Once upon a time, there had been a prince. Of course, that was quite a few years back, now, and very few people remembered him.
King Chilton had swooped in to marry the late queen right after her husband died, and years later when the plague took her, he attempted to raise her son as his own. The son, being near adulthood already by that point, had little patience for such things.
He’d been an odd boy, even in childhood. Always seeing too much, always looking right through people with his big blue eyes. He’d given the staff chills, made nannies and nursemaids nervous to come too close. Even his mother had distanced herself from him, from his all-seeing eyes. He’d known about her affair long before his father had died, and was the only one in the kingdom not at all surprised by her sudden engagement to Chilton.
King Chilton had fancied himself a scholar of the mind and all its quirks. He’d been fascinated by the young prince, and was the only one in the castle who would venture near him. Even when the prince turned the force of his intelligence on Chilton, spelled out his flaws and faults for all to hear, Chilton remained intrigued. He’d forced the boy into dinner after dinner, trying his best to work out the way the prince’s mind worked. He wanted the prince’s abilities for himself, the better to spread the kingdom wide across other lands, to manipulate other rulers to his whims. Chilton was a skilled practitioner of the magical arts, but he could not take a talent he did not understand. Nor could he allow the prince to come of age and take the throne from him. Chilton, after all, was not a blood heir. He ruled only as a figurehead, a placeholder for the boy prince.
As the years passed, King Chilton grew more and more frustrated with the boy, and the boy with him. And so it was that on the eve of the boy’s eighteenth birthday, Chilton drew up an order to have him committed - for his own good, of course - trapped in the dungeon under Chilton’s exclusive care until his mind was healed. Or until Chilton had no more use for his talents.
However, when the castle guards came for the boy, they found the room empty, the window open. King Chilton ordered the grounds searched, but when the boy remained lost, he did not press too hard. After all, while he would have preferred to have the boy’s talents under his command, a missing prince was as good as a dead one, and served Chilton’s needs quite nicely. If he ever stepped back onto the grounds, Chilton’s order of commitment would stand, and until then, King Chilton could reign freely and without fear.
Long Live King Chilton!
The woods were dark, cruel and twisted. Most people did not dare wander too far. The hunters with their traps and guns only stuck to the brighter outskirts.
So, of course, Will had stomped right on through to the very heart of the trees.
Will was a stubborn man, with a taste for solitude. He had been even more stubborn at 18, as every man is. If the heart of the woods had the least people, that was where he would like to be. He had vanished in the night with only an ax and a small satchel of supplies to his name, and now, at nearly 25 years of age, he had done quite well for himself. He had built the cabin by hand, though he had been forced to barter nails and other such trivialities from the farmers who lived closest to the forest, those men who cared little for the affairs of royals and therefor couldn’t have recognized him. Still, Will called himself Graham, his mother’s maiden name, and kept interaction to a minimum. He’d managed a cluster of chickens, a well-stocked larder, and even a crossbow to make his hunting a bit easier.
And there were the dogs, of course.
There had just been the one, to start. Max, a mangy thing with a crooked tail, one that drooled all the time and got burrs stuck in huge clumps in his fur. It was love at first sight, as far as Will was concerned. He’d trimmed and cleaned the mutt, trained it well. He’d been in need of a guard dog, anyway; the chickens were not cheap, and they had a way of wandering off and getting themselves eaten.
The second dog, Buster, had been more of the same, albeit quite a bit smaller: a lost pup with no one seeking after it. Will had trained that one too, and built an addition to the house to make more room for them.
The third dog, Maya, was quite possibly a wolf. Will hadn’t really cared, so long as she behaved, and she did so happily. All of the dogs were generally happy, when Will was around. It was a gift of his, and a much better one than the innate knowing he’d been gifted with.
For a while, three was plenty. Really, three would have been plenty for any sane person, or so said the farmers Will occasionally traded with. It was not as if Will had much livestock to tend, or indeed, much land to tend them on. He had cleared himself enough space for the cow, the hen house, and a small yard, and the rest of the forest he let be. He liked the challenge it presented when he walked it.
And then Mr. Marshton’s sheepdog had a litter, far too many for him to keep, and it did not seem to matter to Will that he did not have any sheep to herd. He traded some game for the pleasure, and Harley was always quite content to herd the other dogs.
Four was certainly enough, even Will could see that. It was certainly enough crowd. Will had to expand the cottage again, and he had liked his small little space.
But then there had been Trevor, someone’s prize hunting dog, injured and left for dead in Will’s part of the woods. Well, Will couldn’t just leave him there, and then, once he’d healed up a bit, he couldn’t just send him off. Trevor would forever walk with a bit of a limp, and it seemed cruel to expect him to fend for himself in the woods.
By the time Trevor had started falling into step with all the others, Will gave up on lying to himself. He liked dogs, liked them far more than people, and he wanted to have dogs, so why shouldn’t he? Whatever came his way, he would take, and be grateful for.
Shirley, the sixth dog, was, if Will was being perfectly honest with himself, probably not a dog at all. Really, she looked more like some sort of malformed possum, or perhaps one of the stranger creatures that people spoke of in rumours but had never actually seen. Whatever she was, Will had accepted her, and she answered well to both her own name and the more general ‘dog’, and so she stayed with the pack.
Winston was his newest, and he took to his position like a duck to water. He was, perhaps, even more genuinely fond of Will than the other six, within mere days of being found and brought home. He guarded the house like Max, herded the chickens as well as Maya did, and could usually be found wherever Will was. Not precisely underfoot, but very nearby.
The townspeople told stories of the odd man with the seven dogs, but Will never heard them. He only dealt with the farmers, and very briefly, at that. The rest of the time, he lived alone, just him and the dogs.
For a few years, at least.
The Lecters had been hunters for as long as anyone in their village could remember. Hannibal’s father had been a hunter, and his father had been a hunter, and so on and so forth, all the way back to the very first Count Hannibal Lecter, some 7 generations or so ago. And probably quite further.
Hunters do very well, provided there is game. When there is no game, nothing but cold and ice, nobody does very well. Nobody at all.
Hannibal never spoke of the early winter frost that had ruined the harvest and killed much of his hometown. It had led to the death of his parents and sister as well, though from something far more sinister than frost. Man will do many things, after all, when frightened and hungry.
Hannibal had moved on, when the weather warmed, to stay with his Uncle and Aunt in a town far away. He’d grown up there, come into manhood under their watchful eyes, and then moved on once more. There was always new game to hunt, after all, and Hannibal had hunted in over a dozen places at this point, learning each one with a careful intimacy.
His latest venture had brought him to the very heart of King Fredrick’s lands. He’d passed the castle itself on his way to find lodgings for the next few weeks. It hadn’t seemed very impressive to him. The Lecter castle had been better, though perhaps nostalgia colored Hannibal’s views a bit. Certainly, they hadn’t had quite so many gaudy banners draped all over the outside. He could only imagine the hassle in caring for them during the wetter months.
It was the forest that had really drawn him, though. Dark and thick, so much so that the villagers never went near it.
“Only man who’ll set food in those woods is Graham,” the innkeeper’s wife told him, “And he’s half-mad, or so they say.”
“Half-mad?” Hannibal asked
“He lives there,” she said, her voice dropping down to a conspiratorial whisper, “cleared himself a place all the way in the center. Him and the dogs, he’s got at least a dozen.”
“Six,” called a man by the fireplace, “Don’t exaggerate, Lottie, the man’s got six. A lot, for certain, but he’s not overrun.”
“Seven,” interrupted the innkeeper, “Marshton told me he came to trade the other day, and he had a new one nipping at his heels.”
The man by the fire laughed, “Not sure how Marshton can claim to tell ‘em apart,” he said, “With him being half-blind and Graham bringing a different one around for every journey.”
“Long as he doesn’t bring the little one again,” Lottie said stiffly, “I heard it tried to bite one of the horses.”
“You’ve never even seen the little one,” her husband told her, “Or Graham, for that matter, so don’t go telling your tall tales to strangers. Graham,” he added, turning to Hannibal, “Is a harmless man. He does live in the woods, and he and his dogs are all a bit odd, but they don’t bother us and we don’t bother them. And he’s perfectly polite whenever he needs to do business with someone. You just watch yourself hunting out there. Lord only knows what Graham would do if you sighted one of his dogs.”
“The little one is not a dog,” Lotte said stiffly.
“Like to see you tell Graham that,” her husband muttered. “Anyway, they all wear a band of leather in case someone in town stumbles across them, so you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em. Don’t shoot anything that looks well-groomed and you’ll be good.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Hannibal said. He preferred larger prey, anyway.
Graham did indeed have seven dogs. Six and a half. The little one was possibly a very large rat. It stared at Hannibal with beady little eyes when he found the cottage.
He hadn’t meant to find the cottage at all. Hannibal’s plan had been to map out a small section of the forest and plan out a lean-to for his future hunting plans, but the tell-tall markings of human habitation had intrigued him. Graham may have tried to leave as small an imprint on the forest environment, but Hannibal could see the details of his presence, the places he lingered. It had peaked his curiosity enough for him to trail, until he was standing at a handmade fence staring at a simple cottage.
Simple, though a bit haphazard. Hannibal could see the newer places where Graham had added on as his needs grew, each addition improving in skill.
As Hannibal watched, three clucking chickens ran by, herded by a particularly pleased-looking sheep dog. Two medium sized dogs stared at him from the gate, poised to run but otherwise silent.
And the little one, a puffy furball with fangs, scrabbled under a hole in the fence to plop itself down on Hannibal’s boots.
Hannibal and the creature stared at each other, both unblinking. Possibly, the creature didn’t have eyelids. It tilted it’s head to the side, a line of drool dropping onto the leather toe of Hannibal’s boot. He resisted the urge to jerk backwards, which turned out to be a good decision.
“Shirley!” A man was hurrying out from around the cottage, pushing past the army of dogs and through the gate. He matched the description Hannibal had been given of Graham, scruffy, with wildly overgrown curls and clothes he appeared to have patched himself with whatever was on hand. In general, it was not a particularly pleasant collection, but on Graham, it almost seemed to work. Here was a man who clearly cared more for the well-groomed and well-fed dogs than for his own appearance, and there was something admirable about that.
Besides, he could hardly get many visitors, all the way out here in the woods. Indeed, he did not meet Hannibal’s eyes as he knelt to pull Shirley from Hannibal’s feet.
“I’m sorry about that,” Graham muttered, taking in everything about Hannibal besides his face. “She loves to make new friends.”
“Who doesn’t?” Hannibal mused. “You must be Graham.”
“Nah, Graham’s the other feral woodsman, three houses down,” Graham drawled. His eyes flicked up to Hannibal’s, brilliantly blue and almost uncomfortably focused for that one instant, and then flicked away again. “I see you’ve been warned about me. What did the villagers say, when you told them you’d be traipsing this far into the trees?”
“That I shouldn’t shoot anything that looked well-groomed, and that if I stayed out past sunset I wouldn’t walk out of the forest alive.”
Graham snorted, rolling his eyes. “Superstition,” he said derisively, “Shirley’s the oddest thing I’ve seen in my years in these trees, and she’s more ‘unpleasantly damp’ than ‘vicious.”
That she was. She was gazing lovingly (and still unblinkingly) up at Graham, occasionally licking at his shirt in a sloppy show of affection. Graham did not seem to notice. “Still,” he continued, eyeing the gun slung across Hannibal’s back with wary suspicion, “I’d appreciate if you didn’t shoot that within earshot of this place. Some of the dogs are more trusting than others, and they can get underfoot if you aren’t careful.”
“Your dogs are safe from me,” Hannibal promised. The gun was a necessity, but not a well-loved one. He cared for and cleaned it, and it served him well, but Hannibal preferred the intimacy of traps and knives, when he could manage them. He’d managed to sneak up on quite a few creatures most considered too large to snare.
Graham nodded stiffly. He looked beyond Hannibal, into the trees. “Well,” he said, after a moment’s awkward pause, “good, then.”
He did not offer any further attempts at conversation, nor did he say goodbye. He simply spun on his heels and disappeared once more beyond the fence. Hannibal watched him go, indulging his curiosity for one long moment, before he too retreated back into shadow.
King Chilton had been a vaguely fussy, pompous man when he married the queen, and over the years his vanity had only grown. He had not been able to spread his kingdom as much as he might have with Prince Will under his grasp, but his armies were unparalleled and his name was known far and wide. As was his seeming agelessness. There were whisperes in the courts of his youth, not quite eternal beauty, but close enough when the rest of his peers sprouted crows feet and silver hair. It was known that King Chilton used magic to keep his kingdom and his looks, and that was enough to keep his enemies at bay, nervous to spark his ire.
Gifts were a common tactic, if one wanted to keep their land. A war could be won, even against King Chilton, but casualties were unnecessary when an appeal to his pride would do just as well. The mirror had been once such gift. It stood tall in the King’s chambers, calling every eye to it in its gilded frame. If Chilton stood in front of it, he saw himself as he wished to, with all the beauty he believed he possessed. And if he called twice, “Mirror, mirror!” the three spirits of the mirror would appear to him.
The spirits were not quite as well-behaved as King Chilton might have liked, but they were unmatcjhed in their knowledge of the world. They could show King Chilton whatever he wished to see, which was often himself and his treasures, and answer any question he may have asked with unerring truthfulness, unable to tell even the smallest of white lies.
Chilton’s favorite hobby was to seek praise, whether it be from the mirror or his subjects, but his vanity sometimes got the better of him. Today was one such day.
He had, in the past, stood before the mirror and demanded to see ‘myself, in all my glory!’ or ‘me, as I am at my very best.’ Today, however, King Chilton was feeling particularly pleased with himself. He’d been gifted another gem-encrusted trinket from a nearby kingdom, and the messenger who’d brought it had been well-versed in flattery. As he stood before the mirror, King Chilton crowed, ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the most handsome royal of them all?’
Floating before him were three faces, one distinctly female, the other two male. They had, perhapse, been people once, ordinary people cursed to a life of such drudgery, and they had retained their distinct personalities even beyond the glass. Now, they grimaced, catching glimpses of each other out of the corner of their eyes.
“Ummm….” Said the dark haired male (they had come equipped with names, but Chilton had never bothered to learn them), “Are you sure that’s how you want to ask that question?”
The other male took one look at Chilton and nudged his face against the other’s, shushing him. “Now, now, Z, who are we to argue with royalty?”
Chilton was fairly certain the woman was snickering. She did so quietly, but he caught the tell-tale twist of her smirk. They all vanished before he could demand an explanation, the mirror swirling for a moment before revealing a cottage, as crisp and clear as if Chilton stood before it. Crouched in the garden was a bearded man with horribly untidy, tangled hair, and faded and tattered clothes. He was also incredibly dirty, from what Chilton could see, covered in dirt and grass stains from the garden. Chilton waited for the supposedly-more-handsome-than-him royal to appear, but even after several minutes, the mirror still trailed the dirty peasant.
“Really?” Chilton said, aghast, “What’s he king of, mud?”
“He cleans up well,” The women protested. The scene swirled again, and there was Prince Will, 17 years old, in the corner of the grand ballroom.
“He’s still alive?” Chilton breathed. Will’s talent, his innate and intimate knowledge of people… “I’ll send my guard to him immediately.” There was still a small room made up in the very bowels of the castle with items that had been secreted away from the young prince’s room, and given time, Chilton was sure he could find a way to weaponize Will’s particular skills.
The spirits loomed back into view, each giving the other two faces wary looks.
“What?” King Chilton asked, irritated by their sudden suspicious silence.
“It’s just…” The man known as ‘Z’ trailed off, and the woman stepped in. Her eyes had gone dark, the way they did when she was looking off into the future, into possibility.
“If left alone, in peace, the prince bears you no harm. So long as he remains isolated in his cabin, he will grow old and die there, and your kingdom shall remain yours.”
“What do you mean it ‘shall remain mine?’” the king growled.
“The prince is the rightful heir to the throne,” the woman said, “and the kingdom remembers. Not the people, but the very land itself. He lives in peace because he lives happily. Should he be disturbed, and his peace with it, the kingdom you love shall crumble from your hands.”
It was not a theory, nor a threat of revolution. This, as every word the spirits of the mirror spoke, was nothing more than cold, hard fact. There would be no avoidance, no redirection. Prince Will would reclaim his kingdom, for no reason other than that the innate magic of the land wished him to.
“Then I will make sure that I am the rightful heir,” King Chilton said, spinning away from the mirror.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” One of the men called after him. Chilton did not care which one. He had things to do.
Prince Will could not reclaim the throne if he was dead.
They plucked Hannibal from the inn on one of his trips back into town, strongly built soldiers in heavy metal costume. His name had been recommended, they said, as the most skilled hunter in the area, and King Chilton had need of him.
King Chilton was an aggravating little man in a throne much too large for him, with gaudy red upholstery. He lounged in it, admittedly graceful, but with a condescending smile that twisted any physical beauty he might have had. Even the guards did not appear to look directly at him. They led Hannibal right up to the throne and then stepped back, keeping their distance from the dear king.
“So,” King Chilton said, hopping up out of his seat and right up into Hannibal’s personal space. “I’m told that you are the most capable hunter in the area, Ha-“ he drew the sound out, long enough that Hannibal, the guards, and possibly several maids in the hall were all well aware he’d forgotten Hannibal’s name. “-milton?” The King finished hopefully.
“Hannibal,” Hannibal corrected, “Hannibal Lecter, your Majesty.”
“Hannibal, right, yes of course.” Flustered, the king stepped back a bit. “Well, Hannibal, I have a mission for you. Something a little bit more… tricky, than your usual prey.” King Chilton smiled, slightly uncomfortable, off-kilter.
“I am, of course, at your service,” Hannibal murmured.
“Right,” King Chilton agreed. “There is a man, living in a cottage, deep in the heart of the black forest.”
“Graham?” Hannibal noted with some surprise. Graham hardly seemed the type to draw attention from royalty.
“Graham? Right, of course he would…” King Chilton muttered to himself, but refused to elaborate. “Regardless, Graham is your target. It should be an interesting challenge for you.”
Hannibal eyed the king coolly. King Chilton grew flustered.
“You will be compensated, of course,” the King rambled, “The equivalent of a years salary for one of my guards, and the title of Royal Hunstman. The title is largely meaningless, but it should grant you a free night’s stay wherever you choose to settle.”
Hannibal had little interest in either titles or money. What he did have, was an overabundance of curiosity. “What is it Graham has done to you, to deserve such a secretive death? And why not send your guards, you surely have many?”
“Graham’s crimes are of no importance,” King Chilton growled, “And as for my guards… This is a very delicate mission, Hannibal. Graham is sneaky and underhanded. He has slipped through my guards once before. Between his own eagle eyes and his mutts, you won’t be able to just walk up and kill him. And Graham will know if you come with an ulterior motive.”
“You want me to gain his trust,” Hannibal surmised.
“As little as possible,” King Chilton replied, “Graham’s trust is nearly non-existant, and I don’t have a decade for him to let you get close. But at the very least, enough for him to give you his back.”
Stabbing a man in the back, when he least expected it. It was not the most morally upstanding job Hannibal had ever been given. Something must have shown in Hannibal’s face, because King Chilton immediately straightened up with a dour expression on his face.
“The other option,” he told Hannibal slowly, “Is to spend the rest of your very brief life in my dungeon. Incidentally, that is also the punishment for gossip.”
Hannibal was not at all surprised. He met the King’s gaze with one of his own, and then slowly nodded. “It will be done, your majesty. As quietly as I can manage.”
King Chilton beamed. “Excellent!”
The hunter came back.
This was not, altogether, unexpected; Will lived in the woods, and hunters hunted in the woods, and it was all very straightforward from that point on. What was unexpected, was that he came back to the cottage.
Will was not a particularly sociable man. He never had been, even when he’d lived in a palace and traipsed around ballrooms in uncomfortably tight trousers. He liked his solitude, and he did his best to radiate ‘leave me alone’ from every pore. The hunter was apparently immune to grumpy pheromones; he leaned on Will’s gate with a smile on his face as if he was a neighbor here to borrow a cup of sugar.
Will paused in the doorway and stared him down. Max and Winston were both stiff, on high alert although neither had yet started to growl.
“I realized I’d forgotten to introduce myself,” the hunter said, holding out a hand, “my name is Hannibal.”
Will eyed his hand for a long moment, and then decided against it. Other people were uncomfortable, often sweaty and too forward. Will tended to know enough about people from their eyes, he did not need to add skin-to-skin contact to his knowledge.
Granted, the hunter – Hannibal – was a bit more of an enigma, but Will could still put pieces of him together. Confident, for sure, and with an air of hautiness about him. His well-cared-for but still worn clothes were clearly an affectation; he’d been born to something much higher than skinning deer. His posture was impeccable, even his casual lean over the fenceposts was as carefully put on as the rest of him.
Will couldn’t tell exactly what Hannibal was lying about, but he was a liar all the same.
“Graham,” he told Hannibal, “as I said when we met.”
A slight twitch appeared at the corner of Hannibal’s eyes; he valued politeness, and Will had displeased him. Good. Displeased people left faster. Hannibal dropped his hand.
“They speak of you in the village. They say you know these woods better than anyone.”
The flattery pleased Will, as it had been intended to, but not enough for him to ease up his careful disinterest. He busied himself with the chickens instead, collecting the eggs into his basket. “If you’ve come for instruction, I’m afraid I’m fresh out.”
“You’re not very fond of eye contact, are you?” Even as Hannibal said it, Will could feel his eyes following him. He was a nosy creature. Will hated him immensely and immediately. He looked up, his own eyes full of irritation as they lit on Hannibal’s.
“Eyes are distracting. You see too much, you don’t see enough.” Certainly, he didn’t see enough with Hannibal, not enough to understand why he was there. “Hard to focus, when you’re wondering, ‘oh, is that a burst vein?’ or ‘oh, those whites are really white.” And when you could see their errors, their hatreds and vices. People were, as a whole, obvious. There were exceptions of course, like Hannibal, but even he had his clarities.
Hannibal should have been offended, and rightly so. Will’s rudeness was carefully crafted and sharpened. Yet, as Will turned back to the chicken, he caught the beginnings of a smile. “You build forts, Mr. Graham.”
“It’s just ‘Graham,’’’ Will said stiffly, “And no, just fences.”
He heard the dull thud of a hand on wood. Max huffed out a warning yip. “Sturdy fences,” Hannibal called, “And loyal guards.”
“Helps to keep out unwanted visitors,” Will called back. “If you don’t mind, I’ve got a cow to tend.”
He thought, perhaps, he heard a huff of a laugh as Hannibal backed away.
Dogs were easier than people. Most animals were, in Hannibal’s experience. He was a far better hunter than a fisherman, but he could be patient when he had to be. And the best way to Graham was, no doubt, through the dogs. Particularly the grubby little one.
The little one turned out to be the easiest. She liked Hannibal from the start, squirming under the fence to meet him as he paced the perimeter of Graham’s property. The trees hid him from human sight, but could not keep his scent from canine noses. Or whatever it was Shirly had, she seemed to be almost entirely fur and tongue, with the slightest bit of beady eye poking through tufts of gray.
“Doesn’t he ever groom you?” Hannibal mused, settled against a tree with Shirley in his lap. She was more damp than he would have preferred, but he need not hold her forever. Just long enough for her to familiarize herself with his scent.
“She’s less amiable when you take shears to her,” Graham informed him, stepping to the trees with his arms folded in front of him. He looked very much like a stern wet nurse, the type who’d always been cross with Hannibal in his youth. It was humerous enough to salvage the chink in Hannibal’s pride that stemmed from being snuck up on. “What are you doing with my dog?” Graham asked. Shirley panted up at him, her little body vibrating with sheer excitement in Hannibal’s lap.
“Oh, is that what this is?” Hannibal teased, patting the lump that was presumably Shirley’s head, “I thought it was some sort of dishrag.”
“Very funny,” Graham growled. He whistled, a high, short noise, and Shirley immediately abandoned Hannibal’s lap in favor of sitting primly at Graham’s feet. Probably. It was hard to tell on a creature that didn’t seem to have any limbs.
She left a few tufts of fur behind. Hannibal dusted himself off with a grimace as he stood. “I was merely getting acquainted with the local fauna,” he explained. It did little to remove the suspicious glower from Graham’s face.
“Shirley’s family,” Graham said, “she’s not some wild creature for you to lure in.”
Hannibal held up his hands, both empty. “As you can see, I’m unarmed. Or at least, all my weapons are sheathed, for the moment.” He hadn’t even brought the gun. He’d decided that even if he could get a glimpse of Graham down its sights, a man of such intelligence deserved a more intimate death. “I promised you your dogs were safe from me, Graham, and I’m a man of my word.”
“As are all men, until the price goes high enough,” Graham said dismissively. He had a cold, detached look about him. He had no doubt mentally filed Hannibal away with ‘all men’ the moment they’d met. Hannibal tried not to take it personally.
“Shirley was the one to come to me,” he explained, “no doubt you’ve seen her be friendly with the locals.”
Graham frowned down at the mop of fur and saliva. Shirley continued her aimlessly pleased panting. “No,” Graham said slowly, “I haven’t. She tends to hate the farmers on sight, actually, and she tried to take on a stallion the last time I brought her past the trees. I’ve had to start leaving her behind.”
That, Hannibal found hard to believe. He was not typically fond of dogs, or of whatever Shirley was, but she seemed amiable enough to him. Instantly trusting, and eager for pets and scraps of Hannibal’s breakfast, he saw no difference between Shirley and some of the mutts that had hung around when he was a boy. “She’s practically a rag doll,” he insisted, “I’m given to believe I could pick her up and carry her about with me and she’d be perfectly content.”
The look on Graham’s face didn’t change. He still looked vaguely puzzled, almost alarmed. Finally, he spun on his heel. “Don’t bother my dogs,” He called over his shoulder, marching back towards the cottage with Shirley at his heels.
All in all, Hannibal thought it had gone well.
The other dogs would be more difficult, of course, but they had the same weakness as any animal. Hannibal had hung strips of meat out to dry in the hot summer sun, and a few days later he fed it to each dog that approached the fence, bit by bit. Only one dog hung back, eying Hannibal suspiciously, but he did not growl or bark or do anything to alert his master to Hannibal’s presence.
Graham found him anyway, petting the larger dogs contentedly. Hannibal had arrived quite early in the morning, but he’d known Graham couldn’t sleep forever. He was quite pleased to be caught, holding up his empty hands even as the dogs yipped demandingly for more pats.
“I told you not to bother my dogs,” Graham said, hurrying towards the fence. The lone resistant dog followed him, and while Hannibal did not believe dogs capable of looking smug, he seemed to be giving it a good attempt.
“And I have not. Do they look bothered to you?”
Graham looked down at the dogs for a moment, and eventually gave a stiff shake of his head. “I suppose not,” he acknowledged, scooping up one of the little ones. “Though, any dog will be thrilled to have a mouthful of meat.”
“You saw that, did you?” Asked Hannibal, who had intentionally saved the last bite for Graham to see.
Graham glared at him. “What’s your angle?”
“No angle,” Hannibal assured him.
“Everyone has an angle,” Graham insisted, “why are you cuddling up to my dogs?”
Every action had a risk attached to it, a chance of backsliding and ruining the whole thing. Still, Hannibal knew other people, knew them very well. Even odd people like Graham had a weak spot. Loneliness could kill a man. Hannibal had seen it happen. “It seemed like the best way to get your attention,” he said, with a small, sheepish shrug.
Graham stared at him. He blinked. The little dog squirmed in his arms until he relented and set it down. “You have my attention,” he finally said. One foot dragged an inch back in the dirt, an aborted desire to put more distance between the two of them. Interesting. “What do you want with me, then?” Graham added.
The King had said that Graham would be wary, suspicious. Hannibal wondered if he’d been expecting an assassination attempt for years. This lonely, isolated man in the woods had drawn attention from the highest power in the land. It made him all the more intriguing than he’d already been.
“I was hoping lunch, to start with,” Hannibal said, holding up his satchel.
Graham was already shaking his head, before Hannibal had finished speaking. “No,” he said firmly, and then, softer, “no, thank you.”
Hannibal frowned, holding out the bag. “If you take offense to my cooking, I assure you, I’m quite good.”
Graham laughed, and then looked startled. The noise seemed to have come unbidden, unwilling. He shook his head again. “It’s better if we don’t,” he said, and then finally took that step back that had been lingering in his posture. He whistled, and the dogs circled around him, scurrying back to the cottage.”
Hannibal did not give up easily. He’d expected two steps forward, one step back. Proposing lunch on the first attempt had been a misstep, but one Hannibal had taken willingly. Clouding his intentions in secrecy would only have made Graham more wary.
As it was, Graham looked more resigned than wary the next time Hannibal showed up, though he made a decent attempt at looking irritated regardless.
“Back so soon?” Graham called.
It had been five days, but Hannibal didn’t press the point. Instead, he fed the dogs that gathered around him another few bites of jerky, and then held a small bag out towards Graham. “A gift,” he explained, upon seeing Graham’s skeptical expression, “something that isn’t edible, to prove my intentions.”
Graham stepped into the swirl of dogs, but did not yet take the bag. “Are you… Are you courting me?” He asked, in a voice so incredulous as to imply that courting was the most bizarre ritual he’d yet heard of.
Hannibal looked him over, a slow, smooth tilt of his head. Given his choice of partners, Hannibal might have gone for someone a bit more refined, but there was no denying Graham’s beauty. It may have been hidden under a firm layer of dirt and beard, but it was there. The eyes especially, so rare a blue as to occasionally seem another color entirely. “Should I say yes,” Hannibal offered, “would you take the gift?”
Graham gaped at him. “Y-you’d stand a better shot if you said no,” he said, shaking his head.
“In that case, I’m not courting you,” Hannibal said, leaning over the fence to put the bag closer to Graham’s reach, “I am merely courting friendship. Conversation. We might even socialize like adults.”
Graham’s face had gone a rather interesting shade of red, and he scowled as he took the bag. “I don’t find you that interesting,” He said, but he opened it anyway, plucking the treasure from inside. He stopped, looking over the trinket for a long moment, trailing hesitant fingers of the grooves. “This is…”
“The medium-sized one,” Hannibal said, nodding to the dog in question. He’d spent a good deal of time on the wood-carving, careful to get as many minor details correct as he could.
“Winston,” Graham corrected gently. His hand clenched around the carving, as though suddenly afraid Hannibal might ask for it back. He looked up, his face softer with his surprise. “You chose the one who doesn’t like you.”
“And therefor the one most protective of you,” Hannibal said. A small smile tugged at the corner of Graham’s mouth. He handed Hannibal the empty bag back.
“If you come again,” Graham said slowly, “I might be willing to serve lunch. And conversation. But only those things.”
“Friendship is a beautiful thing,” Hannibal replied, “It need not be anything more.”
“It won’t be,” Graham assured him, waving goodbye as he herded the dogs away.
It took several days for Hannibal to manage his next carving, but one he’d gotten a reasonable approximation of the sheep dog, he returned to Graham’s cottage. Graham took it with a slightly softer smile than he had the previous one, and invited Hannibal inside for some stew he’d heated over the fireplace.
The cottage was lightly cluttered, mostly with the sorts of debris one often found living in the woods. Tiny skulls on the mantle, bird feathers wound carefully around fish hooks. Graham’s clutter was much like himself, favoring practicality over beauty, but the beauty could still be found if one looked close enough.
“You prefer to fish, then?” Hannibal asked around a mouthful of stew.
“It’s peaceful,” Graham said, “and the river is cool on hot summer days.”
“I’ve never bothered to fish,” Hannibal admitted, “I suppose it wouldn’t be too different from hunting. There’s a lot of silent waiting in that, as well.”
“Quieter, even,” Graham suggested, “Although fishing is fairly quiet itself.”
“Musn’t scare the pray,” Hannibal murmured.
“No, we can’t have that. Seconds?”
“Please,” Hannibal said, holding out his bowl.
And so it went, on and on, until Hannibal had quite exhausted his carving options, and was considering scrounging up another dog or two for Graham, just to have a few more gifts to give.
That thought alone gave him pause, stuck in his head like honey to skin. And then one day, alone with Graham in his kitchen, Graham tilted his head and laughed.
Oh, oh, Hannibal should have killed him days ago, weeks, even, and now…
Well, now it was going to hurt. But Hannibal was used to hurting. Still. Another day, maybe two, what was the harm in soaking up all of Graham’s attention while it was still around?
Chilton had the man physically pulled from the inn. He hoped it was embarrassing for him. The guards met him in the throne room, Hannibal held up between them like an ornery child. An ornery child, with a placid and mildly amused expression.
King Chilton was fairly certain he did not like Hannibal.
“He’s not dead yet,” Chilton hissed, marching down from his throne to stand directly in front of the hunter. Hannibal was taller than him. As this seemed distinctly unfair, and also counterintuitive to the impression Chilton wanted to give, he nodded to his guards, who forced Hannibal to crouch a few more inches.
“Graham’s trust is not so easily won, you said so yourself,” Hannibal said, in an infuritatinlgy unruffled voice.
“You’ve been harassing him for weeks, surely you’re close enough to slit his throat by now!”
Hannibal shrugged, as best he could with firm hands on his arms. “I’ve been cautious-“
“Stop being cautious and bring me his heart,” King Chilton yelled, “or else I’ll take yours as well!”
Hannibal looked up at him. He blinked, slow and steady, and then nodded. “Of course, your majesty.”
King Chilton glared at him, and the waved his guards away. “Get him out of here,” He growled.
Hannibal had run out of dogs, so the next carving he brought was a stag, tall and proud. He’d had a slip of the hand while shaping the back, and had run with the mishap, carving feathers into the pelt.
Graham looked gloriously pleased to be given another gift. “I thought…” He said, pulling the carving from the bag, “Well, it doesn’t really matter what I thought.”
He’d thought the gifts were done. He’d thought Hannibal would stop courting him, or his conversation, anyway.
“I simply needed a bit more imagination, this time around,” Hannibal told him.
“Bird feathers,” Graham mused, and then after a moment’s contemplation, he named it decisively. “Ravenstag,” he decided, setting it over the fireplace in the very center of the other carvings. He admired them for a long moment, his back to Hannibal. Hannibal’s hand hesitated over his pocket, over the shape of the very knife that had carved each little statue. He faltered, long enough that Graham turned back to him, a funny smile on his face.
“I hope you like it,” Hannibal said, for lack of anything better to say.
“I like all of them,” Graham assured him, “I… I like you, against my better judgement.”
Hannibal swallowed heavily. “I believe I’ve been complimented?”
“You have,” Graham said, stepping forward with hesitant, uncertain steps.
Graham’s lips were cool, slightly chapped from the way he bit at them when he was concentrating. He did not seem to know what to do with his hands. They wandered from Hannibal’s shoulders to his wrists, and then back again.
Hannibal did not know what to do with his hands either. He pressed into the kiss, because he could not have broken it with all his strength, and his hands wavered between his knife and Graham, the tempting curve of his hip.
“Graham,” Hannibal murmured between soft slides of their lips.
“Will,” Graham whispered back, stepping closer until there was no more space between them. Hannibal’s hands gave up the fight and sank into Graham’s- into Will’s curls.
“Will,” he agreed, his decision made. Will moaned into his mouth and forced them apart.
He was flushed, his face a beautiful shade between exertion and arousal. Hannibal had never before noticed just how tempting a lower lip could be. He leaned in for another kiss and found Will’s hands between them instead.
“Before anything else,” Will whispered, “There are a few things I should tell you.”
King Chilton was aroused early by his guards, summoned to a sitting room Hannibal had been shown to an hour earlier. His guards would have asked him to wait there until King Chilton could be roused without threatening heads. He felt only mildly shamed about his difficulty rising in the mornings.
“I trust you have good news, if you’re here at such an ungodly hour.”
Hannibal rose from the overstuffed arm chari at the sight of him, bowing smooth and low. He was clutching a small wooden box tight in his hand, and looked vaguely weary in a way he had not before.
Well, murder could take its toll on an ordinary man. That was why Chilton much preferred to commit his by proxy.
“I’ve brought you a gift, your majesty.” Hannibal held out the box. Chilton took it warily. Gifts, he was used to. He had entire rooms stuffed full of gifts. Good ones rarely came from ratty peasants who hunted their own leathers.
The box was lighter than he’d expected, despite the dark wood that made it up. Chilton opened it and nearly threw it across the room.
A human heart, in a steadily-darkening pool of blood. If he stared at it long enough, King Chilton could almost imagine he saw it beating.
He slammed the lid back into place and shoved it into Hannibal’s hands. “What is this? Why have you brought me this?”
“This,” Hannibal said, gently forcing the box into King Chilton’s hands, “is your evidence. The last remnants of Graham. His dogs have scattered into the forest, his cottage sits empty and abandoned. You have everything you wanted.”
Chilton looked down at the box again. He felt vaguely nauseous, but it did not rival his excitement. “And so shall you,” he exclaimed, patting Hannibal gently on the shoulders. “Your title, and your wages, and the freedom to leave here with your life. You’ve done well, Hannibal.”
Hannibal ducked his head with a small smile. “Thank you, your majesty.”
Graham had gained many names in the scant days Hannibal had known him, names that Hannibal pressed into his skin in soft kisses. Will. Princeling. Dearheart. He shuddered under each like they were too heavy, like he could not bear to hold the weight of them. Hannibal whispered them again, and again, helping him adjust to the feeling.
In return, Will only held one name for him. Hannibal, whispered into quiet morning air, or soft against Hannibal’s cheek. Will returned each kiss with one of his own, trailing down to the collar of Hannibal’s shirt, pushing it aside to bare the pale skin of his shoulder.
“Before anything else,” Hannibal murmured into the soft curve of Will’s throat, “There are some things I should tell you.”
Chilton brightened further with every moment that passed. He spared a moment of regret – he had helped to raise the boy, somewhat, and he was not a monster – but once that had passed, the glee returned. The opposition the mirror had foreseen was gone. Will’s skills were lost forever, but so was his claim to the throne.
Even the guards noticed his change in mood. They avoided him, mostly. They already preferred to, but now they gave him an uncomfortably wide berth, avoiding his eye. Chilton found it pathetic. It was all very well for them to judge, they’d never been in quite the position he was, now had they? And alright, some of them may have been fond of the boy, in a distant, terrified way, but they had all known he was never coming back, why pretend otherwise?
The only people who could not avoid him were the three spirits of the mirror, and even they seemed vaguely uncomfortable with his sudden cheeriness.
“You are alarmingly cheery,” The woman remarked.
“Oh hush, Beverly.” Chilton beamed. He was quite pleased with himself for finally learning their names, it made it much easier for him to call upon the specific one he might have preferred. Sometimes certain spirits could be irritating to deal with, depending on his mood. “Can’t a man be happy?”
“Happy, yes,” Briam muttered, “you look like all your holidays have come at once.”
There was no point in hiding anything from the spirits, who could look out into the world and know him for a liar, so Chilton clapped his hadns together instead. “I’ve solved my problem,” he said happily, “the prince is dead. There are no more threats to my empire.”
The floating heads in the mirror glanced at each other uncomfortably.
“Uhhh….” Jimmy dragged the sound out, looking hesitant, “I don’t know who you’ve been listening to, but Prince Will is still very much alive.”
“We’ve been checking on him,” Beverly added.
King Chilton froze. He stared at them, his jaw open slightly. The spirits could not lie, and what was more, they had no reason to. But…
“I have his heart,” Chilton squeaked out, “I have his heart in a box in my room!”
Brian stared off into space for a moment, his eyes going dark as he sought out the truth of the matter. His entire face twisted up after a moment, and he yelped. “Oh good lord- That is definitely a human heart, but it’s not the prince’s.”
“What?” Chilton yelped in reply.
Beverly was next to look, and then Jimmy. They both made disgusted faces.
“Oh that is just…” Jimmy trailed off, and Beverly finished for him.
“Appaling,” she said, “that hunter of yours is a real piece of work.”
“He’s no hunter of mine,” Chilton growled, “not when I get my hands on him. Show him to me.”
The faces swirled and vanished, replaced by a garden, Prince Will laughing silently as one of the dogs knocked Hannibal to the ground. He helped him up after a moment, wiping dirt from the hunter’s face in a manner so affectionate that it made Chilton uncomfortable to see it.
“Enough!” He yelled, banishing the image. “If you want something done right…”
Hannibal left in the mornings, often long before Will himself was awake. Will slept poorly through most nights, but with Hannibal’s heavy, warm body pinning him down, he could often get a few hours right around dawn. Hannibal would just barely wake him with a kiss across his brow, and head out to do whatever it was that kept him busy throughout the day, whatever brought coin into his pockets.
Will was not a fool. He knew what sort of game Hannibal preferred to hunt, though it was scarcer here, where the woods were believed to be cursed. He knew what Hannibal had brought to the king in a box he’d meant for Will to keep his trinkets in.
But Hannibal came home to him, and washed the blood from his hands, and he did not seem so stained when he joined Will in bed and loved him as no one had loved Will before.
Just after the sun rose, when the chickens would stand for silence no longer, Will would rise from his bed and deal with the morning necessities. Dressed and fed, cleaned of a night’s sweat, he would spend the next hour or so tending to the animals and the small garden. He used to go out and reset his traps, but now Hannibal provided much of the meat. It left Will with a bit more time for fishing, which was next on his list.
Will returned home whenever the mood struck him, which was often after Hannibal, but not always. Today was such an exception. The fish had stubbornly refused to bite, and he’d eventually given up and returned to the warmth and safety of the cottage.
Hannibal liked to prepare their meals, whenever possible, but Will, likewise, liked to be able to have a hot meal waiting for him when he returned home. In the scant few weeks they’d known each other, it had become somewhate of a competition, to see who could best provide for the other. Hannibal was winning, but only because Will found joy in letting him, in watching his satisfied smile when Will dug into something he’d made.
To love someone so intensely in so brief a time was foolish, Will knew, but there was nothing but honest clarity in Hannibal’s eyes, in the lines of his face. Will knew him intimately, as soon as Hannibal had seen fit to let him.
It was love on Will’s mind as he waited for the pot to boil, set up at the small desk he’d built for his fishing lures. Fish liked to be tempted with pretty things – “Just like you,” Hannibal had joked – and Will had been gathering ideas for the perfect lure to use when he taught Hanniibal to fish properly. He lost himself in that work for a while, tying a lock of his own hair into the metal hook he’d carefully bent.
The sudden frantic barking startled Will badly. His hook went flying, lost somewhere under the bed, and he cursed, sucking blood from his finger tip.
The dogs would not bark for no reason. Will grabbed for the hunting knife he kept near the bed, always at arms reach during his nightmares, and stormed out the door.
The woman at the gate was dazzlingly pretty, with a headful of bright red curls and a broad smile. She waved cheerily, a basket hooked over her arm. Will’s grip tightened on the knife as he stepped closer to the gate.
“Hi,” the woman said cheerfully, holding out her hand to shake, “I’m sorry to barge in on you like this. My name’s Freddie.”
Will did not shake her hand. There was something false about her, something wrong. She seemed almost translucent, as if he could tilt his head and see past the edges of her skin. “Graham,” he said, the false name slipping from his tongue so easily, though he had only heard the true one from Hannibal for weeks. It was Hannibal who had last gone to town to sell, and Will had stayed behind with the dogs and the truth of himself.
And now there was the woman, her smile twitching at the corners. Freddie cocked her head. “I’m sorry to disturb you,” she said, “it’s just that I’m coming from the orchard, and I seem to have gotten a little lost? It’s my first trip into town, and I thought it would be quicker to go through, rather than around.”
The orchard, which grew the sweetest fruit for the kingdom, had sprung first from the edges of the forest, and then been tamed into its own grove by careful men. Men who always went around, and avoided Will’s land.
“You’ve found the heart,” Will said, one hand on Max’s back as he tiptoed forwards to investigate the newcomer. “Keep on going down that path and you’ll be straight through.” He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, his steps towards town carved out over the years.
Freddie peered towards the path, her smile brightening. “Oh, great! I thought I’d be lost for days, and these were getting heavy.” She tipped her basket towards him, showing off the bright, ripe apples she carried. Will hoped she sold them quickly. They were too ripe, ready to be eaten right that second. They would never keep. Most would pass up anything that looked so perfectly red, knowing well how soon they’d be gone.
Maya sniffed at the basket and turned up her nose, whining in displeasure. “Well, it’s not for you,” Will told her, rolling his eyes.
“That’s right,” Freddie said, laughing, “This is people food! Speaking of which, let me thank you for your kindness.” She held out an apple, bright and red and round.
“No thank you,” Will said, his hands still at his sides.
Freddie tilted her head again. She looked like a bird when she did so, sharp-eyed and curious. “No… thank you?” She mimicked, as though he’d spoken any language but the one she knew.
“I don’t like apples,” Will said, and returned to his cottage without another word.
“He knows,” Will whispered into the sheets. Hannibal wrapped around him, tugging him back until they filled every space against each other. “Someone else came to call. No one has ever visited me, not in years.”
“We’ll move,” Hannibal said, nipping gently at Will’s throat, “We’ll pack up the dogs, sell the chickens. I’ve got the money to put us up somewhere safe.”
“All of the dogs?” Will teased, his smile hidden in the night’s shadows.
Hannibal’s hand pressed firmly over Will’s heart, feeling the steady beat. “All the dogs,” he confirmed, “every member of your pack. Even the raccoon.”
“She’s not a raccoon,” Will protested half-heartedly.
“You don’t know what she is. God himself doesn’t know. But Shirley will come with us, too.”
“I guess I’ll have to start packing.”
“Make sure to bring the carvings.”
Will rolled over, pressing a kiss to the corner of Hannibal’s mouth. “They are the very first thing I’ll pack.
In retrospect, it had been a terrible plan. ‘He trusts no one, and will see through you if you come with an ulterior motive,’ that was what King Chilton had told Hannibal.
But really, the disguise he’d worn was quite fetching, and who didn’t like apples? Ungrateful, disrespectful step-sons, that was who. Well, Chilton was going to show him! He had a backup plan, a marvelous backup plan. Honestly, it probably should have been the first plan, but hindsight was 20/20.
The mirror watched him change, three faces in various states of dismay. He did not ask them for their opinion, he had no interest in their judgement.
Sometimes, if Will was very lucky, he and Hannibal both came home for lunch, rather than packing it up to take with them. ‘Lunch,’ with both of them back at the cottage, usually translated to a quick tumble into bed, breathless and wild. Will had gone years without physical contact, and now he was drowning in it, eagerly.
He met Hannibal at the gate, leaning over it to kiss him. Hannibal’s hands came up to cup his shoulders, warm, heavy.
“Missed you,” Will whispered against his lips, before pulling back to welcome Hannibal through the gate.
“And I, you,” Hannibal said with a smile.
The dogs, for once, had not joined them. They sometimes didn’t, when Hannibal came home stinking of death. Now, they huddled in the doorway, Max growling when Hannibal attempted to enter.
“Tss!” Will shooed them all out into the yard. Winston was the last to leave, glancing between Hannibal and Will, over and over until Will physically moved him, nudging him gently through the door.
“Has he always been so jealous?” Hannibal asked, coming up behind Will as he closed the door.
Will laughed, spinning in Hannibal’s arms. “He’s always been protective,” he said, pressing soft kisses to Hannibal’s jaw. “Did you manage to get to all your traps, or do you have to get back out soon?”
“I can wait a bit,” Hannibal murmured. He pulled Will close, one hand framing his face. His mouth was soft, sweet. His kisses were wrong.
Will pulled back, frowning. The same jawline, the same cheekbones, the same eyes. But lacking. Missing some essential warmth.
The knife slid through his belly like butter, slicing him open at his core. Will choked and lost his footing, stumbling into the wall and sliding down to the ground, hands grasping to keep his insides where they were meant to be.
“Sweet dreams, little prince,” said the man who was not his lover, who Will should never have been able to mistake for Hannibal, had he only been looking. If only he had not stopped checking over his shoulder.
The stranger trapped the dogs outside when he went. Will sat against the wall, and bled and bled and bled.
Will was pale by the time Hannibal found him, late for lunch and apologizing to a whining crowd of dogs as he made his way into the cottage. Pale, but conscious. Hannibal dropped to his knees, pressing his trembling hands to the wound. Will flinched back, a small, ineffective twitch of his body, and then sought Hannibal’s face with a bloody hand.
“Hannibal?” Will groaned, curving in on himself with a painful sound. Hannibal scooped him up, laying him out on the soft bedding instead. “I’m going to stain it,” Will protested, as Hannibal used his hunting knife to cut away the fabric that hid Will’s stomach for him.
“Then stain it,” Hannibal said, voice catching at the sight of the long slice that tore Will’s belly. Hannibal kept a small bag of medical supplies for emergencies, and he fetched it now, forcing his hands to be steady as he threaded a needly. “We will leave it behind when we move. I’ll buy you a new mattress, feather soft.”
Will laughed until he choked, until Hannibal pressed him back into the bedding with a heavy hand on his chest.
“Be still,” Hannibal whispered, “lay back and think of it. No more coarse straw. We will take the money I received for your heart, and we will have everything we need.” Carefully, Hannibal wiped as much blood away as he could. The edges of the cut were tinted green, not the sickly green of pus and infection, but an eerie, fleurescent green.
Hannibal’s home country had been rife with magic, flooded with legend. He knew the stories. A curse, to take Will apart, should the gutting not be enough. Hannibal drew in a deep breath through his nose. There, underneath the thick tang of blood, he caught the sweet hint of apples. Curses did not bring death, but they could bring sleep, heavy, thick, unending. And in sleep, Will would starve.
“He came for my heart,” Will murmured, his eyes fluttering closed. His breath came in a low hiss as Hannibal pierced him with the needle, but it still came. It continued, sjhort, pained little pants that ripped through Hannibal’s very core.
“He didn’t get it,” Hannibal promised, “He has left you whole, Will, if a little bit messy.
“I’m bleeding out,” Will protested. His voice dropped again, slurred thick with sleep.
“You are not,” Hannibal hissed, “you are here, with me, tired, but whole. You will be fine.” Hannibal’s stitches closed the wound, bit by bit. Will’s breathing kept going, steady, but pained. His speech stopped. His eyelashes fluttered, the way they did when Hannibal roused before him, watching Will rest beside him.
Hannibal worked. He stitched, he cleaned. He checked for infection, preparing a poultice which he spread thick across Will’s stomach. His mother had taught him this mixture, the best for those whose blood had been spilled. Magic had never been Hannibal’s preferred skill, but it thrummed in his veins all the same.
There were many ways to break a curse. Blood magic was best recalled by blood. Vengeance required an equally strong emotion to counter it. Hannibal had heard rumors of true love’s kiss, but there was more than one way to prove your love.
Left alone, Will would wither away. Without him, Hannibal would wither as well. He pressed his lips to Will’s forehead, brushed curls away from his face. “When I return,” he whispered, “you will have everything I’ve ever promised you. Everything you deserve.”
Hannibal packed lightly. The hunting knife, the same one that had torn Will’s bloody shirt to pieces, would be sufficient. There was no need for a gun. Intimacy had been well-earned by his prey.
“Guard him,” Hannibal told the dogs. Max and Winston knew the command well, but at his call, all seven took up the task, crowding the bed. Even Shirley went, scrambling her way up to the pillow and settling herself right beside Will’s head. They watched the door, wide eyed, prepared. Hannibal left them to their duty.
Chilton slept well that night, sinking deeply, eagerly into his pillows. There was nothing more to fear. No secret heirs, no further threats to his legacy. He slid between cool sheets and let the night take him, safe, secure.
A kind and beloved ruler will find himself with subjects who adore him. They will follow his commands, honor his name.
King Chilton was not a kind and beloved ruler. He was, by most generous estimates, ‘a bit of an ass.’ The best estimates rarely come from overworked and underpaid employees. The guards disliked their jobs almost as much as they disliked King Chilton. The king’s chambers were sprawling, and the two guards who worked the night shift had posts at the very first door. They had never heard so much as a peep from within the chambers, not even the Kong’s faint snores, and so they had long since turned their time towards better uses. Tonight, they were sleeping. Far off, in a small cottage in the middle of the forest, Prince Will was trapped in the deepest sleep of his life. The kingdom was silent.
So was Hannibal.
King Chilton did not wake to the quiet creak of the door, nor the click of the lock. He slept, thorough and still, right up until an arm locked across his throat and pressed down. He woke gasping, fingernails scrabbling for purchase on Hannibal’s thick sleeves.
“Good morning, your majesty,” Hannibal hissed. His eyes looked black in the moonlight. The shadows across his face brought a feral, almost inhuman quality to the angle of his jaw, the jut of his cheekbones. He looked every bit a monster.
Magic always needs a balancing force, but that does not mean the response cannot be mortal.
King Chilton’s breath came in horrified, constricted wheezes. He dug his heels into the mattress, attempting to buck off the heavy weight that pinned his hips to the mattress. “You!” He gasped, his voice a rasping whisper.
“Me,” Hannibal agreed, slicing his knife through the king’s nightclothes. “Did you know, your majesty, that the people of some of the neighboring kingdoms have been witches in their own right for centuries?” He parted the fabric carefully, using scraps of the king’s own clothing to bind his hands above his head. “My mother was an apothecarist, and her mother before her, and so on and so forth.”
King Chilton let out a strangled little squeak as Hannibal brushed the flat of his blade over the man’s nipple. He debated between chest and stomach for a long moment, before settling the knife just under the king’s ribs.
“Do you know what the most common cures for curses are?” Hannibal pressed the knife into the king’s skin, drawing a slow line across his stomach. The king cried out, or attempted to. He was still drawing in barely enough air to keep conscious, and it took no effort at all for Hannibal to further silence him with a rag. “True love’s kiss,” Hannibal explained, pressing his lips to the tip of Chilton’s nose, “a very complex and very exhausting potion brewed in the pitch black of the new moon,” Hannibal drew his knife up, a thick line of blood welling up over Chilton’s sternum, “And of course, the heart of the one who inflicted it.”
King Chilton screamed.
Hannibal made it home with moments to spare before sunrise. He’d been cautious near the town’s borders anyway. No need to show off the bloodstains on his clothes.
Will was exactly where he’d left him, still eerily pale, but breathing a lot less shallowly. The poultice had dissolved into the skin, his body soaking it up as a substitute for all the blood he’d lost. The wound could’ve been days old, rather than hours, scabbed over and slowly closing itself up.
The dogs hadn’t slept, as near as Hannibal could tell. They looked up at him, their eyes mournful. Even Shirley looked distressed; she wheezed out a pitiful whining noise as Hannibal moved her to the floor.
Will did not look dead, but nor did he look as though he was sleeping. Will slept in a fit of limbs, tossing and turning, sweating through the sheets. Some nights, Hannibal had to pin him in place to ensure the man got any sleep at all. This eerie stillness was someone else, some changeling thing that bore only a scant resmblence to the man Hannibal loved.
And he did love him. Enough to commit treason, though really, what was one less pompous monarch in the world? Hannibal took the heart from his pouch, and the knife. Winston growled.
“So fiercely protective,” Hannibal praised, “but fear not. This is magic of an entirely different sort.”
With his knife, Hannibal sliced the heart open, delving deep into the wettest, freshest part at the core. He cut a sliver, pressing it to Will’s lips. It stained his mouth a vibrant red, the blood still slightly warm. Hannibal rubbed at Will’s throat, coaxing his body to swallow reflexively, and waited with bated breath.
The color did not return to Will’s skin as fully as Hannibal would have hoped, but his eyelashes fluttered. Once, then again, and then he was groaning, stretching his arms above his head as he did every morning.
“I haven’t slept that well in years,” Will said, pushing himself up with some difficulty, careful of his stomach. He licked at the blood on his lips, frowning. “Hannibal? What’s wrong?”
Hannibal’s eyes were wet. He had not made time for tears since he was small, but now they fell freely, slipping down his cheeks to stain the bedspread.
“Hey!” Will said, alarmed. He leaned forward, groaning at the pain but otherwise ignoring it. He cupped Hannibal’s face in his hands, brushing tears away with his thumbs. “It’s alright,” Will whispered, “I’m okay. I’m here. I’m fine.”
Hannibal kissed him. He tasted like copper, like blood and flesh and life, the sweet thrum of a heartbeat, the steady heat of a body that would keep on going.
King Chilton’s body was found in the morning. He was mourned, by the traditions in which all kings were mourned, but he was not missed by any subject in the land.
Without King Chilton there to enforce it, it was widely agreed that there had never been an order to lock Prince Will up within the castle, and anyone who remembered one was widely agreed to have been mistaken. After all, without Prince Will, the next in line for the throne were the Verger cousins. Nobody wanted Mason Verger anywhere near the throne.
And so, when Prince Will arrived at the palace gates with his personal guard/huntsman, six dogs, and a small furry lump that everyone agreed was some sort of pillow with eyes, he was greeted with applause. Anyone who had been mistrustful or fearful of him in his childhood was now ecstatic to see him, for of course, they knew what sort of kingdom existed without him.
King Will and his consort, Hannibal, reigned for many long years. They bartered away some of the land the former King Chilton had hoarded, and kept the rest. They established trade routes and peace treaties, and were generally agreed to be benevolent rulers, though strict. Crimes against the kingdom were punished swiftly, and without mercy, and it was agreed by all that the less said about that, the better.
When the time came to produce an heir, King Will conspired with his cousin Margot and her wife. Alana Verger produced two children of royal blood. The son, Morgan, inherited the Verger estate, while the daughter, Abigail, would grow to be the next Queen. Abigail was raised by her fathers to be cunning and kind, brilliant in a way that made most people uncomfortable. Nobody could quite look her in the eyes, intimidated by what they found there. Hannibal considered it to be quite the success.
Nobody ever did figure out how to release the spirits of the mirror, though Abigail was curious enough to make magic a fundamental part of her studies. The spirits were not very much bothered by it; they found the current monarchs far less insipid than the previous one, although Brian remained utterly appalled by Hannibal, and Beverly spent much of the rest of their eternity gleefully teasing the King’s consort over his choice in fabric patterns.
All in all, it was safe to say that everyone lived happily ever after.
(Except for Mason Verger, but we don’t speak of that.)