Savirsin, Romania; evening of the first Friday in August 1983; the Gaststube of an inn perched on the steep mountainside at the eastern extreme of the town, where the road climbs up through many hairpin bends and out of sight into the pines.
Three young Americans, tourists by their looks and rig, sat together at a chipped, ages-blackened, heavily-grained circular wooden table in one corner of the barroom. Their clothes were casual; one of them smoked a cigarette; their drinks were local beers, not especially strong but stinging to the palate and very refreshing.
At the bar itself a pair of gnarled mountain men, hunters complete with rifles so ancient they must surely qualify as antiques, had guffawed and slapped backs and bragged of their prowess - and not only as hunters of beasts - for over an hour before one of them suddenly took on a surprised look, staggered back from the bar, and with a slurred oath aimed himself reeling through the door out into the smoky blue-grey twilight. His rifle lay on the bar where he'd left it; the bartender, not a little gingerly, took it up and put it carefully away out of sight, then continued to wash and dry the day's used glasses.
The departed hunter's drinking companion - and partner in crime or whatever - roared with renewed laughter; he slapped the bar explosively, finished off the other's plum brandy and threw back his own, then looked around for more sport. And of course he spied the Americans where they sat at their ease, making casual conversation. In fact, and until now, their conversation had centred on him, but he didn't know that.
He ordered another drink - and whatever they were drinking for them at the table; one for the barman, too -and swayed his way over to them. Before filling the order the barman took his rifle, too, and placed it safely with the other.
'Gogosu,' the old hunter growled, thumbing himself in his leather-clad chest. 'Emil Gogosu. And you? Touristi, are you?' He spoke Romanian, the dialect of the area, which leaned a little towards Hungarian. All three, they smiled back at him, two of them somewhat warily. But the third translated, and quickly answered:
Tourists, yes. From America, the USA. Sit down, Emil Gogosu, and talk to us.'
Taken by surprise, the hunter said: 'Eh? Eh? You have the tongue? You're a guide for these two, eh? Profitable, is it?'
The younger man laughed. 'God, no! I'm with them -I'm one of them - an American!'
'Impossible!' Gogosu declared, taking a seat. 'What? Why, J never before heard such a thing! Foreigners speaking the tongue? You're pulling my leg, right?'
Gogosu was peasant Romanian through and through. He had a brown, weather-beaten face, grey bull-horn moustaches stained yellow in the middle from pipe-smoking, long sideburns curling in towards his upper lip, and penetrating grey eyes under bristling, even greyer brows. He wore a patched leather jacket with a high collar that buttoned up to the neck over a white shirt whose sleeves fitted snug at the wrist. His fur caciula cap was held fast under the right epaulet of his jacket; a half-filled bandolier passed under the left epaulet, crossed his chest diagonally, fed itself up under his right arm and across his back. A wide leather belt supported a sheath and hunter's knife, several pouches, and his coarsely-woven trousers which he wore tucked into his climber's pigskin calf-boots. A small man, still he looked strong and wiry. All in all, he was a picturesque specimen.
'We were talking about you,' their interpreter told him.
'Eh? Oh?' Gogosu looked from one face to the next all the way round. 'About me? So I'm a figure of curiosity, ami?'
'Of admiration,' the wily American answered. 'A hunter, by your looks, and good at it - or so we'd guess. You'd know this country, these mountains, well?'
'There isn't a man knows 'em better!' Gogosu declared. But he was wily, too, and now his eyes narrowed a little. 'You're looking for a guide, eh?'
'We could be, we could be,' the other slowly nodded. 'But there are guides and there are guides. You ask some guides to show you a ruined castle on a mountain and they promise you the earth! The very castle of Dracula, they say! And then they take you to a pile of rocks that looks like someone's pigsty collapsed! Aye, ruins, Emil Gogosu, that's what we're interested in. For photographs, for pictures... for mood and atmosphere.'
The barman delivered their drinks and Gogosu tossed his straight back. 'Eh? Eh? You're going to make one of those picture things, right? Moving pictures? The old vampire in his castle, chasing the girls with the wobbling breasts? God, yes, I've seen 'em! The pictures, I mean, down in old Lugoj where there's a picture-house. Not the girls, no ... sod-all wobbly tits round here, I can tell you! Withered paps at best in this neck of the woods, my lads! But I've seen the pictures. And that's what you're looking for, eh? Ruins
Oddly, and despite the brandy he'd consumed, the old boy seemed to have sobered a little. His eyes focussed more readily, became more fixed in their orbits as he studied the Americans each in his turn. First there was their interpreter. He was a queer one for sure, with his knowledge of the tongue and what all. He was tall, this one, a six-footer with inches to spare, long in the leg, lean in the hip and broad at the shoulders. And now that Gogosu looked closer, he could see that he wasn't just American. Not all American, anyway.
'What's your name, eh? What's your name?' The hunter took the young man's hand and made to tighten his grip on it ... but it was snatched back at once and down out of sight under the table.
'George,' the owner of the refused hand quickly replied, reclaiming Gogosu's startled-to-flight attention. 'George Vulpe.'
'Vulpe?' the hunter laughed out loud and slapped the table, making their drinks dance. 'Oh, I've known a few Vulpes in my time. But George? What kind of a name is George to go with a name like Vulpe, eh? Now come on, let's be straight, you and I... you mean Gheorghe, don't you?'
The other's dark eyes darkened more yet and seemed to brood a very little, but then they relaxed and exchanged grin for grin with the grey eyes of their inquisitor. 'Well, you're a sharp one, Emil,' their owner finally said. 'Sharp-eyed, too! Yes, I was Romanian once. There's a story to it, but it's not much...'
The gnarled old hunter returned to studying him. 'Tell it anyway,' he said, giving Vulpe a slow once-over. And the young man shrugged and sat back in his chair.
'Well, I was born here, under the mountains,' he said, his voice as soft as his deceptively soft mouth. He smiled and flashed perfect teeth; so they should be, Gogosu thought, in a man only twenty-six or -seven years old. 'Born here,' Vulpe repeated, 'yes ... but it's only a dim and distant memory now. My folks were travellers, which accounts for my looks. You recognized me from my tanned skin, right? And my dark eyes?'
'Aye,' Gogosu nodded. 'And from the thin lobes of your ears, which would take a nice gold ring. And from your high forehead and wolfish jaw, which aren't uncommon in the Szgany. Oh, your origins are obvious enough, to a man who can see. So what happened?'
'Happened?' Again Vulpe's shrug. 'My parents moved to the cities, settled down, became "workers" instead of the drones they'd always been.'
'Drones? You believe that?'
'No, but the authorities did. They gave them a flat in Craiova, right next to the new railway. The mortar was rotten and shaky from the trains; the plaster was coming off the walls; someone's toilet in the flat above leaked on us ... but it was good enough for workshy drones, they said. And until I was eleven that's where I'd play, next to the tracks. Then... one night a train was derailed. It ploughed right into our block, took away a wall, brought the whole place crashing down. I was lucky enough to live through it but my people died. And for a while I thought I'd be better off dead, too, because my spine had been crushed and I was a cripple. But someone heard about me, and there was a scheme on at the time - an exchange of doctors and patients, between American and Romanian rehabilitation clinics - and because I was an orphan I was given priority. Not bad for a drone, eh? So ... I went to the USA. And they fixed me up. What's more, they adopted me, too. Two of them did, anyway. And because I was only a boy and there was no one left back here,' (yet again, his shrug) 'why, I was allowed to stay!'
'Ah!' said Gogosu. 'And so now you're an American. Well, I'll believe you... but it's strange for Gypsies to leave the open road. Sometimes they get thrown out and go their own ways - disputes and what have you in the camps, usually over a woman or a horse - but rarely to settle in towns. What was it with your folks? Did they cross the Gypsy king or something?'
'I don't know. I was only a boy,' Vulpe answered. 'I think perhaps they feared for me: I was a weak little thing, apparently, a runt. At any rate, they left the night I was born, and covered their tracks, and never went back.'
'A runt?' Gogosu raised an eyebrow, looked Vulpe up and down yet again. 'Well, you'd not know it now. But they covered their tracks, you say? That's it, then. Say no more. There'd been trouble in the camp, for sure. I'll give you odds your father and mother were secret lovers, and she was promised to another. Then you came along so he stole her away. Oh, it happens.'
'That's a very romantic notion,' Vulpe said. 'And who knows? - you could be right.'
'My God, we're ignorant!' Gogosu suddenly exploded, beckoning to the barman. 'Here's you and me chatting in this old tongue of ours, and your two friends bewildered and left out entirely. Now let me get you all another drink and then we'll have some introductions. I want to know why you're here, and what I can do to help, and how much you'll pay me to take you to some real ruins!'
'The drinks are on us,' said Vulpe. 'And no arguments. God, do you expect us to keep up with you, Emil Gogosu? Now slow down or you'll have us all under the table before we've even got things sorted out! As for introductions, that's easy:'
He clasped the shoulder of the American closest to him. "This great gangly one is Seth Armstrong, from Texas. They build them tall there, Emil, as you can see. But then it's a big state. Why, your entire Romania would fit into Texas alone three times over!'
Gogosu was suitably impressed. He shook hands with Armstrong and looked him over. The Texan was big and raw-boned, with honest blue eyes in an open face, sparse straw-coloured hair, arms and legs as long and thin as poles. His nose was long over a wide, expressive mouth and a heavy, bristly chin. Just a little short of seventy-eight inches, even seated Armstrong came up head and shoulders above the others.
'Hah!' said the hunter. 'This Texas would have to be big to accommodate such as him!'
Vulpe translated, then nodded in the direction of the third member of his group. 'And this one,' he said, 'is Randy Laverne from Madison, Wisconsin. It mightn't be so mountainous up there, but believe me it can get just as cold!'
'Cold?' said Gogosu. 'Well, that shouldn't bother this one. I envy him all that good meat on his bones - and all the good meals it took to put it there - but it's not much use in climbing. Me, I'm able to cling to the rocks snug as a lichen, in places where gravity would get him for sure.'
Vulpe translated and Laverne laughed good-naturedly. He was the youngest and smallest (or at least the shortest) of the three Americans: twenty-five, freckle-faced, way overweight and constantly hungry. His face was round and topped with wavy red hair; his green eyes friendly and full of fun; the corners of his eyes and mouth running into mazes of laughter lines. But there was nothing soft about him: his huge hands were incredibly strong, a legacy of his blacksmith father.
'Very well,' said George Vulpe, 'so now we know each other. Or rather, you know us. But what about you, Emil? You're a hunter, yes, but what else?'
'Nothing else!' said Gogosu. 'I don't need to be anything else. I've a small house and a smaller woman in Ilia; in the summer I hunt wild pig and sell meat to the butchers and skins to the tailors and boot makers; in the winter I take furs and kill a few foxes, and they hire me ,to shoot the occasional wolf. And so I make a living -barely! And now maybe I'll be a guide, too. Why not? -for I know the heights as well as the eagles who nest in 'em.'
'And the odd ruined castle? You can show us one of those, too?'
'Castles abound,' said Gogosu. 'But you told me there are guides and guides. Well, so are there castles and castles. And you're right: anyone can show you a tumble of old boulders and call it a castle. But I, Emil Gogosu, can show you a castle!'
The Americans Armstrong and Laverne got the gist of this and became excited. Armstrong, in his Texas drawl, said: 'Hey, George, tell him what we're really doing here. Explain to him how close he was when he talked about Dracula and vampires and all.'
'In America,' Vulpe told the hunter, 'all over the world, in fact, Transylvania and the Carpatii Meridionali are famous! Not so much for their dramatic beauty or gaunt isolation as for their myths and legends. You talked of Dracula, who had his origins in a cruel Vlad of olden times... but don't you know that every year the tourists flock in their droves to visit the great Drakul's homeland and the castles where he's said to have dwelled? Indeed, it's big business. And we believe it could be even bigger.'
'Pah!' said Gogosu. 'Why, this whole country is steeped in olden lore and superstitious myths. This impaler Vlad's just a one of them.' He leaned closer, lowered his voice and his eyes went big and round. 'I could take you to a castle old as the mountains themselves, a shattered keep so feared that even today it's left entirely alone in a trackless place, like naked bones under the moon, kept secret in the lee of haunted crags!' He sat back and nodded his satisfaction with their expressions. 'There!'
After Vulpe had translated, Randy Laverne said, 'Wow!' And more soberly: 'But... do you think he's for real?'
And the hunter knew what he'd said. He stared straight and frowning into Laverne's wide eyes and instructed Vulpe: 'You tell him that I shot the last man who called me a liar right in his backside. And you can also tell him this: that in these ruins I know, there's a great grey wolf keeps watch even today. And that's a fact, for I've tried to shoot him, too!'
Vulpe began to translate, but in the middle of it the hunter started to laugh. 'Hey! Hey!' he said. 'Not so serious! And don't take my threats too much to heart. Oh, I know my story's a wild-sounding thing but it's true all the same. Pay me for my time and trouble and come see for yourselves. Well, what do you say?'
Vulpe held up a cautionary hand and Gogosu looked at it curiously in the moment before it was withdrawn. It had felt strange, that hand, when he'd grasped it. And there'd been something not quite right about it when Vulpe had clasped the gangling Armstrong's shoulder. Also, Vulpe seemed shy about his hands and kept them out of sight most of the time. 'Now wait,' said the young expatriate Romanian, reclaiming the hunter's attention. 'Let's first see if we're talking about the right place.'
'The right place?' said Gogosu, puzzled. 'And just how many such places do you think there are?'
'I meant,' Vulpe explained, 'let's see if maybe we've heard of this castle of yours.'
'I doubt it. You'll not find it on any modern maps, and that's for sure. I reckon the authorities think that if they leave it alone - if they just ignore it for long enough -then maybe it'll finally crumble away! No, no, you've not heard of this place, I'm sure.'
'Well, let's check it out anyway,' said Vulpe. 'You see, the deeds, territories and history of the original Dracula -I mean of the Wallachian prince from whom Dracula took his name - are well chronicled and absolutely authentic. An Englishman turned the fact into fiction, that's all, and in so doing started a legend. Then there was a famous Frenchman who also wrote about a castle in the Carpathians, and possibly started a legend or two of his own. And finally an American did the same thing.
'Now the thing is, this American - his name would mean nothing to you - has since become very famous. If we could find his castle ... it could be the Dracula story all over again! Tourists? Ah, but you'd see some touristi then, Emil Gogosu! And who knows but that you'd be chief guide, eh?'
Gogosu chewed the centre of his moustache. 'Huh!' he finally snorted; but his eyes had grown very bright and not a little greedy. He rubbed his nose, finally said: 'Very well, so what do you want to know? How can we decide if the castle I know and the one you're looking for is one and the same, eh?'
'It might be simpler than you think,' said Vulpe. 'For example, how long has this place of yours been a ruin?'
'Oh, it blew up before my time,' Gogosu answered with a shrug - and was at once astonished to see Vulpe give a great start! 'Eh?'
But already the American was translating to his friends, and astonishment and wonder were mirrored in their faces, too. Finally Vulpe turned again to the hunter. 'Blew up, you say? You mean... exploded?'
'Or bombed, yes,' said Gogosu, frowning. 'When a wall falls it falls, but some of these walls have been blasted outwards, hurled afar.'
Vulpe was very excited now, but he tried not to show it. 'And did it have a name, this castle? What of its owner before it fell? That could be very important.'
'Its name?' Gogosu screwed up his face in concentration. He tapped his forehead, leaned back in his chair, finally shook his head. 'My father's father had old maps,' he said. 'The name of the place was on them. That's where I first saw it and when I first decided to go and see it. But its name... it's gone now.'
'Maps like this one?' said Armstrong. He produced a copy of an old Romanian map and spread it on the table. It soaked up a little beer but otherwise was fine.
'Like this one, aye,' Gogosu nodded, 'but older, far older. This is just a copy. Here, let me see.' He smoothed the map out, stared at it in several places. 'Not shown,' he said. 'My castle is not shown. Just a blank space. Well, that's understandable enough. Gloomy old place. It's like I said: they'd like to forget it. Legends? You don't know the half of it!' And a moment later: 'Ahhhr he jerked back in his seat and clutched at his forehead with both hands.
'Jesusr cried Laverne. 'Is he OK?'
'OK, yes ... OK!' said Emil Gogosu. And to Vulpe: 'Now I remember, Gheorghe. It was... Ferenczy!'
Vulpe's bottom jaw, and those of his friends, fell open. 'Jesus!' said Laverne again, this time in a whisper.
'The Castle Ferenczy?' Armstrong reached over and grabbed the hunter's forearm.
Gogosu nodded. 'That's it. And that's the one, eh?'
Vulpe and the others fell back in their seats, gaped at each other; they acted bewildered, confused or simply astonished. But at last Vulpe said, 'Yes, that's the one. And you'll take us to it? Tomorrow?'
'Oh, be sure I will - ' said Gogosu,' - for a price!' And he looked at Vulpe's hands where he'd spread them on the table, holding down the map. Vulpe saw where the hunter was looking but this time made no attempt to hide his hands away. Instead, he merely raised an eyebrow.
'An accident?' the old Romanian asked him. 'If so, they patched you up rather cleverly.'
'No,' Vulpe answered, 'no accident. I was born like this. It's just that my parents always taught me to hide them away, that's all. And so I do, except from my friends...'
Because of the mountains, the sun seemed a little late in rising. When it did it came up hot and smoky. At eight-thirty the three Americans were waiting for Gogosu on the dusty road outside the inn, their packs at their feet, peaked caps on their heads with tinted visors to keep out the worst of the sun. The old hunter had told them he'd 'collect' them here, at this hour, though they hadn't been sure exactly what he'd meant.
Randy Laverne had just drained a small bottle of beer and put it down to one side of the inn's doorstep when they heard the rattle and clatter of a local bus. These were so rare as to be near-fabulous; certainly the arrival of one such demanded a photograph or two; Seth Armstrong got out his camera and started snapping as the beaten-up bus came lurching out of the pines and down the serpentine road towards the inn.
The thing was a wonderful contraption: bald tyres, bonnet vibrating to a blur over the back-firing engine, windows bleary and fly-specked. The driver's window was especially bloody, from the eviscerations of a thousand suicided insects; and Emil Gogosu was leaning out of the folding doors at the front with a huge grin stamped on his leathery face, waving at them, indicating they should get aboard.
The bus shuddered to a halt; the driver grinned, nodded and held up a roll of brown tickets; Gogosu stepped down and helped the three strap their packs to running-boards which went the full length of this ancient vehicle. Then they were aboard, paid their fare, collapsed or were shaken into bone-jarring seats as the driver engaged a low gear to let the one-in-five downward slope do the work of his engine.
George Vulpe was seated beside Gogosu. 'OK,' he said, when he'd recovered his breath, 'so where are we going?'
'First the payment,' said the hunter.
'Old man,' Vulpe returned, 'I've this feeling you don't much trust us!'
'Not so much of the "old" - I'm only fifty-four,' said Gogosu. 'I weather easy. But even so, I didn't get this old without learning that it's sometimes best to collect your pay before the fact! Trust has nothing to do with it. I don't want you falling off a mountain with my wages in your pocket, that's all!' And he burst into laughter at Vulpe's expression. But in another moment:
'We're going down to Lipova where we'll pick up a train to Sebis. Then we'll try to hitch a ride on a cart to Halmagiu village. And then we start climbing! Actually it's a longcut. You know what that is? The opposite to a shortcut. You see, the castle is only, oh, maybe fifty kilometres from here as the crow flies - but we're not crows. So instead of crossing the Zarundului we're going round 'em. Can't cross 'em anyway; no roads. And Halmagiu is a good base camp for the climb. Now don't go getting all worried: it's not that much of a climb, not in daylight. If an "old man" like me can do it, you young 'uns should shoot up there like goats!'
'Couldn't we have taken the train from Savirsin all the way?' Vulpe wanted to know.
'If there was one scheduled. But there isn't. Don't be so eager. We'll get there. You did say you had six days left before you have to be in Bucuresti to catch your plane? So what's the hurry? The way I reckon it we should be in Sebis before noon - if we make the connection in Lipova. There may be a bus from Sebis to Halmagiu, which would get us there by, oh, two-thirty at the latest. Or we hitch rides ... on trucks, carts, what have you. So we could get in late, and have to put up there for the night. Any time after four is too late - unless you maybe fancy sleeping on the mountain?'
'We wouldn't fancy that, no.'
'Hah!' Gogosu snorted. 'Fair-weather climbers! But in fact the weather is fair. Too damned warm for me! There'd be no problems. A big tin of Hungarian sausages in brine - they come in cheap from across the border - a loaf of black bread, a cheap bottle of plum brandy and a few beers. What? ... a night under the stars in the lee of the crags, with a campfire burning red and the smell of resin coming up off the pines, would do you three the world of good. Your lungs would think they'd died and gone to lung heaven!' He made it sound good.
'We'll see,' said Vulpe. 'Meanwhile, we'll pay you half now and the rest when we see these ruins you've promised us.' He took out a bundle of leu and counted off the notes - probably more money than Gogosu would normally see in a month, but very little to him and his companions -then topped up the hunter's cupped palms with a pile of copper banis, 'shrapnel' or 'scrap metal' to the three Americans. Gogosu counted it all very carefully and finally tucked it away, tried to keep a straight face but couldn't hold it. In the end he grinned broadly and smacked his lips.
That'll keep me in brandy for a while,' he said. And more hurriedly: 'A short while, you understand.'
Vulpe nodded knowingly: 'Oh, yes, I understand,' and smiled as he settled back in his half of the seat.
From behind, the strident, excited voices of Armstrong and Laverne grew loud to compensate for the rumble and clatter of the bus; in front an old woman sat with a huge wire cage of squabbling chicks in her lap; a pair of hulking young farmers were hunched on the other side of the central aisle, discussing fowl-pest or some such and arguing over a decades-browned copy of Romanian Farming Life. There was a family group in the rear of the bus - all very smart, incongruous, uncomfortable and odd-looking in almost-modern suits and dresses - possibly on their way to a wedding or reunion or whatever.
To Vulpe's American companions it must all seem very weird and wonderful, but to Gheorghe �C to George - himself it was... like home. Like coming home, yes. And yet as well as poignant it was also puzzling.
He'd felt it ever since they got off the plane a fortnight ago, something he'd thought burned out of him in the fifteen long years since his doctor had taken him to America and come back without him. He'd wanted it to be burned out, too, that bitterness which had come with being orphaned. For in those first years in America he had hated Romania and couldn't even be reminded of his origins without retreating into black depression. It was one of the reasons he'd come back now, he supposed: to be able to shrug off the shroud of the place and finally say, 'There was nothing here for them... nothing here for me ... I escaped!'
In short he had expected the place, the entire country, to depress him and make him bitter all over again - but for the last time - and that afterwards he really would be free of it, glad that it was gone and finally forgotten. He had felt that he'd be able to get down out of that plane, look around and shrug and say to himself: 'Who needs it?'
But he'd been wrong.
What pain there'd been had quickly drained away; instead of feeling alienated it was as if Romania had at once taken hold of him and told him: 'You were a part of this. You were part of the blood of this ancient land. Your roots are here. You know this place, and it knows you!'
Especially here on these dusty roads and tracks under the mountains, these lanes and forest ways and high passes, these valleys and crags and forbidding desolations of sky-piercing rock. These dark woods and rearing aeries. Such places were in his blood, yes. If he listened hard enough he could hear them surging there like a tide on a distant shore, calling to him. Something was calling to him, certainly...
'Tell me again,' said Gogosu, digging him in the ribs.
Vulpe started and was back in the bus, drawn down from his flight of fancy. If that's what it had been. 'What? Tell you what?'
'Why you're here. What it's all about. I mean, I'm damned if I can understand you vampire-fanciers!'
'No,' said Vulpe, shaking his head, 'that's why they are here.' He tilted his head back, indicating the two in the seats behind. 'But it's only one of my reasons. Actually... well, I suppose I really wanted to know where I was born. I mean, I lived in Craiova as a boy, but that's not the same as being under the mountains. But up here... I guess this is it. And now I've seen it and I'm satisfied. I know what it's about and what I'm about. I can go away now and not worry about it any more.'
The other reason you're here, then,' the hunter insisted. 'This thing about ruined castles and what all.'
Vulpe shrugged, sighed, then gave it his best shot: 'It has to do with romance. Now that's something you should understand easily enough, Emil Gogosu. What, you? A Romanian? Speaking a Romance language, in a land as full of romance as this one? Oh, I don't mean the romance of boy and girl -1 mean more the romance of mystery, of history, of myths and legends. The shiver in our spines when we consider our past, when we wonder who we were and where we came from. The mystery of the stars, worlds beyond our ken, places the imagination knows but can't name or conjure except from old books or scraps of mouldering maps. Like when you suddenly remembered the name of your castle.
'It's the romance of tracking down legends, and it infects people like a fever. Scientists go to the Himalayas to seek the Yeti, or hunt for Bigfoot in the North American woods. There's a lake in Scotland - do you know where I mean? - where every year they sweep the deep water with echo-sounders as they seek evidence of a survivor out of time.
'It's the fascination in a fossil, the proof that the world was here and that creatures lived in it before we did. It's this love man has for tracking things down, for leaving no stone unturned, for chipping away at coincidence until it's seen that nothing is accidental and everything has not only a cause but a result. It's a synchronicity of soul. It's the mystique of stumbling across the unknown and making it known, of being the first to make a connection.
'Scientists study the fossil remains of a fish believed to be extinct for sixty million years, and pretty soon discover that the same species is still being fished today in the deep waters off Madagascar! When people got interested in the fictional Dracula they were astonished to discover there'd been a real-life Vlad the Impaler... and they wanted to know more about him. Why, he might well have been forgotten except that an author - whether intentionally or otherwise - gave him life. And now we know more about him than ever.
'In England in the 6th Century there might have been a King Arthur - and people are still looking for him today! Searching harder than ever for him. And it's possible he was just a legend.
'Right now in America - right across the world, in fact - there are societies dedicated to researching just such mysteries. Me, Armstrong and Laverne, we're members of one of these groups. Our heroes are the old-time writers of books of horror whose like you don't much find these days, people who felt a sense of wonder and tried to transfer it to others through their writing.
'Well, fifty years ago there was an American author who wrote a novel of dark mystery. In it he mentioned a Transylvanian castle, which he called the Castle Ferenczy. According to the story the castle was destroyed by unnatural forces in the late 1920s. My friends and I came out here to see if we could find just such a pile. And now you tell us it's real and you can actually show us the tumbled boulders. It's a perfect example of the kind of synchronicity I've been talking about.
'But if you've romance in your soul... well, perhaps it's more than just that. Oh, we know that the name Ferenczy isn't uncommon in these parts. There are echoes from the past; we know there were Boyars in Hungary, Wallachia and Moldavia with the name of Ferenczy. We've done a little research, you see? But to have found you was ... it was marvellous! And even if your castle isn't really what we expect, still it will have been marvellous. And what a story we'll have to tell our society when we all meet up again back home, eh?'
Gogosu scratched his head, offered a blank stare.
'Not a word,' said the old hunter.
Vulpe sighed deeply, leaned back and closed his eyes. It was obvious he'd been wasting his time. Also, he hadn't slept too well last night and believed he might try snatching forty winks on the bus. 'Well, don't worry about it,' he mumbled.
'Oh, I won't!' Gogosu was emphatic. 'Romance? I'm done with all that. I've had my share and finished with it. What? Long-legged girls with their wobbly breasts? Hah! The evil old blood-sucking Moroi in their gloomy castles can take the lot of 'em for all I care!'
Vulpe began to breathe deeply and said, 'Umm...'
'Eh?' Gogosu looked at him. But already the young American was asleep. Or appeared to be. Gogosu snorted and looked away.
Vulpe opened one eye a crack and saw the old hunter settle down, then closed it again, relaxed, let his mind wander. And in a little while he really was asleep...
The journey passed quickly for George Vulpe. He spent most of it oblivious to the outside world, locked in the land of his dreams... strange dreams, in the main, which were forgotten on the instant he opened his eyes in those several places where the journey was broken. And the closer he drew to his destination, the stranger his dreams became; surreal, as dreams usually are, still they seemed paradoxically 'real'. Which was even more odd, for they were not visual but entirely aural.
It had been Vulpe's thought that the land itself called to him, and in the back of his sleeping mind that idea remained uppermost; except that now it was not so much Romania as a whole (or Transylvania in its own right) which was doing the calling but a definite location, a specific genius loci. The source of that mental attraction was Gogosu's promised castle, of course, which now seemed provisioned with a dark and guttural (and eager?) voice of its own:
I know you are near, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, child of my children. I wait as I have waited out the centuries, feeling the brooding mountains closing me in. But... there is now a light in my darkness. A quarter-century and more gone by since first that candle flickered into being; it came when you were born, and it strengthened as you grew. But then... I knew despair. The candle was withdrawn afar; its light diminished; it dwindled to a distant sputtering speck and was extinguished. I thought your flame dead! Or perhaps... not put out but merely placed beyond my reach? And so I put myself to the effort, reached out in search of you, and found you faintly gleaming in a distant land - or so it was my fond preference to believe. But I could not be sure, and so I waited again.
Ah! It's easy to wait when you're dead, my son, and all hope flown. Why, there's precious little else to do! But harder when you're undead and trapped between the pulsing tumult of the living and the vacuous silence of a shunned and dishonoured grave, tenant neither of one nor the other, denied the glory of your own legend; aye, even denied your rightful place in the nightmares of men... For then the mind becomes a clock which ticks away all the lonely hours, and one must learn to modulate the pendulum lest it go out of kilter. Oh, indeed, for the mind is finely balanced. Only let it race and it will soon shake itself to shards, and in the end wind down to madness.
And yes, I have known that terror: that I should go mad in my loneliness, and in so doing forsake forever all dreams of resurrection, all hope of... of being, as once I was.
Ah! Have I frightened you? Do I sense a shrinking? But no, this must not be! An ancestor, a grandfather... nay, your very father is what I am! That selfsame blood which runs in your veins once ran in mine. It is the river of life's continuity. There can be no gulf- except perhaps the gulf of ages flown - between such as you and I. Why, we might even be as one! Oh, yes! And indeed - we - shall - be ... friends, you'll see.
'Friends... with a place?' Vulpe mumbled in his sleep. 'Friends with ... the spirit of a place?'
The spirit of...? Ah! I see! You think that I'm an echo from the past! A page of history torn forever from the books by timorous men. A dark rune scored through, defaced from the marble menhir of legends and scattered as dust - because it wasn't pretty. The Ferenczy is gone and his bones are crumbled away; his ghost walks impotent amid the scattered ruins, the vastly tumbled masonry of his castle. The king is dead - long live the king! Hah! You cannot conceive that I am, that I... remain! That I sleep like you and only require awakening.
'You're a dream,' said Vulpe. 'I'm the one who needs waking up!'
'A dream? Oh, yes! Oh, ha-haa! A dream which reached out across the world to draw you home at last. A powerful dream, that, my son - which may soon become reality, Gheorrrghe...
'Gheorghe!' Emil Gogosu elbowed him roughly. 'God, what a man for sleeping!'
'George!' Seth Armstrong and Randy Laverne finally shook him awake. 'Jesus, you've slept most of the day!'
'What? Eh?' Vulpe's dream receded like a wave, leaving him stranded in the waking world. Just as well, for he'd feared it was beginning to suck him under. He'd been talking to someone, he remembered that much, and it had all seemed very real. And yet now ... he couldn't even be sure what it had been about.
He shook his head and licked his lips, which were very dry. 'Where are we?'
'Almost there, pal,' said Armstrong. 'Which is why we woke you up. You sure you're OK? You haven't got a fever or something? Some local bug?'
Vulpe shook his head again, this time in denial. 'No, I'm OK. Just catching up on a load of missed sleep, I suppose. And a bit disorientated as a result.' Memories came flooding in: of catching a train in Lipova, hitching a ride on the back of a broken-down truck to Sebis, paying a few extra bani to loll on a pile of hay in a wooden-wheeled, donkey-hauled cart straight out of the dark ages, en route for Halmagiu. And now:
'Our driver's going thataway,' said Laverne, pointing along a track through the trees. 'To Virfurileo, home and the end of the line for him. And Halmagiu's thataway,' he pointed along a second track.
'Seven or eight kilometres, that's all,' said Gogosu. 'Depending on how fast you're all willing to crack along, we could be there in an hour. And plenty of time left over to shake off the dust, eat a meal, moisten our throats a bit and climb a mountain before nightfall - if you're up to it. Or we could take our food with us, make camp, eat and sleep in the ruins. And how would that be for a story to take back home to America, eh? Anyway, it's up to you.'
They brushed straw from their clothes, climbed into their packs and waved the driver of the cart farewell as he creaked from sight around a bend in the forest track. And then they too got underway. Randy Laverne uncapped a bottle of beer, took a swig and passed it to Vulpe, who used it to wash his mouth out.
'Almost there,' Armstrong sighed, gangling along pace for pace with the sprightly Gogosu. 'And if this place is half of what it's cracked up to be...'
'I'm sure it will be,' said Vulpe, quietly. And he frowned, for in fact he really was sure it would be.
'Well, we'll know soon enough, George,' said Laverne, his short legs hurrying to keep up.
And from some secret cave in the back of Vulpe's mind: Oh, yes. Soon now, my son. Soon now, Gheorrrghe...
At something less than five miles, the last leg of their journey wasn't much at all; in the previous week the Americans had trekked close to twenty times that distance. They got into Halmagiu in the middle of the afternoon, found lodgings for the following night (not for tonight because Gogosu had already talked them into spending it on the mountain), washed up, changed their footwear, and had a snack alfresco on the open wooden balcony of their guesthouse where it overlooked the village's main street.
'What you have to remember,' their guide had told them in an aside as they negotiated the price of their rooms, 'is that these people are peasants. They're not sophisticated like me and used to the ways of foreigners, city-dwellers and other weird types. They're more primitive, suspicious, superstitious! So let me do the talking. You're climbers, that's all. No, not even that, you're... ramblers! And we're not going walking up in the Zarun-dului but the Metalici.'
'What's the difference?' Vulpe asked him later, when they were eating. 'Between the Zarundului and the Metalici, I mean?'
The old hunter pointed north-west over the rooftops, to a serrated jaw of smoky peaks, gold-rimmed with sunlight. 'Them's the Metalici,' he said. 'The Zarundului are behind us. They're grey... always. Grey-green in the spring, grey-brown in the autumn, grey in the winter. And white, of course. The castle is right up on the tree line, backed up to a cliff. Aye, a cliff at its back and a gorge at its front. A keep, a stronghold. In the old days, one hell of a place to crack!'
'I meant,' Vulpe was patient, 'why shouldn't the locals know we're going there?'
Gogosu wriggled uncomfortably. 'Superstitious, like I said. They call those heights the "Szgany Mountains", because the travelling folk are so respectful of them. The locals don't go climbing up there themselves, and they probably wouldn't like us doing it, neither.'
'Because of the ruins?'
Again Gogosu wriggled. 'Can't say, don't know, don't much care. But a couple of winters ago when I tried to shoot an old wolf up there... why, these people treated me like a leper! There are foxes in the foothills that raid the farms, but they won't hunt or trap 'em. They're funny that way, that's all. The grandfathers tell ghost stories to keep the young 'uns away, you know? The old wampir in his castle?'
'But they'll see us headed that way, surely?'
'No, for we'll skirt round.'
Vulpe was wary. 'I mean, we're not moving onto government property or something, are we? There isn't a military training area or anything like that up there, is there?'
'Lord, no!' Gogosu was getting annoyed now. 'It's like I said: stupid superstition, that's all. You have to remember: if a young 'un dies up here, and no simple explanation for it, they still put a clove of garlic in his mouth before they nail the lid down on him! Aye, and sometimes they do a lot more than that, too! So leave it be before you get me frightening myself, right?'
Seth Armstrong spoke up: 'I keep hearing this word Szgany. What's it mean?'
Gogosu didn't need an interpreter for that one. He turned to Armstrong and in broken English said, 'In the Germany is "Zigeuner", da? Here is Szgany. The road-peoples.'
'Gypsies,' said Vulpe, nodding. 'My kind of people.' He turned and looked back into the dusty yellow interior of the inn's upper levels, looked into the rooms, across the stairwell and out through the rear wall. It was as if his gaze was unrestricted by the matter of the inn. Tilting his head back he 'looked' at the grey, unseen mountains of the Zarundului where they reared just a few miles away, and pictured them frowning back at him.
And thought to himself: Maybe the locals are right and there are places men shouldn't go.
And unheard (except perhaps as an expression of his own will, his own intent, which it was not) a chuckling, secretive, dark and sinister voice answered him: Oh, there are, my son. But you will, Gheorrrghe, you will...
The climb was easy at first. Almost 5.00 p.m. and the sun descending steadily towards the misted valley floor betwen Mount Codrului and the western extremity of the Zarandului range; but Gogosu was confident that they'd reach the ruins before twilight, find a place to camp inside a broken wall, get a fire going, eat and eventually sleep there in the lee of legends.
'I wouldn't do it on my own,' he admitted, picking his way up a stepped ridge towards a chimney in a crumbling buttress of cliff. 'Lord, no! But four of us, hale and hearty? What's to fear?'
Vulpe, the last in line, paused to translate and look around. The others couldn't see it but his expression was puzzled. He seemed to recognize this place. Deja vu? He let his companions draw away from him.
Armstrong, directly behind their guide, asked: 'Well, and what is there to fear?' He reached back to give Laverne a hand where he puffed and panted.
'Only one's own imagination,' said Gogosu, understanding the question from its modulation. 'For it's all too ready to conjure not only warrior-ghosts out of the past but a whole heap of mundane menaces from the present, too! Aye, the mind of man's a powerful force when he's on his own; there's plenty of scope up ahead for wild imaginings, I can tell you. But apart from that ... in the winter you might observe the occasional wolf, wandering down here from the northern Carpatii.' His tone of voice contained a careless shrug. 'They're safe enough, the Grey Ones, except in packs.'
The old hunter paused at the base of the chimney, turning to see how the others were progressing where they laboured in his tracks.
But Vulpe had skirted the ridge and was moving along the base of the cliffs to a point where they cut back out of sight around a corner. 'Oh?' the old hunter hailed him. 'And where are you off to, then, Gheorghe?'
The young American looked up and back. His face was pale in the shadow of the cliff and his forehead furrowed in a frown of concentration. 'You're making hard work of it, my friend,' he called out, his voice echoing from crag to crag. 'Why climb when you can walk, eh? There's an old track here that's simplicity itself to follow. The way may be longer but it's faster, too - and a sight kinder to your hands and knees! I'll meet you where your route and mine come together again half-way up.'
'Where our routes - ?' Gogosu was baffled at first, then annoyed and not a little sarcastic. 'Oh, I see!' he yelled. 'And you've been this way before, eh?'
But Vulpe had already turned into the re-entry and out of sight. 'No,' his voice came echoing. 'It's just instinct, I suppose.'
'Huh!' Gogosu snorted. 'Instinct!' But then, as he started in to tackle the chimney, he gave a chuckle. 'Oh, let him go,' he said. 'He'll double back soon enough, when the track runs out and the shadows start to creep. Mark my words, it won't be long before he's seeing wolves in every shrub - and by God, how he'll hurry to catch up then!'
But he was wrong. An hour later when the way was steeper and the light beginning to fail, they reached the broad ledge of a false plateau and found Vulpe stretched out, chewing on a twig, waiting for them. He'd been there some time, it seemed. He nodded when he saw them, said: 'The rest of the way's easy.'
Gogosu scowled and Anderson merely returned Vulpe's nod, but Laverne was hot and angry. Taking a bit of a chance there, weren't you, George?' he growled. 'What if you'd got lost?'
Vulpe seemed surprised by the testiness in his friend's voice. 'Lost? I ... I didn't even consider it. Fact is, I seem to be something of a natural at this sort of thing.'
Nothing more was said and they all rested for a few minutes. Then Gogosu stood up. 'Well,' he said, 'half an hour more and we're there.' He bowed stiffly to Vulpe from the waist and added: 'If you'd care to lead the way... ?'
His sarcasm was wasted; Vulpe took the lead and made easy going of the final climb; they reached the penultimate crest just as the sun sank down behind the western range.
The view was wonderful: blue-grey valleys brimming with mist, and the mountains rising out of it, and smoke from the villages smudging the sky where the distant peaks faded from gold to grey. The four men stood on the rim of a pine-clad saddle or shallow fold between marching rows of peaks. Gogosu pointed. 'Along there,' he said. 'We follow the rising ground through the trees until we hit the gorge. There, where the mountain is split, set back against the cliff -'
'The ruins of the Ferenczy's castle,' Vulpe anticipated him.
The hunter nodded. 'And just enough light to settle in and get a fire going against the fall of night. Are we all ready, then?'
But George Vulpe was already leading the way.
As they went, the eerie cry of a wolf came drifting on the resin-laden air, gradually fading into mournful ululations.
'Damn me!' Gogosu cursed as he stumbled to a halt. He cocked his head on one side, sniffed at the air, listened intently. But there was no repeat performance. Unslinging his rifle from behind his back, he said: 'Did you hear that? And can you credit it? It's a sure sign of a hard winter to come, they say, when the wolves are as early as this.'
And turning aside a little from the others, he made sure his weapon was loaded...