The trail through the forest was cold by the time Gregor found it. He had been expecting this, of course. It took time for the people of the village to find him, the only hunter in the area who traded on his reputation for dealing with troublesome wolves.
The forest of Dorian was a quiet place, though full enough of smaller dangers that compounded with every league one traveled through it. This fact was hardly unknown to the people of the village, but until now it had been something they could manage. Until now, the wolf had not hunted humans.
While Gregor didn't know the forest as well as one of the locals, forests were similar in their structure. The more peaceful beasts made their homes throughout, existing mainly in the middle ground between the outer edges of human villages and the inner circle of the forest where the more dangerous predators remained. He would have to travel deep into the forest to find the wolf, beyond the wanderings of prey animals and their skittish lives.
Moving through the undergrowth with a level of care learned at the heels of his father, he hardly made a sound as he walked beside the road, searching for the start of the wolf’s trail. The body of a local hunter had been discovered in a clearing near the road, his throat torn out by the beast. It didn't make sense for the wolf to attack a hunter, not with the number of prey animals Gregor had seen and heard. But he didn't doubt his fellows, who knew as well as he did the signs of such an attack.
Of course, then there was the matter of the girl. The hunter killed by the wolf had not been hunting that day but travelling through the forest with his young daughter. The girl was currently missing, and the other hunters believed the beast dragged her body away to his den. Part of Gregor’s job was to find and bring back the girl's remains.
It was a sad business, and Gregor took no pleasure in it, but a man had to eat, and the village deserved to grieve.
He found the place where the hunter and his daughter were attacked. The area was silent, and blood stained the ground and the plants around it.
It was a small clearing, a common place to camp along the road, as there was a ring of stones and scorched earth where a fire had been made before. The blood stain was an ominous patch of darkness that had seeped into the ground near the road, and Gregor wondered if the hunter had been trying to escape. There was a scrap of red cloth tangled in nearby brambles, likely from the cloak the young girl was known to wear.
The paw prints Gregor found were obscured by time and the weather, but still large enough and deep enough to cause any man concern. His whole hand managed to fit in it without obscuring the edges. It was little wonder this one wolf was the only one known or needed in this area if it had grown to such a size. One of the hunters he'd spoken to referred to the wolf as a hound of Hell, and Gregor was inclined to believe it seeing the marks it left behind.
There were signs of a struggle, but the marks were strange. Not what he expected from a hunter trying to fight off a wolf. He couldn’t say what was wrong with the tracks he could see nor could he shake the feeling that he was missing a crucial piece of information. Whatever it was had been lost when the wolf dragged the girl’s body from the clearing and blurred the traces left behind.
The underbrush had been bent and broken away along the path the wolf had taken. The other hunters could have followed the trail themselves, but none of them wanted to fight a hellhound, not even while working together, which was why they sent for him.
He wondered again what had driven the wolf to this, when it had an abundance of prey to hunt instead. Perhaps it had simply gone mad. Gregor understood acutely the sort of madness that comes of loneliness. Still, why would the madness set in now? Why choose a hunter and his young daughter as the targets?
A low growl like distant thunder drew Gregor out of his thoughts. He cursed his inattentiveness as the wolf appeared from between the trees, fangs bared menacingly.
Gregor could only stare at first. It was by far the largest wolf he had ever seen, tall enough on all four legs to reach his unprotected throat. A distant sort of fear curled in Gregor's gut. He could see now why the villagers called it a hellhound.
A swath of the beast's thick grey fur was matted with blood and Gregor could see tightly coiled muscles rippling beneath it. The rumbling growl of the wolf deepened the longer he stood there, reverberating in his chest and stealing the breath from his lungs.
Slowly, Gregor began to back away, never taking his eyes off the creature, though he knew he didn’t have any hope of reaching a weapon before it struck. He hadn't been expecting the wolf to hunt him.
Strangely, the beast didn't attack as he moved away. This was not the behavior of a lone wolf, but the actions of an animal that was trying to protect its young. The local hunters had told him the wolf was unmated and without a pack, and he’d had no reason to doubt them. Until he was face to face with a supposed lone wolf that was pressing its advantage.
Since he was being chased from the forest anyway, Gregor decided to talk to the hunters. A wolf protecting its pack was more dangerous and desperate than a wolf on its own, and not knowing that from the beginning was exactly the sort of thing that would get him killed.
"It doesn't have a pack," Silas, one of the older hunters of the village, told him over drinks that evening. "Been a lone beast long as I can remember. Which is a bit. I remember when we first started seeing signs of wolves. A pack wandered through in one of the harder winters. They left, and we had a wolf pup hunting in these woods after that."
Gregor looked down at his mug of ale. "And that's it? There haven't been any other wolves through here?"
"Not that I've seen. Of course, Holden was really the only one who tended to venture out that far. And now he’s dead." Silas drained his cup and stood, leaving the mug on the table. "If there is a pack, consider them part of the bounty. I'll make sure you get paid for it. Any pelts are yours, of course. We don’t want any wolves in our woods, and certainly not any of that hellhound’s spawn."
Gregor nodded politely even as his stomach turned. There was a curse on him for every pack he killed, a weight on his soul that he would never find absolution for. His father may have taught him to hunt and to kill, but his mother had taught him to understand the forest, to read the delicate balance in nature and work within it. The skills of a hedge witch, however, were not as valuable as a skilled hunter, and his father made sure he was known as one of the best. The chaos he wrought on that delicate balance, all for people who feared what they could not control, weighed on him almost as much as his mother’s disapproval.
There might not be a pack. He was desperate for it, to have misinterpreted the wolf's behavior. It could have decided not to attack him because he was leaving its territory. Or perhaps Holden had wounded the wolf before he died. Any creature feeling hunted would act their most ferocious when most wounded, in the hope of driving their hunter away.
It was pointless speculation though, fueled by the safety of civilization. None of it could be trusted when he went out into the forest again, where certainty was a fluid thing that usually ended in death.
He sighed and finished his drink. He needed to set out early in the morning if he hoped to accomplish anything.
Gregor was careful going through the forest the next day. Instead of following the tracks from the clearing, he made his way around the wolf’s territory, laying down traps. Borrowing yet another trick learned at his father’s knee, he crushed pine needles and resin together, making a paste to disguise his scent. It wasn’t much against the nose of a wolf, but it was effort he hadn’t put in the previous day.
He waited in the trees where the wolf would not be able to reach him. From there, he could reliably wound it without putting himself in danger.
A day passed, then another. Gregor had built himself a small nook in the tree with thick branches tied together. He was resting on it, his bow in his lap and his back pressed against the trunk, when he heard movement below.
A low growl rumbled through him, another warning, but he had come prepared this time. Gregor watched the undergrowth for movement as he nocked an arrow and prepared to fire.
It was a game now, trying to see who would give up first. Even as his arm and shoulder ached holding the bowstring taut and primed to fire, he was determined not to lose. His effort was rewarded by a flash of pale fur between the leaves, and he released the arrow.
He knew it found its mark before it struck. He was prepared for the cry of a wolf, but not for the voices that joined it.
The wolves in his memories were howling in agonized harmony with their kin. Drawing another arrow from his quiver was like walking in swamp mud, placing it against the string was like standing on his grave, and still he released it. The second arrow struck as the wolf was running away through the underbrush.
Gregor scrambled down the tree after it, wobbling a little when his feet hit solid ground. The howling in his ears continued until he couldn't hear his breaths or the pounding of his feet. Just the long mournful dirge of dead wolves singing the death of the balance he both craved and destroyed.
The wolf was leading him away from its den and any place of safety it might have sought. Gregor wondered if it knew what was coming, if it had the scream of a little girl echoing in its ears the way he was haunted by the wolves he had killed. He wondered if it saw the trap before it snapped shut around the wolf's back paw.
The second howl was worse than the first as the echoes in Gregor's head magnified it a thousand-fold. The wolf fought and snapped and growled and cried as it tried unsuccessfully to free itself from the trap. Gregor’s steps stuttered to a halt, his bow hanging limp at his side as the rest of the world caught up.
The wolf rounded on him, snarling viciously, but all he could see was fear in its eyes. His mother had once told him, in a fit of anger when he first started following in his father's footsteps, that there was a piece of himself in everything he killed. He had never understood it before, but he could see it now, looking into the wolf's eyes as it growled at him. He could see the fear and the resignation he never managed to shake as though he was looking in a mirror. He saw the fierce determination to live and to fight and to kill if it meant surviving for one more hour, one more day, one more year.
Pulling back the bowstring was the hardest thing he had ever done, but releasing it was deceptively easy. His mother had taught him the balance of the world, how everything hung on a linchpin. His father taught him how to pull that pin, had made hunting almost as natural as breathing. So, Gregor thought of the villagers and the little girl this wolf had killed, and the rest was simple.
Gregor could have sworn there was betrayal in the wolf's eyes as the arrow struck, and its death rattle hit him like a returned blow. But it was done. He was done.
He picked his way back through the forest to the clearing where everything began. Finding the wolf’s den wasn’t difficult, but it was something to do.
He couldn’t get a full breath. The wolf’s eyes were following him, judging him, pleading with him and he didn’t know why. He had done what was required of him, he had saved the villagers.
Tripping over a root, he reached out to catch himself on a nearby tree. He only managed to crash through the underbrush and into a small clearing with a large tree at its center.
"Loup?" a small voice asked. "Is that you?"
Gregor stumbled back; his mind thrown into chaos by the sound of a young girl calling out to the wolf thought to have murdered her.
The girl appeared from between the roots of the tree, a short red cloak hanging over her torn and tattered clothes. "You're not Loup," she accused, shrinking back into the wolf’s den almost out of sight. "Where's Loup?"
He couldn't answer her, still trying to make sense of what he was seeing. Slowly, he started to put together the things he had disregarded over the last few days, the little details that hadn’t made sense without the final piece, the living girl in front of him.
Her dress was not torn by teeth or claws, her first response was to greet the wolf like a friend. The wolf had not attacked him in their first encounter, and he had thought it had a pack to protect. Instead, for whatever reason, it had been protecting the girl. It had killed her father, but it had protected her.
"Where is Loup?" she asked again, her voice quiet and trembling. "Where is he?"
"I'm sorry." It was all he had to offer her, and it would never be enough, not after everything the wolf had done for her. He was a poor substitute by comparison, his hands stained with the blood of her real protector.
Grief and rage and a desperate sort of melancholy crashed over him like a wave. He had killed the wolf for the village because they believed it violent and bloodthirsty. But staring at one of the supposed victims, whose dress was torn by a human hand and whose clear distrust spoke volumes of what she had experienced, he knew that the real monster had been dead the moment the wolf tore his throat out.
The girl, Ileana, crumbled, and Gregor knew there was nothing he could do or say to make anything better. He picked her up and carried her back to the village, where the people celebrated her survival. They congratulated him on his success, but he knew there was no victory, no justice in what he had done. The thought of it was enough to turn his stomach and the offer of free drinks from the other hunters only made the feeling worse.
He excused himself from the celebration by saying he needed to retrieve his traps and the carcass of the wolf, which he did. But he returned the wolf to the earth without taking the pelt, and he never returned to town for the reward he'd been promised. He didn't think he'd be able to face Ileana if he did, and it was hard enough already trying to face his own reflection.
Whispering a prayer over the wolf's grave, Gregor decided to leave the path his father laid before him and follow in his mother's footsteps instead.
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