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Aconitum

By mhowalt All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Chapter 10

It was a complicated task. So big that Hector, Stephan and three other hunters had gone together. Allegedly a whole pack of werewolves had attacked a human settlement. At first, the hunters thought it was a case of mass hysteria. Regular, harmless wolves. Or one or two werewolves that had become a whole group in the scared minds. But that was not the case. They took on the first werewolves one at the time, rounding them up individually in the forest. It demanded a lot of steering around trees and hoping for a clean shot, and Stephan was constantly calling out orders to the others. Then they surrounded the rest of the wolves, herded them together to deal with them. It was the first time Hector had seen more than two werewolves together.

It was also the first time he had ever seen another hunter die.

One of the werewolves tore away from the group, oblivious to the bullet grazing its grey fur. It lunged and ripped open the hunter’s throat, and he screamed. Hector had never heard a cry like that before. It was so desperate, so much like an animal. Then he fell silent. But he was still alive. When the fight was over and the werewolves were taken care of, Hector began to make his way to the fallen hunter. But Stephan put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head without a word.

The wounded hunter’s partner knelt on the bloody ground next to him. She bent down and talked to him. Hector didn’t think there came any reply. It must be impossible in his condition. Was he even conscious? His partner kissed his face. Then she stood up, loaded her revolver and shot.

Hector visited Rebekka after a few days. At that point, he had already cried and toasted to the fallen hunter with the others. When he saw Rebekka, he embraced her tightly. She laughed and thought that he was only happy to see her until she saw his face. She wanted to comfort him, tried to take his mind off things. When they slept together, Hector was able to forget what had happened for a while, but it didn’t take long before the image of the maimed hunter entered his thoughts gain.

That night, Hector realised he would never marry Rebekka. He was not certain if it were because he would never put her through that kind of thing, or if it were because she didn’t understand, never could understand, what he had seen and done and how he lived when he wasn’t with her. But he knew that he would never marry her.

He didn’t tell her right away. They weren’t engaged yet. Everybody expected that it would happen soon, but he hadn’t proposed. He wasn’t breaking any vows. So he continued for a while. And then he talked to Stephan about it.

“Why?” the older hunter asked him. They were alone in the dining hall save a small group of hunters in the other end who were celebrating something. It could be a birthday. It could be returning from a hunt.

Hector raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean why?”

“Why not get married? You have enough money to support a wife and a couple of kids.”

Hector bit his lip and fondled his glass of beer for a moment. “You’re not married,” he then said.

“I was married,” Stephan snapped in a way that suggested that Hector was approaching a subject that may cost him a slap across his face. Stephan’s wife had been killed a long time ago by a werewolf. That was why he had become a hunter.

“Yes, but … You haven’t married again.”

Stephan studied him over his beer. “No, Hector, I haven’t. It’s not for me now. Hunting is my calling now. I’ve considered it, but …” He made a half shrug and shook his head. “What I mean to say is that I don’t care what you decide as long as you decide the right thing.”

Hector sucked the foam off his beer and frowned. It did not make much sense.

“There are hunters who get better because they have someone to fight for. And there are hunters who would get too careful if they had someone to come home to. And there are hunters who turn merchants or farmers because they have too much to lose,” Stephan explained. “Which one are you, Hector? I am not going to tell you to get married or not to get married. But I do not want to carry home your dead body because you made the wrong decision.”

It was not the first time they had a conversation like this. There had been variations a couple of times over the last year. Hector didn’t like them, but he knew they were necessary. Stephan did not expect the impossible of him. But he did expect everything that Hector could give. Nothing less. And it was fair because with every year, he would increasingly be trusting his young apprentice with his life.

“I understand,” said Hector. “And I am not marrying her. It would be more than a hindrance than an advantage for me. She doesn’t know how it is, and I can’t … I don’t want to have to choose between her and the hunt someday. Then I’d rather make the choice now.”

Stephan raised his glass in an approving toast.

The opportunity to tell the happily ignorant Rebekka about his decision arose a few weeks later. They were sitting on a blanket on the hillside outside the wall around Frankfurt and were looking at the fields. The grass surrounding them was so tall that no one could see them unless they were a few paces away.

Rebekka was putting her hair into a respectable ponytail. Her cheeks were flushed and her clothes in disarray. “They’re nice,” she said and pointed at some white flowers.

Hector buckled his belt and put the revolver belt around his waist too. He did not go anywhere unarmed. A werewolf could catch him with his trousers down, but it would not get to him unarmed. “Yes,” he said.

“They would be nice in a bridal bouquet,” she went on.

“Yes, I suppose they would.” Hector turned away from her and studied the houses and spires of Frankfurt rising behind the wall. In there was her life, but where was his? Yes, the organisation was situated there, but his life was on the road with Stephan, wasn’t it?

“Hector? What is wrong?” Her arms folded around his neck.

“I … Rebekka …” He untangled himself from her grip and turned towards her again. “We are not going to get married.”

She stared at him in disbelief. As if he had just spat her in the face. “What? What did you say?”

“We are not going to marry.”

“But … Hector, what are you talking about? Of course we are going to marry!” she almost begged. “What is going on? Is there someone else?”

“No. There is not someone else,” he replied. “I … just can’t.”

“Why? Do I disgust you? It really didn’t seem like it a moment ago!” Her voice had crawled up at least half an octave. She was angry. Hector wished she would hit him. It would be much easier to handle than the tears that were no doubt coming.

“No. No, it’s not … I can’t marry you and be a hunter. I have thought about it a lot, Rebekka. But I can’t.”

“Is it because that hunter died?” she asked. “I know the risk, Hector. You can’t decide whether I want to marry a hunter or not. I am telling you that I have considered it too, and I accept how it is.”

Hector looked at the ground. “Yes, but I can’t. I can’t, Rebekka. I have to make a choice.”

“And you are going to choose your stupid rifle over me?”

He finally looked her in the eyes. “Yes.”

She shook her head. Now the tears were coming. “How can you just … How can you be so cold? Don’t you love me?”

Did he? He had thought so. He loved her too much, or he did not love her enough. But there was no reason to dwell on that. “Yes. And I do want to see you …”

Now she laughed. A bitter, barking laugh that twisted her face and exposed her teeth. “On no, Hector. You can’t just tell me that you don’t want to marry me and then expect me to spread my legs when you want it. I have a life too. I want children. And a husband who wants me!”

“But …” In that moment, Hector realised that sometimes you had to accept being the villain. He was the bad guy right now and he couldn’t change that. In fact, it would be easier if he accepted it. Not least for her. She would talk to her friends and her family, and they would all support her and agree that he was no better than the dust she swept off the shelves in the store. That was how it was. And there was nothing to do but to accept it.

***

It was only a few days since the last letter had arrived. How communicative of Hector to start writing him so frequently. Peter thanked the boy for his trouble bringing him the letter. This time the boy smiled at him in a familiar way and peered curiously into the examination room behind him. Peter made a mental note to find out his name.

“I’m sorry for the interruption, Anita,” Peter said to the woman who was sitting on the examination table. He would have to postpone reading the letter.

She shook her head. “Something important, doctor?”

“Nothing that cannot wait,” Peter replied and washed his hands thoroughly before he sat down in front of her on the stool. He took hold of her arm and looked at the elbow. She didn’t flinch. Relief welled into the doctor’s chest. Even though it was years ago now, their start had been shaky. “Can you bend your arm?” he asked.

The hunter bent it slowly. She made a face.

“That’s enough,” said Peter. He only needed to make sure that no tendons or sinews had been severed. “How did it happen?”

“It got a firm hold on me. With its claws,” Anita added.

Peter nodded. He could see that teeth had not made those gashes. After all, he was the leading physician in the biggest hunter organisation in the region. He knew how that looked. The injuries would needed to be worse than these to make it difficult to tell. “Were you alone?” he asked and reached out for the antiseptic solution on the table.

“No. Jakob was there too. He got away without a scratch. And we got the monster.” She cleared her throat. “Sorry.”

“No offence taken.” Peter smiled at her. He put the solution on a piece of cloth. Soon he was done cleaning and threaded the needle. It only took a handful of sutures. “There,” he said. “Keep your arm still for a few days and come back if you have any complications. I will remove the sutures in a week.”

“You’ve said that a few times before, haven’t you?” Anita asked with a grin.

“Yes, I have indeed,” Peter sighed. “You people are giving me plenty of work.” He could not count how many times he had patched some of those hunters up. Hector not least. He could draw a map of that man’s body. Of where he had been injured in one way or another … Peter sent the letter on his table a glance.

“Believe me,” Anita said, “we would stop it if we could.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

She jumped off the table. Her legs were stable, but her movements a little stiff.

“Do you want something for the pain?” Peter asked.

She clenched her fist and then relaxed again. “No. I’ll be fine. I’ll come back if anything happens.”

“And Jakob was unharmed, you said?” Peter asked innocently while throwing away the rest of the thread. He knew that a hunter’s definition of the word did not always match his.

“Yes, he shot it. At a distance, the coward,” she replied with a smile.

Peter nodded. She didn’t mean it. Jakob was no coward. He was amongst the five hunters who were hurt most often. Not because they were clumsy or unlucky, but because they took on the dangerous missions and because they cared so damn much about their work.

Anita left, and Peter turned to the letter from Hector and brought it with him to his office next to the examination room.

He had known Hector for a long time and they were nearly the same age, but Hector had lived with the hunters forever. Had been raised by them. He had never known anything else. Peter was a different matter. He was a doctor in a village some days’ ride from Frankfurt. He had a wife and two children.

He unrolled the letter and sat down at his desk. His tea was still lukewarm, but he didn’t need the heat as much as the components of it. He poured a cup and took a sip. Then he read the letter.

“You’re not wasting your time, Hector,” he murmured afterwards. Hector had managed to seize the wolf, he wrote. There was something slightly triumphant in the tone of the letter, something that Hector’s direct style could not hide. A hunter called Pierre Bissette had caught the wolf, and he had agreed to leaving it in Hector’s custody.

“Agreed to?” Peter considered that. He dearly hoped that it was not Hector-colloquial for having physically twisted the man’s arm to get his will. But it probably was not. Despite popular belief, Hector was capable of being diplomatic when he wanted to be.

The wolf could, the hunter continued in the letter, change its shape at will and it kept its human thoughts and emotions. He could stop in the midst of transformation and stay half wolf and half human. And Hector would be back in Frankfurt with him in less than a week.

Peter put down the letter and took one more mouthful of his herb concoction. This was the single most ground breaking thing that he had heard in a long time. He leaned back in his chair and held up his hands in front of his face for a moment. Then he stapled his fingers and let the tips rest against his lips. There were rumours. There were stories. There were legends of werewolves that for some reason could control the condition. Some speculated that there could be other species of werewolves, some from whom the disease once had come and who didn’t suffer from it themselves. But no one had seen that kind of wolf before. No one knew such a wolf.

If this were indeed true … And it had to be. Hector could be rash, but he would not say something like this unless he had seen it with his own eyes. Peter shook his head. Less than a week? It would bring them close to full moon, but that was not the only reason that Peter felt restless all of a sudden.

He sighed. Hector had not told anyone else yet, had he? Peter rather did not want to be the messenger. Some hunters would not be pleased at all with Hector bringing home such a creature. A lot of them were much more set in their ways. Peter had never met the man, but from what Hector had told him, he was not sure if his old master would have let him do half of the controversial things that he did.

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