The first day, Hector and Tomas found nothing. The second day, they found a dead deer that had been ripped apart by a big predator. Half of it was gone. But it was not until the evening of the third day that the case was really pushed along. They had gone further away from Gersfeld in the direction where they found the dead deer. Everything was quiet. There was not the slightest breeze, but more important was the telltale lack of birds chirping. Both hunters had loaded their rifles and held them in their hands, ready to shoot from the backs of their horses.
Suddenly the silence was broken by loud growls and screams in the forest. The hunters exchanged glances. Two animals were fighting. It sounded very much like wolves. They dismounted and wrapped the horses’ reins around a branch. They would stay because they had been tied to a tree, but if anything happened, they could easily tear the reins loose and run away. Hector and Tomas silently stepped through the forest. Each breath was measured, each step planned. The noises from the struggle grew in intensity. Growls, whimpering, and the sound of something heavy that crashed to the ground and broke twigs on the forest floor.
Tomas looked at Hector inquisitively and held up to fingers.
Hector nodded. Yes, two animals. He made a sign with one hand in front of his face. Werewolves.
They went towards the sound, years of training allowing them to sneak up on their prey unnoticed. Finally they reached a clearing, crouched and lay down flat on their stomachs behind the trunk of a fallen tree. From here they could study the fight. One wolf was bigger than the other and had a clear advantage. It had managed to take hold of the throat of the smaller wolf and tore at it. The losing wolf whined and fought to break free, but the more it tried to bite back and wrestle, the more the other wolf ripped at its throat. Blood was trickling from gashes on both wolves, but it was obvious that only one was seriously injured.
Both wolves were werewolves. From here the hunters could not see their eyes, but they could see the position of the tails and sometimes they got a glimpse of a paw. The bigger wolf was clean and its fur thick and healthy. The smaller one looked very different, more sickly than any other werewolf that Hector had ever encountered. Its coat was straggly and matted with dirt, and in addition to the bleeding wounds, it seemed to have a number of not entirely healed injuries. Hector could not help wondering if it was the wolf that had clawed its way out of the grave.
Strangulation and blood loss competed to claim the sickly wolf when there was a loud crack and it immediately stopped fighting. The big wolf let go of it, and for a moment the small one was lying on its side, kicking the air with its legs. Then it went completely still. The other wolf sniffed at it.
Not bad. They had let one wolf take care of the other. One less for them to deal with. Both hunters raised their rifles and took aim. One of them would shoot first, and the other would only fire if he missed. That’s how they did it when they had the time. They were equally good marksmen, so the one who had not killed a werewolf the last time would have the honour. It was their gentleman’s agreement. This time it was Hector’s turn to shoot first. He was ready to pull the trigger when the wolf raised its head and sniffed in their direction. Before the hunter could react, it turned around and ran. He pulled the trigger, but the silver bullet whizzed right past the wolf’s ear. A second later Tomas shot too. His bullet wedged itself into the thigh of the hind leg of the moving wolf, but it did not keep it from running.
Hector had already loaded his rifle again and jumped over the tree trunk as soon as Tomas had fired. He started running, closely followed by his partner. They dashed through the forest side by side with a few paces between them. The werewolf would not be hard to find. It was still moving, but it was slowed down by the wound, and it left a trail of blood on the ground.
The stealth that the hunters had exhibited before was gone. Twigs snapped under their feet while they sprinted past trees and jumped over branches and fallen trunks. No two hunts were the same. There were always different conditions, factors that could not be predicted or drilled into them during training. But they didn’t discuss the procedure. Didn’t have to. They knew exactly what they needed to do. They had hunted together for so long that they knew each other’s habits and abilities in every detail.
The excitement pumped through Hector’s body. This was the hunt. His mind was void of anything but the hunt. No fear, no worries, not even happiness because this wasn’t quite happiness. The excitement of he hunt was something else. It was concentration, focus on a target, a task to be solved, a mission that only had one possible outcome if it were to be successful. It was hard to put that sensation into words because words were not part of it. It was the feeling that no one but hunters would know. The one that he had seen Stephan harbour, and the one that right now, next to him, Tomas had too.
The wolf stopped in its tracks. Would it turn around and attack them? The hunters simultaneously raised their rifles again. Tomas shot.
The next minutes happened in a blur of motion. Yet another wolf came charging at them from the side. Hector spun around to shoot, but Tomas was between him and the werewolf, and before any of them managed to pull the trigger, the wolf had reached Tomas and pounced at him.
“Tomas!” Hector yelled. It was too late to warn him. He had to shoot. Aim well enough to hit the werewolf that had thrown Tomas to the ground and knocked the rifle out of his hands.
And now the wounded werewolf came towards Hector. He shot, but the bullet hit its shoulder, and it was already in midair. Before he knew it, he was on the ground too.
“Hector!” Tomas shouted.
Hector couldn’t hear whether it was a call for help, a warning or something entirely else. He was too busy fighting for his life to look at Tomas. The wounded wolf snapped at him and growled, and although it was injured, it certainly had not given up. Hector whacked its head with his rifle. It bought him a few seconds to draw his revolver before it started biting at him again. This time he hit it right. He shot it twice in the head and then pushed its lifeless body aside.
Tomas was under the other wolf. His right hand was clutching his hunting knife and he was thrusting it into the side of the animal again and again. The blood was oozing out over his hand. Hector managed to get on his feet and came closer. Four shots left in his revolver. He aimed at the wolf’s broad back and shot. It howled in pain, but it was not enough. He shot again, and this time it crashed down on top of Tomas. Hector ran the last few steps and kicked the wolf aside. And no matter how much he wanted to see if Tomas was hurt, then his first priority as a hunter was to make certain that both wolves were dead. He glanced back over his shoulder. It hadn’t moved. Good. To be on the safe side, he put a bullet in the head of the wolf he had kicked off Tomas.
“Tomas!” Hector finally fell to his knees next to his friend. “Tomas!”
Tomas looked up at him in a way he had never done before. His clothes were torn, and he had long gashes across his chest. One of his legs might be broken, but all that didn’t matter. His throat was one big, open wound. Hector bent over him and pressed his hand against the injury, but the palm of his hand was almost too small to cover the wound. “We got them, Tomas,” he gasped. “It’s over now.”
Who was he trying to comfort? It wasn’t a small child lying on the ground and looking so horribly pale. Blood was oozing out from between his fingers. But there was still time. The bleeding could be stopped, and Tomas could still be saved.
Tomas put his hand on Hector’s wrist. Their eyes met.
“No,” Hector said. “No. You will make it. Tomas, do you understand that?” Because there were no other options. No other outcome of the hunt.
Tomas’ mouth opened. He wanted to speak, but it was nearly impossible. Finally he managed to whisper, “Hector … Do it now.”
“No. No!” Hector’s voice broke. “There’s a doctor in Gersfeld. You just need to …” And even though Tomas had been bitten, because he clearly had, then there was medicine. If only they were fast enough … If only …
Tomas tightened his grip around Hector’s wrist and looked at him. There was no hesitation in his eyes. He knew that he was dying, and he trusted Hector to do what needed to be done. They had made that pact years ago. Decided that they would do each other that last favour without hesitation. No long goodbyes. No wasting away in a hospital bed. Tomas was smiling now. “Good … hunt,” he whispered.
Hector smiled back at him. What else could he do? He could not let Tomas leave this world without that. Without honouring their agreement. He could not let down his friend and partner. Tomas released his wrist, and he let go of Tomas’ throat. Instead he reached out for Tomas’ revolver and cocked it. No thinking. No hesitation. He needed to do the dignified deed, and do it now.
He bent down and kissed Tomas’ forehead. Then he put the barrel to his chin. “Thank you for the hunt, Tomas.”
The shot was the loudest that Hector had ever heard. He put down the revolver again, listened for Tomas’ breathing, felt for his pulse and then closed his eyelids.
And then he screamed. Screamed like he had never screamed before. First he cried out Tomas’ name, then an incoherent string of sounds, angry, grieving and desperate sounds. When finally there was no more anger left, he collapsed next to Tomas’ body and cried.
He had no idea how long he stayed there. It was dark when he stood up again. His mouth was dry, and there were no more tears left in him. He went back to each of the two werewolves and cut off their heads. Then he picked up his own and Tomas’ weapons and lifted up the body.
He went back to the place where the wolves had fought and put Tomas on the ground for a moment to decapitate the small wolf. For a moment he stood there, rallying what energy he possibly could, and then he took the body in his arms again.
The horses were still waiting where they had left them. Hector stroked their necks and put Tomas across his own horse. Now there were only practical things left to do. He didn’t need to think anymore. He only needed to get back to Gersfeld, needed to get Tomas’ body ready, and tomorrow he needed to cremate it. That’s how it was now.
They had completed the mission. But the price had been too high. Much, much too high and much more painful than he had ever felt it before.