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Aconitum

By mhowalt All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Chapter 36

“Are you a werewolf, Simon?” Hector asked again.

The stranger cleared his throat. “They say I am. But …”

So he was as confused as everybody else. Hector nodded. “Do you have control of yourself? Do you sometimes not remember what you have been doing? Have you ever killed anyone?”

Simon shook his head, but he didn’t reply. Too many questions at the same time.

“I kill werewolves because they cannot control themselves and attack people and kill them,” Hector explained slowly. “Do you do that?”

“No.”

Hector smiled at the thin stranger. How long had he been running around in the woods to end up like this? “Very well. Then I have no reason to harm you. You can lower your arms now.”

“Will you leave me alone, then?” Simon asked.

Hector tried to think of a gentle way to say no. “I am here with a friend. He is a doctor, and he would very much like to meet you.”

“Why?”

“He can tell you if people are right. He can tell if you are a werewolf or not.”

Simon considered it. “No,” he then said.

The thing was, of course, that Hector was quite determined to bring back the stranger. He had promised Peter. “It’s very important to him. And to me. And maybe to you too.”

“Why?”

Hector lowered his rifle entirely now and put it back over his shoulder. Simon was not a danger to him. “He is a scholar. And he can prove that you are not a threat to people.”

“They will kill me if I go too close to the village.” Simon wrapped his arms around his body.

“Not if I’m with you. You are under my protection. There is a place where you can be alone with me and my friend, Peter. He would never harm you.” Hector smiled as winningly as he could. He needed to get this man back to Peter, and he would rather not have to force him. “You have my word that nothing bad will happen to you.”

Simon didn’t reply.

“How can I convince you?” Hector asked. “If I had wanted to kill you, I would have shot you in the back. I just want you to come with me so my friend can talk to you.”

“And after that?”

“After that you can do what you want. If you aren’t a danger to anyone, there is no reason to harm you, right?” He shrugged, then had an idea. “I’m sure I can get you a good meal and a mug of beer if you are interested. And some food to take with you when you leave.” That was a dirty trick, but it may work.

Simon swallowed. “Fine,” he said, “I’m going with you. If you promise.”

“I promise,” said Hector. “If you give me your word that you won’t attack anyone unprovoked, you have my word too.” He stepped closer to the stranger and held out his hand.

Simon stared at it. He was not as old as Hector had assumed at first. Around forty, perhaps. The elements had taken their toll on him and it was hard to see his skin under all the hair, but his physique was not that of an old man. He finally reached out and shook Hector’s hand. It was a short and timid handshake. When was the last time he had any kind of contact to humans?

They went back towards the village side by side when there was space enough between the trees. Once in a while Hector walked in front. He didn’t like turning his back to Simon, but he could not expect Simon to turn his back to him. Besides, it would be better if they met anyone on the way. And the strange man was not dangerous, at least not right now. He wasn’t fast or strong or armed. Could he have been bitten, but not fully have transformed into a werewolf? Hector was glad that it was Peter’s job to sort that out and not his.

It was not a surprise to see a mob of people waiting for them in the village.

“I’ll take care of it. Just stay close to me,” Hector said to Simon. He hoped he wouldn’t have to drag his companion the last bit of the way. “Make way!” he called out to the spectators.

Some protested and called out insults to the stranger.

Hector put his hand on his revolver with an obvious gesture. “He is under my protection. I guarantee your safety and his safety. If you wish to complain, talk to me directly.”

“Excuse me,” came a familiar voice from the throng of people. Peter had probably noticed the gathering and was making his way towards Hector.

“Peter. Good to see you,” Hector said as if they had tried this sort of thing a hundred times before. “Shall we?” He nodded in the direction of the barn they had been allowed to use.

Peter turned to the mob when he was close to Hector. “No reason to panic,” he called out. His voice was as steady as his surgeon’s hands. “I need to conduct a few examinations, and then Hector and I will disclose to you the nature of this person.”

Someone had provided them with a couple of stools and a table in the barn. Peter put his bag on a patch of floor without hay next to the table. “Please sit,” he told Simon and sent Hector an inquisitive look.

Hector shook his head. He didn’t want or need to sit right now.

Simon sat down, slowly, looking first at Peter and then at Hector.

“My name is Peter,” said Peter in a friendly tone. He sat down on the other stool. “I am a doctor. I am not going to hurt you.”

“Simon,” said Simon.

Peter smiled. “Thank you for coming with Hector, Simon. It was very brave of you. May I ask you some questions?”

Simon nodded. Peter began to question him about his past and his family, and although Simon’s answers didn’t alway make much sense, his story began to take shape as they talked.

He grew up in a small town not far away as an ordinary boy. His father was a barber, so Simon had seen the grown men getting their facial hair trimmed all his life. But he began to grow hair on his chin before any of the other boys. He felt different, was afraid of being teased. And hair began to grow on his body too. Not just on his chest like on other men, and not only a few stray hairs on his back. No, it looked like fur. He had no idea what was going on, didn’t dare to tell anyone about it. Instead he stole barber tools from his father and started shaving. Once a week to start with. Then increasingly often. In only a day, he grew hair all over his face. He knew of werewolves, of course. Perhaps he was turning into one. But he couldn’t remember ever having seen one. He had only seen a hunter once before, and had run away before he was discovered.

Sometimes he needed to shave quickly, and people who saw him without clothes noticed the cuts. He told them that a cat had scratched him or that he had brushed against a nail in a wall.

Simon’s voice broke, and he stammered his way through the next part. One day someone had seen him. In the morning. Before he had managed to shave. All hell broke loose. Panic, accusations, people who suddenly recalled having seen someone sneaking around at night. He didn’t have an alibi to prove that it wasn’t him. Scared and angry, his neighbours had chased him out of town.

Without even consulting a hunter or a doctor, Hector thought to himself. Mass hysteria.

“When was this?” Peter asked. There was a hint of anger in his voice now.

“A few months ago. Maybe. I don’t know,” Simon said. He had found an abandoned house and lived there while it was cold.

“And you have not been close to other people since then?”

Simon shook his head, but he avoided Peter’s gaze.

“Not at all? We are not here to judge you,” the doctor said.

Simon continued his tale, stuttering, eyes darting around the barn. He had stolen food in villages and farms in the area. Once he had been discovered by a farmer with a pitchfork. They had fought, Simon had wrestled the pitchfork away from the farmer. He had been afraid that the man would follow him. And in blind panic, he had jabbed the pitchfork into the man’s abdomen. Then he had run away. He didn’t know if the farmer had survived.

Werewolves didn’t stab people with pitchforks. That sort of things wasn’t Hector’s jurisdiction, and besides Peter was right. They were not here to judge.

“I would like to examine you now if you will let me,” Peter said. He explained that it would not hurt and that he was getting increasingly certain that Simon was not a threat to anyone else. But he would be able to say for certain after the examination.

“I’m going outside for a moment,” Hector announced. “I’ve promised Simon something to eat and drink, and I intend to keep that promise.”

It wasn’t only to spare Simon the humiliation of him watching while Peter examined him. It was as much to show the villagers that he was not at all hesitant to leave Peter alone with him. And to make sure there was no panic or a riot on the way. Luckily, only a few people asked. They were scared, but they trusted that the hunters knew what they were doing.

When Hector returned, Simon was dressing again. And he smiled for the first time when he saw the food Hector had brought.

Peter sent Hector a smile too, but it was a measured one. “May I talk to you?” he said.

Hector glanced at Simon. He was busy eating already. There was no harm done in leaving him for a few moments. “Of course.”

They stepped outside. The crowd hadn’t disappeared, but people were keeping their distance to the barn.

“So?” Hector said.

The doctor shook his head. “He is not a wolf. He doesn’t react to silver. His teeth are that of a human. The hair on his body doesn’t grow like the fur of a canine. He is physically human and he doesn’t seem to have any loss of memory during full moon. Nothing suggests that he is any kind of werewolf.”

“Then what is he?”

“Human.” Peter sighed. “A very ordinary man with extreme hair growth. I’ve heard of the affliction, but I’ve never seen a case before.”

Hector crossed his arm over his chest and looked around to make sure no one was in earshot. “I understand. What do we do?”

“Help him to the best of our abilities.”

“If he isn’t a werewolf, it’s none of our business,” Hector said.

Peter’s cheeks grew pink. “I’m a doctor,” he said. “Hector, I am still a doctor.”

“Yes. And I feel sorry for the man too. But what do you suggest we do?” Was Peter suggesting taking Simon home with them because they felt sorry for him? Headquarters did have people employed who had lost their families to werewolves, but not people who were mistaken for werewolves.

“We can speak his case here and write him an official statement with your seal on it and both of our names,” said Peter.

“Yes, if people wait with chasing him away until they have seen it,” Hector mumbled.

“We have to do something,” Peter implored.

They went back to Simon, and Peter explained that they would like to help him. He couldn’t keep living like that. It was dangerous, sad and unfair. Those weren’t Peter’s words, but it was what he meant. Peter began telling Simon of the organisation in Frankfurt, but Simon immediately said that he would not have anything to do with werewolf hunters. Hector seemed reasonable enough, but he was probably special, Simon whispered to Peter. He would rather stay away from a group of armed people who would shoot first and ask questions later. Hector began to protest, but Simon wanted none of it.

“But we do want to help you,” Peter said. He explained the plan to write up a statement that he could show people, and they would give him razors and new clothes so he would fit better into human settlements.

The next morning, Hector and Peter said goodbye to Simon outside the village. Hector was satisfied. They had done what they could to help him, given him some money, too, and Peter had told him that he was welcome to send a letter if he had any trouble. Of course, this wasn’t how hunting normally went. Hector usually went out to find and kill a werewolf. However, the world wasn’t always fair, and they couldn’t save everyone, but they had done their best.

Yet Peter had barely spoken since they left the village. They had been riding for more than an hour, and he was just staring at the road ahead.

“How are you?” Hector finally asked.

Peter turned to him and smiled, but his smile only reached the corners of his mouth. “I’m fine, thank you. And yourself?”

“I’m fine.” Hector stretched. “Peter, we did our best. There was nothing else we could do for him.”

“I know.” Peter studied his hands.

It wasn’t the only thing bothering him, Hector knew. He had hoped for some kind of solution. A step along the way to find a cure or a nudge in the right direction. He had hoped that Simon was a werewolf who could control himself or a kind of werewolf whose transformations were different from the norm. No wonder he was disappointed now.

“Peter …” Hector tried to make the doctor look at him. “We are all on the lookout. I am on the lookout. I promise. We didn’t find what we hoped for this time, but we investigated the matter. There will be other rumours. If what you’re looking for exists, we will find it one day.”

The doctor regarded him for a long moment. Then he smiled, a lot more genuinely this time. “Thank you, Hector.”

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