A/N: I have no idea where this came from, really. I was supposed to be studying, I got bored, and next thing I knew I was writing this thing about von Glower's childhood, or first hunt, or something. Looks like my current GK obsession isn't going to wear off so soon. :P
Baron Claus von Ralick tapped his foot on the ground impatiently as the stable boy finished saddling his horse before stepping aside a little nervously – he was terrified of the baron, as every servant was, and his horse wasn't an easy creature to deal with either. Von Ralick dismissed him with a sharp nod before he turned to glance at the rest of the hunting group in the yard. Most of them were still saddling their horses and getting their dogs and supplies ready, but it didn't bother him. He preferred it that way: he was used to go ahead by himself, and he enjoyed it thoroughly.
He smiled in anticipation as he glanced at the woods nearby and he was about to mount on the horse, then he stopped as he caught a movement in the corner of his eye. He turned to see his son standing a few feet from him, looking incredibly out of place in his fine velvet clothes among adults dressed to go hunting, glancing up at him and his horse in awe. He couldn't help but chuckle inwardly at the obvious admiration in the child's gaze, but he let no amusement show in his voice as he spoke. "What are you doing here, Rudolf? I thought you were supposed to be studying right now," he said sternly. "I don't pay that good for nothing preceptor to have you wandering in the yard at any occasion you get."
Rudolf von Ralick shifted a little under his gaze – everyone felt uneasy when he stared at them, and his own son was no exception. That certainly didn't bother him: he was used to it. His notoriously violent streak and ruthlessness had made him infamous in Alfing and in the whole surrounding area, his icy gaze being enough to make most men cower before him. "Well?" von Ralick harshly urged his son to speak.
The boy recoiled. "He... he said we could stop for half a hour, so I came to see you go hunting," he explained quickly, his eyes falling on the rifle on the baron's saddle for a moment.
Von Ralick noticed where his gaze went and smirked in amusement. "Does hunting fascinate you this much?" he asked, and the boy nodded eagerly. But of course it did, von Ralick mused, it was in his blood: their family had been known for generation for their hunting skills. And indeed it was in his blood, for more reasons than one... but that was something von Ralick would never know – he would be long dead the day Rudolf von Ralick would go through the Change for the first time, screaming in pain and terror without even knowing what was happening to him. At that time, having noticed nothing unusual in his son, von Ralick had come to the dreadfully wrong conclusion that his innocent offspring had been spared the curse that had been cast on him for his vile deeds.
Rudolf had given him no more articulated reply yet, nor von Ralick waited for one. One of the things he was most known for other than his prowess to anger was his inclination to take decisions quickly without thinking much, strong in his certainty that nobody would dare to oppose him and deny him what he wanted. If he wanted something, he just took it. If he thought something should be done for whatever reason, it just had to be done. And now he had just decided that his son should take part to a hunt if he liked it that much. He wasn't much older than Rudolf was now when his own father had first brought him in the forest, after all.
"Very well, then. I suppose you're old enough to see what hunting really is about. You!" he called out for a servant. "Let my wife know he's coming with me in the forest. And tell his preceptor, too – my son has had enough of his Latin nonsense for today."
"Yes, baron," the man immediately said.
"Good. Are you ready?" von Ralick pretended to not have noticed the stunned expression on his son's young face.
The boy bit his lower lip. It had been so sudden, as most of his father's decisions, and he was clearly pressed between his desire to please his father, his worry for not being ready – he certainly wasn't wearing appropriate clothes for hunting, but that hardly mattered to the baron – and his eagerness to actually take part to hunt. He finally nodded. "I… yes, father."
"Good," was all von Ralick said before he grabbed the child and easily lifted him, placing him on the saddle before hoisting himself up as well, right behind him, his arms on either side of him as he reached to take the reins in his hands. "A far cry from that pony you've been taught to ride with, isn't it?"
"It's high," Rudolf muttered in wonder, as if just couldn't wrap his mind around the idea that he was actually sitting on that horse with his father after admiring him riding off to the woods on that magnificent animal for years.
"Why, of course it is. Did you think I'd ride a pony?" von Ralick asked, a little annoyed by the obviousness of his son's comment – he had little patience with those who stated the obvious – but the child chuckled as if he had just told him a joke and he decided to just forget it. Besides, he couldn't deny that there was something comical in trying to picture himself on a pony. Von Ralick straightened his back and clicked his tongue, causing the horse to start trotting on the path that led to the woods.
"Aren't we going to wait for them?" Rudolf asked, turning to glance back at the rest of the hunting group that was still getting ready. He knew that his father had the habit of going ahead, but the thought of being in the middle of the forest alone with him while he hunted intimidated him. They had rarely been alone with each other, and the atmosphere had been anything but cheerful in most of those occasions. The boy was pretty sure he had never seen his father smiling unless the subject of hunting was brought up, and even those times his smile had been anything but reassuring, his laughter almost threatening.
"No, they'll follow later. I prefer taking a look by myself first – too many people at once scare off the preys," he gave an odd smile "I hunt better when I'm alone. And now stop moving on the saddle."
Rudolf immediately stilled, and for a while as the horse trotted in the woods neither of them spoke. The baron grinned a little as he saw his son glancing around with wide eyes. Not that his awe and wonder surprised him: still too young for the hunt, he had scarcely been allowed to approach the forest's border a few times. He had never been so deep in the woods before.
"Father?" Rudolf called out after a while, a little hesitantly.
"What is it?"
"Do you think we could meet wolves?" the child asked, worry and excitement both in his voice. The thought of meeting creatures like that closely was scary, but it would be so thrilling, and he knew he had nothing to fear with his father there with him, so…
Von Ralick gave a bitter smile, and for a moment he was almost tempted to tell him that he had been always living close to one only to see the stunned expression on his face. Then he just shook his head. "No, I don't think so. I ordered my men to kill any wolf in these woods. Those who are left keep themselves far away from man, deep in the forest," he said. It was true that he had his men shooting at any wolf in that forest, but it wasn't for stopping the monthly killing spree he himself was responsible of like he had made everyone believe: the true reason was that hearing a wolf howling would trigger the transformation in any moment and in front of anyone could be with him, and it was a risk he could not take. Few people had known his secret, and all of them had been dealt with in due time... with finality.
"Oh," Rudolf seemed to be unsure whether he should feel disappointed or relieved. "But then why are wolves killing people?"
The baron's grip on the reins tightened. "Who told you about that?" he asked harshly.
His son winced a little, probably fearing one of the bursts of anger that made everyone so scared of Claus von Ralick. "I… think I heard someone talking about it near the stables," he said, hoping his father wouldn't ask him to make any names. He didn't want to get the stable boy in trouble.
"I see." Von Ralick forced himself to relax his grip on the rein.s "I suppose that sometimes wolves do get out of the forest at night, maybe when food is scarce. To them, man is just a prey. And why should there be any distinction between a peasant and a deer in any case?" he reasoned aloud. In those years he had seen clearly how similar to animals men where; predators held complete power over their preys the same way he and other powerful men held complete power over peasants. If he were to decide some servant had to die, they'd die: whether he claimed their life himself by tearing out their throat one night of full moon or had them killed by his men made little difference.
Unaware of his musings, his son frowned. "But people are not deer," he pointed out.
"Beasts don't make such distinctions," von Ralick said almost thoughtfully before he shook his head. "But it's nothing you should concern yourself with. Forget about it."
Von Ralick was about to add something else, but he stopped as a scent drifted to his nostrils. When in his human form his sense of smell wasn't as incredibly sharp as it was when he was a wolf, but it was still much more developed that any man's, and he immediately recognized the scent. He pulled the reins to stop the horse in the middle of the clearing. "Rudolf?"
"Yes?" the child tilted back his head to glance up at him. Von Ralick gestured to something on the ground with a sharp nod of his head.
"Can you tell what animals passed here?"
Rudolf blinked in confusion, then he glanced down to see the droppings on the ground, just beside a bush on the border of the clearing. He frowned a little. "A rabbit?" he finally tried, his voice hesitant as if he was afraid of his father's reaction should he be wrong.
"Yes. And…?" von Ralick urged him on.
The child glanced around a little more carefully, then his gaze brightened as he saw the prints on a still wet patch of mud. "And a deer!" he exclaimed excitedly.
Von Ralick seemed pleased. "Exactly," one hand let go of the rein for just a moment to ruffle Rudolf's black hair in a rough caress before he clicked his tongue to get the horse walking again. "I would like some venison for dinner this evening. Would you?"
"Very good. Hold on tight," von Ralick said, and Rudolf had barely enough time to do so before his father spurred the horse with a sharp kick at its sides. The horse immediately broke into a canter first and then in a gallop, causing Rudolf to gasp in surprise and clutch tighter at the horse's mane. "Are you afraid?" von Ralick asked, an amused glint in his eyes as the horse's hooves thundered down the path, the threes rushing past them at a speed that had to seem impossible to a child.
"No," was the breathless reply, and von Ralick couldn't hold back a proud smile as he saw how well his son was holding to the saddle as the horse galloped and the wind whipped at their faces and hair, and how he kept his gaze fixed forward rather than turning away or shifting back against him. He seemed to be enjoying himself – von Ralick couldn't smell any fear on him. If there were any, it was well concealed.
He did, however, tense with he spotted the ravine they were heading to. "Father…?" von Ralick heard him calling out over the rushing wind and the thundering of the horse's hooves. He seemed both thrilled and terrified.
"It's alright," von Ralick reassured him, his eyes gleaming as he kept them fixed on the ravine. "I know what I'm doing. Keep holding tight."
The child immediately obeyed, his small hands turning white as he held onto the mane with all his strength. His father gripped the reins more firmly and urged the horse onward, approaching the ravine at full speed, and Rudolf had barely enough time to realize that they were really about to jump the ravine before the horse leapt.
For a few, endless moments Rudolf felt as if time had stopped and they had stayed suspended in the air like that for minutes. He dared to glance down, and he felt a shiver of fear and excitement running down his spine as he saw the ground so impossibly far below. For an instant fear almost overrode the excitement – what if the horse didn't make it to the other side and they fell down? – but then he felt his father's arm against his side as he shifted just a little and he was immediately reassured. His father was powerful, feared, and a great hunter. He could do nothing wrong, so Rudolf knew he had absolutely no reason to be afraid as long as he was there. He had complete faith in that.
And his trust was not misplaced, not that time: the horse's hooves finally hit the ground on the other side of the ravine with a powerful thud, and Rudolf knew that had made it. The horse galloped for a few more moments before von Ralick pulled the reins enough to gradually slow it down to a walk and glanced down at his son again. "Still not scared, Rudolf?" he asked, an amused smirk on his face as he led the horse down a path leading deeper into the woods.
"Not at all," the boy immediately shook his head before glancing up at him, an excited smile on his slightly reddened face. "It was… well…" he frowned, trying to think of an appropriate word, but before he could speak again his father suddenly stiffened and gestured for him to shut up, glancing around with narrowed eyes. No, there was nothing in sight, but his hearing was keen enough, and that that sound he had heard… yes, it had to be it. It couldn't be anything else.
"Rudolf," he said quietly. "Th deer must be. Now you mustn't make a sound. Understand?"
His son immediately nodded and fell quiet. Good boy, von Ralick thought as he led the horse towards the noise. It only took them a few minutes to reach the clearing, and the baron smirked as he laid his eyes on his prey. A stag with antlers still covered with velvet but unusually developed for that time of the year was standing in the middle of the clearing, too busy grazing the tender grass to notice them. That was perfect: if he could surprise it and scare it in the direction he wanted, von Ralick was sure he'd have those antlers mounted to a wall soon.
He leant forward to grab the rifle he had secured to the saddle and to whisper in his son's ear. "Hold on tight," he recommended him before he abruptly spurred the horse into the clearing, directly towards the stag.
The animal immediately lifted its head to see the danger and turned to run back in the woods, but von Ralick spurred the horse so that it would block its escape. The horse jumped right in the stag's path, rearing up and whinnying. Rudolf was caught by surprise and was thrown back, but his father's body behind him kept him from falling off and he managed to grab the horse's mane once more. Von Ralick laughed in triumph as the stag immediately turned to flee… exactly in the direction he had to drive it to. He immediately went after it, urging the horse onward, the thrill of the hunt making the blood rushing in his veins feel like fire.
Rudolf, on the other hand, kept clinging to the horse's mane and did his best to keep himself steady on the saddle – now that his father was holding a gun in one hand instead of holding the reins with both hands, he no longer had his arm to support him should he slide on his right. Much to his own surprise, however, holding on came easier than he had expected, and his fear of falling off was quickly replaced by the thrill of the chase as his father kept going after the stag, driving it further away, towards… where? Why hadn't he shot it already? Where was he trying to drive the prey?
His curiosity was satisfied as soon as he saw where they were heading – the ravine! His father had driven the stag there to corner it so that shooting it would be easier. Rudolf hadn't even thought about that. Despite the fact the horse was still galloping, he tried to hold himself as upright as he could so that he could see everything, his heart beating so fast with anticipation that it felt like it could burst from his chest – he had never taken part to any hunt until that moment after all.
The stag saw the ravine, but it didn't try to leap. It abruptly stopped running, its hooves sliding a little on the ground before it managed to turn in a desperate attempt to get back and move around the ravine, but it was too late: von Ralick was following it far too closely, and he had already blocked the path. The stag was trapped. That didn't stop the animal from trying one last desperate move: it darted on its left, probably hoping to get past the horse before it could stand in its way. But in doing so it showed its vulnerable side, giving a convenient target to von Ralick, and the baron was too much of an expert hunter to miss that chance.
Everything happened so fast. Von Ralick immediately turned the horse, and Rudolf felt him lifting the rifle an instant before a shot cracked out, so close to his ear that it would have made him wince hadn't he been so focused on the stag. The boy didn't even register the smoke and the heavy smell of gunpowder – all he could do was staring with wide eyes at the stag collapsing on the ground with a loud whinny. It wasn't dead, though, not yet: it was still drawing in short, snorting breaths as Rudolf stared in awe at that once powerful animal lying on the ground and only able to wait for the final blow, blood seeping from the gunshot on its side.
"Quiet," von Ralick ordered, pulling at the reins slightly, and the horse – who had probably been upset by the shot or the smell of gunpowder – quieted down again. The man quickly loaded the rifle again and lifted the weapon to finish off the stag, and paused. He stared at the fallen animal for a few more moments, then he finally lowered the rifle so that it would be within Rudolf's reach. "You do it."
His son blinked, finally tearing his gaze away from the agonizing animal. "What?"
"Are you deaf?" von Ralick said impatiently. "Finish it. No, don't take the rifle, it's too heavy for you. I'll hold it; you just pull the trigger. Don't tell me you can't do that," he added. His voice was stern enough to cause the boy to wince.
"No. I mean, yes. I can do it," Rudolf said quickly.
"Then go ahead."
Rudolf nodded and reached to put his finger on the trigger. He glanced at the dying stag again, and he froze as the animal looked back at him. There were a few moments of silence as they just glanced at each other, both of them knowing how that was about to end, and the child suddenly felt like he and that stag were speaking the same language, a language ignored by man. A shiver went down his spine.
I am Death. Are you ready to go?
Yes. Take me.
The boy hesitated and looked back up to his father, who nodded slightly, and for a moment he wondered if the baron knew that something had passed between prey and hunter for a few moments. Maybe he did: he had been a hunter for years, after all. Rudolf finally clenched his jaw, looked back at the stag and pulled the trigger.
The shot echoed through the woods, and this time the stag made no sound – it just dropped its head on the ground and lay still. It was over.
A few moments of silence followed as the echo of the shot vanished. "You did well," von Ralick finally spoke somewhat thoughtfully as he pulled the rifle away, startling his son out of the odd trance he had fallen into. "I think these antlers will make a nice decoration for your bedroom once we've polished the velvet out of them. Let's get back, I'll tell those idiots to bring it to the mansion."
Rudolf smiled, his chest swelling with pride at his father's praise – it was so rare getting any praise out of that man! "Will you teach me how to hunt like you do, father?" he asked eagerly, his young mind already forgetting the odd connection he had shared with the prey for a moment, and von Ralick could not hold back a smirk as he realized that right now he had to be a few steps above God in his son's eyes.
"Of course," he promised, urging the horse to take the path that would allow them to move around the ravine and towards home – the horse was getting tired, and he didn't want to make it leap again. "I'll teach you everything I know, if you can keep up. But now let's go home."
There would be no chance for von Ralick to teach his son anything more, but neither of them could know it yet. No other words were spoken as they – a man who had barely more than five days left to live and a boy who would live to see the turn of more than one century – headed back to a mansion that would be soon destroyed by cleansing flames.