Hector stopped and turned around to face a middle aged man whose hair had migrated to his chin years ago. Next to him, Royer did the same. They were on their way from the dining hall where they had eaten breakfast. Louis had joined them at the table and joked with Royer as if they had known each other for years. By now, the rumour had reached most of the hunters. If nothing else, Hector thought, Louis and Anita would have seen to that. A few hunters who had recently returned from missions had stared at Hector and his new companion with surprise, and Hector had seen them talk to others and gesture in their direction. They would know about Royer as well now.
“Will you come with me for a minute?” asked the man who had called out Hector’s name. “Alone,” he added.
Hector inwardly sighed. He had honestly been a little puzzled that it hadn’t happened before. “Royer, will you excuse me?” he said.
Royer frowned at him. “Of course. Is something the matter?”
“No,” Hector said despite the clear signs on the other hunter’s face that something definitely was and the fact that Royer could easily sense his tension. But now he just needed to get Royer discreetly and safely out of the way. “Can you wait for me in my room? It won’t take long.”
The wolf man studied him for a moment, and then he nodded. “Of course,” he said again.
Hector gave him a smile and watched him continue on his way across the lawn. “Well, then,” he said to the older hunter. “Shall we, Carl?”
The other man gestured for Hector to follow him back the way they had come. They passed the entrance to the dining hall in silence. Where were they going? Clearly somewhere away from the view of the main building. Hector ran through a mental list of hunters who may want to confront him about this. Jakob would not. Not after Anita had talked to him, and she would have by now. Carl himself was only the messenger. He would have his doubts, but he would not be the one who spoke up. Kathrin? She had returned from the hunt the previous day, and the look of disdain on her face had been quite clear during breakfast. Willy was too young to have formed her own opinion, but she may be in on it too. Especially if someone like Andreas was. And he had to be. Hector would not be surprised if this was all Andreas’ idea, a feeble attempt at intimidating him. Well, they would not succeed, he thought as they approached three people standing in the shade of a tree between the armoury and the wall separating headquarters from the city.
Carl went over to stand next to the others, and the four hunters made almost a half circle around Hector. For a moment, no one spoke. Hector had been right about Kathrin and Andreas, but the last one was Leonie.
Hector willed himself to give them all a calm look. They probably only needed a reminder that their organisation did not merely kill werewolves. They helped people, and they conducted research, and Royer was a person who had needed help, and at the same time, he could assist the doctors. It was going to be fine, but Hector knew he needed to act exactly right for his words to carry the necessary weight. He may be infamous for breaking certain unwritten rules, but Andreas, who was no doubt the ringleader, was infamous for his temper. Hector had to deal with the reproach no matter how Andreas was going to dish it out. He had to show that he had made a deliberate decision and wasn’t emotionally involved. This confrontation was about respect.
“Hector,” Andreas greeted him. He towered over most people, Hector included, and tended to look down on people in more ways than one. But he was one of the best hunters in Frankfurt.
“Andreas,” Hector returned. He briefly nodded at Kathrin and Leonie, but it was Andreas he needed to keep his eyes on.
“We need to talk to you,” Andreas said.
Hector decided to take charge of the situation. “I saw you looking at Royer. If there is something you want to say, you should say it now.”
Andreas’ face distorted in anger. His right hand curled into a fist, and Hector forced himself to stand there and keep looking him in the eyes although he knew what was going to happen. The blow hit him right above the eye. Harder than he had expected. He stumbled backwards, staggered and ungracefully had to flail his arms and steady himself against the nearby tree to keep his balance. But the important thing was to keep his composure, and he did. He could feel blood beginning to trickle down his eyelid. It didn’t matter. He stood back upright and crossed his arms over his chest.
“You brought back a werewolf! Again!” Andreas shouted. “Have you completely lost your mind, Rothenberg?”
“No, I have not,” Hector replied although it did feel like part of his mind had been punched out of his head. “I made a choice. Our chief physician vouches for him, and the board has approved his presence here. As I am sure you know, Royer is no ordinary werewolf. He is always in control of himself.”
Next to Andreas, Kathrin and Carl exchanged worried looks. Leonie appeared a little taken aback. But none of them said a word. They were counting on Andreas to take care of this.
Andreas’ fists curled again, but this time he held back. He shook his head instead.
“Royer has asked for sanctuary and is helping with practical research. In the long run, he can prove useful to our training. But most importantly, he is not dangerous,” Hector said. Hopefully his voice wasn’t too unsteady. Blood was beginning to drip into his eye and run down his cheek, but he refused to acknowledge it yet. “Royer is not a threat to you, Andreas, or to you three, or to anyone else. He is my responsibility, and he is under my protection. Is that clear?”
Andreas nodded dumbly.
“You are welcome to disagree with my opinion, but do you respect my choice?” Hector asked.
For a moment, Andreas looked like he didn’t, but then his face softened and his shoulders lowered. With the doctors and the board on Hector’s side, there was very little he could do. “Yes, Hector. I respect your decision.”
“You will not harm Royer. If any problems arise, you will come to me first,” Hector continued. “I will have your word.”
“As you wish. You have my word.”
Hector tried not to look relieved. “Is there anything else you wish to say?”
Andreas’ glance shifted to the other hunters, then back to Hector. “If your wolf goes feral and threatens or attacks anyone, I will shoot it without any hesitation.”
“If Royer attacks anyone without a good reason,” Hector returned, “I will gladly shoot him myself, as I would any other lunatic.”
“Very well. Then we agree,” Hector said, holding Andreas’ eyes for a moment longer.
“Yes. We do.”
“All of us.” Hector turned to each of the others in turn. They all nodded. No, they didn’t like this, but they did stand down and they did accept his authority. “Well,” continued Hector, “then I’ll consider this subject exhausted.” He met Andreas’ eyes again. “Good day and good hunt.”
“Good day and good hunt, Hector.”
Hector turned on his heel and left the four other hunters. He had their word that they would not harm Royer, and that was all he needed for now. Some had been suspicious of Peter in the beginning too, but it had not been long before they were all comfortable with him.
It wasn’t until he had turned a corner that Hector dared to wipe blood off his brow with the back of his hand. He grimaced. Andreas hadn’t held back. It was not important to the greater picture. Their confrontation had turned out well. Hector had made his point, and the others had accepted it. But … as ridiculous as it was, he really needed to sit down for a moment, stop the bleeding and possibly get something to drink. But going back to his room right now would mean seeing Royer, and the poor wolf man had enough on his plate without knowing anything about this.
A vague plan formed in Hector’s mind, and he veered off from the path between the buildings to go to the stables. He pushed open the door and went in. If he remembered correctly, a stable hand had stashed a bottle of liquor behind some sacks … Yes. And it was more than half full.
Hector wiped his face again, made his way to Roan and sat down heavily on a bale of hay.
The Friesian nuzzled him softly, and Hector reached up to stroke him. “Hello, old boy,” he mumbled and twisted a handful of hay into a tight bundle. He pressed it against his eyebrow. The straws prickled and made the cut sting. “I’m just going to keep you company for a moment.”
He pulled the cork out of the bottle and wiped the top with his hand before taking a long swig. It was hardly expensive stuff, and he made a mental note to replace the bottle with something better for the person who had left it in the stable. Well, regardless of quality, it was a nice feeling. It didn’t take more than a few mouthfuls to dull the pain a little.
After a while, the door creaked, and someone entered. Roan lifted his head, and Hector shrank back against the wall. There was nothing wrong with what he was doing here, but he’d really prefer for this whole thing to go unnoticed.
“Hector?” a familiar voice said.
The hunter looked up. “Royer …” Of all people.
The young man was approaching him with a worried expression on his face. “What’s wrong? What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I am just looking after Roan,” replied Hector.
“It seems to me like he’s looking after you,” Royer replied and crouched in front of him. “Is that blood? Hector, what happened?”
“I had a small run-in with another hunter. It looks worse than it is. I’m fine.” He tried for a smile. “How did you find me?”
“I followed your scent.”
Hector smiled a little wider. “Well done,” he said despite everything.
“You don’t look fine,” insisted Royer. “And you are drinking … Why did you fight? Was it … because of me?”
Hector tried to avoid Royer’s gaze, but he found himself unable to. What good would it do anyway? Royer could read his feelings. “No, it was because of me,” he said, complimenting himself on his eloquence despite the alcohol. “I had to talk to some hunters who were worried about my actions, and one of them got a little … upset. But I explained everything, and it’s fine now. You don’t have to worry about any of the other hunters, all right?”
“So it was about me,” Royer deducted.
“In a way, but I’m telling you,” Hector said, “I’m fine. Stop worrying.”
Royer studied him for a moment. “I will if you come with me and visit Peter.”
“No!” Hector exclaimed. His grip on the bottle tightened.
“I told you I’m fine. Peter shouldn’t worry either. I just needed to sit down for a moment. The bleeding’s practically stopped, see?”
“I see. But we’re still going to pay Peter a visit,” Royer said and pried the bottle out of his hand. “Come on.” He almost pulled Hector to his feet, and Hector wasn’t sure if he found the whole situation extremely embarrassing or rather funny.
“So you got yourself into a fight with the most hotheaded hunter you could find and subsequently decided to hide and drink away the pain in the stable so no one would know,” Peter summed up the situation painfully accurately. “You should be grateful for Royer.”
Hector was sitting on an examination table in the hospital wing, and Peter was gently feeling his skull. Luckily there were no other patients around. He glanced up at Royer who was standing behind Peter. The wolf man was following his every movement with his eyes.
“I’m not dying!” Hector huffed. “It’s just a scratch, and I didn’t want to make a fuss about it. Besides, it was for a good cause,” Hector argued and sent Royer a smile. Hopefully the wolf man did not feel responsible.
“Barbarians. No fractures, but this needs to be cleaned properly. I am astounded that you used hay to stem the hemorrhaging ...” Peter mumbled with a shake of his head. “And you need stitches. Lie down.”
“Lie down,” Peter repeated the order. “You’re also intoxicated. And Royer … Won’t you get something to drink for him? Something without alcohol.”
Royer nodded. “Yes, Peter,” he said. He smiled at Hector in a manner that suggested his worry was almost gone now that the hunter was in Peter’s care and then left the room.
Peter looked after the wolf man and then turned to Hector again. “Hector …”
“No, I could not just duck,” Hector sighed from his now horizontal position. “That’s not how it works. It was about Royer, and I had to face up to Andreas’ accusations. It’s important that everybody in this organisation respects my choice, and it’s even more important that they accept Royer.
Peter smiled. “That was not what I was going to say. But now that we are on the subject …” He took a deep breath, as if he needed to summon the courage to speak. “Isn’t it time, Hector? How would you feel about a new partner?”
“A new …” Hector frowned. His head was aching, and he was a little drunk. It took a moment for him to understand what Peter was talking about. “You mean … Royer?”
“Yes, I mean Royer,” Peter confirmed.
“But I …”
The door opened again, and Royer entered with a big pitcher of water and a cup in his hands.
Hector looked at him. He was young and a good fighter. He was a voice of reason that, frankly, Hector wasn’t always in touch with otherwise. And Hector had to admit that he did care for Royer already. Could Royer become a good hunter if he desired it? Probably. But did he want to?
And more importantly … Hector didn’t want to lose anyone again. And he didn’t want someone to lose him. Was getting a partner, any partner, worth that risk? Was it a price he was willing to ever pay again?
“Think about it, Hector,” Peter murmured and patted his shoulder before turning to find the right equipment for stitching up an eyebrow.
Hector nodded. He leaned back on the examination table. Yes, he would think about it. But not right now. Right now he was going to just lie here and wait for Peter to do his job, and then he would let Royer take him back to his room, and they would take it easy for the rest of the day.
Royer smiled at him.
Hector smiled back at his wolf. Yes, his wolf. No matter what, Royer was his wolf now, and partners or not, they certainly were friends.