Even prey percieved as weak can be dangerous when cornered.
The Fires of Heaven 2: Blooded
Morning in the old forest, and the search continued. Private Weisz swore as his foot broke through the thin crust of snow and ice concealing a small stream and he plunged up to his knees in icy water. Fully expecting to stumble across the boy's frozen body at every step, Weisz was taking his time with his search, and he had long since separated from the other deserters looking for the child. Weisz scrambled out of the stream and gained solid ground. He stamped his feet vigorously in a futile attempt to warm them, but the water had done its work. His teeth chattering and his lips already turning blue with cold, Weisz was about to turn and head back to the camp when his eye caught the glint of something artificial through the trees in the distance.
Private Weisz was barely twenty, but he had seen his fair share of combat and he reacted with the instincts of a trained soldier. Sinking into a half crouch, he darted behind the nearest tree and fumbled at his webbing for his binoculars. Focusing them on the spot, he made out the rear of a tiny cabin in an equally tiny clearing not far ahead. Frowning, Weisz tucked the binoculars away and considered his options. Though he agreed with Scherer when he thought it highly unlikely that the boy had gone far, he nevertheless felt obliged to check the building out - especially as there seemed like the chance of a warm fire and perhaps something to eat. He straightened up, pressed his back to the tree and tucked the butt of his weapon tightly into his shoulder. Weisz closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He let it out slowly, and then repeated the process until his breathing and heartbeat were regular and controlled. His lips moved silently as he mouthed a brief prayer to the Virgin Mary, as he always did before heading into a potentially dangerous situation. Then Private Weisz ducked out from behind his tree and advanced on his target. He zig-zagged from cover to cover, scanning the surrounding forest for signs of life, and constantly checking the clearing ahead for movement. There was none.
Weisz did not relax his guard, even as he crouched behind a tree on the very edge of the clearing. He could see no obvious signs of current occupation, although someone had been here recently. The door was ajar, and the snow was disturbed near the front, as if something had been dragged in or out. The former soldier circled the hut once, keeping to the tree line. He noted with delight the small pile of firewood stacked against the back wall, half buried in snow. Finally, he approached the door as quietly as he could. A little nudge with his foot revealed that the door had jammed on a floorboard, and he kicked it as hard as he could. The door crashed wide open and rebounded off the wall behind as Weisz leapt into the single, cramped room and rapidly scanned it for occupants. Finding it empty, he finally relaxed and lowered his gun. Unbuckling his webbing with one hand, he shrugged out of the heavy harness and slung it casually on to the bed. His weapons were about to follow when his eye was drawn to the sliver of darkness beneath the narrow bunk. A decidedly unpleasant feeling that he was not alone in the cabin swept over him then, and the back of his neck prickled. Weisz did lay aside his submachine gun, placing it carefully on the grey and lumpy mattress. He drew his sidearm by feel alone, and gripping the pistol tightly, the young man crouched to look beneath the bed. It was dark and dirty, and the dust tickled his nose. The space was empty. Weisz breathed a sigh of relief and straightened up. He re-holstered his Luger and undid his field jacket.
A brief trip outside produced enough firewood for a small fire, and Weisz soon had one going in the empty grate. He removed his boots and set them by the fire to dry as he warmed his frozen lower half. Once his feet had thawed a little, the former soldier investigated the room for things to eat. He found an old mug and a bowl, but nothing remotely edible. Disappointed, Weisz instead flung himself on the lumpy bed, amidst his weapons and webbing. Though he intended to close his eyes for only a few minutes, the heat of the fire and exhaustion from lack of food sent him to sleep in moments. He did not hear the tiniest of fearful coughs from near the fireplace, nor did he observe the occasional trickle of soot from the chimney.
An hour passed. The fire died down to glowing embers. The cabin was silent save for Weisz's soft snores and an occasional creak from the bed as he shifted in his sleep.
There was a faint rustle from the chimney. A foot appeared in the grate, scattering embers. A second foot followed the first, and then their owner crouched and peered out. A small boy, certainly not older than six or seven, looked warily around the room. Maroon eyes came to rest on the sleeping figure of Private Weisz, and narrowed. The small boy's face was hard with anger and fear, and his eyes were cold.
Hannibal Lecter scrambled awkwardly out of the grate, his broken arm hanging uselessly at his side. He breathed in huge gulps of blessedly fresh air, and wiped his aching eyes on his ragged sleeve. Having stood on a tiny ledge in the wide stone chimney, barely a couple of feet above the fire for over an hour, he was stiff and his chest was tight with the effort it had taken to breathe shallowly and not cough.
Now he crept slowly towards the bed, freezing at every creak of the old floorboards. Although every instinct told him to run, curiosity held him fast and he advanced on the bed until he was standing beside the sleeping soldier, looking down upon him. Hannibal remembered Weisz. The young soldier had been kind to the children in the barn, and with his eye glued to a knot in the wooden wall, Hannibal had witnessed him vomiting copiously into the snow after they had taken Mischa.
Mischa... Tears pricked behind the boy's eyes, and he blinked them away. Crying, he had discovered, achieved very little. Most adults reacted favourably to a small child crying, but not these hard men. They were somehow different from the adults he had known. Perhaps, he thought, they were not men at all but something else entirely. Perhaps they were like the hollow-sided wolves who roamed the forest near the farm and fields, and who picked over the bodies of the slain and the bones in the rubbish pit. Yes, he decided, they only looked like men.
Lost in thought and the study of Weisz's gaunt and unshaven face, Hannibal was mildly surprised to discover that the old cut throat razor had somehow found its way into his hand, when it had been safely tucked away in his pocket. He looked at it for an endless moment, turning it this way and that, seemingly mesmerised by the patterns of rust and light on the blade. The pointed tip of his tongue slipped out and slowly caressed his upper lip before withdrawing into his mouth once more. Private Weisz grunted and twitched in his sleep.
Hannibal Lecter allowed the old blanket to slip from his thin shoulders and puddle at his feet. He climbed stiffly on to the bed beside Weisz, his eyes never leaving the man's face. Kneeling there next to the sleeping soldier, Hannibal knew exactly what he was going to do. He hardly needed to think of it at all, it seemed as natural as breathing.
His hand barely shook as he leant awkwardly over Weisz and pressed the sharp edge of the razor to the soft skin below Weisz's left ear. He had seen pigs slaughtered on the farm before, and knew precisely how it was done. He knew that some pressure was needed to break the skin and slice through the muscle beneath, and he pushed down hard on the old blade and dragged it firmly across Weisz's throat, finishing under the soldier's right ear. The blade parted the flesh and gristle of the throat with ease, and Weisz's eyes snapped open in terror and pain as his arterial spray hit Hannibal squarely in the face. The warm, sticky liquid trickled between his lips and ran into his eyes. His face a mask of blood, Hannibal Lecter calmly watched Private Weisz arc and shudder, until his flailing arm caught the boy in the chest and sent him tumbling to the floor. He hissed in pain as he landed, and slowly climbed to his feet once more. He watched impassively as Weisz thrashed out his last moments on the bed. He flapped and twitched like one of the brown trout Hannibal's father used to tickle out of the river. Weisz gasped and gurgled, his eyes starting from their sockets as he vainly attempted to fill his lungs with air. Both bleeding dry and suffocating in his own life's blood, Weisz turned hopeless eyes to the solemn face of the boy standing beside him. The soldier's eyes held a question, Hannibal thought, but he declined to answer. The wet gurgle became a death rattle as Weisz gave one last convulsive shudder and was still, empty eyes still meeting Lecter's own.
Nothing moved in the cabin save for the blood dripping slowly onto the floor. Hannibal Lecter watched the corpse until spots danced before his eyes and realised he was holding his breath. He released it in one explosive sigh, and wiped the blade on the sleeve of his filthy shirt. The pigs had always made more noise, he reflected. The ear-splitting squeals had always frightened Mischa.
The taste of blood on his lips and the thought of butchering made his stomach growl, and the boy scrambled back onto the bed to search Weisz's pockets for food. Ignoring the blood, Hannibal rummaged through the dead man's jacket and webbing, but his investigations produced only an empty packet of American chewing gum. Popping it into his mouth, he sucked it vigorously and studied Weisz's face. The pale, bloodless flesh and protruding eyes gave the soldier a surprised expression. This was probably accurate, he mused. After all, Weisz was a full-grown man. He had not expected his small prey to bite. Hannibal Lecter laughed then, high and cold and amused. Perhaps they had more in common after all. Perhaps he only looked like a boy. Tickled by that thought, he spat out the wrapper, leant forward and touched his fingers to the gash below Weisz's jaw. He raised his bloody fingers to his mouth, and his tongue emerged once more. Delicately he licked his fingers clean, mulling over the taste.
Night fell quickly at this time of year, and it was dark in a matter of hours. However, Hannibal Lecter was oblivious to the onset of another night. Having eaten the rest of the tallow candle, he had curled up beside the cooling corpse and fallen asleep.
The estate was quiet. The children made no sound, and most of the men were inside the house. Fleischer had sentry duty at the barn, a lonely task at night, and cold. In the kitchen, tension was high. Weisz had not returned, and the boy had not been found. The theories ranged from wolf attack to Russians, to S.S. and even to vampires. Even the normally humourless Dresner had to chuckle at that one, but his humour had quickly fled as the night had drawn in. It did not seem inconceivable that a monster roamed the night in this lonely place. A glum silence settled, broken occasionally by the hiss and crackle of Signalman Krueger's radio. Faint German voices faded in and out of existence as he constantly listened in on reports of troop movements, both of their former comrades in arms, and that of the Red Army advancing into German-held territory.
It was Unteroffizier Scherer who observed Krueger's face go a blotchy grey. The weasel-faced comms officer swallowed hard and spoke into the silence.
"The Russians are coming."
"What?" Dresner demanded at once.
"They've punched through our lines. There's an armoured column less than twenty miles away..."
"A map! Quickly!" the Oberleutenant snapped, leaping to his feet. After a few moments of bewilderment, a map was duly produced and Dresner studied it intently as Krueger reeled off map references and estimated troop numbers. Dresner paled. "Time to bug out, boys. We don't want to be here."
Scherer stirred. "What about Weisz?"
"What about him?" Dresner said coldly. "It's us or him, Sergeant. If he's not here in fifteen minutes, we're leaving without him. Get your gear, my lads. We're heading southwest. There's a few hamlets, more estates... We can avoid our own side. We can burn this place to the ground, that'll attract their attention and give us time to disappear..." His voice trailed off as examined the map again.
"What about the kids, sir?" Vogt asked carefully. "We can't leave them locked in the barn."
Dresner looked at him. "You're right, Corporal. We can't. We can't leave them anywhere, and we can't take them with us."
"You mean..." Scherer whispered.
"I mean burn it. All of it." A silence. Dresner continued quietly. "If we leave them alive, they'll give us away. If we take them with us, they'll slow us down. And do you think either side will be lenient with us after what we've done?"
Scherer got to his feet. "You heard the Lieutenant," he said heavily. "There's petrol in the shed beside the farm cottage. Get on with it."
Fifteen minutes later, lurid flames rose to lick the night sky as the old farm truck rattled off into the dark. Sparks flickered and danced, spiralling up to the uncaring heavens.