Of all the people in my family, I was the last person anyone expected to inherit the Hinterlander from our eccentric Uncle. I was fresh from graduating at the University, my whole career path laid out before me to be a first-rate librarian, and I was waiting to hear back from some promising prospects. Gathered around at the reading of the will, I’d expected a knick-knack, or maybe some of his books from his travels around the world, but the lawyer read:
“To my niece, Alexandra Schau, I leave my Hinterlander.”
Silence fell over the room as all eyes turned to me. There was surprise, but mostly anger, as I’d just inherited the most valuable ‘thing’ from Uncle Eckehard’s estate.
I cleared my throat and pushed my black, curved frame glasses up the bridge of my nose with my index finger.
“I-I’m sorry, but what did you just say?” A nervous titter making me stutter my words at first. There had to be some mistake.
“You are Alexandra Schau, yes?” he asked, white brows drawing down over deep-set, blue eyes, which were framed by copious wrinkles and half-frame, silver glasses. We had a large family, and many more pages of the will to go through if the stack on the mahogany, clawfoot desk was any indication. His tone and posture said he didn’t appreciate the interruption, as his mouth turned down in a frown, deepening the wrinkles next to his thin lips.
“Well, yes, I am,” I said, tremulously.
He grunted and waved a liver-spotted hand, dismissing me as he looked back down at the will, the over head gas lamps creating a golden glow on his bald pate.
“Then you receive the Hinterlander. Now, to my–” he continued, but the blood rushing in my ears drowned him out. All the air escaped from my body, and with wide, rust colored eyes, I scanned the room for the closest exit. Before anyone could move to stop me, I bolted from the room, my beige and gray, low-heeled, oxford shoes making nervous clicks on the chestnut-stained, hardwood floors.
Spotting the glass, double-doors that opened onto the wooden veranda overlooking the back of his vast estate, I rushed out into the crisp autumn air, and took gulping breaths to clear my head. After a moment I stood, still a little dizzy, and found that I’d caught the eye of several servants out to light the lamps to ward off the gathering dusk. I plastered a nervous, frozen smile across my face, and made my way down the steps towards the gardens, seeking solitude.
As my breath fogged in the chilly air, I pulled my soft, wide grey scarf and hat from a pocket on my matching, double-breasted, wool pea coat. The bottom edge of the jacket stopped not far above my full, knee-length, beige skirt, and grey, cable-knit, knee high socks. I hadn’t dressed for a stroll in the weather, and now that my shock was wearing off in the face of the cooler temperatures, I grumbled as I pulled the knitted hat over my butterscotch blonde, wide curly hair.
“He couldn’t have just given me a few books, oh, no, he had to go and give me that lumbering beast!” I fumed, and threw the scarf around my neck, not paying attention to where I was going.
“That’s not very nice. How would you like to be called a lumbering beast?” A gravelly voice asked, and I stopped short with a surprised gasp. I’d been concentrating so hard on the gravel path, and my predicament, I had almost run into the man in front of me.
He wasn’t particularly tall, but he was sturdy, with large, calloused hands, easily hefting three bags of some type of feed over one massive shoulder. His face almost had a rough, unfinished quality to it, with a wide nose that had seen its fair share of breaks, and a square jaw with more stubble on it than polite society deemed appropriate. Thick, wavy black hair was longer on the top, and half-slicked back, while the sides were almost completely shorn to his skull. He wore navy blue, long-sleeved coveralls, with a brown, thermal Duck jacket over top. His black work boots were large, and worn in most places, indicating years, or hard, use.
“Well?” he prompted, thick eyebrows drawing down over golden brown eyes.
“I-well-I suppose not,” I managed, my voice coming out wobbly and soft as I cringed back from him in embarrassment. If my speech and debate professor could see me know, I’d surely get a firm talking to for how horribly spoken I was tonight. It was just too many abrupt occurrences in a single night for this librarian-to-be. I was going into my particular field for its consistency, with surprises only coming from the pages of the books I loved to read. All this real life stuff was too much on the nerves.
He considered me for a moment longer, then huffed out a laugh. “Fair enough. So you’re Oris’ new owner, then?”
“Oris?” I asked, then my eyes widened again. “Oh, you must mean the Hinterlander.”
“Aye. Apparently they didn’t see fit to give you his name,” he groused, and shifted the load on his shoulder.
“No, the lawyer did not inform me of his name,” I admitted, and eyed the bags. “Would you like to continue on your way; surely those are heavy.” I pointed to the bags on his shoulders.
“They are,” he admitted, “but they’ll keep. Would you like to visit him?” he asked, and I froze, again.
“I, um, I have a terrible time with animals,” I confessed, and the man chuckled.
“Ol’ Eckehard sure did have a peculiar sense of humor. At any rate, follow me and we’ll see about getting you over your fear.” He moved past me and didn’t look back to see if I followed, but I did so, anyway, nearly jogging to keep up with his purposeful strides.
“It’s not a fear, per say, we just don’t seem to get along very well.”
“If I can smell the fear on you, they surely can. You’re scared–no two ways about it, but Oris is a gentle giant,” he informed me, and I bristled at the accusation., though he couldn’t see me.
“I am not scared, Mister?”
“It’s Bernhard, not Mister anything, and mayhaps if you keep telling yourself that, you’ll actually believe it.” Mirth danced in his words, making fun of me, though not in any particularly cruel way. It still grated at my nerves like nails on a chalkboard.
“Well, Mister Bernhard,” I said, placing emphasis on the prefix, needling him in turn, “thank you for that interesting observation.” My voice took on the prim and proper acidic tone I’d heard thousands of times from teachers and fellow family members when something riled them, but Bernhard wasn’t impressed.
“Aye, I suppose we will,” he countered, amiably. I ground my teeth and clenched my fists at my sides. Men!
We weren’t walking much longer before we came to a stable, with a large hill not far behind it. A couple of young stablehands ran up to unburden Bernhard, and he turned to consider me a moment more.
“I’d normally have you change, but he’s not likely to be very lively this time of day. Follow me.” He turned back around and made his way toward the barn.
I gulped when he wasn’t looking, the impending meeting looming large in my mind and wiping away what little tough persona I’d built up in the last few minutes. I was curious, however, why we were heading to the barn, because even an infant Hinterlander would find it difficult to fit in the structure, until Bernhard made his way around and to the back.
“Oris, you lazy mountain, time to meet your new keeper,” he shouted. Then the hill behind the barn moved, and took my breath away.
The grumbling of the large beast as it turned its large head to consider Bernhard, blinking huge, moss green eyes that were longer than I was tall but maybe waist-height, was like a small earthquake beneath our feet. It’s nose was two men tall, and jutted upward like a stalagmite, while it’s pointed chin was half that size and pointed downward like a stalactite. The portholes that were its nostrils huffed out a breath that kicked up dirt, rocks, and bits of hay. It had rigid, fin-like protrusions from the sides of its skull, easily the length of four horses stretched our from nose to rump, while its pointed ears swiveled our way. It’s body, folded in on itself, had random horns jutting from its elbows and knees. When standing, Hinterlander stances were a mix of dog-like on their hind legs with claws that dug deep into the earth, and like a gorilla with their front arms, using their knuckles to lumber forward.
The most impressive, and desirable, trait, however, was the small forest that grew on their gigantic backs, complete with Evergreen trees, various bushes, and moss in place of grass. They were dead useful for travelers of all types, for protection and camping purposes, though they were difficult to feed and water at times. They were herbivores, so they grazed just about any green thing they could manage to find, though most could go a month or so between grazing due to the large boulders in their stomachs to aid in digestion.
Oris took one look at me, let out another huff, and promptly turned away, ignoring me. Apparently, he wasn’t impressed with what he saw.
“He’s been a bit down since your Uncle’s death,” Bernhard apologized, almost blushing at the behavior of the Hinterlander, and moved forward to poke him. “Oy, you great lump. That’s no way to act to Miss–” he stopped and gave me a somewhat sheepish grin. “I don’t rightly know your name.”
I walked forward, heart hammering in my chest as though a rabbit were beating its legs against my rib cage. I reached out a tentative hand to touch his arm, and received a low grumble for my bravery. The skin was warm and leathery, almost the way an elephant’s was, but tougher.
“Alexandra,” I whispered, and an ear perked in my direction. “My name is Alexandra Shau, and I miss my Uncle, too,” I choked out as the tears pooled in my eyes and flowed down my cheeks.
Everything had been so sudden–his death from lung sickness that took him in mere days, his estate being distributed among the various members of the family, and even Oris. Uncle Ecke had been the one to encourage me to go to the University, when most young women my age had set their sights on finding a husband, and he’d even paid for it when my parents and the student loan officer refused. He’d been the only one to come to my graduation, mere days before his untimely death, and most of my fondest memories were of the stories he’d tell from his adventures and books.
“The world is waiting for you, Xandra, if you only you can find the courage to go out and meet it.” Those had been his words to me all those years, and with his final gift, he’d given me the proverbial boot out the door he believed I needed.
Oris turned his head to consider me, and I had to duck beneath the fins to avoid being clobbered. After a long blink, he closed his eyes, tilted his head, and gently rested his head against me, consolingly.
I laughed thickly, my nose stuffy from even a brief stint of crying, and embraced the Hinterlander the way no family member had ever made an effort to outside of Uncle.
“Perhaps we can be friends?” I asked, and the creature leaned away from me to consider me again, and grumbled. He extended his neck out and paused.
“He wants you to scratch his neck. It’s a sign of trust among their kind,” Bernhard said, not bothering to hide how impressed he was.
I blushed, though he couldn’t see me in the darkness that had fallen since we’d arrived, despite the soft light of the lamps and torches. Reaching up, I scratched his neck and around his jaw, and the grumbling turned into almost a purr, if purrs were similar to the rumbling of the earth before a quake.
“I think we’ll have many adventures, you and I, just as Uncle would have liked. Maybe I can even build a traveling library on your back.” Oris harrumphed, but continued to sit still for the attention.
I laughed at his incredulity, and gave him a quick kiss. “We’ll work on it.”