The air of the small town was thick with tension. Hector felt it the moment he passed the first few houses. It was not just a matter of dead cattle. There had been an attack on a young man, and Hector made his way to see him right away. It was the clergyman who took him there and no doubt the clergyman who had suggested finding a hunter instead of carrying out an execution right away. They had locked up the victim in the cellar of his own home and removed the children.
“Are you going to kill him?” asked the wife the moment Hector approached her on the porch in front of her family’s wooden house. She looked him straight in the eyes, bracing herself for the answer. Her hands squeezed a crucifix so tightly that her knuckles were white.
Hector shook his head. “Not if I have a choice. If he has not been bitten, there is no danger.”
“But if he has,” said the wife, still holding his gaze, “then you must do it. He is a good man. He would rather die than become one of them.”
Hector took off his weather-beaten hat and put it on the banister of the porch. It was a stale summer heat, but now was not the time to wash off the sweat and the dust from the road.
“I understand. Who examined him?”
The clergyman cleared his throat. “I did,” he said. “But …”
“He reacted violently, but I don’t know if … It did not look like bite wounds, but …”
“I see.” None of them were experts. None of them were sure what to look for, and they were too scared to look properly. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Thank you,” said the clergyman and painted a cross in the air between them with two shaky fingers. “God bless you.”
The wife motioned for him to follow and descended the stairs to the porch. There was a narrow, unmarked door next to it. She stopped for a moment and took hold of Hector’s arm. “Hunter. Promise me that you will do what you have to,” she said, unnecessarily.
“And … Tell Mattias that I love him.”
She took an oil lamp off its hook by the closed door and handed it to Hector. Then she put the key in the lock. Hector stepped into the darkness with the lamp in front of him in one hand. In the other hand, he held his trusty revolver. It was loaded with silver bullets, but he did not expect to have to use it. If the man had not been bitten, everything was fine. If he had been, Hector would make a proposition. It was that simple.
The door shut behind him. The stairs creaked with every step. He was met by the smell of dried meat, herbs, blood, urine and infection. The light reached a crouched figure behind rows of ham hanging from the ceiling.
“Oh god. Oh god, you have come to kill me!” whimpered the figure.
“My name is Hector,” he continued. “I am a hunter. You know what my prey is. Are you one of them?”
An almost unintelligible stream of words followed. The victim was probably as uncertain as the people waiting upstairs.
“I am here to help you. If you attack me, it won’t matter if you have been infected or not. I will put a bullet through your head,” Hector explained. “But if you do as I ask, I won’t hurt you. Come here.”
The young man struggled to his feet and staggered towards Hector. His clothes were torn and bloody and his face a pallid mask of fear.
“As you probably know, werewolves are allergic to silver,” Hector explained calmly while he put down the lamp and the revolver. He straightened his back again and looked into the eyes of the young man. “So let us see what you make of this …” He drew his hunting knife.
Whatever colour was left in Mattias’ face drained. His eyes darted from Hector to the shiny blade. It looked as if he wanted to say something or scream, but not a sound reached his lips. He did not even breathe. Hector reached out just in time to grab his arm firmly before the young man collapsed. He made certain that the impact with the floor was not too hard and then let go, sheathed the knife again and knelt next to the poor man. “Mattias.”
The young man quickly regained consciousness, but he was dazed enough not to be frantic anymore. That was something at least.
“My knife is not made of silver. You panicked. How long have you been down here?”
The man slowly turned his head from side to side. “I … I don’t know. Maybe two days.”
“Yes.” His eyes darted upwards, and Hector followed his glance. Pieces had been torn off one of the chunks of ham. Would his wife had dared to feed him if he had not been fortunate enough to be surrounded by something edible?
The hunter grunted. It wasn’t strange that the young man was besides himself. The fear of transforming must have been choking him and if he had not been properly treated by a physician, he must be in pain. “Please tell me what happened. Calmly now.”
Mattias explained, stuttering and stammering, that he had been on his way home on his horse one night when something had followed him in the darkness. He had spurred on the horse and galloped towards the town as quickly as he could. But the pursuer had caught up with him and jumped onto the horse. It had trust its claws into his back, and the horse had reared in terror. The creature had been tossed off and somehow Mattias had made it home.
“And the horse?” asked Hector.
“It must have been put down.” The young man shook his head again. “It was in a bad shape.”
“Could it have been an ordinary predator? A bear?”
The young man shook his head once more.
“Are you certain you were not bitten?”
“Yes … Almost.”
Hector nodded. “Good. Wait here. And undress while I’m gone. I want to examine your injuries.” He stood up and ascended the staircase while he removed the bullets from his revolver. He would not need them.
“I need a bowl of clean water and a washcloth,” Hector told the clergyman and the wife who were all but pacing back and forth outside the door to the cellar. “And have you no doctor in this town?”
The clergyman cleared his throat. “Yes, but we could not risk her getting infected as well.”
Hector managed to keep himself from rolling his eyes. The headquarters in Frankfurt did not have the means to send a doctor along for ordinary travels, so he had a certain kind of expertise at this point. “Get her. She may as well learn what to look for.” He sent the wife a measured smile. “There is hope for your husband. Water?”
Hector watched them go and leaned back against the warm brickwork of the house. The attack had not taken place during full moon. That was good news. It meant that he was looking for an animal, and that was always easier.
It was not long before the doctor arrived. She had brought the right equipment and seemed to be of the kind of person who could face anything as long as she was in the heat of the moment.
“Hold the lamp please,” said Hector when they went into the cellar together. He put a hand on Mattias’ shoulder as the young man sat down on the floor with his legs crossed. “This will probably hurt.” He soaked the washcloth and ran it over Mattias’ back. “Well, then. Come closer, doctor. What do you see? Claws or teeth?”
The doctor squinted and leaned a little closer. “Claws from a large animal.” She pointed at the long gashes on the young man’s back. “Four claws here, and one almost like … a thumb. Here.”
Hector nearly smiled. Not bad. “Yes. That is correct. And now that we have washed his back, we can see that there are no more wounds here. Yes?”
“Yes. I agree.”
“Can you stand up, Mattias? We need to see the rest of you.”
They examined him together, identified bruises and old wounds that had healed long ago. “It is the saliva of werewolves that carry the infection into the bloodstream,” explained the hunter. It was rudimentary knowledge, but who knew what superstitions ran wild in a small, rural town like this? “And we have not found any bite marks. So he is well. Or as well as one can be after a predator attack of any kind. You can take care of him while I get his wife.”
A few moments later, after the reunion of husband and wife, Hector approached the clergyman on the porch. “He was not infected.”
The clergyman sighed, relieved. “Thank you, hunter.”
“It is a little early to thank me yet,” Hector replied. “There is still a werewolf somewhere close.”
“But you will help us with that too, won’t you?”
“Yes.” Hector rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ll go out after sunset. But first I’ll eat and get ready.”
“Your horse is being cared for, and your bags have been brought to the inn,” said the clergyman.
“Thank you.” Not all of them. He never let anyone take his weapons.
It was not a long walk to the inn, a two storey building with low, wooden ceilings. The ground floor was a tavern, and a sweet smell of food and beer wafted through the room. A number of curious and slightly anxious glances followed Hector when he sat down on a bench as far in the back of the room as he could without appearing suspicious. A couple of men looked like they had been sitting there all day and not been stingy with the beer expenses. One person in the corner seemed to be a fellow traveller. He was bent over a map that he studied while he picked at some kind of porridge with a spoon. And the last two people in the room must have wandered straight in from tending to the fields surrounding the town. They did a poor job of hiding their glances towards Hector’s rifle.
The reactions to a hunter in small towns like this were always a little strained. In some places, people even seemed scared. As if he would attract more werewolves than he would kill, or as if he would accuse innocent people of being infected and execute them on the spot. But in most places he was met with reactions such as these. People praised his work and thought that he could merrily saunter directly from chatting at the dinner table to slinging his guns at a wolf. They were scared, had questions, wanted safety. But Hector was not here to pat their heads and tell them that the big, bad wolf would go away soon. He was here to do his job, and his job demanded concentration.
Hector looked up from his meal. “Yes?” One of the farmers had gathered her nerve to speak to him.
“Is it true that Mattias Freihausen was bitten by a werewolf?”
Hector tore a piece of bread off the loaf on the plate and weighed it in his hand. “No. Attacked, yes. But bitten, no. He will be fine.”
“So he isn’t …”
The farmers exchanged relieved looks. “What about the wolf, then?”
Hector put the bread into his mouth and chewed before he answered. “I take care of it tonight.”
The two farmers lifted their mugs. “Cheers to that! Have a good hunt!”
“Thank you.” Hector raised his mug too and drank. The two drunkards joined in on the toast. The traveller looked a bit confused and then lifted his mug. Perhaps he didn’t even speak German. In theory, any of these people could be a werewolf. But none of them had attacked Mattias, for it was not full moon yet, and no one turned back and forth like that. There was a werewolf somewhere outside the town, and Hector would find it.