The end of childhood innocence during one brutal Lithuanian winter. Partly inspired by the soon to be released 'prequel' novel and film.
The Fires of Heaven 1: Wolves
Private Weisz rolled the pine needles from side to side in his mouth, enjoying the tangy flavour as he emptied his bladder in a steaming arc against the rough bark of a handy Norwegian fir. He hummed under his breath and did his best to ignore the gnawing hunger in his gut. The Oberleutenant would have to choose another one soon to keep them all fed, or risk another mutiny. Abruptly, Private Weisz's appetite fled before the thought of the... meal... and he wished he had not thought of it at all. The sour pine needles bit at his throat, and he spat them into the snow at his feet as he finished his business.
The pop of a frozen twig snapping in the cavernous dark of the forest behind him sent a thrill of superstitious fear racing up his spine. Hastily, he stuffed himself back into his khakis and buttoned the fly. He half turned in time to see a wolf, winter gaunt, ghost through the shadows under the trees to his left. The wolf paused, one forepaw raised, and studied Weisz for an infinite second before disappearing like grey smoke into the night. The young soldier shook his head and reached for his weapon. The wolves were starving too, which was bad news for any unarmed men caught alone in the wild at night. Weisz cradled the submachine gun to his thin chest and stared after the dull-eyed animal. The cold gunmetal of his MP719 was thoroughly comforting on a night such as this.
He was startled out of his reverie yet again by the sharp report of a gunshot echoing in the valley, followed by male voices raised in anger.
"The barn!" Unteroffizier Scherer's deep voice roared in the distance. "Lads! The barn!"
Weisz obeyed with haste, slipping and sliding down the snowy slope towards the manor house and outbuildings below. The great dark skeleton of the old barn loomed before him. Children's voices, thin and cold, rose shrilly in fear on the icy night air and the rough voices of the men joined them in counterpart.
"Shut up! For God's sake, someone shut them up! Jesus..." Oberleutenant Dresner scuffed his way through the snow to the circle of light at the sentry post by the barn door. His hands deep in the pockets of his field coat, Dresner scowled around at the hastily assembled men. His gaze finally alighted on Private Weisz, panting from his headlong rush down the slope. "You, boy!" the Oberleutenant roared, justifiably angry. Weisz gulped, his Adam's apple bobbing.
"Sir?" he muttered nervously, avoiding his superior's eyes.
"You were on stag duty, yes? Explain yourself."
"I had to... to... I had to take a piss. Sir." Weisz belatedly added the honorific. Someone behind him sniggered. He rather thought it was Neumann.
The Oberleutenant glared at him. "So you abandon your post to answer the call of nature, and let one of the little bastards escape!"
"I'm sorry..." Weisz began, but Dresner cut him off.
"You will be if the kid makes it to civilisation. If the S.S. discovers our position... Do I need to draw you a fucking picture, Private?" His eyes glinted dangerously as he stared at Weisz.
Private Weisz shifted his feet uncomfortably. The firing squad was probably the least of what they'd face if they got caught. Especially after... He shuddered.
"And we don't want that, do we boys?" Dresner finished, softly. He included the rest of his men in the next glare he bestowed upon Weisz. "So next time, piss on the damn barn! Well? What are you all waiting for, the other ball to drop? Get out there and find the kid!" The stench of whiskey hit Weisz full in the face, and he resisted the urge to gag on the sickly sweetness. Dresner turned on his heel and limped furiously away, muttering imprecations under his breath.
A heavy hand fell on to Weisz's shoulder and he turned to see the burly and reassuring form of the unit's one remaining Gefreiter, Vogt. "Don't worry, lad. The old man won't even remember this in the morning. Not like any kid can survive out there for long on his own, anyway."
"Which one was it?" Weisz asked as he checked his weapon and flicked the safety off.
"The one whose arm I broke," the Gefreiter answered shortly.
The seven ex soldiers fell automatically into a search pattern and quartered the ground around the barn for tracks. After several minutes, Private Krueger shouted that he had found child's footprints leading off into the woods.
"Looks like he could be headed for the river," Scherer said, crouching to examine the marks in the light of a lantern.
"Kid knows the area better than we do," Bauer growled through broken teeth.
"Yeah," Scherer agreed, rising to his feet and dusting his hands on his field coat. "But he's small and injured. He won't get far." The Unteroffizier looked around at the gaunt, shadowed faces of his men. "This doesn't need all of us. Vogt, Fleischer, go and find him. The rest of you, get back in where it's warm."
"All right, sarge," Krueger grinned. "How 'bout that game?" Scherer snorted and was about to respond when Weisz interrupted.
"Sarge? It's my fault. I should go look for him too."
The Unteroffizier spared the younger soldier a glance. "Fine. Go on then, lad. Just try not to lose anything you might want to get hold of later." Weisz was young enough to blush as crude laughter followed him into the dark.
Hannibal Lecter crouched in the tiny, dark cave of branches beneath a fallen fir. He had to stuff his fingers in his mouth to prevent whimpers of pain and exhaustion escaping him. He hoped that the men wouldn't notice the tiny curls of vapour leaving his lungs and trailing off like serpents in the cold night air. The snow was patchy beneath the trees, and he has used this to his advantage. Hannibal Lecter had not run blindly into the dark, although he had desperately wanted to. It had always been impressed upon him by the adults in his world that one did not wander the forest alone at night, especially when one was six. Half-formed ideas of somehow rescuing his fellow prisoners, of saving the day raced through his mind, but he did not know how. All he knew at this precise moment in time was that Mischa was dead, and he would soon die himself if the men caught him, or if he did not find shelter and something to eat. But the big guns booming in the far, far distance had scared off the game and he was not a hunter. He wished his father had not died. His father knew how to hunt, knew how to tickle the fat brown trout from the river, knew what was good to eat. And if his father was still alive, his mother would not have been raped and murdered by these callous men, and Mischa's teeth would not be in the stool pit at all. He shuddered and shook with the effort it took not to cry.
The boy pressed himself to the cold hard earth beneath his slender body and watched as the big sergeant's lantern bobbed away towards the house. Snatches of laughter and coarse conversation floated back to him on the night air, and then they were gone. The sounds of the men hunting him faded into the distance as they assumed he had simply run and not gone to ground like a hunted hare. They left one man to guard the barn, and this individual settled himself down by the door with his rifle resting on his knees and his cap tilted across his face. Hannibal could not tell if the man was asleep, but he hoped so.
A faint rustling in the scant undergrowth behind his hiding place made him start. His heart racing, Lecter drew back into the tiny dark and held his breath as groping hands blindly invaded his refuge. One hand brushed against his shoulder, and he bolted up and out towards freedom, but the questing hand was fast and seized his injured arm. His flight arrested and sharp, hot pain shooting up his arm, the boy kicked out as hard as could and his small foot made contact with someone's shin. The dead branches got in the way of his captor's attempts to haul him out, and the soldier was just about to shout to his comrades that he had the boy, when Hannibal bit down hard on the man's wrist, the only part of him that he could reach. Hannibal's small, sharp teeth were strong enough to break skin and the coppery tang of fresh blood filled his mouth. Like a terrier with a rat, Hannibal Lecter hung on with his teeth until the cursing soldier gave a great heave and flung his small assailant off. The boy hit the ground with a yelp of pain, scrambled to his feet and ran without looking back. From the sound of angry voices behind him, he guessed that the commotion had roused the sentry and he had two men in pursuit.
He ran, skirting logs and standing trees, doing his best to avoid the patches of snow beneath gaps in the canopy of branches, but it was almost impossible to avoid leaving some traces of his flight. Hannibal ran until his lungs threatened to burst and spots danced before his eyes. The sounds of pursuit trailed off, and still he ran until his foot caught in a gnarled root protruding from the iron hard earth and he tumbled headlong into the pit left by the roots of a fallen tree. He landed hard and the breath was driven from his body, but he curled reflexively around his broken limb and remained like that as darkness claimed him.
The search had not gone well. Private Fleischer brandished his bitten wrist and told of the fierce little boy with the demon's eyes until his comrades swore and told him to shut up. Scherer was more pragmatic about the entire situation. "He'll be dead within two days if he doesn't find shelter," he growled to the warm kitchen at large. "And if we don't find him, the wolves will. We'll go out looking in the morning, when it's light. If he's already dead..." Scherer's voice trailed off and the men avoided each other's eyes.
"Better he's dead," Krueger said into the silence, and spat on the floor.
The grey light of day and the aching hunger in his belly woke Hannibal Lecter. He lay there in the dirt and dead pine needles, staring up at the snow-laden sky without seeing it. His mind drifted. Food... shelter... food... shelter... so hungry... A tiny pebble rattled down to the earth beside him and he returned to his body. A gaunt grey wolf stood above him, its breath rising in a great cloud as its thin sides heaved. Hannibal and the wolf looked at each other, and slowly the boy's hand groped for a stone. The movement caught the beast's attention for a moment, and it seemed to decide that moving meat was not worth its scant reserves of energy. It backed away and trotted into the undergrowth. Hannibal forced himself to breathe slowly, to sit up and take stock of his situation. He was, once again, alone in the forest.
He crawled out of the hole and stood, looking around. Everything looked the same. In all directions there were trees, stretching off into the distance for what seemed like forever. However, there was one jarring note in the peace and endless sameness of his surroundings. Hannibal stepped up to a nearby fir and tilted his head back, gazing up at a mark on the trunk a couple of feet above his dark head. Someone had peeled off a goodly slice of bark at some time in the past. He knew it was a signpost, and he knew it meant he was near the old hunting cabin.
Following the marked trees, stumbling across the uneven and frozen ground, Hannibal came at last to a tiny wooden hut set in a small clearing. Snow frosted the roof and rough logs of the walls. The cabin was Christmas card perfect in it's picturesque setting. He had been here once before, with his father. Finding a stick, Hannibal knocked the rusty key off its hook by the ill-fitting door and let himself in. The door stuck upon closing, and refused to pull to properly, but the boy didn't care. There was a thin blanket still on the bed from his father's summer trip and he stripped it off and wrapped it around himself. Taking stock produced a tallow candle stub, a chipped enamel jug and shaving bowl, and an old rusty cut throat. The smell of the old fat of the candle made his mouth water, and he shaved slices off with the razor and crammed them into his mouth. Saliva dribbled down his chin in his haste to eat, and Hannibal closed his eyes against the taste of the tallow and chewed.