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, with 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 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 stutter made me stumble over my words. 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.
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 eyes, I scanned the room for the closest exit. Before anyone could move to stop me, I bolted from the room, my gray, low-heeled shoes making nervous click-clacks on the 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, closing the doors behind me and leaning against them with a thud. I 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 for the evening. 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 grey scarf and hat from a pocket on my matching, double-breasted, wool coat. The bottom edge of the jacket stopped not far above my knee-length, beige skirt, and grey, 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 curly, butterscotch blonde 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’d almost run into the man.
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 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 jacket over top. His black work boots were large, and worn in most places.
“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 hear me this evening, I’d surely get a firm talking to for how horribly spoken I’d been in all my interactions. 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 for 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.
I froze again. “I, um, I have a terrible time with animals,” I confessed.
The man chuckled and shook his head. “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, 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.
I bristled at the accusation, though he couldn’t see me. “I am not scared, Mister?”
“It’s Bernhard, not Mister anything. Mayhaps if you keep telling yourself that, you’ll actually believe it.” Mirth danced in his words, making fun of me, though not in a 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.
“You’re welcome,” he said, words amiable.
I ground my teeth and clenched my fists at my sides, but said nothing further. We weren’t walking much longer before we came to a stable, with a large hill not far behind it. A couple of young stable hands ran up to unburden Bernhard, and he turned to consider me a moment more.
“I’d normally have you change, but he’s not 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. Then Bernhard made his way around the building, 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 head to consider Bernhard, was like a small earthquake beneath our feet. It blinked huge, moss green eyes that were longer than I was tall, but maybe waist-height. 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, and I pulled up my scarf over my mouth and nose to keep the dust from getting in.
It had rigid, fin-like protrusions from the sides of its skull, easily the length of four horses stretched out from nose to rump, while its pointed ears swiveled our way. It’s body, folded in on itself, had horns jutting from its elbows and knees. When standing, Hinterlander stances were a mix of dog 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 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, and had 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, blushing at the behavior of the Hinterlander. He 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.
I pulled the scarf down from my face. “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 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. 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. If I was being honest with myself, those job prospects had little to do with my marks from University, and more to do with being Duke Florian Eckehard’s great-great niece.
“The world won’t wait for you, Xandra, you have to find the courage to go out and meet it.” Those had been his words to me all those years ago, and with that he’d given me the proverbial boot out the door.
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 leaned it against me.
My laugh was thick, since my nose got stuffy from even a brief stint of crying, and I embraced the Hinterlander the way no family member had with me, outside of Uncle.
“Perhaps we can be friends?” I asked.
The creature leaned away as though 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 likely couldn’t see me in the darkness that had fallen since we’d arrived. The only light came from the lamps ringing the barn, but their soft glow wasn’t strong enough to reach us all the way out here.
Reaching up, I scratched his neck and around his jaw, and the grumbling turned into 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.”