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Aconitum

By mhowalt All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Chapter 16

Hector had expected some kind of trouble, but when the stranger asked him about his companion, the question still caught him off guard. “My dog?” the hunter repeated while his mind was piecing together what was going on.

“Yes, I saw you out there earlier today,” the man persisted. “Riding alone with a dog. I was working in the field.”

Hector forced a smile onto his face. Oh, damn. How was he going to get out of this one? He could deny that it was him. Or he could make up a story about the dog and where it was now.

Or he could play the hand he had been dealt a little better and do what he was authorised to do. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at the man. The smiled faded from his face, and he raised an eyebrow. “Why are you asking about my dog?”

“I’m just surprised that it’s not here. And now your partner is sitting there …” The man nodded in the direction of Royer. Yes, he had undoubtedly put two and two together. If he had reached four, Hector was not certain, but there was definitely an equation in his mind.

“You are asking an awful lot of questions,” Hector continued. “Why?”

The man narrowed his eyes. “We don’t see a lot of hunters around here.”

“No, I gathered,” Hector caught the comment. He put on an expression that hopefully conveyed that he was quite unsatisfied with the lack of respect in this town. “But since we are talking, I will gladly satisfy your curiosity. What is it that you want to say? What is it, more specifically, that you are trying to tell me? Or accuse me of?”

Finally the man looked startled. “I’m not accusing you …”

“Really?” Hector followed up heatedly. “Because it certainly sounds like it. You have been staring at us since we came in, and these questions of yours are more than a little disturbing. So …” He leaned closer to the man’s face with both palms on the table. “What exactly are you accusing me of?”

The man pulled back, exactly like Hector had hoped he would. “Nothing. Nothing at all, hunter. I was curious. That’s all … I’m not accusing anyone of anything.”

At least not a hunter who looked like he wanted to punch him in the face and who may one day be his only hope of salvation. “Good. Then I’ll get back to my dinner and my fellow hunter. Good evening.”

“G… Good evening, hunter,” came the satisfactorily meek reply.

Hector turned on his heel and marched back to Royer.

“What was wrong?” Royer asked under his breath.

Hector sat down and leaned towards him. “Smile, Royer,” he mumbled.

An artificial smile found its way to Royer’s lips. “But why?”

The hunter shook his head and laughed, pretending that he was really amused. “Because the man over there was convinced that I have something to hide. I have it under control now.” He said it so quietly that no one else would be able to hear it. Now the man would think that he had returned to his partner and that they were laughing about how stupid he was. It was not particularly nice of him, but Hector was not going to defend why he was taking a werewolf-like creature on a trip. Not here, and not today.

When they had finished eating, Hector and Royer went upstairs to their room. It was small and insignificant and looked like the majority of rooms that Hector had frequented on trips like this. Although it was safe to say that no other trip had ever been like this one.

“Are we going to get into trouble with that man?” Royer asked when the door had closed behind them.

Hector stopped his undressing routine and looked at his companion. So far he was still a man, but Hector assumed that he would be sleeping as a wolf. He seemed to prefer that. “No. But if we run into him again, then leave it to me.”

Royer nodded. “Thank you.”

“No need to thank me. I’m doing my job. It’s getting you back to Frankfurt safely.” He pulled his vest over his head and tossed it over the back of a chair in the corner. “Yes?” he added because Royer was studying him.

“You have a lot of scars,” said Royer and began to take off this clothes too.

“That’s part of the job too in a way.” Hector shrugged. Peter once told the hunter that he would make a map of his body with the many injuries that he’d suffered over the years. He wasn’t entirely certain if it were a joke. He hoped that it was. Hector didn’t look worse than most of the people who had been hunters for so long, but to people like Royer … Yes, Royer’s body was remarkably clean. He was almost naked now, and the stitches that Hector had adorned his thigh with seemed to be the absolutely worst injury on his body. The rest were what one would expect regular people to have. They were in slightly different places, though. Hector wondered whether it was because wolves didn’t fall in the same way as humans. Who didn’t have scars on their knees or elbows from tripping over their own feet when they were playing as children? Royer didn’t.

“These,” continued Royer and stepped closer, pointing. “What are those?”

Hector hesitated for a moment.The young man was indicating two long scars that came over his shoulder and across the collarbone. Normally he didn’t talk about that particular injury. People could easily get suspicious. Get the wrong idea. But Royer of all people would trust him. “Werewolf,” he said.

“When?”

“It’s a long time ago. Almost ten years,” Hector brushed it off. Seven. He had no doubt exactly when it had happened.

Royer looked at him with the expression that he wore when he was trying to sense what Hector was thinking or feeling. He did not pursue the matter now, but he would at some point, the hunter knew. And he would have to explain it then. Most of his scars had been caused by werewolves in one way or another. He had been scratched by their claws a number of times. But Royer was right. That injury had been far more serious. “Let’s go to bed,” he suggested. “I’m tired, and we have a long ride ahead of us tomorrow.”

When Hector used to travel with other hunters, they normally preferred to have a room each. He had only slept in the same room as Stephan a handful of times. Whenever they could get two rooms, they both preferred to have some time to themselves. There had been just one other with whom Hector had slept more often than not.

It had begun on a night after a close call. They were both young, not even thirty, and they had both been a lot more shocked than any of them were able to admit. They had laughed, a little too loudly, and for a little too long. They hugged and patted each other’s backs, and Hector fished his hat out of a pool of mud, and then they laughed a bit about that too. They had gotten away with a few bruises and washed off the blood and the dirt in a small lake where they then ended up fencing with reedmace. Hector had forgotten what had started the battle, but he did recall the sensation of being slapped across the face with a wet reedmace.

Afterwards they returned to the closest town and got very drunk. There wasn’t much else to do. They could not talk about how fatally the hunt could have ended. In the end, they realised that they couldn’t pay for rooms at the inn, but they were offered to stay for free. After all, they had just saved a lot of innocent people. They not-so-gracefully accepted the kind offer, but were too embarrassed to take two rooms.

Subsequently, Hector discovered that he rather enjoyed Tomas’ company before they fell asleep. It was soothing after a hard mission. Made him calm down. So when Tomas suggested that they may as well split a room and save the money in the future and maybe treat themselves to a few drinks or better food, Hector immediately agreed. It wasn’t all that odd. They were two hunters travelling together. They were there for each other and depended on knowing each other to survive. Stephan had never been Hector’s equal, but he felt that Tomas was, and as such they became closer than lovers.

***

Something was wrong in Eberfeld. There hadn’t been any sign of uneasiness amongst the travellers they had met in the vicinity, but Hector noticed it the moment they entered the town. His hand rested on the revolver on his hip. He could not quite determine the source of the unrest, but he was happy that Royer was perched on the Friesian’s back right now. Then he knew where he had his travelling companion, and he could slap the horse’s hindquarters and send them both to safety if he needed it.

“What is it?” Royer asked. Of course he had noticed. If not through the same means as Hector, then he had no doubt caught onto it through him.

“We’ll see. Act normal,” Hector replied under his breath. What was he sensing? There was something about the lack of people in the fields around the town. About the oppressive atmosphere that wrapped itself around them the moment they entered the town. It was more than ordinary respect or curiosity at seeing a hunter. Hector did not follow his own order. Instead, he conjured the air of authority and confidence that a situation of this kind dictated. Royer needed to pretend that nothing was out of the ordinary because he was not used to this. He was no hunter and knew little of Hector’s work. Yes, work. Other people’s despair, confusion, grief … His work.

A woman came briskly down the main street towards them. She was wearing a simple, but well made dress and had her hair in a practical bun. “Thank God,” she said and inclined her head at them. Hector touched the brim of his hat and stopped his horse with the other hand. “I don’t know how you made it this quickly, but thank God.”

Hector smiled politely. “We are travelling through,” he explained. “And we have not been informed of the situation here.”

The woman looked at them confusedly for a moment. “No, of course … No one had the time to contact you yet. It only happened last night.”

“Werewolf?” Hector said although the answer was obvious.

The woman nodded. “Yes. I am the doctor’s assistant. There was an attack last night. But even though you were not called here, you are going to help us, aren’t you?”

Hector shot Royer a glance. He did not look scared. Just a bit surprised and a little hesitant. “Of course. Who do I talk to?” Hector asked.

“The doctor. The body is with him and he has talked to the people who found the victim.”

Hector had been in this village before, but it was now a couple of months ago. There had been no problems then, and he had just passed through. That was part of the reason why he had taken another route on his way from Darmstadt to Kleinburg and also why he was going back this way. That’s how being a hunter worked. They had to be there when they were needed if they possibly could. Even if they were travelling with a wolf man and had hoped not to encounter any obstacles. “Very well,” Hector said. “Will you kindly inform the doctor that I will be there shortly? We need to find a place for the horse and our equipment.”

“Of course,” the woman said. “And thank you.”

She hastily went in one direction while Hector led his horse in the other.

“Are we …”

“Wait,” Hector said. It was rude to cut Royer off like that, but he needed to make certain that things were happening in the right order and that no one overheard them talking about private matters.

They found the stables and left Roan there. Then they walked through the town to the inn in silence while Hector made sure to keep his weapons where concerned inhabitants could easily spot them. Everybody they met looked upset and praised them for being there already.

The inn was rather busy. Apparently a party of six was travelling through and were now very eager to move on after hearing about the werewolf attack. When finally he and Royer were alone in a room at the inn, Hector gratefully closed the door behind them. “Alright,” he said and slumped into the chair in the corner.

Royer stood still, waiting for orders, until Hector motioned for him to sit down on the bed.

“I need to take care of this. The plan was to get to Frankfurt as soon as possible, but as a hunter, it is my obligation …”

“You don’t need to apologise or explain,” said Royer. “I know. It’s your job. Just like it was your job to find me.”

Hector ran both of his hands through his hair. “Yes. Good. I will see what needs to be done. I’ll leave some money here with you to buy food and drink. But don’t leave the inn.”

“Am I not going with you?” Royer asked. His eyebrows rose and Hector had no doubt that his ears would have drooped a little if he had been in his wolf shape.

“No,” Hector said. “I can’t take responsibility for you on a mission. You are safe here.”

“But I can defend myself. I am a wolf, remember?” said Royer as if Hector could forget that.

The hunter shook his head. “I know. But you cannot change your shape here. And …” He stood up again and grabbed his bag to look for money for Royer and the things that he needed for himself. “The first thing I have to do is to inspect a dead body. I need to talk to people, and I have my own way of doing things. It will be faster if I’m alone. And I have no legal right to bring you along. I’m sorry, but you need to stay here. I’ll tell people that you are a hunter in training, but that you have been injured so I will take care of this task on my own.”

Royer looked like a dog who wanted to put his tail between his legs and growl a little. But all he said was, “I understand.”

“I’ll be back. I will check if it really is a werewolf. If it is, I will hunt, and before that I need to get ready. So I will be back here and let you know what’s going on before that. Yes?”

“Alright. Goodbye, then,” Royer said.

Hector smiled and only barely kept himself from reaching out to pat Royer’s head. “Don’t worry,” he said instead. “I’ll try to be quick.”

And he needed to, he thought to himself on the way out. It was not long until full moon. According to Royer, he retained his human thoughts and emotions and had control of himself. Hector hoped that it was true, but what guarantee did he have? Even if it were true, Royer would be a wolf without the ability to turn human for a couple of days. Travelling in such a state and without any protection would be mad. They had to reach Frankfurt before that.

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