Author's Note: Let's not pretend – we all know they don't belong to me! All credit goes to Kunze & Levay (most of it, anyway. I guess Seine Majestät did have a little to do with it …)
For Maz and Lucky, who held me spellbound and breathless. Every time.
Crash and rustle of bracken as the deer makes its frantic, haphazard way up the slope, darting from light to shadow to light again. So loud is the sound of its own flight that the hounds that follow appear to do so in silence; but they are there.
They are always there.
A leap and scurry, and the deer slips and stumbles and almost falls; drags itself back to its feet again and keeps going. Breath rasping painfully in its throat, heart beating dangerously fast, but still it keeps going, still it runs.
Always, it runs.
Always hunted. Always afraid.
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With an effort so great it feels his heart will burst right out of his chest, gasping for breath as though he were drowning in a dreadful pool of nightmare, the boy tears himself from sleep. Sweat-soaked sheets are wrapped so tightly about his small form that he can barely move; he kicks out, desperately, feeling the panic rising again. I can't get out, I can't get out, I can't –
One foot kicks too fiercely, too hard, and he feels the sheet tear, feels a draft of cold air across newly-exposed bare toes. An awful sensation begins to grow in the pit of his stomach. They'll beat him for that. They'll find the ripped material when they come to make the bed in the morning, they'll find it, they'll think he did it on purpose, and they'll tell tales to that man, and he'll be beaten again …
He starts to shake, wraps his arms tightly about himself, digs his fingers hard into his own flesh in an attempt to make it stop. But it only gets worse. And worse.
He stares around the room as if seeking an escape route. A way out; any way out. Anything. His eyes flick briefly toward the window but he knows what's there, though he cannot see it in the dark, and he has to stifle a cry at the mere thought of it.
He begins to imagine he can see them standing there in the corners where the shadows are deepest: the hunters. Watching him. No longer the hounds of his nightmare but men, faceless, nameless, staring hungrily at their terrified prey.
No! No, please –
He can hear his own breath now, a high, thin, reedy sound, a little whimpering plea for mercy.
And one of the shadows detaches itself from the darkness; a piece of the night come to life. It steps forward slowly, impossibly graceful, unquestionably real. The boy's heart thumps wildly, erratically; his body freezes. Horror makes his stomach turn over, a fresh wave of molten fear washing across his whole body; and the sheets imprisoning his thighs are suddenly wet, and hot, and he bursts finally into tears of shame and fear and impotent rage.
The shadow stops by the side of the bed, crouches down to be on the same level as the sobbing child; it reaches out, one pale hand floating, seemingly disembodied, ghost-white in all the relentless black.
A soft laugh, then; but not mocking, not cruel. It sounds almost rueful. And a voice, low and quiet: "Don't, little one. Don't cry."
The boy tries to stop, and hiccups, embarrassingly loud in the heavy silence. He presses hard against his closed eyes with the heels of his hands, trying to dash away the tears; but they won't stop.
"It's all right," whispers the shadow, and the boy feels a hand resting lightly on his back. "It's me," the voice continues, soft and dark and warm, "it's just me."
And Rudolf remembers.
Remembers unexpected warmth on another cold, lonely night; remembers comfort he had never dared to dream he would be given. He remembers a friend.
"I – I'm s-sorry, I – " he begins, still sniffling a little, and again there comes that small chuckle from his unseen companion.
"Sorry? For what?"
He feels the blood rising once more in his cheeks and hangs his head, miserably.
"For – "
"Don't be sorry," the newcomer interrupts. "Don't ever be sorry. You have nothing to apologise for."
"But I – "
"Nothing," the voice insists, and at first the boy doesn't realise what has happened; but then, with a gasp of amazement, he snatches at the sheet – soft, warm, dry, and whole – and holds it up close to his disbelieving eyes.
"What did you – how did you – ?" he stammers. "Are you a magician, then? Can you do magic?"
The mattress creaks a little as the dark figure rises from its crouch to sit beside Rudolf, who instinctively shifts to lean his head against the other's shoulder. A moment's hesitation, a sharp intake of breath; and then a strange, sad sigh, and he feels a strong arm around him, holding him close.
"I have … some small skill, nothing special," says the voice after a while. "I am no magician."
"But you can fix things, can't you?" Rudolf demands. A small hesitation, and then, more timidly, "Can you … make things disappear?"
The arm around the boy's back is taken abruptly away and for a terrible second he fears he has offended his midnight visitor with too many questions. But then he feels cool fingers take hold of his chin, tilting his head upwards, and he looks fully into the face of his mysterious friend, his saviour.
It takes his breath. He thinks, vaguely, that this must have been the one thing that he hadn't remembered from before; for how could such a face be held in anyone's mind without it driving them mad? All he sees at first is a blaze of blue and gold, of fierce eyes and a vivid tangle of long hair, and he flinches a little at the unforgiving beauty of it. Enormous eyes burn into his with an intensity that leaves him shaking again; but not, this time, with fear.
He finds himself staring at the pale-haired man's mouth, at the way the full lower lip twists slowly into a strange sort of smile. "Why do you ask?" his peculiar friend enquires, "What could be so threatening to a bold young prince such as yourself that you would need me to make it disappear?"
"So you can make it go?" Rudolf repeats his question, stubbornly sticking to his point. "Make it go away?"
The smile deepens. "Tell me." One hand comes up, slowly, to smooth away the hair that sweat has plastered to the child's forehead. And then a featherlight touch at his temple, an odd little caress so soft Rudolf thinks he may have imagined it; and yet he knows he did not. He smiles, feeling his skin crease in the places where his tears have dried.
"Nice?" The touch comes a second time.
"So. Tell me."
For a second or two Rudolf forgets what the question was in the first place. "What?" he asks, drowsy now.
"Tell me what you want."
The boy shudders; a shaky, nervous inhalation followed by a huge sigh. And then, his words tumbling over one another in the strange relief of confession, he blurts it out: "The gun. Over there. On the windowsill. He put it there, he says – that man – he says I have to get used to it, I have to – to ... but I don't, I can't, I hate it, hate it!" He reaches out, in blind panic, clutches the shoulders of the figure who sits opposite him – a figure gone suddenly still, barely breathing, head tilted slightly to one side.
"I want it gone!" Rudolf pleads, his voice growing louder. "Please! Make it go away!"
"I could ... " says the golden-haired man, slowly. He leans forward, until his eyes are all Rudolf can see. "I could. But I think there may be a better way."
"No! No, please! You have to – "
Something flickers in the depths of those impossibly blue eyes. Something that freezes the boy where he sits. But then the whatever-it-was melts, vanishes, and there is only warmth and concern once more.
"I do not have to. I do not have to do anything."
"But – "
"Let me finish, little one. I do not have to help – I choose to. There is a way ... we can make this problem go away. Together, we can."
"Make it – make the gun – go away?"
"No, my brave little princeling. No." An extraordinary smile spreads across the pale face; Rudolf narrows his eyes, dazzled. The soft voice continues, lower now, the golden head bent close to the smaller, darker one; telling secrets. "If I get rid of the gun as you ask me, what will happen? What will they do?"
"I don't – I don't know ... "
"They will bring another. I could get rid of that one, too, but a third will take its place. Do you think they will give up?"
Rudolf hangs his head, feels tears building again in his eyes. "No."
"No. They will never give up. It is not ... in their nature. But I promise you ... " The voice grows, for a moment, dark and dangerous and even more beautiful " ... nor is it in mine."
The boy draws a hand hastily across his face, lifts his chin again, tries to look like someone who won't give up, either. "So ... what are you going to do?"
"Nothing? But – but I thought ... "
"I am going to do nothing. You, however, are going to change the world."
Rudolf stares at him, open-mouthed. "I'm going to what?"
Again, that smile; impossibly inviting, luminous with promise. And perhaps just the tiniest bit insane. "You have no idea who you are, do you? No idea. And why would you? They tell you things, they say you must do this or you must learn that because one day you will need these ... skills ... but there's a difference between being told something and knowing it for yourself. And how could they expect you to understand that? You're just a child. But one day, Rudolf – "
The boy gasps, unable to stop himself. His friend has never used his name before; and something seems to leap inside him at the sound of those two simple syllables wrapped in the dark velvet of that voice. Something wants to respond.
" – one day, you will be the most important man in the world. One day they will respect and honour and fear you. You will have power, child. Power you cannot imagine. But perhaps ... "
"Perhaps there is a way I can show you. I can show you power, if you want me to. If you can try not to be afraid."
Rudolf bites his lip. He does want to be shown. He does. More than anything in the world; but he is still afraid. He can't help it. He wants to say something, to explain, but the words won't come. The silence drags on and the golden-haired man simply sits and waits, as though he can afford to wait for ever; until finally, it becomes too much. The boy leaps from the bed to stand before his friend, who inclines his head toward him, eyebrows slightly raised, as if to say, are you sure?
The man rises from the bed and holds out one hand. "Come, then," he says, and Rudolf follows him across the room to the window. The moon must have stolen out from its smothering blanket of clouds, for now there is a faint light, eerie and silver, and it shines on the barrel of the gun that lies on the windowsill, still and silent, just an inanimate object, just a thing; but strangely menacing, nevertheless. It threatens.
"Pick it up."
Unable to disobey, Rudolf does so. It is remarkably heavy, and cold, and it smells ... of metal, and oil, he supposes; and it reminds him of something, that metal-smell, but he can't think what; and it is far too big for his small hand. He almost drops it in revulsion, fumbles and catches it again before it hits the floor. He's breathing too hard and too fast; half-hysterical and unable to calm down. But his friend seems oblivious, now, to his distress; Rudolf glances up to see a face gone hard and cold and dispassionate, like a statue. Those bright eyes are filled now with purpose.
The window is open. Rudolf wonders why he hadn't noticed it before, or felt the biting wind; he decides it must be more of his companion's magic. He takes a timid step nearer and looks outside.
Something moves across the snow-covered ground, something small and dark and cautious, but hungry enough to venture within sight of the palace. Rudolf blinks and it comes into sharper focus; a deer. It seems to be scraping at the snow with one hoof in order to get at the grass beneath.
"Here. Let me show you." The pale-haired man moves to stand behind the boy, his hands covering Rudolf's, showing him where to hold the gun, how to balance it so that despite its weight, it feels oddly ... right. Like a part of his arm. Like it belongs there.
The child frowns. It never felt like that before, not all those times that man tried to show him ...
"It only frightens you because you do not know how to use it. How to master it. Child, it is yours to command. Don't be afraid; I'm here. Trust me. Breathe in. That's it ... and out. And in ... and now – "
The sound of the gunshot is deafening. It echoes through the night, through the park, drowning out Rudolf's sharp cry of triumph and strange, bittersweet joy. He stares, disbelieving, at the crumpled form in the snow; whirls to look at his friend, to see his reaction.
The blue eyes have gone dark as midnight; and they are full of tears. Rudolf can see the light catching them, making them sparkle like stars. But the golden-haired man does not blink; those tears will not fall.
"How does it feel?"
"I – I don't know – "
"Look." One hand takes him by the shoulder, hard, like a claw; turns him toward the window again. He gazes down at the heap of fur and blood that was a living thing mere seconds before.
"Look at it," the voice whispers, in his ear. "Look what you did." But it doesn't sound angry, it doesn't sound as though he's done something wrong. It doesn't feel as though he's done something wrong. "That, Rudolf, is the power you have. The power to take life itself, with the merest touch of one finger." Another strange, soft laugh. The boy closes his eyes in bliss, still clutching his gun. "So," says Death, his friend, his teacher, his master, "I ask you again: how does it feel?"
Rudolf smiles. "Good," he whispers, and opens his eyes.
There is nobody there.
"It feels good," the young prince whispers to himself. He looks down at the gun, brings it up close to his face; breathes in, slowly, deeply; he thinks, power; and imagines he can feel again that small touch at his temple. And he realises what the smell of metal reminds him of.
It smells of blood.
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