Hector’s room was just up a creaky staircase. It had a good view of the main street. The church was a stone’s throw away, and beyond it he could make out Mattias’ home squatted between a row of other wooden houses. The hunter’s horse was being taken care of in the stable, and Hector was ready to wait for nightfall. Well, almost. Hector pulled off his boots and socks. He needed a bath after the long ride on the dusty road, and now he reeked of food and beer too. Like this, a werewolf’s senses would detect him at a distance. He unbuckled his belt and took off his braces and shirt. For a moment he hesitated, then bent down to pick up his pipe and the pouch of tobacco from his bag. He had time for it. A horse carriage rolled past him on the street below as he sat down on the window sill. Whatever its cargo, something rattled loudly. Hector breathed in, then exhaled a cloud of smoke. It was pleasantly cool in here in the shade. He closed his eyes. Very good. Relaxation for the body and the mind.
A little while later he put away the pipe. The bath was on the other side of the corridor outside his room. Hector took a towel that was waiting for him on the bed and draped it around his waist. Just in case he ran into a lady out there. No reason to embarrass anyone. But he met no one, and soon he was standing in front of two tubs full of water.
Having the place to himself suited him fine. Even when people didn’t ask, it wasn’t hard to read the questions on their faces. Yes, werewolves had caused those scars. Everyone had scars, but in his line of work, it was normal to have a few infirmities at his age. So far he had been lucky, aesthetically as well as for practical purposes. He had all his limbs, and the worst injuries were not visible to the general public. They were on his back and shoulder. There had been a few close calls over the years. But hopefully he had learnt not to be stupid. He had great plans of living to see forty at the very least. Others had not been so lucky. Hector stretched. No use thinking about that. He was on his own now, and he was better off this way. He bent down and put the tips of his fingers into the tub. The water was almost too hot, just below that temperature when it’s impossible to tell if it’s hot or cold. He washed and rinsed thoroughly, making certain that no smell of sweat nor soap lingered, then turned to the cold water and held his breath in order not to gasp when he poured it over himself.
He wrapped the towel around his body once more and went back to his room. It was time to get ready. He sat down on the bed and picked up his revolver, checked it and loaded it, swirled the chamber around to make sure that everything was in order. Then he went through the same procedure with the rifle. So far, so good. And dusk was falling outside. It was time to get started.
All hunters probably had their rituals and routines. Hector once knew someone who prayed before every hunt. He had known another who claimed that it was impossible to concentrate unless you recently had an ejaculation. A third preached abstinence of every kind. Hector preferred to be alone, first and foremost. He needed to prepare, to wake up his senses and his every muscle before the hunt. And then he thought of something funny or positive like Stephan had taught him years ago. Something he looked forward to no matter how insignificant it was. Smoking good tobacco. Getting a new pair of trousers from the tailor. Seeing a particular friend again. Hector settled on that today. There was one whom he hoped to see quite soon. When this mission was over, he was heading south to see if anything was afoot in the villages in that area. It would be a shame not to go to Darmstadt for a brief visit on the way.
He fastened the bracers around his wrists. The inner layer was made of leather and the outside was solid silver. A discreet pattern was embossed around the edges, but Hector did not wear them for decoration. They served as protection in several ways and had certainly not been cheap. If everything else failed, they could be recast into ammunition.
Dressed and armed, Hector went downstairs again. The owner of the inn lifted his hand in a greeting and opened his mouth to speak. Hector gave him a glance that made it clear that now was not the time to discuss the weather or anything else of that sort. Once out on the street, he put on his hat and strode past the church. There were probably people staring after him now, but he never gave them the opportunity to disturb or stop him.
He could have gone by horseback, but Hector wanted to begin his search for the werewolf by the road where Mattias had been attacked. If he did not find the creature tonight, he would continue tomorrow and go further, look for a cave or a burrow during the day. The chatter of horse carriages and people talking faded away behind him as he walked and dusk turned into night. Out here it was nothing like the summer nights in Frankfurt where it never seemed to get completely dark, nor completely silent. The road that led him away from the town was narrow and flanked on one side by a ditch and on the other by hardy thicket. A vague smell of stale water and dry gravel wafted towards him on a faint breeze.
There was a number of ways to go about a job such as this. He usually began in this fashion, and if the wolf didn’t bite … He made a face at his unintentional pun. Well, hopefully there wouldn’t be any biting involved at all. But if he didn’t find the werewolf, if he could not track it due to weather conditions or other complications, then there were other methods. Often the smell of a freshly killed animal was a good bait to lure out a predator. Wolves were not scavengers as such, but they didn’t mind sinking their teeth into a carcass. Werewolves were a little more picky, but the smell would attract them too.
Hector’s eyes were growing used to the darkness. He could make out the shape of each of the plants around him now. The road brought him east, and it would take more than a day on horseback to reach the nearest human settlement of a considerable size in that direction. If there were a werewolf, it would stay close to this town with its possible prey. He studied his surroundings. Mattias was attacked close to the town, and the beast must have come from somewhere. The vegetation was more dense to the right. Good. The trees could easily hide a wolf … And yes, indeed the plants had been trampled by the side of the road. Branches had been broken off and were all bent the same way. Something had passed though. Hector crouched. There was no smell of sap from the plants, nor of a predator, so it could not have happened recently. But it could still be what he was looking for. He stepped through the thicket, following a trail of downtrodden grass and thistles.
The scrub grew thicker within a few minutes. This was a good place for an animal to … He stopped in his tracks and grabbed his rifle. Something had moved in the forest. A branch had snapped in two, and it was too big to only be a sleeping bird that he had disturbed. It probably was not a heavyweight hare, either. How far away was it? No more than fifteen paces. Hector cocked the hammer of the rifle, knelt on the ground, and lifted the weapon to his shoulder. He was ready. It could come out of hiding now.
Minutes passed. Hector moved his toes and fingers slowly to make sure the blood circulation was not cut off. And waited. A light breeze bent the brim of his hat now and then. An insect circled and landed on his hand. It took its time to explore it with tiny, assessing feet and antennae, sometimes folding out its wings to keep its balance or rapidly change its course. Somewhere far behind him, probably back in the town, a dog barked. Then another branch snapped, this time closer to him. Hector took a slow, deep breath. Wait. There was something between the trees, right next to … He had a glimpse of a furry body. A big animal with long, thin legs and antlers appeared in front of him. A deer. Not a wolf. Hector was about to relax the finger on the trigger when he sensed movement behind him.
He managed to turn around, rifle still at the ready, when a big animal, which was absolutely not a deer, came tearing towards him at breakneck speed. He heard the sound of the deer fleeing in panic behind him as he aimed. It was too close. Much too close. At this distance, he would have preferred his revolver or even the hunting knife, but there was no time. He fired. Hitting any large animal this close was not difficult, but it was almost impossible to hit it with precision at the speed it was going. The werewolf let out a wail, a cry of anger and pain that sounded chillingly like a scream. It crashed straight into him and hit the barrel of the rifle with such force that it was shoved into his shoulder even harder than from the recoil. Hector was violently pushed aside and had no time to block the impact before the side of his head collided with a tree trunk.
It was impossible to tell for how long he had been lying on the ground. But what mattered was that the werewolf wasn’t gnawing away on his neck and that he was able to get up. Hector gritted his teeth and forced his hand to reach out for the rifle on the ground. Its encounter with this shoulder had made his whole arm almost numb, but he managed to pick up the weapon and then get back to his feet. Where was the werewolf now? Why had it changed its mind? Did it think that he was dead? That made no sense. He looked at the ground around him. Ah, there. A trail of blood told him that the beast had fled, run away in the same direction that it had come from. He had most likely wounded it badly enough for it to give up on him and try to escape instead.
He put a new cartridge into his rifle, narrowing his eyes in an attempt to focus and fumbling badly before he managed to fit the projectile properly into the chamber. If Peter had been here, he would have told Hector to lie down for a moment until this blasted nausea subsided, and he would kindly berate the hunter for not taking better care of himself, although they both knew that accidents happened in his line of work and were really only relieved that he was not more seriously injured. Hector lifted the rifle and began to follow the dark traces on the ground. The patches were still wet when he touched one with the tip of his boot. That was good. He forced himself to keep his breath measured and tried to traverse the forest without a sound.
Only a couple of minutes passed, but it felt like an eternity before he saw the werewolf. It was lying in a pool of its own blood, taking short, wheezing gulps of air. It stared up at him and whined. At that moment it almost looked more like than a sick puppy than a murderous beast. Hector didn’t particularly like that thought, but it was better than the alternative that he always had to keep so far in the back of his head that it didn’t surface. He studied it for a moment, making sure. Ordinary people would not be able to see much of a difference, but the grey animal was bigger than a natural wolf, and its paws had that strange, elongated fifth claw.
He aimed again, this time properly. The bullet hit the wolf right between the eyes, and the animal fell quiet immediately.
All built-up tension left him, and the blood drained from his head. Hector took a few steps back and then sat down on the ground a couple of paces from the dead werewolf. He pulled up his legs and leaned forward to rest his damp forehead against his knees. The recoil of the second shot had made the pain in his shoulder even worse and his head was pounding. But it was over. The job was done. He just needed to sit here for a short while. This was nothing. He would get up in a moment, get his hunting knife and cut off the wolf’s head. Then he would return to the town. In the morning he would tell the local authorities that it was done and be well on his way south. From here on it would be a quiet trip. He had no other reports to follow up on and probably would not see another werewolf before full moon. Probably.