The landscape was getting increasingly rocky, and the road wound steadily upwards. Hector was grateful for the hat protecting his eyes from the searing sun. The mountains in the distance grew gradually larger, and soon fields almost ripe for harvest and enclosures with grazing cattle began to appear on both sides of the dusty road. Somewhere behind the next little hill, Niedermark waited for him.
He hadn’t seen any other travellers for more than an hour, but Hector still glanced around to make sure before he touched the reins to let the chestnut mare know that he wanted to stop. He wasn’t too keen on having to show off, but in this town, presentation would be vital. There was another hunter in charge there already, and it was up to Hector to trump him. He wanted to see the captured wolf and to take it for himself, or perhaps rather for Peter, if the rumours were indeed true.
The mare glanced at him when he dismounted, then turned her attention to the grass in the side of the road. Hector fastened his hunting badge to the revolver holster. That way it would be easy to spot that he was a licensed werewolf hunter from one of the biggest organisations in Germany. Usually he kept the badge in a bag. People normally noticed that he wasn’t some madman who pretended to be a hunter regardless. If they didn’t, he could always show it to them, but closer to Frankfurt it was never a problem. Most of the inhabitants in the nearby villages recognised him and knew whom he worked for.
But this time he had … What? Should he consider the other hunter a rival? It was an odd thought. Usually when he met hunters from other areas on his travels, they would exchange information and help each other out if needed. But there was nothing usual about this. Hector was aware that if the other had caught a werewolf, he could not saunter in and demand to have it. He also couldn’t steal it in the dead of the night. That was not how a decent hunter acted. But his group was one of the most organised ones and it did dedicate a lot of time and resources to research. In addition to hunters, they had doctors and scholars who were always searching for antidotes and cures for werewolf infection. Very few groups had the people and the means to be as forward. Perhaps if the other hunter had come from Hamburg or all the way from Paris or London … But that was not likely. Everybody had enough on their hands within their own districts. There was no reason for them to be here. Hector’s missions had taken him far and wide, but rarely that close to other hunters’ headquarters.
He took off his hat and brushed it off with his hand. That would have to do. He might want to play the role of the influential and powerful hunter, but he also didn’t want to look as if he had spent two hours right outside the town fixing his hair, polishing his boots and shining his buckles. He mounted again. His Friesian did look more imposing, but the mare would do fine. She was a good-looking horse, and she had proved to be calm.
As he came over the hill and spotted Niedermark, Hector began to see people in the fields. A couple of farmers stopped what they were doing, leaned against their scythes, and raised their hands to shade their eyes from the sun as they took a closer look at the rider. Hector touched the brim of his hat and inclined his head as a greeting. They were too far away for him to hear their conversation, but one of them pointed in his direction, then turned and said something. The other farmer nodded. Then they returned to their work.
Niedermark was a small dot on his map that he had never visited before. It was a bit outside his usual district. It was not a big town. It had a half-hearted wall around some parts, but there was no moat and the wall was so low in places that a grown man could straddle it. The gate was an opening in the wall with an arc made of brickwork above it, a big enough entrance for a broad and tall horse carriage to get through without any trouble. There were no guards. The mare’s hooves resounded under the arc when they came through. Hector looked around. A church. An inn. A street full of merchants, and a market with fruit and vegetables and meat. Most of the houses around him only had a single storey, but one building towered over the others almost as tall as the church tower. A flag slumped against its pole on top of it. It must be the town hall or a court house.
Some children who had been playing with a wooden hoop were called by their mother. She came out to grab them firmly and made sure they stayed with her by the side of the street. Why? So that they did not approach the stranger on the horse? It seemed so. Hector tipped his hat once more and smiled in the mother’s direction. He needed somewhere to let the horse rest while he was in town. He found the place quickly. A boy was sweeping the flagstones in front of the wide door to the stable.
“Good day. Will you take care of my horse?” Hector asked and dismounted. He hoisted his bag over his shoulder. “I have an errand in the town for a few hours. She needs food and water.”
For a moment the boy stared at him with wide eyes. Then he nodded.
“Very well.” Hector fished a coin out of his pocket and tossed it to the lad. It wasn’t payment for the food and the accommodations, but a thank you for his time. It was custom in small towns to pay the expenses when you were leaving. Hector patted the mare to pass on the torch to the boy. “By the way,” he added as casually as he could muster, “there is another hunter in Niedermark if I am not mistaken. Do you know where I can find him?”
The boy nodded once more. “The inn. He has a room there.”
“Thank you kindly.” Hector turned around and walked down the street. He was being watched. From the houses and from horsebacks and booths at the market he was being scrutinised. He was used to being looked at, but there was tension or anxiety here. Of course there was trouble quite often when he arrived in a new town. That was why he was there, after all. But even though people were scared or grieving, there was an air of relief to see a hunter who would deal with the problem. It was different here. There was already one hunter. Was that it? Was he not welcome because there wasn’t room for more than one of them? No, that wasn’t quite it. The other hunter had found a werewolf and he kept it locked up somewhere in the town. That was not normal procedure. They had expected him to shoot it and move on, but he kept it alive and it scared them. Now that another hunter arrived, what other strange things could happen?
The inn looked like the majority of small town inns. Dark wooden interior, decorations in the shape of paintings, stuffed animal heads or sentimental keepsakes on the walls. The storey above the ground floor would have sparsely furnished rooms for travellers. When Hector entered, a woman was wiping the front desk. He took off his hat and bowed to her. “Hello, ma’am. I am looking for a hunter ..?”
The woman sized him up. Her glance paused at the hunting badge and hurried on up to his face again. “Yes. He is upstairs. Second door on your right,” she replied. “Do you need a room too?”
“I’m here to meet him. If it takes longer than anticipated, I would like to spend the night,” Hector said. He hoped that he wouldn’t have to. The tension in this town was annoying, bordering on unsettling. And the faster he could reach an agreement, the better.
The stairs creaked when he went upstairs. The other hunter had probably already seen him from the window or at least figured out that the man who was talking to the woman downstairs was the hunter who had sent him a letter the day before. He knocked on the door.
“Yes,” a gruff voice said from inside the room.
Hector opened it and stepped inside. The other hunter had his back turned to the door. He was already packing his belongings. Interesting. He must have decided to leave today no matter what happened. With his catch? Or without it? He was a lithe man, a little taller than Hector, with dark hair that had been crammed into a tight ponytail. There was only a bed, a stool and a table in the room, and on the table rested a worn rifle. The hunter turned around when Hector closed the door. A beard concealed the end of a scar that came out of the shirt collar and ran up his chin. He did not look particularly relieved that Hector had come to help him divest the catch.
“Hello,” Hector said. “I am Hector Rothenberg.” Usually his family name was not important. A name didn’t make the trigger finger faster or slower. It did not matter one bit what a person’s name was when he crashed to the ground under the weight of a werewolf. So Hector usually preferred not to mention it. He knew the reactions. A Rothenberg? Then it was time to suck up. He must be something special. Or perhaps some came to the opposite conclusion: What an upstart. A wealthy bastard who played hunter, who paid for the best equipment without any idea how to use it, and who would not last very long out there. They did exist, that last type. They rarely had much between their ears or their legs, but Hector hoped that this hunter was good enough at reading others to know that it was not the case with him.
“Yes, I thought so,” came the reply. The hunter’s accent was thick, but he spoke an understandable German.
Hector held out his hand to him. The other man would not be impolite enough to refuse to shake it, would he?
“Pierre Bissette.” The hunter accepted his hand and shook it firmly.
So his name was as French as his accent. And it meant that he had even less authority in this area than Hector did. He looked at the man’s belongings, searching for clues. Hector’s own hunting badge bore the symbol of the Frankfurt organisation, an ornate depiction of a leaf from a plant used in the struggle against werewolves, as well as his personal monogram. Finally he found what he was looking for. The belt buckle. Hector masked his surprise at the symbol there. He had not expected to meet someone from Dijon.
“So you think that you can just waltz in here with your noble name and demand that I hand over my catch?”
At least he did not beat around the bush. Hector’s family was not noble, but it was an influential one. He decided not to correct the man.
“I’m not stupid. I know that I have caught a rarity. It will be profitable.”
Profitable. Good. Then the hunter was willing to trade. “First of all, I would like to see it,” Hector replied. He would not begin to bargain over something he had not even seen.
The other hunter stared at him for a moment. He looked as if he would have preferred to deny Hector access to the catch, but he would not go that far. What kind of rumours couldn’t Hector spread if he claimed to have caught such an extraordinary creature, but refused to show it? “Very well. Come with me, then,” he said and picked up his rifle.
Hector followed him out of the room and down the stairs again. Bissette walked a little stiffly. It seemed to be his right hip, but it did not appear to hurt. They came out into the street and went towards to the tall building with the droopy flag. It turned out to be the town hall, indeed. There was an entrance to the basement outside, and they went down a narrow staircase together. Oil lamps lit the hallway and there was a number of cells with sturdy metal bars. Most of them were empty. A guard sat perched on a rickety chair at the end of the corridor. Bissette led Hector to him. The guard wasn’t wearing a uniform and was not armed. He rather looked like an ordinary fellow in a sweat stained, grey shirt and a pair of worn trousers who had been employed to watch the prisoner in the spur of the moment. And he didn’t look too happy about the whole thing.
Hector took a deep breath and looked into the cell. A man sat on the stone floor with his back against the wall. He was perhaps in his early or mid twenties and had sharp, delicate features. He was not wearing any clothes and it was painfully obvious that someone had used force to capture him. The worst of his injuries seemed to be a long gash in one leg. It would not kill him, but it was probably only part of the reason why the young man looked so utterly miserable. He was naked and had been locked up, after all. He looked up at the two hunters, and his blue eyes met Hector’s.
Hector took a step back from the cell. Where had that come from?
“Yes, I know that he looks like a man now,” said Bissette with a disgusted snort. “But he can change when he wants to. Back and forth. When I caught him, he was half wolf and half man. The guard swears that he was a wolf this morning, but he has looked like this all day.”
“Hm.” Hector stepped closer to the bars once more. Had the young man in the cell spoken? Or was he imagining it?
There it was again. But the prisoner had not moved his lips at all. Had Hector really heard any words? No, it was simply a raw feeling of helpless desperation, and it was directed at him.
“Yes. One moment.” His voice was even, but he had to force his hands not to shake. Whatever he had expected, this was not it at all. He crouched in front of the bars and stared at the man inside. The prisoner was slender and athletic. If he were indeed a werewolf, he was not one of the people who … Suddenly Hector saw it. Or sensed it. How the young man’s features distorted and became wolflike. He blinked. Nothing was happening. Not actually. Then came the emotions. Loss. Pain. Fear. “Can he talk?” Hector asked.
The guard cleared his throat. “It hasn’t said anything. It’s just sitting there. Looking.”
Hector tore his eyes away from the young man. “Nothing at all?”
The guard’s eyebrows rose. “No, not … I thought I heard something, but it never repeated it.”
“Hm,” said Hector again and looked back at the prisoner. The young man was still regarding him and Hector felt, even stronger than before, that he could not leave without him. Ordinary werewolves were human when they were not transformed and humans did not transfer thoughts or emotions to others like that. He had never experienced something like this. And he would bring the young man with him - not only for the sake of Peter’s research. He simply had to set the captive free. As he thought it, the young man’s lips curved slightly upwards.
Hector nodded, to himself or perhaps to the young man, and stood up. This was more than extraordinary. Some kind of connection had been established, some kind of agreement, but he had no idea what it meant except, of course, that he needed to take the prisoner with him. “I have seen enough,” he told Bissette. “Can we speak in private?”
The other hunter gestured towards the stairs and Hector strode towards them without looking back over his shoulder. If Bissette had not experienced the transferred emotions himself, Hector would not address the subject, he decided. It could either label him as a madman or make the other hunter more difficult to negotiate with.