“Thank you.” Peter took the rolled up piece of paper from the boy and smiled at him. He smelled vaguely of the birds that he no doubt worked with all day. The boy grinned, made a half-bow and turned on his heel. Peter watched him briskly saunter back through the corridor of the hospital wing. He didn’t recall the boy’s name, but he was the son of two hunters. His father died some years after Peter’s arrival, killed in the line of duty. The boy was only ten at the time. It was hard to imagine his feelings when his mother began hunting again less than a year after the loss. But she was still alive, and the boy seemed to be doing well. The boy had been a little out of breath just now, Peter thought while he turned the paper in his hands. If he had run or at least walked quickly all the way up here, then it meant that the carrier pigeon had arrived very recently.
Peter closed the door to his office, returned to his desk and sat down. Steam rose from a cup of tea that he had poured moments before, and a bittersweet smell wafted through the room. So - who wrote to him personally? Right now there must be at least a dozen of hunters on the road. Any of them could be in need of medical advice. Hopefully it was not a crisis. It was not unprecedented that someone sent a carrier pigeon back to Frankfurt to ask for assistance, but although he was the leading physician now, they were rarely sent to him directly. They would be addressed to whomever was available. He unrolled the letter and looked at it. Ah, yes. The doctor knew that handwriting. Even without the seal and the signature at the end of it, he wouldn’t have been in doubt for one moment. It was not exactly a neat hand, but it evidently had once been trained and kept in check to such an extent that it was still sober and readable if a tad nonchalant and rebellious to look at. The most important thing, though, was that the letter did not appear to have been written with great urgency, or in grave pain or panic.
“So, Hector … What can I do for you?” Peter asked the empty office and began reading. It wasn’t a very long one, but the writer was not particular chatty, so that came as no surprise. When Peter reached the end of the letter, he sat for a moment and stared at it. Then he read it again.
I left Darmstadt a few days ago. On the road I heard of an extraordinary werewolf that was captured near Niedermark and is kept there by a hunter from another district. I will reach Niedermark tomorrow afternoon and look at it. If the rumour is true, I may have found what you are looking for. It is said to change its shape at will. I’ll bring it back to Frankfurt if possible.
I hope that all is well.
Peter leaned back in his chair and let both hands run through his black hair from the temples. He took a deep breath. If this was a joke, it was a very poor and cruel one indeed. But he knew that it was not. Hector would not waste ink and paper on that sort of shenanigans. If he wrote, he must be quite certain of his claim regardless of the reservations in his letter. The hunter thought that he had found a special kind of werewolf. One who defied the norms. And he fully believed that he could bring it back home.
How had that happened? They had been wrong before. Investigated a rumour that turned out to be something else altogether. Peter looked at the paper, accusingly. How could Hector be so certain? The doctor could attempt to send the pigeon back with all the questions in his mind, but Hector had no doubt already left. The probability that a letter would even find him was slim. He rolled up the paper again and sat with it cradled in the palm of his hand. There wasn’t much else to do but to wait. And, if he dared, to hope.
Hector was used to forcing himself to calm down and sleep in new surroundings and noisy inns. It was vital that he was rested and ready for each mission. A glass or two of whisky or cognac usually did the trick if his body was aching or he had too many thoughts mulling around in his head. But that night in Kleinburg, the hunter found himself tossing and turning in the creaky bed. This was no ordinary job. He was going out of his way to examine a rumour … No, it was more than that. The vagabond’s story had been grounded in fact although it was strange and maybe not completely accurate. At first he wanted to get back in the saddle right after he had sent one letter to Peter and one to the hunter who had captured the strange wolf. He had wanted to ride all night to get to Niedermark as quickly as he could. But a good hunter pushed himself as far as possible, and a really good hunter knew his own limitations. Hector had needed to eat and rest.
The next morning, the sun was climbing another clear summer sky when he made his way to the stable where his horse had been taken care of since his arrival.
“It’s your day off today, Roan,” Hector murmured and patted the black animal affectionately. A hunter’s horse was almost as important to him as a trusty rifle.
The Friesian nudged him gently, then continued chewing his hay.
“With a little luck I’ll be back tonight and then we’ll leave tomorrow.” He turned and lightly slapped Roan’s hindquarters on his way through the cool stable. The gesture was not even met with an irritated swish of the tail. The black gelding had been in Hector’s possession since Roan was just a colt. They knew each other through and through now. He had broken Roan and raised him for his exact purpose, and the horse was his sole companion on his many travels through the German countryside. Hector was well aware how impressive the pair of them could look and that, too, was part of the job. But more importantly, the horse was big and strong and still fast enough to catch up to most creatures on two of four legs.
The stableman had already saddled another horse, a chestnut mare, who should be more light-footed than the Friesian. Hector preferred doing that sort of thing himself, but this morning he wanted to leave quickly. He had to reach Niedermark before something happened there. Before the villagers turned into a mob with pitchforks or whatever might happen if the other hunter lost control of the situation.
“Here we go, young lady,” Hector muttered to the mare and took her outside. He had left behind some of his things in the inn in order not to slow down the horse with unnecessary weight. Water was essential, and he did not go anywhere without his weapons and the small pack that contained medicine and a few other important things. Hector thanked the stableman and began to make his way out of the village.
Peter would think that he had gone mad when he read Hector’s letter. No. Hector smiled to himself. No, Peter would not think that he had gone mad. He would know that his friend would never make such outrageous claims if he did not have a reason to believe them. That was one of the reasons that he had written Peter of all people. The board would be a lot more sceptical. The other reason was, of course, that the doctor would be interested personally as well as professionally. Hector had failed before, and he very much wanted to give his friend what he wanted. What he needed for his research.
Hector studied the white mountaintops in the distance. Even now there was snow up there. Today was so hot that he could not help longing a little bit for winter, but he knew it was silly. Despite the heat, it was much simpler to travel in the summer. He could cross rivers and ride in the rain without having to worry about frostbite and pneumonia. His fingers were more comfortable on the trigger without gloves, and the days were longer. Yet he did prefer a slightly cooler weather than this. A drizzle or a breeze would be wonderful right now. But the mare was in excellent shape and they had put more distance between them and Kleinburg already than he had dared calculate with.
So far. Hector narrowed his eyes and studied a rapidly growing shape breaking the monotony of the country road in the horizon. The shape grew into a coach as he got closer, and it was not moving. Odd place to take a break. It had not even pulled over to the side of the road. Hector’s hand went to his revolver. Robbers were not uncommon in these parts. If the coach had been attacked, he was obliged to help. He sighed. It was inconvenient, but he did not really have a choice.
But as Hector came closer, it turned out to be worse. “Oh no,” he muttered under his breath. The coach had not been attacked. It had broken down. One of the wheels had given out, and three people were standing helplessly next to it. A woman, a man, and a child, judging from their silhouettes. Hector really needed to get to Niedermark as fast as possible. Another hunter had caught something that he wanted. It was not likely that the man owed him anything personally or was affiliated with his organisation in any way, but hopefully Hector’s seal on the letter had made an impression.
Hector was not a craftsman, he was a certified werewolf hunter on a mission. He could speed up, canter past the group and call out a greeting on the way. It was not his problem. Still, it was very bad form to ignore anyone in need. How many times had he and Tomas carried buckets, picked apples or assisted in other ways on their journeys? “Dammit,” he growled to himself, realising that he had no choice. He would not have anyone spread the rumour that a hunter had refused to lend a hand to a family in need.
“Good day,” he called out, forcing himself to smile reassuringly as he approached the coach. The three were all wearing practical clothes for travel and looked like they had been on the road for a while. The boy stared unabashedly at Hector’s weapons.
“Good day, hunter,” answered the woman. Her face was a little flushed and her hair looked like it had been tied back in a hurry.
“Do you need a hand?” Hector heard himself take up the unintended gauntlet.
“Oh, please, that would be awfully kind of you,” said the man, resting his hands on his hips in a slightly laboured fashion. “We have a spare wheel, but …” He gestured stiffly towards the heavy coach.
“I can’t lift it enough for Hans to fit the new wheel onto it,” the woman explained.
No wonder. It would take two people to tip the coach. Hector dismounted and motioned for the man to take the reins. “Get the wheel and I’ll help you push.” He managed not to ask the lanky boy to hurry up, but luckily he didn’t need to. Soon Hector and the woman were tipping the coach enough for Hans to bend down and remove the old wheel.
Meanwhile the man was trying to be useful by making encouraging comments and warnings about how the coach may slip out of their grasp. Hector shot the wife a glance. She did not seem to be in any danger of dropping it, and neither was he, so it was not particularly helpful. The boy finished the job, and they carefully put down the coach.
“Thank you so much,” said the wife with a quick smile before she bent down to check that the new wheel was fastened properly.
“How can we repay you for your help?” asked the man.
“That is not necessary,” Hector said, wiping sweat off his brow. He reached out and practically wrestled the mare’s reins from the eager man. “I must be on my way now.”
“Are you hunting a werewolf?” asked the boy. Despite his staring at the weapons, it was the first thing he had said so far.
Hector smiled at him. “I am looking for one, yes.”
“Are you going to kill it?” continued the boy. His eyes darted to Hector’s rifle again.
Normally the answer would have been yes. In this case, Hector sincerely hoped that it was not going to be the outcome. “If I have to,” he said.
“But don’t you have to? Aren’t you a werewolf hunter?”
“Hans!” called the boy’s mother.
“It’s all right.” Things were simpler for those who had never faced a werewolf. Fifteen years ago he would have been appalled to hear that it wasn’t always a simple matter of tracking and killing. And indeed some hunters lived like that, but … “Yes, I’m a hunter, Hans,” he said, “And I hunt werewolves. Usually I kill them, but sometimes, if we are fast enough, we can save people in another way. And that,” he added with a smile, realising that this was the perfect parting line, “is why I need to leave now. I hope you will have a smooth journey from now on.”
Hans duplicated his smile. The explanation had been good enough. Then the little family thanked Hector as he mounted the mare again.
“Good hunt!” called the wife after him.
Hector waved over his shoulder in acknowledgement. Now he really did have to hurry up. There was a river ahead and the closest bridge at least an hour’s ride further downstream and it would be a waste of time to take that detour. The stream was only a few metres wide. He quickly rearranged his weapons to avoid getting them soaked.
The mare stepped into the water, and the ground disappeared under her hooves. She stretched out her neck and began to swim. A few moments later, she found the riverbed again and she came out of the water. Hector patted her wet neck and smiled to himself. He had always liked swimming, though he did prefer it without a horse.
As a boy he had dared the stableboy to race him in the lake on the other side of the fields every single summer. The first few years he had lost the matches miserably, but he had never given up. It was as much about getting better at swimming for his own sake as it was about beating the older boy. Thinking back now, it felt like a completely different lifetime. That Hector had spent his summers playing and helping out with the chores around the farmstead while he entertained himself with dreams of adventures and journeys. He did not have the faintest idea that he would end up as a werewolf hunter employed by one of the biggest German hunter organisations. And when he thought about it now, Hector was quite glad that the young boy had not known. It had been better that way.