Relief washed through Hector when he saw the familiar spires of Frankfurt in the distance. For a while, it had almost seemed like the world conspired against him to ever reach home. A ridiculous idea, but getting back from Niedermark with Royer had taken longer than anticipated, and they had run into a number of complications on the way.
It was almost dark when they reached the city. Royer was perched on the Friesian’s back. Hector had insisted on letting him ride the last bit of the journey although Royer was still awkward in a saddle. It was a way of making it obvious to others that Royer was a guest and a friend. The wolf man clutched the saddle with one hand, but he had a lot of things on his mind now and was staring at their surroundings as if he had never seen such a big city before. He probably hadn’t.
“Welcome to Frankfurt,” Hector said.
“Thank you.” Royer’s voice was very small and timid.
“It will be fine,” Hector added and gave Roan’s neck a decisive pat. But he couldn’t blame Royer for hesitating now. To minimise the impact of the city and the risk of running into other people, he had chosen the most discreet gate that he could. It was situated next to the hunters’ headquarters and was used mainly by them and their staff. The guard greeted them, and Hector touched the brim of his hat and wished her a good evening. A moment later, they were in the courtyard, and Royer dismounted like Hector had taught him. He looked alert, but he was standing firmly on the cobblestones. He wasn’t as scared as he was suspicious.
There wasn’t anyone in sight, but Hector assumed someone was watching them. That was custom here. Somewhere behind a curtain in the main building, a hunter would be keeping an eye on arrivals to see if it a colleague returned safely from the hunt. Somewhere a foundry worker was heading home and glancing in their direction, or a stable hand was studying them from the barn. Or a doctor could be regarding from the hospital wing. Hector looked up at that thought, but he couldn’t see Peter peering out of the window. For some reason he had almost expected to.
Returning home now brought back more memories than it usually did. They gathered around Hector like old companions. His own first impression of the place when the hunters had brought him here in a daze of distress. The first time he returned from a hunt with Stephan, grinning with pride and righteous bloodthirst. When he and Anita brought Peter home wrapped in a blanket. When he returned alone after Tomas’ death … He shook his head to make the memories dissipate. Royer was his concern now.
He led Roan to the stable, removed his bridle and saddle and took care of him. Then he thanked the loyal horse for his efforts, grabbed his bags and showed Royer to the main building. It was too late to introduce Royer to anyone or begin making arrangements, so he took the easiest route upstairs, down the corridor and past a number of closed doors. Behind each of them was a sleeping hunter, unless of course the occupant was out hunting. He stopped in front of his own quarters and opened the door.
“Is this where you live?” Royer asked. He was looking around the room.
Hector followed his gaze. It wasn’t special. It looked very much like one would expect from the home of a hunter who spent more than half his time on the road. He had what he needed here. A bed, a table, a two chairs, a wardrobe, a few shelves with books, liquor and a couple of glasses. And the most important thing, the locked trunk where he kept spare weapons and equipment. He supposed he could furnish the place more lavishly, but what was the point? “Yes, when I’m in Frankfurt,” he replied. “You don’t mind sleeping here tonight, I hope? It’s too late to find you a room.”
“That is fine,” replied Royer with an uncomfortable smile. It wasn’t the thought of sleeping in Hector’s room that bothered him. They had slept together several times. It was the whole situation. Actually being here. If Hector felt strange about finally being home with Royer, it was probably nothing compared to how Royer felt.
“Please make yourself at home,” continued Hector. “Take of your shoes, relax on the bed, look in the books if you want to.” He shrugged helplessly. How could he make Royer feel comfortable in this new and strange environment? “I’m going to find us something to eat.”
There was always someone in the kitchen regardless of the time of the day. Hunters returned from their journeys at all hours, and even though hot meals were served at certain times, it was impossible for all of them to be there for practical reasons. Hector went through the empty dining hall to the kitchen and found a cook who was putting away some bread.
She looked up at him and smiled. “Welcome back, hunter.”
“Thank you, Clara.” He smiled back at her and felt routine behaviour starting to work again in the presence of a familiar face. “Can you spare some food and beer for a couple of hungry hunters?”
“Of course. Take what you need, Hector.”
There was leftover bread and chicken from a meal earlier in the day, and Hector began to gather a small supply for himself and Royer.
Hector cursed under his breath. She knew very well that he normally worked alone and had left Frankfurt alone. “Yes, well … A hunter and his friend. I brought a young man back with me. He lost his family.” It was vague, but it wasn’t a lie.
Clara nodded in understanding. Like many others in headquarters, she could sympathise easily with that kind of loss. Her husband had left her with two small children years ago when a werewolf killed him. Hector had known her since she arrived and had grown closer to her in the past few years.
“Here.” The cook handed him a small cake. “A little welcoming gift for your friend.”
“Thank you,” said Hector with a grin. “He will appreciate that.”
He returned to his room and found Royer balanced on the edge of his bed with a book in his hands. It was one that Louis had lent Hector. He hadn’t managed to read it yet and sincerely hoped that it didn’t contain too much offencive material.
“I have bread and cheese and cold chicken,” he announced and put what he had plundered on the table. “And beer and some water if you prefer that. And a cake. It’s for you specifically from our cook.”
“Thank you. But why?” asked Royer and closed the book.
“To welcome you. Now, let’s eat, have a bath and get some sleep. Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to Peter.”
Royer still seemed hesitant, but Hector was glad to see him eat and grow more content with every bite. He did appreciate the cake a lot.
An hour later, they were both full and clean, and Royer had turned back into a wolf and curled up next to the bed on the blanket that Hector had found for him. Hector was sitting beside him on the floor. He took a mouthful of beer. There was plenty since Royer hadn’t wanted any. And Hector didn’t want it to go to waste.
It was far too late to go back now, Hector knew, and he certainly didn’t want to, but he couldn’t help considering what he had gotten himself involved in this time. He had brought home a wolf. Again. Not even a werewolf like Peter, but a conundrum of a wolf man.
He glanced at the sleeping wolf and almost reached out to pet him. But instead he took another mouthful of beer. Getting to Frankfurt was only the beginning. The board would at least demand an explanation of the expenses that had come up on what was supposed to be a routine mission. And the other hunters … As far as they were concerned, they killed werewolves. That was their job. Once in a while they would grant one sanctuary like they had done with Peter, and that they accepted too as part of the job. Those werewolves were people with a function in society who just needed to be locked up once a month not to harm others or themselves.
But how would they take the news of a man who turned into a wolf and still retained his thoughts and personality? Hector imagined that some of the other hunters would take it well. They may be a little suspicious at first, much like he had been, but they would be curious and open. They would see possibilities in such a creature and would realise that Royer was a nice person when they met him. Others would accept and respect Royer’s presence because they respected Hector. They may not have done the same in his place, but they would trust his judgement. Peter’s verdict when he had talked to Royer would make them trust Royer, too. And the rest …
Hector sighed to himself. There would be one or two who wouldn’t readily accept this. He hoped they wouldn’t make too much of a fuss when they saw that their colleagues and friends didn’t complain, but he had a feeling that it may still come to a confrontation. But that was all right. He was one of the best hunters and people respected him. They would accept it eventually. He vouched for Royer. He had made a choice and agreed to help Royer, and even though the wolf man may not be fully aware of the implications, it was an important choice. Hector was under obligation now, in the same way that he had been obligated to Peter and still was in some ways. In the same way that Stephan had been obligated to him. If you saved someone, they may be indebted to you, but you also created a connection that could not be severed before the person who had been saved wanted it.
He took another slow mouthful of beer. What was Royer going to do now? Would he fit right in and become a part of the organisation? They always needed more hands around here. Or would he fulfil his part of the deal and let Peter examine him and then leave? Hector supposed that the wolf man could build a life for himself somewhere in or outside Frankfurt or even go back to attempt to find his people.
Hector closed his eyes. It was no use trying to predict the future. He was going to defend Royer and help him to the best of his abilities. And then Royer would make his own choices. For now the important thing was introducing Peter and Royer to each other.
The next morning, Hector decided to keep Royer’s presence discreet until he had met Peter and possibly the board. So they had their breakfast in Hector’s room, and Hector planned on going through the least busy places to the hospital wing with Royer afterwards.
“This doctor … Peter,” Royer began while drinking a cup of tea. “Why is he so interested in me? What does he think I can do for him?”
“Well, he has seen werewolves before,” Hector said, “but you are different.”
“Yes,” agreed Royer.
“He hopes that you can help him on the right track with his research. He is always looking for ways to improve medicine against werewolf bites, and he is always trying to understand how everything works …” Hector shrugged. He wasn’t a doctor. Peter could explain it much better than he could. All he knew was that Peter had been looking for an opportunity like this for years. By examining Royer, the doctor hoped to learn something new about werewolves, about Royer’s kind. It may help him personally and help him aiding a lot of people. “Talking to you and examining you may give him some clues. In any case … You can trust Peter. And,” he added, “he has been looking for someone like you for a very long time.”