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Chapter 23

“And a pigeon arrived with a report this morning. There was an attack near Gersfeld the day before yesterday.” Jacques Cloutier turned and pointed at the map pinned to the wall behind him so that the assembled hunters in the meeting room could see what he was talking about. It was a few day’s ride away from Frankfurt at a reasonable speed. “Unfortunately we don’t have anyone in the area already already, so they will have to wait for us to get there. There have been sightings of two werewolves, but we cannot be certain if there are actually two. One was at the last full moon, and the recent attack is said to be a different wolf. We need at least two people on the job.”

Tomas looked at Hector and cocked his head. They had been home for a couple of weeks now and were both getting restless. Patrolling the immediate area around Frankfurt was not that exciting. Hector nodded in agreement. “We’ll take that one,” Tomas called out and raised his hand so the chairman of the board knew who had spoken.

Jacques Cloutier nodded and put his pen to the paper on the table in front of him. “Tomas Beckenstahl and Hector Rothenberg … Very well. When can you leave?”

“Give us half an hour,” Tomas said.

“Tomorrow morning, then. Collect the the payment for your expenses when you leave.” The chairman handed the paper to the board member at the table next to him. “We also need someone to head to the area around Koblenz. It’s just a routine patrol.”

No one reacted. That was the kind of mission that no one really wanted. Finally one of the older hunters agreed to take it. His new apprentice, Meike, had yet to go with him on any kind of mission, so it made sense to take her for a simple one to begin with. Hector noticed her looking quite happy when the mission was assigned to the two of them and smiled at her through the room.

“Finally … Meilstadt. We have reports of attacks on cattle. The inhabitants have seen wolves in the area, but we don’t know if they are werewolves. We need two on the job just to be safe.”

Louis waved his hand on behalf of himself and his partner. “Now that Hector and Tomas have taken ours,” he said.

The other hunters laughed.

“We’ll fight you for it,” Tomas offered.

“No, you can have Gersfeld. We’ll ride with you some of the way,” Louis said.

“Gentlemen, if you will arrange the details later,” Jacques Cloutier admonished.

His next words were lost on Hector as he mentally went through the list of things he needed to do before they left. He was always ready to go on a short notice, so it was not a lot. He only needed to pack a few things and check his weapons.

The four hunters met at sunrise and made their way to the stables. They were still sleepy and saddled their horses in silence, but as soon as they were riding through the gates of Frankfurt, they all seemed to wake up at once. Hector almost sighed in relief. They were on the road again. Road, sweet road. He had been home too much this year after breaking his right arm in a stupid accident in the spring. It had kept him in Frankfurt for around a month. Tomas had left him a few times to go on missions alone or with other hunters, and Hector had almost begged him to come along in the end. But Peter had been relentless and Tomas had bluntly stated that he did not want to bring along a cripple. So instead he had chopped wood with his left hand, practised shooting with his left hand, and dined with his aunt Regina with his left hand.

The first night, the four of them reached a small village. People were staring and gaping at them when they showed up. Hector couldn’t quite decide if he liked it or not. On one hand, it was nice to feel the respect and the gratitude. Sometimes a hunter became so used to doing his job and nothing else. But on the other hand, he really liked just doing his job. He didn’t need admirers to know that he was doing well. Still, it was a strange feeling of power to ride down the main street, four heavily armed riders on large and imposing horses. In that moment, they were invulnerable and immortal. In that moment, they were young and accomplished hunters who were ready to take on any mission and carry it out to perfection.

The next morning, the two pairs parted and wished each other a good hunt. Louis and his partner went one way, and Hector and Tomas went the other. Soon the trip took the hunters through the countryside. Even though he grew up in a different area, these regions always reminded Hector of his childhood. They were so idyllic … Well, there were probably a lot of things that he hadn’t found very idyllic as a child, but now, years later and with the life he led, that was the way it felt to think back.

Tomas couldn’t quite relate to those sensations, Hector knew. He had grown up in the city. Had spent great parts of his childhood on the street and had taken whatever jobs he could get after that. Once he had picked the wrong man’s pocket. Or the right one, depending on the point of view. He was around seventeen at the time. A hunter had grabbed young Tomas’ wrist and instead of reporting the theft to the authorities, he had worked for the money that he had attempted to steal. And then he had stayed with the hunters. At least that was the story he had told Hector once. He did have parents, but they never took an interest in him and he had no wish to tell them what he did these days. He didn’t want them to come running and be proud of him now that he was a hunter, he said, when they had never been before.

Hector’s thoughts were interrupted when a man greeted them from the field where he was working.

“Hello,” Tomas returned conversationally. “Is everything well around here?”

The man nodded. “No werewolves if that’s what you are asking.”

“Mostly, yes,” Tomas replied with a smile. Sometimes they brought letters with them from remote farms to towns or helped out with daily tasks in exchange for a place to spend the night. And since they travelled so much, they could bring news with them as well. How was the harvest back west? Any news about the trading treaties with France? Were there any new plays in the theatres in Frankfurt? News and gossip. Hector usually let Tomas do the talking about those things. He was much better at engaging the audience. Much better at telling a story.

The man invited them to help themselves to a few apples when they passed his house further down the winding gravel road. There was a big barrel outside. They thanked him and continued on their way. Tomas ate all of his apple. Hector gave the core to his horse. Then they continued in silence for a while. If the horses had not been laden with bags and equipment, one of them would have suggested a race. Both geldings were as competitive as their riders. They enjoyed galloping side by side as much as standing next to each other and fan away flies with their tails. The weather was still impeccable, but a dark band of clouds was trekking across the sky over the hills in the distance. The angle of the sun’s rays made it possible to see rain pouring down.

The idyllic countryside gave way to the smell of recent rain and a sensation of tenseness and nervous excitement in Gersfeld. They were greeted by a guard at the town wall. People eyed them with fear and relief. They had definitely come to the right place.

There was a policeman in this town, and he was the one the two hunters needed to talk to. Sometimes an authority figure would mean that things were organised, that people were calmer, and that the task was a little easier. There may indeed be two werewolves, the policeman told them. One of them had only been seen at full moon and never in the town. But the attack that had made the policeman alert Frankfurt had not happened during full moon. It could still be the same wolf, Hector thought to himself. The policeman explained that the victim had been out at night. She had been found the next morning in the street with massive lacerations and had stammered out a story about a big wolf that had attacked her. But it was too late for her. The doctor had seen to her, but all he had been able to do was ease her pain, and she died a few hours later.

Hector nodded at this piece of information. His teeth were clenched. He did not dare look at Tomas right now, but he knew that his friend was entertaining the same thoughts. If werewolf victims weren’t dead … If they had been bitten, the possibility of a cure was slim. Yes, there was medicine, but it was extremely expensive, had to be administered within minutes after the bite, and the chances of surviving the antidote itself were not good if the victim was not in competent hands. So sometimes a local doctor would help the victim in the only way that they knew and end their misery a little quicker.

“Has she been cremated?” Tomas asked.

The policeman cleared his throat. “No,” he said. “Her family insisted on a traditional burial.”

Now Hector and Tomas did exchange glances. “I’m afraid we need to see the grave,” Hector said. Usually people stayed dead when they had been killed, but with werewolf victims, one could never be too certain. They followed the policeman through the town to the church perched on a small hill and through the graveyard. Finally they reached the site.

“Oh, hell,” Tomas mumbled. The grave had been ravaged. Soil and flowers had been pushed aside, and when they cautiously approached, they could see that the coffin had been cracked open.

The policeman grew pale. Hector couldn’t blame him. One of Stephan’s favourite stories had been a cautionary tale of what happened if you didn’t cremate victims, but Hector had never before seen it. Together, he and Tomas investigated the area. There were claw marks and paw prints, inside the lid of the coffin and on the ground around the grave, and it looked like something had been dragged away from the it. But the rain had made the ground muddy and erased half of the paw prints, and the traces disappeared when they reached a rockery at the edge of the graveyard.

“We have seen all that we need at the moment,” Hector told the policeman. “We need to discuss the case, but we will return shortly.” He shot Tomas a glance to make certain that he agreed.

“Yes, thank you for your help,” Tomas said and smiled his most reassuring smile at the pale policeman.

The two hunters watched the policeman leave. Tomas lit his pipe.

“What do you think?” Hector asked. He normally had nothing against graveyards and nothing against investigating gory scenes, but for once he minded.

“I think they should have cremated her,” Tomas said through a cloud of smoke. “She was dead for about a week … I think she came back. As a werewolf. Fought her way out of the coffin and fled.”

Hector nodded in the direction of the marks on the ground. “Alone?”

“Did the werewolf that attacked her come back for her, you mean?” Tomas raised his eyebrows. “Possibly. But is it very likely?”

“I don’t know. What about a third werewolf? I don’t like it. There are slightly too many ifs and possible werewolves around here for my taste.”

“We can take three,” Tomas said. He handed the pipe to Hector.

“Yes,” Hector agreed as he took the pipe. “But at the same time?”

“At the same time? Do you think there are three werewolves waiting for us somewhere? Lying in cahoots and waiting for us to be ambushed? That’s not how it works, Hector.”

No, normally it wasn’t. Hector had to admit that. But he couldn’t help it. Not knowing if they were up against two or three werewolves worried him.

“What do you want us to do? Write Frankfurt and ask for more hunters?” Tomas’ voice had a teasing quality to it now.

Hector sighed and handed back the pipe to him. They really couldn’t sit around and wait while more attacks could take place right under their noses. They needed to start searching.

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