Everything should have gone smoothly now that Hector had found Royer and they were back on track, albeit a slightly different track from the one he had aimed for to begin with. Hector had sent a pigeon with a letter addressed to the medical staff in Frankfurt, trusting that they would give Peter the message if he returned before Hector did. He would rather have sent the letter to Louis, but he was most likely out there somewhere doing his job at this time of the month. Now it should just have been a matter of avoiding main roads and moving towards Frankfurt. That’s what should have happened.
The night had been cloudy, and when the hunter and the wolf woke up in the early morning, it was to raindrops falling on their faces. Hector didn’t mind. As long as he could keep his weapons and maps dry, a little rain would actually be very nice. The foliage and grass were starting to go yellow, and the roads were dustier than ever.
The travellers barely managed to eat their breakfast and tie Hector’s belongings to Roan’s back before the raindrops turned into pouring rain.
“I hope you don’t mind getting wet,” Hector shouted over the water drumming on the brim of his hat.
Royer still had difficulties staying in his human shape for more than a couple of hours at a time and was a wolf again now. He wagged his tail as a reply. No, he clearly didn’t mind the rain.
“Good,” Hector said. He put his foot in the stirrup and swung himself into the saddle. Royer padded along next to the horse.
They needed to cross a river after a short while, and that meant going by a larger road than the gravel paths and tracks made by deer in the forest that they had used so far. It wouldn’t take long before they could leave it again, so Hector decided not to make a fuss and ask Royer to change his shape. A naked man would be suspicious as well, and it was far too much trouble to stop and wait for Royer to dress now and undress five minutes later.
They got to the middle of the slippery wooden bridge. It felt like the heavens above and the river below were one big, grey mass of water. Roan’s hooves on the bridge were barely audible over the noise of the rain. Suddenly a small wagon with one horse came out of the downpour right in front of them. Hector sighed to himself. Why now? Couldn’t the driver have waited a few minutes?
“Royer,” the hunter called out. “Get behind Roan!” There was no other option than to play this by ear and pretend that he happened to have a very big dog. If Royer acted like a domesticated pet, who would get the idea that he was a werewolf?
The wagon stopped. Its driver made a series of fast movements, pulled an all too familiar shape out from under the seat and yelled something unintelligible.
“No!” Hector shouted. “Stop!”
But it was too late. A shot rang out.
A lot of Hector’s fellow hunters had been shot at some point in their career. Most of them by a stray bullet from another hunter, some during training, and others while hunting. One of Stephan’s old friends had allegedly been shot by a werewolf, but Hector had doubted the truth of that story. Tomas had a scar on the calf of his right leg from a bullet that someone had fired during a large scale hunt. Hector had only been grazed by a projectile once, and the apologising from the guilty party had almost been more annoying than the injury itself.
This one didn’t graze him. Hector could feel it tear through flesh and bore into his upper arm as he was pushed backwards in the saddle. A grunt of pain escaped him. But this was not the time to think about it. He had to act. Had to gain control of the situation. “Do not shoot!” he bellowed.
The driver did not fire again, but he sat with the rifle still in his hands, awkwardly, as if he had never handled a weapon before. Perhaps he hadn’t. It would explain a few things.
Hector nudged Roan forwards with his feet, ignoring the throbbing, burning sensation in his left arm. “You will not shoot again! That is an order! Lower your weapon!”
“The wolf …” called out the driver shakily, but he did put down his rifle.
“What wolf? My dog?” Hector looked over his shoulder. “Come, Royer. Sit!” he shouted.
Royer obeyed him, but a wave of hesitation and worry hit Hector as the wolf sat down beside the horse. He ignored it. “Do you see a werewolf here? All I see is my loyal dog, Royer.”
Now the man in the wagon looked very flustered. “But I thought I saw … That dog looks like …”
Hector let Roan walk forward a little more. He was holding the reins in his right hand and clutching the pommel of the saddle too. “Oh yes, he’s big. I am a werewolf hunter. Do you think I would use a dachshund to kill werewolves?”
“Oh, God …” the man stammered. His eyes darted from the wolf to Hector and his weapons. His cheeks were flushed. “But I thought I saw … I didn’t … hit anyone, did I?”
“No,” Hector said quickly. “You didn’t. Now, move along. And do not let your imagination run away with you. It could have ended very badly. I’m not sure you could afford a replacement for a dog like Royer.”
“Yes, thank God. I don’t know how … I mean …” the driver stammered.
“Go.” Hector stared at the man in a way that suggested he had better continue on his way at once.
The wagon went past them on the bridge, creaking and grinding along at a painfully slow pace, and Hector rode to the other side of the river without a word. The moment he was certain the man would not turn back, he looked at Royer. “Please change now,” he said.
Royer immediately began the transformation. His claws retracted, his paws turned into hands and feet, and his face became the young man’s. And he was looking every bit as worried as the wolf had felt. “You were hit,” he said.
“Yes,” admitted Hector through gritted teeth. “Help me dismount.”
“Of course.” Royer reached up to support him as he got out of the saddle and helped him sit on the ground.
“Let’s see …” Hector gingerly took off his coat. Then he ripped the hole that the bullet had left in his shirt a little larger so he wouldn’t need to take that off as well. The damn lump of metal was still lodged in his upper arm.
Royer crouched next to him and studied him carefully. “You’re in pain,” he observed. He had not dressed yet. Hector commended his sense of priority.
“Yes,” said Hector again. He really was, and he was feeling a little lightheaded now. It was hard to tell how much his arm was bleeding because of the heavy rain.
“I’ll get bandages to stop the bleeding. We can’t remove the bullet here,” Royer said. He stood up and went to find them in Hector’s saddlebag.
Hector smiled despite the situation. Royer may not have much experience with weapons, but he was right. Taking out the bullet would hurt a lot, and as it was, it may stem the bleeding. Since it caused no further damage by staying, removing it should be left to a doctor.
Royer returned and knelt on the ground again. He unrolled the bandages that he had brought with him. “It will probably hurt. I’m sorry,” he said.
Hector shook his head and breathed in deeply. The pressure against his arm did sting, but Royer had hands so steady that they rivalled Peter’s, and although he wore a concerned frown on his face, he seemed to be in no danger of panicking.
“Yes,” the hunter replied. He was hunched over with his head between his knees and not entirely sure when he had taken that position, but he had a feeling that, embarrassingly, he had been about to pass out and Royer had probably told him to sit like that. The bandage was in place around his arm now. “Thank you, Royer,” he mumbled.
“You need a doctor. Is there a town close by? I can go find one for you,” Royer said.
Hector closed his eyes and thought. “Darmstadt,” he then said. That was by far the best choice. Big enough to have doctors, close enough to get there quickly. And he had connections there. “About an hour from here. But I can ride. It’s not so bad. Get dressed and help me back on Roan, and we’ll go together.”
He could feel Royer gently sweeping into his mind, and then the young man stood up. “If you think it’s best. Stay there for a moment,” he said and went to get his clothes.
They were alone on the road. Everybody who could had probably taken refuge from the rain. Under normal circumstances, Hector would have enjoyed the freshness of the air, all the smells that exuded from the wet soil and leaves, the sound of rain pounding on the canopies along the road. He would have enjoyed getting soaked to the skin because it was still so hot that he would not get cold and would dry quickly when the rain stopped. But now all he could think of was getting to Darmstadt.
“I’m sorry,” Royer said. He was walking next to the horse and looked ready to catch Hector if he started to slide off.
“For what?” Hector asked.
“That man meant to hit me.”
“Well, lucky for you, he was a very bad shot,” Hector replied.
Royer looked up at him sternly in a way that Hector had previously believed only his aunt Regina and Peter capable of.
“It wasn’t your fault. Besides, I’ve tried much worse.” It sounded like he was trying to shrug the injury off as nothing. “This isn’t going to kill me,” he added in the hope that it would make it better.
“No …” Royer didn’t sound entirely convinced. “But you do look pale.”
Hector scoffed. He could imagine. No, he was not in immediate danger of bleeding out, but it did hurt.
“Why didn’t you tell him that he hit you?”
“I didn’t want to make things more complicated. There was nothing he could do to help anyway. You couldn’t change with him there, and I would much rather have your help,” Hector replied. Royer was unusually talkative. Was he trying to take the hunter’s mind off the current situation? “I don’t want to have to explain this to anyone. I can’t tell regular people that I was shot because an idiot on the road thought you were a werewolf … Which is why …” He took a deep breath and hesitated, but he knew damn well that he could not allow himself the luxury of considering the potential embarrassment of the situation. “Which is why when we get to Darmstadt, I need you to talk to someone for me. Can you do that?”
“Of course,” Royer said.
“Good. I have a friend there, but I’m not going to burst through the front door like this.” Hector imagined how that could turn out. Lots of witnesses of the gossipy kind, lots of questions and the beginning of a number of wild rumours about the hunter who had been shot. Had his young companion shot him? If not, who then? Was it really an accident? Hunters were not supposed to have accidents in the eyes of most regular people. “We can trust her, and she trusts that I know what I’m doing. She will know how to handle things discreetly and find a doctor who won’t tell anyone about it,” he continued. “And if you can’t keep from turning, it should be safe to do there.” At least it would be if he managed to tell her that there was nothing to be afraid of. Sera wasn’t a hunter, had probably never pulled a trigger on anyone or anything before, but Hector could easily imagine her whirl around in one of her elaborate dresses and grab his rifle in the attempt to take on Royer if she thought he was a werewolf.
Royer nodded. “Don’t worry. I will talk to your friend. Just tell me where to go.”
“Thank you.” Hector glanced down at Royer. He would be all right on his own explaining the matter to her, wouldn’t he? Of course he would. He had to be.
They continued in silence for a while. Hector tried to focus on the trees by the road and the sound of Roan’s hooves, but every beat of them made his arm ache.
“You said you have had worse injuries,” Royer spoke up. “Will you tell me about them?”
“Tell you about them?” Hector echoed. Ever since he had seen Royer study the scars on his shoulder, he had known that his companion would ask, but he had certainly not thought that he would do it in a situation like this. He smiled. Well, clearly Royer was trying to take his mind off the current situation. “I suppose I can …” he began.