It is all too often expected that a hunt must have hounds baying, horses galloping, and a huntsman yelling orders to straggling riders. But there would be none of that today, for this was not a chase of pageantry. This, the eldest prince thought, was a stealthy game between brothers, a wager that guaranteed bragging rights to the one who bagged their quarry.
Crouching, the prince snorted when he caught sight of his brother, a grey wolf with black-dapple fur, stretched out almost parallel to the ground as he gave chase. The hare he'd been stalking had heard him, because she dashed at full speed out of the copse roughly twenty strides ahead of him, her body reflexive with such tension, such need to flee—
The prince shook away his cumbersome thoughts. A man might think poetically, but he had to remember that in that moment he was a wolf. Four nimble legs, a balanced tail, bone-snapping jaws, and eighty kilograms of muscle. He could be a man later, for this was wolf country; there was only silence here. Patience and surprise would catch him the hare, not his jumbled man-thoughts.
For now, he had to focus; he had to remember that his human thoughts were for later.
He watched them run. The hare darted to the left, but dapple-wolf had the experience and the sense to herd her towards the low-level river. The last months of winter had been mild with little snowfall, leaving the mountains without enough thaw to raise the water table. Although, it was still enough to use to their advantage. The wolves had long legs that touched bottom, but the water would swallow the hare entirely.
Unfortunately, the hare didn't run for the water, she ran for the rock.
Partially submerged, the string of algae-coated rocks made a perfect bridge to the eldest prince's side of the river. The hare flew, skipping every other rock until she landed lightly on the dirt-encrusted bank. Behind her, the dapple-wolf made a much too conscientious decision to adhere to the hare's path. Rocks caught his feet and laughed spitefully at him when he tumbled chest-first into the water.
The prince shouldn't have paid attention to his brother – his prize was the hare. She was under the thicket then, escaping through the branches that had only recently budded with seasonal life. He tensed up. For a moment, the prince thought she'd caught his scent because she hesitated. Her slender ears twitched frantically, just long enough to get her bearings. If he didn't act now, she'd run to ground somewhere and he would lose his quarry.
Dapple-wolf snapped albescent fangs through the branches, his jagged, wet fur continuously grating the ground and collecting loose dirt like paint to a brush. The hare toppled over herself while he sneered and hissed and pawed. Twigs snapped to splinters as he came, shouldering his way through the brush while he whipped his head from side to side. He was angry, and growing more careless by the second.
Now, the prince thought, launching over a rotting log while he still had an advantage.
Waiting not a moment longer, the hare bolted north along the river's edge, and when she veered into the shadows of the fir copse, the prince was there. He shed the shadows like a cape, revealing his white underside that glowed in stark contrast to his blackened back. He drove her from the open terrain and back into the riverside brush. She ducked beneath the branches and sped towards the northern fingers of the water, only to be accosted by the dappled wolf who ran the frightened hare into the jaws of her second attacker.
She hadn't time to squeal before the two-toned wolf slung the hare until she hung like a rag doll from his mouth, her body limp and broken. He gave her another shake, then dropped the hare at his paws while his brother jaunted forward through the opening he'd created. The blackened wolf resolutely approached, sloughed brown water from his fur, and then bounded to his brother and playfully swiped at the prize.
The two-toned wolf clapped his jaws and stood triumphant. He killed the hare. It was his. That was a fact his brother had to accept. However, he went to sniff at his brother's ear, huffed once, then cuffed him affectionately upon the nose with his paw. While snipping dirt clods from dapple-wolf's fur, the prince leapt and shoved his brother. The two feigned a fight, alternatively batting each other with their paws until they were on the river bank, wallowing playfully into the half-dried mud.
As they toppled tail over snout, their skin began to stretch and slacken, draping and dancing with their hasty movements as a shawl might. Ultimately, fur slipped away to reveal two jovial, black-haired men.
"You won this time, Freddy," said the brother who had chased the hare through the stream. Though he had shed his wolf pelt, the smell of earth and foliage had stuck to his uncovered skin like pipe smoke.
"About time, too," said Fredderick. He brushed hair away from his eyes and fetched the two-toned wolf skin to throw over his shoulder. "You've caught the last three, Dunny," he began, toeing a rock speculatively before kicking it into the stream, "I thought I was losing my touch. At least now I can eat Häsinpastete tonight and not feel indebted to you."
"Ah, but who else will keep you agile on your paws, if not I?" Dungareth reclined against his pelt, which he had balled underneath him so that the wolf's head and forepaws became a pillow. He added sharply, "The others will be home for the weekend. Perhaps Maggy or Wenny will enjoy a Jagd or two before returning to the academy. Certainly our Schwester could provide us some spirited competition."
"I have no doubt that Maggy will forsake games with us in favour of Lord Nikolai's company," said Fredderick, cradling the hare's body in his arms. He realized for the first time just how small she was. Not nearly the size of a rabbit, but not a large hare, either. He supposed she was a juvenile, for he found no recognizable deformities. A twang of nervousness jerked at him; hopefully, the size of the pelt didn't factor into his offering.
Fredderick offered his free hand to his brother, who accepted graciously.
"Ah, but that depends whether or not I invite Lord Nikolai to tea," Dungareth replied while dusting his cotton breeks and flattening the wrinkles that had bunched in the groin. It was a mystery neither he nor Fredderick would ever understand, how their perfectly ironed clothes could wrinkle and twist under their Pelzmäntel, their fur coats. Both always thought of it as awakening after a restless sleep, to find the bed sheets cascading upon the floor and their pajamas wound uncomfortably around their limbs.
"Ja, doch," Fredderick absently suggested, "perhaps you should invite him Reiten with us. The horses need a good outing. Maybe Maggy will worry over them instead of Lord Nikolai."
Dungareth slung his pelt over his shoulders and pulled it tight to ward off the chill. The spring air had done nothing but assail them since beginning their hunt, and as wolves their fur had offered at least some protection. As men, they had only their ceremonial Wappenrock breeks and shirts, made of cotton so light and airy that they might have stood au naturel in the skeletal coppice.
"A point well made," Dungareth resigned, a toothy smile painting its way across his face. He took up pace next to his brother, and the two began their barefoot trek down the uneven terrain for their home in the upper versant of the cerulean-tinted mountain. Despite the early-morning fog breaking around them, the mountains in the distance were still a picture of chromatic blues.
"And a suggestion well put," Dungareth perched briefly upon a rock to stretch his legs and squatted while Fredderick picked last year's needles from the hare's coat, cleaning it before the ceremonial dressing. "Ja, I shall invite him to Reiten – that will satiate Maggy's penchant for the young lord – and it will delay her mollycoddling."
"An apt description, for she will corner him regardless. At least let it be on our terms," Fredderick acknowledged while goading his brother into step. Casually, Fredderick changed topics. "I received a post from Wenny this morning. He wants to go to the tailor's and have a suit made for the season."
"A little late, is he not?" Dungareth raised an eyebrow, knowing as well as Fredderick that there would be no time to fashion a completed suit. Not before the presentation of bachelors and debutantes, anyway. Because of his title as the fourthborn, Wenceslas would be presented during the first day of the season.
"Ja, sehr," Fredderick sighed. "As Mutter and Vater will not be home until later, it falls to me to dress our Bruder. I will have to do what I can, if he is to appease Mutter."
"Viel Glück!" laughed Dungareth, wishing his brother good luck. After failing to be annoyed, Fredderick joined his brother in the jubilation.
Fredderick recomposed himself and handled the carcase with care. The kill had been clean. He had snatched the hare's head in his jaws, teeth puncturing close to her nose and through her neck, then with several mighty shakes, he had snapped her neck. Bleeding was minimal, too. The neat, sanguineous marks had matted the tawny fur, yet none of it had trickled down the hide to hinder dressing later.
That was something else Fredderick came to understand with age and experience – field knives were rarely worn by the Wappenröcke, those who could wear the skin of animals. Just as their limited clothing twisted and churned under the Pelzmantel, knives had come unsheathed and gutted men. Improvements were made in ancient times, though, to latch knives securely in their scabbards, but there was an unspoken arrangement between the Pelzmantel and the magic of the Wappenrock that dictated anything worn must allow the coat to lie flush against the body.
The one time Fredderick had attempted to tote a knife under a Pelzmantel, his stomach and back had borne the bruises of his decision for weeks.
"Is that enough for you, now?"
Fredderick glanced up, fingers instinctively brushing the carcase's fur. His brother eyed the hare whose pelt would help to pay for Fredderick and Carmilla's handfasting. "Oh, ja," he said. "Once I've dressed this one, I will have enough to submit a firthe for Beltane."
"You're going through with it, then?" Dungareth lost his propriety, lips pursing and brows raising with astonishment. His face said plainly what Fredderick knew him to be thinking, that he was skeptical of the elder's decision.
Flatly, Fredderick answered in affirmation, "Ja, ich bin."
Fredderick paused beneath the old fir tree that marked the halfway point to their home and snatched the sack hanging from an overhead branch. Fetching the string and knife from the pouch, he bound the thick hind legs of the hare and strung the carcase over the circle of dirt that had been cleared so many times before. It was their main dressing site, and other than the worn circle and the all-weather sack, the spot was devoid of man-made structures that might discourage the approach of wandering predators.
This was a place to mark his kill and to leave an offering to the scavengers.
The knife wavered over the underside of a thigh. Fredderick recited, "I give thanks to the Goddess and Her Consort for this bounty. Blessed be the land and all that dwells upon it. I take this premium for food, for wears, and for payment to the Goddess and Her Consort."
"So mote it be," the brothers chanted.
He slid the knife into the hare.
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