“Werewolf?” The question was rather superfluous. When was it not a werewolf? Sera studied Hector in the mirror while she pretended to be busy pouring him a glass of liquid amber. Like that, framed by gilded metal tulips, the hunter looked utterly out of place.
“Um,” he replied without any further explanation. He was slumped in the soft armchair in the corner of the room, the prelude to the bed, as Sera called it, still fully dressed except for his coat and the charmingly unbecoming wreck that he referred to as a hat. He had combed back his thick, brown hair as he usually did, today exposing a nasty abrasion and a fresh bruise blooming darkly around it at his right temple. But he was not as worn and exhausted as she had seen him on some occasions. Didn’t look as if he might collapse on the carpet any moment. He never actually had, though. Sera suspected that the hunter not only possessed enormous amounts of self control, but also the honed skill of knowing exactly how far he should and could push himself. Well, injured or not, he was clean as always. Or probably not always. He spent days at a time on dirty country roads and fought predators in rough terrain in the middle of the night. That undoubtedly constituted hard and messy work. But he found an inn every time he visited Darmstadt and bathed before he came to her. She appreciated that gesture. So did her silk sheets and velvet pillows.
Sera corked the bottle and crossed the floor with the glass in her hand. The full skirt moved about her hips. She smiled.
“Thank you,” Hector sighed. He breathed in the smell of the whisky and raised the glass in a silent toast, then smiled back at her before putting it to his lips.
Sera sat down on his lap and put her arm around his shoulder. From that angle, he would have a marvellous view, and no matter how ridiculously decent and well mannered he tried to appear, he did notice her bosom. The corset ensured that. “Anything interesting going on out there?”
Hector contemplated it. Polite conversation had never been his strong suit. He was too pragmatic for chatting. “The weather is nice,” he said clumsily. “A little too hot for my taste. But it is nice and cool in here.”
“You didn’t have any plans of sweating a little?” Sera asked and moved a bit. The hunter made a half-moan. She had hit the right spot. Of course.
“Yes. I had,” he replied.
She was not entirely sure how many partners he had at the moment. Of course she would hardly be jealous, but she was curious. He never spoke of other women, or men for that matter, and when she asked, his reply always warded her off, almost shyly. There were others. She knew that much, but not anyone that he saw regularly or was planning a future with. No wife or permanent partner who didn’t approve of this. But naturally he had others. A hunter must have a good selection, and a hunter who was lucky enough to be handsome must have an even greater following. It begged the question why he had come here the first time, and although she wasn’t completely certain of that, she knew exactly why he kept coming back.
Sera kissed him. His beard was little more than a scratchy stubble, yet she’d never seen him clean shaven and doubted that he ever was. He kept his beard short and probably had to trim it often. It was funny, really. Hector seemed the type of man who, she expected, would either shave it all off or who couldn’t be bothered at all. But she knew that in spite of his raw and somewhat blunt appearance, he had a touch of vanity in him. She’d asked him about it once and he had answered her, honestly, that it was an advantage to be fairly attractive as a hunter because that way people were friendlier and not scared of you, but it could prove a disadvantage to be too neat because then people may think that you did not earn your living. Perhaps that explained the beard.
Hector downed the rest of the whisky and put his glass on the table. He smiled and returned her kiss.
Afterwards the hunter almost looked asleep, but Sera could hear from his breathing that he was not. Her own pulse must be visible on the side of her neck, and her breathing still came a little quick. She rolled over and rested her head in one palm. A playful smile slowly grew on her lips as she ran a finger down the hunter’s naked torso.
He opened his eyes and looked at her, enquiringly.
“How long are you staying?”
“I leave tomorrow,” he said. Was that a note of regret in his voice? That was flattering. Not that he was prone to absconding right away, but she appreciated it nevertheless.
“Back to Frankfurt? Or are you going somewhere else?”
“I’m on my way south. Just for a few days,” he replied. “It’s been a while since I was in that area. Nothing unusual has been reported, but …”
It was his job to watch and to let people see that the hunters were there if they were needed. Sera leaned in and kissed his chest. It tasted vaguely of salt. “I’m sure there are sometimes werewolves that us ordinary people haven’t noticed.”
“It happens.” His hand began to play lazily with a lock of blond, curly hair that had tumbled over her face during the roll in the proverbial hay.
She didn’t envy him. His job certainly came with perks, and he was a free soul who could go where ever he wanted most of the time. He may enjoy working and travelling on his own … But he had not always been alone. That much she had made him divulge although he almost refused to talk about his past at all. Sera was glad that she didn’t have to do what he did out there. Not only because it was dangerous, but because it was a morally obscure mess. Every time he shot a werewolf, it was technically a person or at least had been one. It was like that for law enforcers who needed to take care of felons, of course, but werewolves added an extra, uncomfortable side to dealing with criminals. No, as happy as she was that there were people like Hector to ensure her safety, Sera did not envy the hunters at all. But this one, her hunter, was good at what he did and faced the moral dilemma head on and with a gun in his hand. They probably needed to be like that.
“And when will I see you again?” she whispered into his ear.
The hunter raised an eyebrow at the suggestive tone of her voice. His greyish green eyes met hers. “Hopefully in not so long,” he replied.
Sera put one leg over his and began to caress it with her foot.
The villages in this area were rarely visited by hunters unless they specifically sent for one. It had taken him several days to get here from Darmstadt, and Hector was met with curiosity when he approached the cluster of houses that was called Kleinburg on the few maps it was even on. At least that was charmingly self-conscious of the inhabitants. Was there even an inn here, or would he have to rely on a family to take him in for the night? Judging by the looks, people did know what he was. And since nobody rushed to him, they probably were not in dire need of his help. This was the last stop on his journey before Hector headed east and then back north to go home to Frankfurt by another route unless something unexpected caught his attention down here.
A wooden sign swung sleepily from rusty chains on one ordinary looking house. The Little Lark, a tavern. He would have a beer there and something to eat and a bed to sleep in, if they had it. In case there had been any sightings of werewolves, the barman would know, or the customers. No reason for him to go about this in an official manner and flash his badge at the priest, the doctor or any other authorities that the village may boast of having.
Hector had only been sitting at the bar for a couple of minutes with his beer when a man noisily dumped a bag on the floor and sat down on the stool next to him.
“Heading south, hunter?”
Hector looked up. There was a certain tone to the question, an almost teasing know-it-all note, that made him study the man for a moment. His clothes were ragged and had been patched up in several places, and his shoes were worn and dirty. Not bad. If anyone possessed more gossip and information than people of Sera’s profession or a barman, then it had to be a man of the road. They caught on to details that other travellers wouldn’t necessarily do because they were used to going from place to place, and because their lives may depend on those details.
“Should I be?” Hector asked. No reason to reveal whether it was his intention or not and whether he had any idea what the vagabond was hinting at if he were indeed hinting.
The other man sized him up. “I would say so.”
“Then maybe I am.” Hector gestured at the barman. A beer for the ragamuffin. “Why don’t you tell me what you know?” Headquarters received reports from all over the district regularly, but they could not possibly know everything. It was ridiculous to expect that they did, but nevertheless people tended to. And did a hunter not know of a particular case, there was always a risk that they would lose credibility.
The vagabond thanked him for the beer and sucked the foam off the top of it. “There’s that werewolf what was captured,” he said, purposefully casually, “in Niedermark. I haven’t seen it myself, but the rumours …”
“It doesn’t seem to be a normal werewolf.”
Hector listened carefully to the man’s tale. Rumour had it that a hunter in Niedermark, a couple of days’ ride south of Kleinburg, had discovered and captured a werewolf, but it was not an ordinary werewolf. No one knew where it came from, but it transformed into a human being and back at will.
There was always gossip, in cities as well as in the countryside. Hector was used to trying to sort tall tales from facts. Often an alleged werewolf was really only a matter of an ordinary wolf on the prowl, and there were examples of crooks who blamed non-existent werewolves for their own crimes. That sort of problem should be left out of Hector’s jurisdiction, thank you very much. But this story was different, and another hunter had apparently caught the creature and kept it locked up. If that was true, his colleague down south must have estimated that there was some truth to the story. Otherwise he would have killed the werewolf already, wouldn’t he?
Hector’s gut feeling and his curiosity quickly overruled his reservations. He needed to go to Niedermark to see what was going on. It would be ground-breaking if there really were a werewolf who could transform when it wanted to. Stories like that were usually fairy tales, stories of someone who knew someone whose uncle’s grandmother’s childhood friend had once caught a glimpse of a mysterious creature. Hector had seen more than a hundred werewolves in the last few decades. The sort that he had killed few days ago was transformed into wolves after being infected and never turned back. Others were only beasts during full moon. But what the vagabond was telling him was something completely different. He had never seen anything like it, and it was not for lack of searching for abnormalities.
Another hunter may have ignored the rumour, filed it under someone’s over-active imagination, but this could be important. If it were true, Headquarters would want to know. Perhaps even more importantly, Peter would want to know. He would appreciate Hector looking into it and, perhaps, even bringing back the werewolf. But he had to hurry. He had no idea who the other hunter was or if that hunter would kill the werewolf when he had examined it or bring it somewhere else before Hector reached Niedermark.
Hector thanked the man of the road for this help and set out to write a few letters. Hopefully even a village as small as this would have carrier pigeons. That way his message would reach the other hunter before he did. And then he needed to send a letter to Frankfurt. He was supposed to be heading home now and not in the direction the far-away Alps in the search of a mysterious werewolf that may or may not exist.