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Aconitum

By mhowalt All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Chapter 5

Hector was twelve the first time he saw a werewolf.

Few scenes from his childhood stood out with such clarity in his memory as some parts of that day, but others were curiously absent from his recollection.

He had visited a neighbouring farmhouse with one of his parents’ employees. The two had headed out before noon, and Hector was allowed to sit in the front of the wagon with the farmhand. He even held the reins some of the way while the farmhand had leaned back with the brim of his hat hiding his eyes to take a small nap around midday. Hector sat there, steering the horse and looking at the country road and the fields around him. It all belonged to him. He was almost adult, almost ready to take over the farmstead.

They had been at the other farm for a few hours. By now, the details of why they were there had been lost, but Hector talked to a girl his own age with long, blond hair and blue eyes. The farmhand had a mug of beer with some other men. They offered Hector one too, and the farmhand said that he couldn’t return the boy drunk to his parents, but Hector was allowed to taste anyway. It wasn’t the first time, of course. Back then he enjoyed the privileged grownup feeling of drinking beer more than he actually liked the taste.

It was early autumn, the time of year when everything was golden in the sunlight. The time when the harvest was over and the crops in the barn, and when fruits were preserved and the pantries were stuffed full of goods for the winter. It was the time when children were glad that it was no longer as hot as in the middle of the summer, but were told that they would long for the heat when it was January or February and they were fed up with cold and darkness.

The sun set before they left the other farm, and it was about half an hour’s ride home. They sang on the way. Hector was tired, but not so tired that he wanted to sleep. He listened to the hooves of the horse on the gravel and to the farmhand’s quiet humming after they had sung together. He put his hands behind his head and looked up at the stars. A white ribbon snaked its way across the sky. It would have been dark if not for the moon lighting their way. And although he had not meant to sleep, Hector must have dozed off for a moment because he woke up with a start when the farmhand spoke.

“What the hell …” There was something strange in his voice. It was not a curse directed at a dead hedgehog on the road or a loose shoe on their horse.

Hector suddenly felt wide awake. “What is it?” he asked.

At first the farmhand didn’t reply. Hector could see him swallow. His knuckles on the reins were very white. “Quiet,” he said. He reached into the wagon and produced a rifle. They always brought one on outings on Hector’s father’s orders.

Hector wished he had a weapon too. Instead the reins were thrust into his hands, and he was told to proceed slowly. The Rothenberg family’s fields were all around them, and their home was right ahead. Hector squinted to see what the farmhand had spotted. There were people out there. Something moved around, and there were two figures with lanterns swinging from their hands. It was probably only the staff closing up the stables for the night. But Hector had a feeling that there was something else. Something wrong. He looked nervously at the farmhand and then back at the road.

They had almost reached the house when Hector saw something on the ground in front of them. He pointed. “What’s that?”

The farmhand cursed again. He aimed the rifle at the indeterminable pile on the road.

Now Hector could tell what it was. It was a big dog. No, not a dog. It was lying motionless in front of the wagon. It was beautiful. Big and with thick, grey fur that looked silvery in the moonlight like the trees flanking the road. But it was twisted into an odd position. And something shone darkly around it. Blood? Hector bit his lip. It must have been hit by a horse carriage. Or shot. “Is it dead?” he asked although he knew the answer.

The farmhand was still aiming the barrel of the rifle at the wolf. His face was oddly drawn. Hector shivered. Now he really just wanted to go home. He wanted his dinner, and he wanted to sit at the table and hear the familiar crackle of the fireplace while he told his parents of the trip. He hadn’t considered it until now, but he was starving. Right now his mother would be setting the table with the help of his brother, and his sister would be checking on the little one. The lights that he had seen from the road were probably his father and the stableboy locking up the chickens.

It was strange that he recalled that line of thought more than two decades later. Perhaps it was because he had known already at that point that there was something worse going on than one dead wolf. Perhaps it was because he already then clung to the idea of the ordinary autumn night and held on to the feeling of it for as long as possible.

Suddenly an armed man in a long, black coat came out of the darkness towards them. The farmhand swung his rifle in the direction of the sound.

“Stop!” the man on the ground called out. “Have you seen anyone run the other way? Did anyone pass you?”

“No,” replied the farmhand and lowered his rifle. “What’s happened?” His voice was hollow.

The man stepped closer to them. He sent the dead wolf a glance and then went to Hector’s side of the wagon. His face was weather-beaten and scarred, and he had short, grey hair. The rifle in his hands seemed heavier and sturdier than the one in the wagon. He looked a bit like a soldier or a policeman, but the coat was not a uniform. “Where are you headed?”

“To the farm. What’s happened?” repeated the farmhand.

“Are you visiting? Who are you?” asked the man.

Both of them answered him. Hector straightened his back when he introduced himself. The farm would be his one day. He was the oldest child. It was important to make a good impression. His father always said that.

The stranger looked from the farmhand to Hector. His face softened. “Is there somewhere you can go tonight? I’ll send a man to escort you …”

“Frank! Have they seen anyone?” shouted a woman from somewhere closer to the house. At first Hector could only make out a lantern swinging from her hand and illuminating the courtyard, but when she came closer, he noticed that she, too, was armed. Why were all these people running around his home with weapons?

Everything was very strange. Hector really wanted to go home now. He clenched his fists, jumped off the wagon and ran past the man on the ground before anyone could argue with him. They called after him. Ordered him to stop. But why? He only wanted to go home to his family because something awful had happened, he was sure of that now, and he wanted to tell them that he was fine and help with whatever he could.

“Come back, boy!” yelled one of the men behind him. “You can’t do anything!”

He didn’t care. He ran, dodging the woman whose calls he ignored as well, through the gate to the courtyard where he saw … Odd piles everywhere. Some of them looked like the wolf on the road outside. One of them, illuminated by another lantern placed next to it, wore an apron that looked like his mother’s.

Then his view was blocked by another stranger who grabbed him by the shoulders. “Stop.”

Hector looked up at him. He was younger than the first man, but his nose looked like someone had tried to chop it off. It was still there, but a scar ran across the crooked bridge and all the way to the middle of the other cheek. He smelled of leather, tobacco and soil, and the barrel of a rifle hanging over his shoulder was visible behind the broad brim of his hat.

“I live here, it’s my house!” Hector gasped between gulps of air that found it difficult to reach his lungs. “You can’t give me orders! Where is my family? What’s happened?”

The grasp on his shoulders grew tighter. “You’d better come with me,” said the man gruffly. “Let us go somewhere, then Frank can explain to you what has happened …”

“No!” Hector almost shouted. “I’m not going anywhere! Where is my family? And the wolves … What’s going on?”

The man studied him with a not quite bored, not quite exhausted, but worn expression. “They are werewolves. My name is Stephan. We are hunters. We are here to help. What’s your name, boy?”

“Hector,” replied Hector and tried to peer around the man. “Hector Rothenberg. Where is my family?”

”Hector.”

He looked up at the man.

“Hector. Your family has been killed.”

Hector almost tried to push the man aside. “I want to see them!”

“They are dead, Hector. You’d better come with me now …”

Hector shook his head. “No. I want to see my family. I won’t go anywhere before …”

The hunter regarded him again with that tired look in his eyes. Then he nodded. “Fine. I understand. I’m not going to stop you, but wait a little while. That will be better. Come over here and sit down.”

Hector eyed him suspiciously. But now understanding had replaced the worn look on the grown man’s face, so Hector let himself be steered towards the gate to the courtyard. The farmhand and the hunter called Frank were coming towards them. Hector went to the farmhand’s side without a word and stood next to him, waiting.

It did not take long for Stephan to return. He didn’t say anything. But he nodded at Hector, a silent permission to come with him.

The farmhand touched Hector’s arm as he was about to go. “Don’t, Hector. There is nothing to see. You’ll only be …”

Hector didn’t reply and he really did not care what the man thought that he was going to be. He left the farmhand by the gate and went back to the courtyard with Stephan. There were more strangers gathered now. All of them donning dark coats and rifles. A couple of them had lanterns in their hands and were standing next to a row of piles on the cobblestones. Stephan stayed next to Hector, but he kept his word and did nothing to stop him.

The piles were people. The biggest one had Hector’s father’s face, but the neck was one big, black wound. The others had his mother’s and his siblings’ and the stableboy’s faces. Some of them, especially the small ones, were hard to recognise because of all the blood. But they had been laid out nicely next to each other and with their eyes closed as if they were asleep.

“Hector?” Stephan’s hand closed around his shoulder again. “There is nothing else for you here. Come with us.”

Hector turned to him. “Why? Why did this ..?”

“No one can answer that question. That is almost the worst part,” Stephan replied.

“What am I going to do?”

“Right now,” the hunter said in a voice that made Hector want to believe anything he said, “you will come with us. We will bring your to safety.”

“And after that?”

“Time will show.”

Hector nodded and looked around. “Did you shoot the werewolves?”

“Some of them, yes.”

“Can I hold your rifle?”

Again the hunter regarded him for a while. Then he took the rifle from his back and handed it to the boy. It was heavier than any weapon or tool Hector had ever held, but he would not let go of it. “Come. There is no more for us to do here now.”

This time Hector accepted it. He followed the hunter to a horse and let the hunter lift him onto its back. He was still holding the rifle when they began to ride.

After that the memories became blurry and fragmented as if he had taken the hunter’s rifle and shot his whole existence and splintered it like a pane of glass. He could attempt to pick up the pieces, but they were impossible to put back together.

Did he cry? He probably did. Did he sleep that night or did he lie awake? Did the hunters ask him more questions? Was it two or three days before they reached their destination? What did he eat, if anything? Whatever happened during the next few days, most of it had faded into a general, dull memory of grief and desperation and disbelief. Of thinking, dearly wishing, that he had fallen asleep in the wagon on the way back to the farm and that everything after that was a nightmare. But every time he woke up to a new day, he was amongst strangers in a strange place, and he never saw his family again.

The adults around him asked so many questions. What about the estate? Who would take care of the boy? Hector hoped that the hunter called Stephan would stay with him because he was the only one who looked Hector in the eyes and told him the truth. He did not say much, but his words always rang true.

Then … Had it been a couple of days or a week or a month? In the end, a woman turned up in Frankfurt where the hunters had taken care of him. A tall, slender lady who looked even taller because of the carefully placed bun of hair on top of her head. She was wearing a long, elaborate dress and held her hand out to Hector to greet him.

“Hector, isn’t it? My condolences. I am terribly sorry to hear what happened to your family. I can’t begin to imagine …” The woman looked as if she would embrace him, but she touched his arm respectfully instead. He was grateful for that. There had been people who had hugged him tightly and cried and told him how terrible everything was. He did not want it. The grief was his and not theirs. “My name is Regina Rothenberg. I am your closest relative now. I cannot …” She smiled sadly. “I cannot make everything all right again, but I can help you with the practical and the financial issues. And I would like to get to know you as well.”

Hector would have smiled if he could. He found that he believed her as he believed Stephan. They both spoke to him and treated him like a man and not a small child. And regardless of what he had been before he came to Frankfurt, he was not a child any longer.

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