It was a low, midwinter moon, with the air crisp and the ground chill even under padded feet. We hunted silently, without voice, for this was not for sport, nor to eat, but for vengeance. We knew what it would mean if we killed tonight. Though it would be far from our city, word would spread. People would be on guard. We would have to watch out for each other, provide alibis for any of us who were taken on suspicion of being what we were or, if the worst came to the worst, disperse and scatter ourselves to roam alone or contact other packs in the hope they would take us in, provide work, clothes and hiding from those who would kill us on sight if they recognised us for what we were.
Killing men was a grim business.
His smell was rank and clear from fear. He had passed this way less than an hour ago, having taken flight when we sounded, before the silence. We had left the city long ago, during daylight, taking different gates to ensure that the watchmen would not realise that we were still gone after the gates closed, leaving the rest of our kin behind to keep a light in our houses and the illusion that we were together, in the town. We left our clothes hidden where we could and skirted beyond town under cover of the stench from the tanner’s field to hide our own smell from the town dogs and horses, meeting many miles away, deep in the forest.
It was a silent running, for the wolves were in retreat as the towns grew in size and their howls were rarely heard, and distant. He had set out late from where he had spent the day carousing, traversing a forest road from the land of the Welsh, seeking riches, and expecting a warm welcome at the end of his journey from a merchant who lived in the ancient town by the river. He travelled sure footed by the light of the moon, forgetting the danger now so long had passed and he had wine inside him. It did not take us long to find his trail.
Perhaps he had thought that the one of us he killed was the only one. He would have known once the two who had travelled on ahead drove his horse off the track until it tripped under the trees and threw him. One would have driven the horse away north and west, while the other watched him rise, would have seen the fear in his eyes, and only moved to prevent him from returning to the road and harry him deep into the woods, leaving him to his own devices and turning back to await the rest of us. We had met the one who had dealt with the horse not long since, and drank with relish the scent of the man’s emptied bladder: evidence of his panic.
Ignoring the delicious odours of deer, rabbit and boar, we set ourselves to the serious business of a life for a life.
Our passage ravaged the usual traffic of the night. Scattered herds of startled deer crackled the dead leaves and branches in their flight. As they ran, they panicked smaller things, either harming the owl and fox’s hunt for survival, or else aiding it. A silence lay across the night as the other hunters waited for the destruction of our passing to subside, and the things they hunted sought refuge.
And always, inch by inch, foot by foot, yard by yard, the man’s smell grew stronger, and more afraid.
It wasn’t the unexpected clearing that stopped us, but the house, where no house should be. Not this far into the wood, far from village or hamlet. There stood our cousin, at a distance; wary; watching for our prey. Part of the house was a stable, whose door stood open. We heard the horses wicker and a man’s voice quieten them. We looked uncertainly towards the Thegn, the pack leader, to see what he wanted us to do.
He snuffed the air and growled. "This is The Magician."
We didn’t have to ask which one. Here, in this territory, there was only the one who would live like this, still far from other men, without the need to join a guild in the town to advertise his trade. Those who wanted him would search, and, if it pleased him, would find his house. If he wished, not even the most powerful of guild wizards would find him against his desire.
He came out of the stable, looked at us milling around his dry stone walls, and turned back to speak again to assure his horses before he shut the door. Then he walked across to us.
He had no fear of what we were.
"I have the one you seek; he has sought sanctuary with me. Why do you hunt him?"
Our Thegn spoke for us. "He has killed one of us. You know we will get no justice in this matter from men, so we make our own."
The magician was silent for a few minutes, until we became restless. "I will discuss the matter with one of you," he said. "Do you have a wyrdwolf – a saywife - among you?"
The Thegn hesitated. Though we were more than half a dozen in number, the magician was powerful and will have protected his property and his person against threat and there were no tales any of us knew of the likely outcome of such a battle. The death of any of us might result in a Sheriff’s enquiry, which would be difficult to answer. Though there were tales that spoke of the fairness of this magician, few packs would be willing to lay down its own means of justice to depend upon that of any man; for we had tasted theirs too often, to our harm. Even so, our choices here were limited.
A look in my direction was sufficient. The others stepped aside and I walked, stiff and unwilling, towards the gate, which the magician opened for me. It was a formal gesture for both of us; I could easily have jumped the wall, as he knew.
"Stay here," he said, as we reached the front door. He went inside and I heard the low discussion, the pleading of the one we hunted. When the magician came out he had a cloak draped over his arm.
"You must shed the fur for the flesh. The one you hunt is too afraid if you do not."
"I will find that difficult on this of all nights, whilst still hunting," I replied.
"Will you accept my help?"
"What help do you offer?"
"I will give you my blood, then you can put on this cloak."
I considered. It would be painful, even for me, to change back on a full moon before I had tasted blood. I had never tasted human blood and certainly not that of a magician. The old tales were that, once tasted, there was no going back, and I did not seek that. Silently I sought the advice of my gods. One touched me and I saw her, together with another, who remained in the shadows. That disturbed me, that there should be another god involved who would not make his presence known to me. Who was he and what was his business here?
"What do they say, your gods?" the magician asked.
I started, for how had he known? Why did it concern him?
He had his answer when I lifted my head in acceptance, baring my neck in submission. He offered me his hand and I bit into the flesh and tasted something sweet and utterly intoxicating. What had been ceased to exist. I wore his cloak, but I was no longer aware of the house, or why I was there. The magician was a man in his prime and what was between us was like being in heat. In his eyes I saw the same response and reached out for him, as he did for me.
"Stay with me; do not leave", he said.
But I remembered who I was and why I was there and pulled back, though it was hard to do. "I am mated; and my kin stand outside."
"But you are already estranged from your mate and immured in conflict."
I looked away. How could he know?
"It is always like this, for the wolf. You always meet us at a time when your life is being turned upside down. And it will get harder. You will be put to the test." He considered me gravely and in silence, then spoke slowly. "I cannot give you the answers, though I will always do what I can to help, if you want it. But the work falls to you, not me."
I felt sadness and an immense dread. "I am a lawspeaker: I cannot lay that down. I cannot leave aside what my gods have laid upon me."
"Death lies upon you, and it is difficult, even for me, to help the dead."
His words bewildered me. Then I looked down at the warmth spreading through my chest and saw blood. I had a gun and I had to shoot Martin Symes before he shot me. But I was drunk and seeing double. Which one to shoot?
"Quite extraordinary," said the pathologist. "The werewolf was killed with ordinary bullets, but Symes was shot with silver."
"Is it possible to kill a werewolf that way?" the policeman asked.
"Oh yes, if you shoot their DNA."
They looked at my body, lying on the floor. "But she’s been shot through the head," the policeman observed.
"So she has," said the pathologist. "That’s probably why she lost it during the TV interview."
©Alexa Duir 2006