Baqir could smell him from miles away. It was a faint scent, masked by years of practice of tracking in the forest. But humans in the forest could not outsmart wolves. Instead, they fell into the traps that they thought they were doing their best to avoid.
Baqir stopped running when he knew he was far away enough from the princes that they would not be able to interfere. He knew that the huntsman would be following. The huntsman would be an idiot not to follow.
The wolf picked a careful path through the forest. He had left a trail as he ran, but now he could afford to watch his step. The huntsman should still be able to find him.
There it was: the sound of a crossbow being loaded. The huntsman had caught up.
“C’mon out, ya stupid mutt,” the huntsman growled.
Baqir laughed—a strange, barking sound that shouldn’t come from a human throat. The man leaned against a tree, his arms crossed over his chest. “You really think you’ll be able to catch me, Huntsman?”
The huntsman fired the crossbow, a spray of bark exploding from the tree where Baqir’s head had been. He swore loudly and fit another bolt into the weapon as a wolf bounded into the shadows. “I caught your brother.”
“Ah, well, I’m afraid to say that he was not the smartest of the pack.” He grinned from his spot between the trees, fangs glinting in the strange half-light that was filtered in through the branches. It made him look more feral.
“You like playing games, mutt?” the huntsman asked, shouldering his crossbow and following the pacing wolf with his eyes.
“Love ‘em, actually,” Baqir answered, resuming a relaxed pose against a tree. He made a show of inspecting his nails, as short and dirty as they were. “What’s your name again? So I know who to blame if I get indigestion after eating you.”
The crossbow was once again gripped firmly in his hands as the wolf lunged at him with a snarl. He knocked the animal away with the butt of his weapon. “Levi,” the huntsman said. “Why have you been running all this time?”
Baqir chuckled as he sauntered from side to side in the small clearing. “I didn’t want the delightful little Van der Snacks to interfere with our game.” He stumbled back a pace, lifting a hand to cover his face as dirt exploded around him. By the time his vision cleared and he saw the crossbow buried into the ground at his feet, the huntsman was up against him—knife pressed on his throat hard enough to draw a thin line of blood when he shifted his head to the side.
“I hate games,” Levi clarified. “Why have you been running from me all this time?”
“That?” Baqir laughed, shaking off the human’s grip and trotting away a few steps to maintain their distance. “Let’s not kid ourselves here, Levi. I was hiding in plain sight and you just couldn’t find me.” He danced out of the way of another crossbow bolt. “We both have our mistresses and can’t make a move until they allow us to do so.”
“Those two princes were able to find you quite easily,” the huntsman said with a growl.
The wolf growled in response, though it was more out of jest. “Jealous? Of two little insignificant princelings that were able to track me when you weren’t?” He laughed again. “They weren’t looking for me: They were looking for the princess. Luminosa wanted them to find me instead.”
Levi didn’t say anything, just kept pace with the circling man.
Baqir sneered. “You get it, don’t you? The reason why you can face me now when you couldn’t before?” He gave a careless shrug and rolled his head on his neck. “I’ll give you credit: There were times when I actually thought you were going to catch me before I realized just how powerful Luminosa’s magic really was. Not only could she cloak herself from your priestess’ eyes, but she could cloak me from yours as well.”
He waited for a reaction, but the huntsman was still silent so he carried on. “Very clever of that priestess of yours, having you follow the Van der Snacks.”
“Then why is it that I can face you now, mutt?”
The wolf tilted his head to the side, ears twitching slightly in thought. “Probably it is because the brothers have uncovered the truth about Princess Valencia.”
“Wouldn’t that make her try even harder to protect her secrets?” Levi had stopped pacing, and the two men stood on opposite sides of the clearing—staring each other down. “Luminosa likes to play games—why is she giving up on this round so easily?”
Baqir hesitated, then gave a far-too wild grin for a human face. “I’ve developed quite a taste for pigeon lately. She doesn’t approve. This might be out of spite.”
The two of them reacted at the same time. Levi fired the crossbow again, which the wolf was easily able to avoid. He wasn’t so lucky the second time, as the huntsman’s knife sunk into his shoulder.
Letting out a howl of pain, Baqir disappeared back into the trees.
“Running away, mutt?” the huntsman shouted, fitting another bolt into the crossbow. His eyes were jumping from shadow to shadow.
“You made a mistake by making me angry,” the wolf growled. His voice seemed to echo through the entire clearing. “I would have made a powerful ally, but I’ll make an even more ferocious enemy.”
“I’ll kill you when we meet again!” Levi stood his ground in the middle of the space.
Baqir laughed, backing away slowly and carefully, the huntsman’s back to him. He clutched his injured shoulder, having pulled out the knife and dropping it onto the forest floor. When he was certain that the man wasn’t going to follow after him, he went off on his own way.