. Who knew if he actually could control himself during full moon?
A cloud went in front of the moon and the landscape became pitch black until it disappeared again and the surroundings once more became silvery. That was the good thing about full moon. At least he could see what he was doing.
Hector touched Roan’s sides with his heels and let the horse walk in the direction he had been told that the wolf had fled. Most of them had panicked and run into their houses or thrown whatever they were carrying at the wolf, so the description of the escape was not necessarily accurate. But they must be right about the general direction.
He should have eaten and had a good night’s sleep. The same could be said for the Friesian. They had been tired when they returned to the town with the werewolf’s head. Right now all signs of fatigue were gone, but Hector knew it was only a matter of time. They had done it before. Hunting several nights in a row without getting the rest they needed. Roan was healthy and of a good age. He could take this sort of thing, and the same could be said for Hector. He may not be a spring chicken anymore, but this sort of thing was part of the job.
Hector let go of the reins and stretched. He would find Royer. And he was going to do it by treating this just like he would treat any other hunt to start with. And then he would evaluate the situation and Royer’s condition when he found him. He stopped Roan and dismounted. Royer didn’t have wings. There must be traces of him on the ground. Traces that a hunter could follow. He gestured for the horse to stay put and nibble at the grass while he slowly proceeded to survey the surroundings.
It took him about ten minutes to find the first paw print on the ground. He felt a smile spread on his face. It was Royer’s. Habit had made him notice Royer’s paw prints in the course of their journey together. Not because he had expected to hunt him, but simply to be able to find him if they became separated. Back when he had permanent hunting partners, he knew their footprints, too, for the same purpose. Royer’s paws were big. Bigger than some werewolves’. But they were a little narrower than the average, and his fifth claw did not protrude in the same manner as a werewolf’s.
He whistled, and Roan looked up from his meal on the ground. Now they had a direction, so it was time to get back in the saddle and follow Royer’s paw prints.
A lot of things could go wrong. There were other hunters in the area. There had to be. Hunters from Frankfurt or some who were travelling through the area. It was full moon, after all, so it would be foolish to think that he was the only one out here. They would be alert to signs of werewolves. Ready to take a shot. And if a hunter saw Royer, they would probably not hesitate unless Royer managed to change into a human and talk some sense into the hunter. And he couldn’t do that now.
He should have done something. Hector shook his head. Blame was useless now. Still, he should have done something that could identify Royer as ally. Something that would make another hunter think twice before pulling the trigger. Branding would have one solution. A collar would have been another.
A little while later, Hector dismounted once more to make sure that he was still going the right way. “Royer,” he said to the thin air, “how far did you go? Couldn’t you have hidden a little closer?” He put both hands to his mouth and called out the wolf man’s name again. Still no answer.
He was getting closer to the woods. It was another part of the forest where he had found the werewolf earlier the same night. On the road and in the fields, the moon provided enough light for him to see what he was doing and where his horse was stepping, but the forest would be completely dark now as soon as they were surrounded by trees. Wolves had excellent night vision. Obviously a successful hunter needed to have good senses, but the senses of the best hunter were still a far cry from those of a predator. Hector patted Roan’s neck. They would have to proceed slowly and carefully. He would not risk his horse tripping and getting injured.
Darkness closed around them when they found a narrow path leading into the forest. At least Royer seemed to have slowed down. His paw prints showed a more measured gait now. Even if he had fled in panic, he had either worn himself out or calmed down. Hector gave his horse free reins. The Friesian would need his neck to keep his balance.
A crack somewhere in the distance echoed in the forest. Roan didn’t react, but Hector’s hand instinctively reached out for his revolver. Another shot rang out. It came from the direction he was headed in. He gritted his teeth. Too far away to be related to Royer, right? Who even knew if it even had anything to do with a werewolf or a werewolf hunter. Anyone could be out hunting …
No. He knew that wasn’t true. Who in their right mind would go out at night during full moon if they were not licensed werewolf hunters? No one. It had to be a hunter who had fired those shots. And most likely at a werewolf. His grip tightened on the reins. They rarely heard each other out here if they were not hunting together. There were not that many werewolves and not that many hunters that their paths crossed while they were hunting. They usually spread out to cover larger areas. Sometimes they ran into each other in the outskirts of their territories. Hector had never met someone else during the hunt itself, but he had encountered a lot of hunters in various towns on his travels. Sometimes they would join forces for a short while, and sometimes they would just drink a beer together and exchange news from their respective regions.
But here … Hector shook his head. The speculations would not do anyone good. It was not unlikely that there was another hunter in the area, and it may very well be one from Frankfurt because Hector’s original mission had brought him in a different direction and no one could know which way he was coming back home. Now he needed to find Royer. Hopefully the wolf man could not be that far away. And certainly not as far as the other hunter must be. He sighed to himself. Yes, it was important to bring Royer home. Important for Peter’s research, important in order not to let down Royer. And important to him. He could still save Royer and, he was starting to realise, he really had to. He could not lose Royer like he had lost so many others.