The forest was silent and anticipation hung in the air. Although the werewolf was not close, it would hear the smallest of sounds, and the hunter moved slowly and carefully, making certain that his boots did not break the brittle branches on the white forest floor. It was not snowing anymore, and the wind had subsided in the course of the day.
The cold air made his breath evaporate in a visible cloud in front of him, but it was already beginning to grow dark. Hector was wearing a white fur coat and leather trousers to blend into his surroundings and only his face was exposed to the cold. His boots were caked with snow. After the blizzards of the last few days, only the large roads were easily passable, and he had left Roan in a stable in the nearby village. It was easier to be on foot for the relatively short distance into the woods.
A rustle of snow came from somewhere in the vicinity. Hector turned his head to look. The big wolf to the left of him was prowling slowly through the forest. His light grey winter coat was thick and flecked with white, and he moved with enviable ease in the winter landscape. The wolf stopped with one front paw lifted, and his eyes and ears focused on something ahead that Hector had not yet spotted.
The hunter slowly raised his rifle and took a deep breath of frosty air. There was a vague smell now that did not belong to either of them. It was what Royer had been tracking this whole time, but Hector was only catching on to it at this point. He had only seen the broken twigs and paw prints where new-fallen snow hadn’t erased them completely.
Hector only made a small nod, but he knew that Royer either saw it or received the affirmative feeling that accompanied the gesture. It was the first time they tried this procedure with an actual werewolf, but they had rehearsed it at home and tried it out hunting deer with great success.
The big wolf stalked through the forest, effortlessly, almost soundlessly, and Hector waited while he disappeared between the trees. It was harder than he had expected. He did not want to leave Royer out of sight. It meant sharing control of the hunt with someone, and he was never comfortable with letting go of his control. But he could now. He could let go with Royer.
A few moments later, a loud growl shredded the silence. A predator snarled, and then something crashed through the undergrowth towards the hunter. Hector’s finger moved closer to the trigger. A wolf came hurtling towards him. It was darker and more straggly than the wolf bolting after it. Royer veered off like they had planned so Hector could get a clean shot without having to worry about his partner. He took another deep breath, braced himself against the recoil and narrowed his eyes. The shot rang out, deafening and deadly.
Blood sprayed the snow, the werewolf howled, staggered forward a little further, and then collapsed on the ground.
Hector strode forward with his rifle still at the ready while Royer made a half circle behind him, but there was no need to shoot again. A dark red blot was already spreading from the werewolf’s skull.
“All well?” Hector asked and turned around.
Royer was approaching him with his tail held high. Yes, he was fine.
“Good,” Hector replied and put the rifle back over his shoulder. “Just a moment.” He drew his hunting knife, planted a boot firmly on the dead creature’s shoulder and bent down to separate the head from the body. Perhaps someday Royer would perform this ritual too, but for now the hunt itself was enough.
The wolf man was already a competent predator when they met, but he had also turned out to be a quick learner. So quick, in fact, that Hector had brought him along on a hunt only weeks after their training together had begun. On the first trips, however, he had only come along as an observer. For Hector, just doing his job with someone by his side felt strange, and stranger still because of Royer’s nature. But Royer had reassured him that he was fine with it, that he was no more a werewolf than Hector was. It sounded odd coming from a man who could turn into a wolf, but as time passed, Hector began to see more and more differences between Royer and the monsters they hunted.
Hector had been adamant that Royer should not get involved and fight any werewolves during the first few months regardless of his own shape. And the first time it happened, it had not been Hector’s intention at all, but he had been pinned down by a werewolf, and Royer had attacked. Afterwards, Hector had not been sure if he ought to be upset or relieved, but he settled on a bit of both. He would most likely have managed on his own, but seeing his friend deftly save him from the attack confirmed that he was doing the right thing. For both of them. Royer was more than capable of fighting werewolves, and after that incident, Hector had involved him more directly in the hunt.
Hector wiped the blood off his knife and sheathed it. Then he began to walk through the snow towards Royer.
Royer wagged his tail. He made a triumphant growling sound that wasn’t quite a bark.
“Good job,” Hector said. He couldn’t help grinning at the wolf. “I take it you aren’t going to turn now?”
The wolf looked at him with what best could be interpreted as an exasperated glance. It was much too cold for him to turn back and forth now, and besides they hadn’t brought any clothes with them.
In the beginning, Royer had always been a man when they had gone hunting and only turned to a more practical hunting shape once they were certain that they were out of sight of human settlements. But after an incident near Frankfurt a month back, it had been the better option to make Royer’s nature more or less official, and now that the rumours of Hector Rothenberg’s partner and their deeds together had travelled, it was possible not to be so discreet abut it. It suited Royer fine to be a wolf whenever he liked. When they returned home after hunting in pouring rain or in the snow, he was considerably less cold than Hector.
Royer got down on his haunches and readied himself to jump. He took off and landed with his front paws on Hector’s shoulders with such a force that the hunter had to take a step back to keep his balance. Before he could recover, Royer had licked him right across his face.
Hector laughed, buried his fingers in the thick fur and placed his forehead against the big wolf’s. They stood like that for a moment, then pulled apart, and Royer was back again on all four paws.
“Let’s get back to the village and get warm,” Hector said.
Royer agreed. It would be nice to curl up in front of the fireplace of the inn.
Hector reached out to scratch him behind the ears. “Or we can take a warm bath, and you can join me with a cup of hot tea,” he suggested.
Royer wagged his tail again, and the man and the wolf began to make their way back to the village.