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Aconitum

By mhowalt All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Chapter 37

Hector was back.

It wasn’t a sixth sense that told Peter his friend had returned, but a conversation overheard in the dining hall between a stable hand and a hunter. Peter stopped chewing his toast lest the crunching should keep him from eavesdropping properly. However, nothing was said apart from the obvious. The hunter asked if anyone had returned from a mission the day before, and the stable hand replied that Hector Rothenberg’s gelding was back in the stable and that he must have come in late the night before. Nothing in their conversation suggested that Hector had brought someone home with him. Peter finished his breakfast and went straight to his office. Surely Hector wouldn’t keep him waiting for long.

As it turned out, he didn’t. Peter saw to a patient who had spent the last couple of days in the hospital wing and then sat down at his desk to review a few reports. Then there was a knock on the door. It could be anyone, Peter told himself, but he stood up and opened the door expecting to see Hector.

“Hello, Peter,” said the hunter. He was smiling, and there was an air of pride around him that, no matter how many werewolves he killed or how many lives he saved, Peter had not seen before. He was wearing a sleeveless undershirt, and a clean bandage was wrapped around his upper arm. And peering over his shoulder was someone whom Peter had never seen before.

“Hector,” he breathed, “welcome home.”

“Thank you. This is Royer,” Hector said and stepped aside so Peter could get a better look at the young man.

He seemed to be fairly ordinary. Like Hector, he was dressed in a vest and plain trousers, and he seemed to be in excellent condition. Peter looked him over with a physician’s trained eye. No bruises, no scars, defined muscles, but he was more slender than Hector. He had a runner’s body more than that of someone who carried out hard, physical labour. “Hello, Royer.” Peter held out his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Hello. It’s a pleasure to meet you too,” Royer returned, taking the offered hand. He was smiling, but he looked a little uneasy.

“Please, come inside.”

The two stepped in, and Peter directed them to the two chairs facing his desk. He breathed in deeply. They both smelled clean, but Royer’s scent was quite different from Hector’s. Yet it was nothing like an animal’s. “Tea?” he asked.

“I have a lot to do today,” said Hector. “If you two don’t mind, I’ll leave you alone for a while.”

“Of course. Royer?”

“Yes, please.”

Peter smiled and poured a cup of herbal tea that did not contain the special ingredients he preferred. Who knew what effect they would have on someone like Royer? “Before you leave, I need to ask what happened to your arm, Hector,” Peter said.

“It’s nothing,” Hector shrugged it off. “I was shot. Royer helped on site, and a doctor saw to it a few days ago.”

“You were shot?”

“Long story. A misunderstanding,” explained Hector unhelpfully.

“I see. I would still like to have a look.”

Hector nodded.

Peter carefully wrapped the bandage off his friend’s arm. “Have you … met anyone else here yet?” he asked Royer to strike up conversation.

Royer shook his head. “No, not yet. We arrived late last night, and Hector said it was better to eat in his room.”

“I wanted you to see him first,” Hector said, a world of meaning hiding behind those words.

“I understand. Well, there is no infection and the sutures are holding fine. If you can keep it clean, it’s better to leave the bandage off now to make it heal faster,” Peter said.

“My work today only consists of paperwork and a few errands,” Hector replied. “Thank you, Peter.” He stood up again and looked from one to the other. “Will you be fine on your own?”

Peter wasn’t sure whom he was talking to. Probably both of them. “Yes, quite,” he said. “There is a lot I would like to ask Royer if he doesn’t mind.” As soon as he had said that, a strange sensation went through his head. It reminded him of the feeling he had when someone was looking intently or critically at him.

“I don’t mind at all,” Royer replied. “Hector told me you wanted to talk to me.”

“I’ll be back later.” Hector patted Royer’s shoulder in a familiar, reassuring manner and then retreated.

“Well,” said Peter when the door had closed behind their mutual friend. “I hardly know where to begin. I consider myself extremely privileged to sit here with you.”

The young man who, Peter suspected, was actually less than ten years his junior, cocked his head. “Why?” He had been posed stiffly in the chair so far, but now his shoulders came down, and he wrapped his fingers around the teacup on the table in front of him.

“Hector told me that you can turn into a wolf and back when you want to. And that your mentality doesn’t change.”

“Yes, that’s true. Hector has seen me do it many times now,” confirmed Royer.

“I’ve never met someone like you,” Peter said. His heart was threatening to leap up into his throat. “Did Hector mention … what I am?”

“Yes, he did,” Royer confirmed. “You’re his friend, a doctor of this place. And also,” he added, “a werewolf.”

“That is true. My kind of illness causes me to turn into a wolf once a month, and I must be restrained in order not to harm others.”

Royer nodded. “Yes, I know that’s how it is for werewolves. That’s one of the reasons why my kind usually stays far away from them. But since we are always in control, it’s hard for me to understand why werewolves are so wild.”

Peter couldn’t help smiling. “I am a blood thirsty monster when I am a wolf.” It was always a horrible thing to say. “But then I get back to being myself. Meeting you …” He struggled with the next words for a moment. “Meeting you gives me hope. That a human being who is also a wolf and never a monster exists gives me hope. And, if you will allow it, I hope to learn more, perhaps of both of us.”

Royer took a sip of the tea. “I hope so too,” he said. “Have you have ever had company when you are a wolf? Maybe if someone was there with you, you could learn not to be so angry.”

“Perhaps. I remember nearly nothing of it,” Peter said, but he was surprised as well as pleased with that comment whether it were an offer or merely a suggestion. “I am terribly interested in learning more about you, Royer,” he said. “I only know what Hector has told me, and that is very little.”

Royer smiled. It was an almost conspiratorial, but not malevolent, expression. “He doesn’t speak so much, does he?”

“No,” Peter agreed, “he doesn’t.”

They both laughed. Peter drew a sigh of relief. Royer wasn’t hard to talk to. For the past few nights, the doctor had battled uninvited assumptions about the wolf man whom the hunter was bringing home. He had imagined the mysterious creature being dragged through the gates of Frankfurt against its will only so that he could examine it. But Royer was cooperative indeed. And Hector seemed relaxed around him, so he really did trust him …

While he was retrieving a few blank papers and a pen from a drawer, a strange sensation crept into Peter’s head. He looked up at the young man and was met with an inquisitive gaze. The feeling weaved through his thoughts, not as if he were a book being scrutinised by a reader, but more like a light breeze leafing gently through the pages. Then it turned warm and comforting, made him feel safe and appreciated, and it confirmed in some odd fashion that he could trust Royer.

“What was … Did you ..?”

Royer looked flustered for a moment. “I’m sorry. Was it too much?” he then blurted out. “You are very easy …”

“No. No, no,” Peter quickly reassured him. He was flabbergasted to such a degree that only learned professional behaviour kept his mouth from falling open. “I’m not upset. You can read my mind? Did you project feelings into my head?”

“I can feel you. Your mood. And show you mine,” Royer explained. “It is the way my kind communicates.”

“Can you do that with everybody?” Peter asked. He certainly couldn’t, had never heard of werewolves who could, but clearly Royer wasn’t a werewolf like him.

“No … Humans have to be open for me to get through,” Royer explained. “I tried with the hunter who captured me, but he did not react. I think Hector’s friend in Darmstadt could feel that I was not going to hurt her, but she was not like you and Hector. Hector is very, very open. And you are too.”

Peter nodded. This was not something he had expected, but a lot of conclusions could be drawn from Royer’s statement alone. What would happen if Royer were in Frankfurt at the next full moon? Peter made a mental note to get back to the subject. “And your kind … You lived near the town where Hector met you?”

“We lived in the mountains,” Royer began. “We stayed away from humans most of the time because we feared that they would not know the difference between us and werewolves.”

Peter listened as Royer related how a werewolf had been roaming the area. They had smelled it and considered if it were time to move on. But before they knew it, humans in the nearby settlements had been attacked and killed. And a hunter had come. He had shot several times in the night, and they assumed that he had killed the perpetrator. But a few days later, he had still been around. And he had captured Royer, and the others of Royer’s kind had fled the area. But then Hector had come, Royer ended his tale and seemed to cheer up considerably at the thought.

“Astonishing,” Peter murmured. He had already taken a lot of notes, but there were so many things he had yet to learn, so many gaps in Royer’s tale. But the young man had been separated from his kin only a few weeks ago, been through a rough journey to Frankfurt with Hector and had hardly had time for anything. It would be unwise to put more pressure on him now. Especially if he was not in a hurry to leave again. “Perhaps you are wondering what I want from you apart from talking,” he said.

“Hector said you wanted to examine me,” Royer replied.

“Yes, that is true. I make no demands of you, but if you do not mind, I would like take a small sample of your blood and your saliva to compare with that of humans and werewolves.”

“I don’t mind,” the young man told him. His trust was extraordinary. But, Peter suspected, that may be connected to his ability to see into people’s minds.

“Thank you very much. I am truly grateful to you for your help. It doesn’t have to be now. Unless … I don’t know your plans for the future.”

Royer made a half shrug, then turned the teacup in his hands for a moment. “I don’t know. Hector told me I can stay here.”

“You are more than welcome to. We have a lot of different people here. And a lot of different tasks to fulfil. The hunters are important, but the organisation would not work without the rest of us,” Peter said. He could already imagine Royer taking on a certain role and imagined that he was already beginning to do it, perhaps without anyone even realising. But it was much too early to speculate. “Hector probably also told you that you are a free person.”

“Yes, he did. But I am here now. And I won’t leave without telling you and Hector,” Royer said with the straightforwardness of a young boy or perhaps a wolf.

“Thank you. I truly appreciate it. As,” added Peter because Hector wasn’t always very good at expressing these things himself, “does Hector.”

The doctor still had a number of questions. Royer was of a species different from humans and werewolves or regular wolves, but it would be foolish to think that there was no connection. Perhaps his kind was a special strain of werewolves who, through seclusion from others, had learnt to control the illness over time. Or perhaps they were predecessors from whom the condition had originally spread thousands of years ago. Royer may not know, but Peter wanted to hear more about his kind and hopefully be able to confirm or at least disprove some theories. He was also eager to see Royer run as a wolf, weigh him in both shapes, listen to his pulse, draw him … But not right now. He didn’t want this to seem like interrogation.

“You have already been very helpful, Royer,” he said. “I would like to talk to you again. If you don’t mind?”

“Of course not,” Royer replied.

“I would very much like to see you transform,” Peter added, mostly to see how the young man reacted. So far he had spoken proudly of his kind, and Peter envied him a little although they clearly were not alike. But whenever he thought of himself as a wolf, it was with shame and humiliation.

“Now?”

“No, I didn’t expect you to …” Peter reassured him.

“I don’t mind,” Royer offered.

Peter’s curiosity got the better of him. “Well, I really would be grateful,” he said.

They both stood up. “I am going to lock the door,” Peter said.

Royer nodded and began the ritual of undressing that Peter knew too well.

The doctor’s heart was pounding like a sledgehammer in his chest when he turned the key and faced Royer again. The young man smiled at him, and then he began to change. His joints popped, and he grimaced as his canines began to grow and as his skull changed, his ears moved to the top of his head and became long and covered with fur. It was strange. It was astonishing. It sent shivers down Peter’s spine. But it was not grotesque. It was not monstrous. In a way, it was beautiful. He had to blink a few times and rapidly swallow.

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