Frankfurt was home. It was where his own bed was, where he met his fellow hunters and close friends. Hector lived great parts of his life on the road, and he enjoyed the freedom, was as passionate about his work as any hunter, and easily felt restless if he had to stay in one place for too long. But whenever he saw the familiar silhouettes of towers and spires rising behind the city wall, he felt that he came home.
As it was, Hector had recently had a small accident on a hunt, and although it was hardly serious enough to keep him bedridden, it would be reckless to go out again right away. And so he helped out at the headquarters to the best of his abilities. He would get restless if he didn’t.
The snow had been falling steadily for most of the night and the morning when Hector set out to run an errand for the kitchen staff. A stable hand was shovelling the courtyard, and they greeted each other with a wave of the hand. He waded through the snow and the gate separating the headquarters from the city and soon found himself in the middle of one of the busiest streets at this time of the year. The windows of the stores were decorated with shiny glass baubles and branches from fir trees, and when he passed a bakery, Hector’s nose was met with the smell of gingerbread and cinnamon. Above him, garlands hung from the houses and crossed the street.
A city the size of Frankfurt naturally had a lot of stores and groceries, but they all seemed to be out of the spices that Hector had been sent out to buy. Perhaps the time of year was to blame. Everybody was probably stocking up and getting ready for the big day tomorrow. After visiting several stores, Hector had to admit defeat. There was only one place left that was likely to have the last of the spices. He had not been in that particular store for years now. After all, Rebekka had made it quite clear that she wanted nothing to do with him, and he had respected that.
He could see the store from where he was standing now. A horse carriage passed him in a flurry of snow and jingling bells. He briefly considered paying a kid to run the errand for him, but it was silly of him to think of it. It had been years. He rarely thought of her. Why should she still think of him? He hardly had that much power over anyone. She was a grown woman who had undoubtedly married someone by now.
Hector straightened his back, adjusted the collar of his coat and combed back his hair with his left hand. She probably wasn’t even in there. Before he could change his mind, the hunter crossed the street, kicked the snow off his boots in front of the store and then pushed open the door. The sound of the bell was the same that had greeted him years ago. And the smell was the same, too. It was almost like stepping back in time, but there was not the bitter ache in the back of his mind that usually tagged along when he visited his family’s farmstead. This was a cozy reminder of the past.
At first the store looked empty. Hector looked around. Everything was the way he remembered it. Suddenly a figure appeared behind the counter. The person had been bent over to pick something up or put something under it and stood up to greet the customer now. Her face wore a kind and inquisitive smile, and locks of fair hair tumbled from the bun on her head, leaving a thin veil over her ears. She was not very tall, but her face was pretty. And she was Rebekka.
“Hector?” she said. It sounded a little like someone had punched her in the stomach. She covered her mouth with a hand.
“Rebekka,” Hector replied. Should he bow? Shake her hand? Embrace her?
Rebekka was smiling now. She stepped around the counter to better see him. “I haven’t seen you since … for years!”
“No,” he said. “That’s true. I …” He stopped himself before telling her which spices he was there to get because that seemed too impersonal. But what was he going to say otherwise? He could feel the snow in his hair melt and run down the back of his neck.
“How are you?”
Trapped in Frankfurt for Christmas because a hunt went askew. His wrist hurt annoyingly. Shaving was difficult because of it and because of a scratch on his chin. But that wasn’t what she was asking. He was a good hunter, and he had never once regretted his decision not to marry her. He would never have been happy with her. But that probably wasn’t what she was asking, either. “I’m well, thank you. Fine. And yourself?”
She shook her head. At him? His awkwardness? “I’m doing well, Hector. What happened?” She made a small gesture towards his hand.
“Just an accident. Nothing serious,” he replied and shrugged.
Rebekka nodded. “That’s good. Well, I suppose it’s redundant to ask you if you’re still a hunter. Are you … Have you found someone?”
“No,” he replied. “I’m busy with my job.”
“Ah. I see.” She still looked friendly, but also a little indulgent. What was she thinking?
Hector didn’t quite like the compassion on her face because what could there possibly be to be compassionate about? He was happy with his life, thank you very much. “And you?”
She smiled. “I’m married. I met Heinz, my husband, shortly after we went our separate ways.”
Hector nodded. He looked up at the spices on the shelf. It must be acceptable to get them and go now.
“Oh, Hector. You really haven’t changed. You only grew up a little bit,” she said, smiling.
“Won’t you …” She caught his glance. “It’s strange to see you again after all these years. So much has happened, to both of us. Won’t you dine with us sometime? I’m sure the children would like to meet you.”
Why in the world would they want to meet him? Had she told them about him? An if she had, then what had she said? He realised that he must have become a story. A mysterious person from her past. The hunter who protected them all from werewolves. The hunter she had almost married. “Dine?” he repeated sheepishly. “I don’t know … When?”
“Perhaps in a couple of weeks? After Christmas of course,” she said. “I’m sure you must have plans …”
She didn’t sound very sure, Hector noticed. But he did. Now that he was home, he was going to spend Christmas with the people who were his family now. “I’m afraid I won’t be in Frankfurt for long,” he replied. No, he was certainly not going to eat dinner with her family.
Before Rebekka had time to answer, the bell on the door chimed again and a young boy came running towards Rebekka.
“Samuel!” she exclaimed gave him a quick hug. The boy had thick, brown hair flecked with snow.
A portly man entered behind him. He was carrying a sack full of nuts according to the writing on it.
“Heinz!” Rebekka continued. “This is Hector Rothenberg.”
Including his surname and everything. Hector suppressed a sigh. He might as well run around with a nametag around his neck and juggle something to entertain people if he was going to be showcased like this.
Rebekka’s husband looked Hector up and down while he put the sack down. He pushed strawberry blond hair away from his forehead and smiled politely, but the grimace didn’t quite reach his light blue eyes. “Well, hello, hunter,” he said and reached out his hand.
Hector shook it with a smile that matched the other man’s. “Hello. Nice to meet you.” Not at all.
“Is he … that Hector?” the boy asked. He was staring at the customer with big, round eyes. How old was he? Six or seven at the most.
“Yes, it is,” his mother replied. “Say hello, Samuel.”
“Hello, Hector,” the boy said and offered Hector his hand.
Hector smiled. The husband seemed reserved, but the son was friendly. “Hi, Samuel.”
“Is it true that you and mum were friends before she met dad?” the boy asked.
“Samuel …” Heinz began.
“Yes, we knew each other years ago.” A long time before the boy was born. Or not that long, actually.
“Have you seen a real werewolf?”
Now he was on safe ground. Hector was much more used to talking to curious children than the husbands of former girlfriends. “Oh yes. Quite a lot of them.”
“And have you shot them? Did a werewolf break your hand?”
“Yes, that was a werewolf. But I shot it,” Hector replied.
“Samuel, I’m sure the hunter has more important things do do than to answer your questions,” Heinz said.
“I don’t mind,” Hector said. “But I did come to buy a few things.”
“Of course. What do you need?” Rebekka asked.
Hector listed the spices, and she and Heinz began taking things off the shelves.
“Why don’t you have our rifle with you?” Samuel asked.
“There aren’t many werewolves around here, but I have this one with me,” Hector replied and patted the revolver holster on his hip.
“They don’t come here because they know you look after Frankfurt, right?”
Rebekka left her husband to wrap up Hector’s spices. “It was good to see you, Hector,” she said.
“Will you be back soon?” Samuel asked.
Not if he could help it. The boy was very nice indeed, but he couldn’t just visit Rebekka’s son. That would be odd. “I travel a lot, so I am not in Frankfurt for very long at a time,” he explained.
“No, that’s how it is,” Heinz agreed and put the purchases on the counter.
Hector paid and said goodbye to Heinz and Samuel and then Rebekka who, unexpectedly, hugged him. “Think about it, Hector. You’re welcome if you want to.”
“Now, now, let the poor man get back to work,” Heinz said. Hector couldn’t quite decide whom of them he meant. “Have a good hunt.”
“Thank you,” Hector replied.
“Yes, good hunt, Hector,” said Rebekka.
Hector smiled and made a quick retreat. His wrist protested when he opened the door, but he managed to get out and briskly cross the street. It was snowing more now, and a choir made up of three women and two men was singing merrily on the next corner. One of the women was holding out a hat to those who passed by, and once in a while someone would toss a coin into it. Hector began to make his way back to the hunters’ headquarters. He could use some good company and something warm to drink after this trip. As soon as he had dropped off the spices in the kitchen, he would go see if Peter had time for a cup of tea.