The wolf was still lying snugly against him when Hector woke up. Had they slept like that all night? The hunter had a vague recollection of waking up and sensing Royer there during the night, so they probably had.
Hector yawned and stretched. The sun was already sending golden morning rays through the treetops. But they hadn’t slept for more than four hours. Not enough to feel completely rested, but it would do. He surveyed the surroundings. Everything was quiet in the small clearing. It was already warm and would probably be hot once the sun was high in the sky. Roan was standing up, but he had shifted his weight to one hind leg and his ears did not move. He was clearly asleep.
A sound broke the silence. Hector grimaced. His stomach would like to address the issue that it had not had any dinner the night before.
Another sound. Royer’s tail pounded at the ground.
Hector turned to look at him. “What are you laughing at?” he asked.
The wolf yawned. Right in his face. It was a very big maw with very big teeth, and for a moment the absurdity of the situation crashed into Hector. He was lying in the middle of the forest with a wolf. He, the hunter. With a man who turned into a wolf. During full moon. Well, clearly Royer wasn’t a regular werewolf. And he couldn’t be a completely ordinary hunter when something like this happened. The wolf stood up and padded away from the clearing. Hector opened his bag and rummaged for something to eat. A handful of oat for the Friesian who appeared to be waking up now. His own stomach rumbled once more. There was a bit of bread left in his bag, but nothing else. He had intended to stock up in Eberfeld, but clearly that wasn’t an option now.
Royer came back again a short while later. By now Hector was chewing on a mouthful of bread. “The breakfast is a bit boring, but I suggest we catch something better along the way,” he said and broke off a piece of bread that he offered Royer.
The wolf sat down and took the bread. His whiskers tickled the palm of the hunter’s hand, but it was the sight of the big wolf awkwardly chewing the bread with canines made for pulling apart meat that made Hector smile. He unfolded his map of the area and flattened it on the ground. “We were here yesterday,” he said and put his finger on the small dot that marked the town where everything had become so complicated. “And you ran in this direction.” He slid his finger away from Eberfeld in a straight line. “So my best guess is that we are around here.”
Royer wagged his tail once. He agreed.
“I can’t take you to any towns right now. We will have to avoid people. And I don’t want to leave you alone.” Hector cut himself off before he said any more. No need to scare Royer unnecessarily. But if he ran into a hunter during full moon … Although there were differences between him and ordinary werewolves, Royer was a lot bigger than a normal wolf, and a hunter who did not know him would take the shot. “So we will stay out here and stay away from major roads until we reach Frankfurt.” He indicated Frankfurt on the map with his finger although Royer probably realised that the large dot with the word on it represented their goal. “How long time will it take before you can turn human again?”
Hector couldn’t help imagining Royer yapping the right number of days. Then the wolf’s thoughts broke through and he felt that it was only a matter of a couple of days before Royer could turn back, but even then it would be difficult for him to stay in his human shape for more than a few hours at a time. “That’s fine. We’ll wait. It’s longer than that for some werewolves,” Hector said.
People would start wondering where he was soon. Peter would … No, Hector corrected himself, Peter would not be worried or anything else right now. He would be a wolf in a cage. But others would wonder if something had happened to him. And if Peter had told anyone that he meant to be home before full moon with a werewolf, then they must be wondering what had gone wrong by now. What if they dispatched someone to take care of the alleged werewolf who may have killed him? It would be a sensible thing to do.
“On a second thought,” he sighed, “I may have to send a letter home. I was expected before full moon. We will find somewhere safe for you in the meantime.” He began to pack up their things. They would stay away from major roads, and Royer would have to keep out of sight of anyone, but they needed to find out exactly where they were so he could take a detour to the closest town or village.
Apart from a single trip to human settlements to write the hunters in Frankfurt and buy something to eat for Roan, Hector stayed with Royer. Although the trip took longer, it was turning out not only to be a bad thing. Now Hector had seen Royer at full moon. Travelled with him and experienced firsthand that he did indeed have complete control of himself even though he was forced to stay in his wolf form. It would make justifying all this to the other hunters and the board easier. His professional verdict was that the wolf most of all behaved like a big, smart and friendly dog. Except when they went hunting for food. And that pastime, Hector found, was surprisingly nice. They tracked the prey together, stalked it or ambushed it together, and shared the animal when they had brought it down. Royer may not talk, but Hector sensed his eagerness when they were hunting. He felt the same as Hector if one disregarded the fact that Hector normally hunted werewolves and not rabbits.
A couple of days later, Hector woke up early with a feeling that something had happened. He reached out for his revolver. One never knew what that something may be. But when he turned around, the wolf was gone, and a young man was sitting with his legs crossed on the ground. He looked like a perfectly normal, and very naked, person.
“Royer?” Hector said.
The young man looked at him and smiled. Of course he was Royer. Who else would he be? Before full moon, Hector had felt that the wolf and the man sometimes acted in similar ways, but not that they looked like each other in any way. Now he could see similarities. Something about the smile and the eyes. It made no sense, of course, because they couldn’t logically look alike. But still.
“Good morning,” said Royer.
“Good morning,” Hector replied and reached out to pat the wolf man’s head. But he stopped himself and smiled sheepishly. “You’re back again. Welcome back.”
“I was here all along. But thank you,” said Royer and stretched.
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Hector stood up. It was a little cool this morning, must especially be for Royer. Normally the wolf man had no difficulties turning back and forth between his shapes. He could even stop in the middle, and he seemed perfectly at ease in any of those forms. Was it different for him around full moon? He didn’t look at all like Peter used to. Actually, it was rather the opposite. Peter looked like he hadn’t slept for days, had sometimes scratched himself or was bruised from trying to escape his cage and generally looked miserable. But Royer seemed completely rested and happy. Then again, he hadn’t spent full moon locked up and growling at anyone who approached to feed him.
Hector opened his bag. “I have your clothes here,” he said. “Get dressed and let’s have some breakfast. We can reach Frankfurt tomorrow night or at least the day after if we make an effort.”
Royer smiled at him and took the clothes he was handed. But he avoided meeting Hector’s glance now.
“What is the matter?” Hector asked.
“I don’t know how …” Royer seemed to force himself to look at him. “I can’t help thinking. What if they don’t want me there? The other hunters, I mean.”
Hector snorted. “I’m not going to give them a choice,” he said. Royer had been warned against humans and for a good reason. Pierre Bissette was not the only hunter who would consider locking up a creature such as Royer. “I vouch for you. Yes, you are different, but you are not a threat to them. They will understand that.”
Royer nodded. He didn’t seem completely convinced.
“It will be fine,” Hector added. “Don’t worry.”
“Thank you,” Peter said with the best smile he could muster.
The door to his cage swung open. “No problem. Anything else you need?” Louis asked.
Peter shook his head. He had been a man for a couple of hours before anyone had turned up to let him out, but he didn’t mind. The worst pain was over now and he could get to his feet and make his own tea and put on his clothes without help. He glanced at the Frenchman, too exhausted after the last few days’ ordeal to feel awkward as he found his clothes and began to dress. He had hoped it would be Hector here today. Had hoped that his friend was back by now. He had expected him before full moon with that creature he had found, but Hector had not showed up. He had probably taken a detour on the way. Still, worry was beginning to nag at the back of the doctor’s mind. Why wasn’t he home yet? Hector would usually stay with him for a while, fussing over him in his own callous way. When he wasn’t in Frankfurt, someone else had to let him out, and it was usually a hunter, just to be safe, they said. But they normally didn’t stay long. “Is there anything I should know?” he asked.
Louis smiled. His hand had left his revolver belt now, at least. “No. Jakob came back earlier with a broken trigger finger.” He grinned, then hid it with a cough. “I’m not sure how he managed that. But no, there is nothing serious right now.”
Peter nodded and buttoned his shirt. Usually the hunters who had been injured during full moon returned after he did or were treated where they were at the time. “Any other news?” he asked.
“You mean Hector?” Louis rolled his eyes. “He’s still out there.”
Was that worry in his voice? The two of them always enjoyed sparring and were more competitive than most hunters Peter knew. They had practically grown up together and although none of them would ever admit it, they did keep an eye on the other and worried if he was gone for too long. “He went further south before full moon after hearing rumours of a werewolf there … I think the town’s name was Niedermark,” Peter offered. He had told this to the board, but he had chosen not to elaborate upon the cause of the journey.
“Yes. I know. Oh,” Louis added and reached into his revolver holster.
Peter had been a werewolf among hunters for long enough not to flinch very much at the movement.
“He sent this. It was addressed to the medical staff. Magda asked me to give it to you.” Louis fished a rolled up piece of paper out of the holster and handed it to Peter.
“Thank you.” Peter felt relief wash over him. He sat down in a chair, a soft reminder that he was back to human now, and gestured for Louis to sit as well if he wanted to. Then he tried not to unroll the letter too quickly.
“What does it say? If it’s any of my business,” Louis asked.
Hector had run into complications in a town called Eberfeld. Peter couldn’t say for certain where it was, but somewhere to the south, he assumed. He had dealt with a werewolf before full moon, but he had needed to stay away from civilisation for a while because of his companion who, Hector wrote in a tone that Peter interpreted as relief or even pride, did indeed retain his personality despite his having to stay in his wolf shape. Peter’s face was starting to shape itself into a mask of excitement, but he stopped himself before it became too obvious. “You didn’t … Did Magda read it?”
“I don’t know. She only told me to give it to you.”
“Well, it says …” Peter’s mind raced. How much should he say? It was a horrible idea to start rumours. Hector ought to be in charge of telling his fellow hunters about this. “It says that he was delayed right before full moon in Eberfeld because of a werewolf. It took him longer than he anticipated, and he left the town by small roads.”
Louis nodded. “If he was out there anyway, it makes sense to check the area on his way. No need to worry about him, then.” He smiled again. “I’ll leave you alone now.”
“Yes. Thank you again for the help.” Peter watched the door close behind Louis before he allowed himself to slouch in his seat. Tea, a hot bath, and then he would sleep. If there were not any critical injuries to take care of, they would not expect him back in the hospital wing before tomorrow. If only he knew when to expect Hector back in Frankfurt.