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Aconitum

By mhowalt All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Chapter 8

The guard jumped up from his chair when Hector reached the basement under the town hall. He looked scared. Hector nodded at him and put on what he hoped came across as a reassuring expression. He did not want to look through the bars yet. One thing at a time. “I have talked to my colleague, Pierre Bissette. I’m taking over the responsibility from here. Thank you for your hard work.”

The guard seemed a little confused. “What are you going to do with it?”

“I’ll take him with me,” Hector said, hoping that it was indeed what was going to happen.

The guard nodded. He didn’t look like he trusted Hector entirely, but he would would not risk getting into trouble with a hunter.

“The key, please.”

The guard handed him a metal ring with a single key in it. Then he turned around. His footsteps rang out rapidly as he retreated through the corridor and away from the creature that he had been guarding in the cell.

Hector took a deep breath and turned towards the cell. And involuntarily reached for his revolver when he saw what was in there. The young man was gone and a big wolf was curled up on the floor. But it lifted its head and looked at him in with an expression that he had never seen on a werewolf before. On the occasions when he had looked one of the monsters in the eyes, its gaze had been void of humanity. It had been a wild animal looking at him. If he had to attribute any feelings to werewolves, they would be hatred, hunger or pain. But this one … There was kindness in its eyes. Something almost submissive.

“Hello. My name is Hector,” the hunter said. He was glad the guard had left, for his voice was on the verge of breaking. That wolf had been a man less than an hour ago. And it was not full moon. It did indeed seem like Pierre Bissette had told him the truth.

The wolf’s tail moved.

“I …” He was talking to a wolf. Did it even understand him?

The wolf wagged its tail a bit more and Hector felt quite distinctly that yes, it understood him quite well.

“Good. Very good. I will help you. I will get you out of here in a moment. But first I need to ask you a few questions,” he said, ignoring the absurdity of telling a wolf that he wanted to talk to it.

The wolf stood up. It circled the cell, let out a soft whine, and then it began to change before Hector’s eyes. Its muscles worked under the fur, and there was a sound as if someone were cracking their knuckles very intensely. The wolf suddenly jolted upright and stood on its hind legs which looked more human by the second. The tail disappeared, the fur too, and its face contorted, with concentration or pain, and began to look human. The process stopped while he was still half wolf and half human. A strange creature with a man’s face, hands with inhuman claws for nails, and paws instead of feet. He smiled and showed Hector a unpleasantly sharp set of teeth. “Yes?”

So he did speak. Good. “Do you have a name?” Hector asked, struggling to make his own voice even.

“Yes,” said the wolf man again. “Royer.”

Hector tried to smile at the wolf man in the cell. He was certain that he looked like he had seen a ghost, but he desperately wanted to appear in control of the situation. “Very well. Royer, will you come with me? You are a free man now, but I ask you to go with me to Frankfurt. I am affiliated with an organisation whose physicians would be very interested in meeting you.” Actually he had bought Royer, but Hector did not consider him his property.

Royer cocked his head. “What will they do to me?” he asked. It was hard to determine his accent, but his speak was clear and understandable.

“I work there as a hunter. I must tell you that I am armed and if you assault me, I will not hesitate to eliminate you,” Hector said. “But you have my word that neither I, nor my people, will ever hurt you if you don’t attack. They only want to speak to you. You will be under my protection on the journey there and until our ways part.”

The basement was silent for a moment. On the streets above, someone was laughing and yelling, and horseshoes rang out against the cobblestones. A strange feeling slithered its way into Hector’s head, almost as if someone were touching him gently. But none of them had moved. Royer looked him in the eyes, then nodded. “Yes. I will go with you. I have nowhere else to go.”

“Are you the only one … Like you?”

Royer looked away again. “Yes. There were others, but not now.” His eyes stayed on the floor. Was he ashamed? Or sad? Hector was not sure. “The hunter … The other hunter found me in the mountains where we lived. He brought me here and I … have no reason to go back now. The others are long gone now.”

And they had never known. A group of wolf people living somewhere in the mountains … There were so many questions Hector wanted to ask him, but now was not the time. He would ask them on the way. At least some of them. “I’m sorry,” Hector said, and he was. Of course he was glad that the wolf man would come with him, but there was probably a lot more to the story. Perhaps Royer would tell him later. Perhaps he wouldn’t, and in that case, so be it. The hunter was not unfamiliar with keeping certain parts of the past to himself. He brought the key to the lock and opened the door to the cell. It was either one of the best things that he had ever done or else it was a fatal mistake. Hector stepped into the cell and let his bag fall to the floor. “When I saw you earlier, you looked human. Entirely human. Can you do that again?”

Royer nodded and made a movement, not entirely unlike a dog shaking water off its fur while yawning. The last of the wolfish traits disappeared, and a naked man was standing on the floor. Hector pulled down his braces. It was so hot that sweat had soaked through his vest to the shirt, but it would have to do for now. He handed his shirt to the other.

“Thank you,” said the Royer and put it on.

“Sit down please,” said Hector. “Your leg needs a couple of stitches if you are going to travel anywhere.”

Royer obeyed him and sat down on the cold floor. He watched the hunter as he retrieved a needle and thread from his bag. When he was a man, Royer was almost at tall as Hector, but the shirt sagged ridiculously on his leaner frame. Hector knelt in front of him, then hesitated.

“Is something the matter?” Royer asked.

Hector held up his arm to show the wolf man his remaining bracer. “It’s silver.”

Royer just looked at him.

“Are you not … allergic?” Hector asked in the least offensive manner that he could muster.

“I don’t think so.”

Hector slowly placed his wrist on Royer’s exposed thigh. Nothing happened. The hunter’s mouth fell open. A werewolf who did not react to silver? Was it even right to think of Royer as a werewolf? “Good,” he said. He couldn’t sit here and gawk now. They needed to get moving soon. He examined the gash. Luckily it was without infection. Had the wolf licked it to keep it clean? It needed more than a couple of stitches not to tear because Royer would have to move a lot when they got out of here. Hector dipped his index finger in a small jar of ointment that he always carried with him. One of Peter’s little miracles, especially developed for hunters who needed to be able to patch themselves up or be able to move despite injuries. It would numb some of the pain when he put the needle through the skin.

“Have you done it before?” Royer asked. He didn’t sound particularly scared. Only curious.

“Yes.” Hector looked up and gave him a smile. “I’m not a doctor, but I have some experience. When we get back to Frankfurt, a real physician will look at you.” He threaded the needle and took hold of Royer’s leg. “Take a deep breath,” he said. That’s what doctors normally did. It only took a few moments, and Hector hoped that the stitches were tight enough to hold the skin together and not tight enough to cause complications. The young man looked a little pale, but he was taking the whole thing well. That could be a good sign, but it could also be a very bad sign that he had been through too much to acknowledge anything anymore. But what did Hector know? All he could do was face the practical issues head on. “Have you had anything to eat and drink?”

“They gave me a little water and some bread … Yesterday I think.”

Hector nodded and handed Royer his water flask. “Drink. And keep the flask.” He certainly was not going to drink from the same container as a werewolf. It was probably overly cautious of him, but werewolves did spread the infection through saliva, and who knew if this variation was more contagious than regular wolves? Imagine if he had a scratch in his mouth and became infected. That would be ridiculous. No, it was better to be on the safe side until Peter had carried out some examinations. “I’m going to leave you for a while, Royer, and then I will return for you. You need clothes, and we both need something to eat.”

The prisoner did not look happy when Hector closed the door and turned the key again. But it was as much for Royer’s protection as for anyone else’s. Hector sent him a smile through the bars. “I will try to be quick.”

He went back upstairs and out into the street. And if the townspeople had looked at him strangely before, it was nothing to their reaction now. He might as well be a walking case of the plague. He gritted his teeth, put on his most reassuring and confident expression and went about his business. He found some clothes at the market that would hopefully fit Royer and allow him to get his shirt back and then approached a merchant with chickens roasting on a spit. The merchant thrust the chicken into his hands so urgently that it was almost dropped between them. His glance said, ‘Take the bird and get out of here!’, but he didn’t have the nerve to say it out loud. No one did.

Hector went back to the basement, took some of the chicken for himself and let Royer have the rest. The young man must be starving, but he ate more like a human being than certain hunters Hector knew.

Soon, the young man was presentable enough to be brought outside. They would get the mare from the stable where Hector had left her and then leave as quickly as possible. “No one will harm you,” Hector reassured Royer as they made their way upstairs. “You are with me. No one questions my judgement in this matter.”

Yet, he could sense the wolf man’s hesitation. He was trying to put on a brave face, but it felt like he wanted to cling to Hector’s arm while they were walking through Niedermark. At least it meant that he trusted the hunter more than he trusted other people. Doors were slammed shut and children torn away from the street although they were several paces away from the two men. It was irrational. People had no idea what was going on. They only knew that a werewolf had been caught, and now a hunter was leading it through their town without any visible restraints.

They reached the stable where the stableboy took Hector’s payment. He was as white as the lime on the walls. But he did his job. Once they had left, he would no doubt be celebrated by his friends as a hero who had serviced the hunter and the werewolf. Hector did not doubt that he would add elaborate descriptions to the story of how the werewolf had sneered and growled and how the hunter had fought to keep it under control, although it was really more like going for a walk with a scared puppy.

“You ride,” Hector told Royer. “It shows that you are not my prisoner and that I trust you.”

“I don’t know how,” the young man said under his breath.

Hector helped him mount and quickly showed him how he could take the reins in one hand and hold the saddle with the other if he started to slip off. The mare didn’t react to Royer at all. He was probably just another rider from her perspective.

The hunter led the horse through the town. They were still being watched. If he had been a little younger or more volatile, he’d have been tempted to call out or greet the people who thought that they were being discreet with an extravagant wave of his hat.

As soon as they were outside Niedermark, Hector could positively hear Royer sigh. His hand on the reins relaxed. The hunter let his fingers slide up the mare’s neck and twisted them into her mane.

There were so many questions that he hardly knew where to begin. His first priority had been to take the wolf man with him and to make sure that he was under control. Peter would know what to ask. He was a scholar. Hector was more practical. So he would begin with the things that were most useful to know here and now. “When you were locked up,” he started and looked up at Royer, “I felt you … In here.” He pointed to the side of his head.

Royer nodded. “Yes. My kind can do that.”

Hector suppressed a frown at that statement. “Can you read my thoughts?” he asked instead. That was more important.

“No. I can sense how you feel. A little.”

Hector cleared his throat. How should he react to that? “Interesting,” he said. “And … have you always been like that? Been able to change your shape when you want to?”

Royer inclined his head once more. “Yes. I was born as a wolf.”

“What about full moon? Do you ever lose … your humanity?” It was not the right word, but he could not think of anything better.

“I am a wolf when it is full moon,” said Royer. He sounded calm, as if it were the most natural thing for a man to be. “But I am like I am now. The same person with the same thoughts. Only wolf.”

If that were indeed true, Royer really was a dream come true for the organisation’s scholars. “You can ask me questions too if there is anything you need to know,” Hector told him.

Royer smiled down at him. “Thank you.”

Awkward silence ruled for a while. Then Hector explained that they would reach a small town before nightfall and sleep there and exchange the mare for his own horse.

The young man had not told him everything. His story was almost nonexistent. Were there really more out there like Royer? Hector did not have to wonder for very long why such a people would keep their nature a secret. One wrong move, one wrong hunter, and they would be rounded up and killed. Still, how many of them were there? Where were they now? What had happened for Royer to get caught by Bissette? Perhaps Hector would find out once the wolf man got to know him and trust him better. But he did have feeling that what little Royer had told him was true.

“Your group … The hunters,” Royer finally said. He had moved uncomfortably in the saddle a few times, but Hector wanted him to ride for as long as possible. It was better for the gash in his leg, and he had not eaten properly for days. “How did you become part of the group?”

“My family was killed,” Hector replied.

“I’m sorry.”

Hector shook his head and smiled. “It’s a long time ago.” The young man probably had his own personal tragedy much closer. Besides, hardly anyone in Hector’s position was without a tragic past in one way or another. It was not that he had nothing to lose that made him good at his job. No, that sort of thinking could make a person careless and indifferent. But the tragedy gave them an additional reason to fight so that others didn’t have to suffer. He could not put it into words without making it mundane and lame, but that was how he felt. “They are good people,” he added. “My group. You don’t have to be afraid of them though we are hunters. They trust my word.” He shot Royer a glance.

“I’m glad,” Royer said, and he sounded very relieved and very sad.

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