SHAITAN: HIS RISE AND FALL.
CAMS SAPIENS: THE WEREWOLF
Shaitan the Unborn came out of the vampire swamps, oh, a long time ago. The first and worst of the Wamphyri - the first of the Great Vampires - Shaitan was the source of undeath.
He came out of the west and saw that the darkness of Starside was good, but he felt through the thinning mists the withering rays of a hot sun blazing through the high passes of the barrier mountains; it turned his skin rough and red. So he took the left-hand path round the mountains, and came upon the boulder plains of gaunt and gloomy Starside whereon dweled nothing of any threat; while southwards lay the sun which was injurious (and possibly even fatal) to him and al such as he would bring into the world. From which time forward he would always choose a dark and sinistral path through life ...
When he knew a strange dark thirst, he drank of the sweet water tumbling down from the mountains; it quenched his thirst but did not truly satisfy him. When he felt a strange dark hunger, he ate grasses, herbs, some bitter fruits. These served to fil him but the hunger would not pass. It was the hunger of an evil spore, a leech, which had taken root within Shaitan, body, mind, and soul ... if there had been a soul.
Shaitan was unclothed but unashamed, for he knew that he was beautiful; and he would display his beauty. So he compared himself to the beasts of the wild, of the swamps, foothills and mountains, and saw that their beauty came from their innocence. For which reason it was useless to display himself or even impose his wil upon them. Unintelligent, innocent, they could not deny that he knew best; they would bend to his wil too easily. Wherefore he would impose that wil upon others of his own design. Except. . . where were they?
Travelling east, he looked for them but discovered them not yet a while. And in his loneliness he took bats for familiars, whose flying skils he envied.
Eventually he came upon trogs, cavern un-men and -women, who were scarcely beautiful and not greatly like unto himself; but Shaitan corrupted them anyway, filling them with his vices, and making them sick and dead and undead. He took trog women to his bed, and there was issue. Such 'children' as were born were hideous, insane, ever hungry! They suckled blood, not milk, and grew too fast. Their mothers lay on them to smother them. Shaitan devoured one, in order to taste of its flesh. It satisfied the hunger of his leech ... barely, for a while.
So then, with the bats and the trogs Shaitan had gathered minions unto himself. But was this all there was? The parasite within him was mature now; it desired more; it lived on Shaitan's blood as he lived on the blood of others, but was not satisfied with its host's regimen. And so he would seek out other men, on whom to impose his will. Except he sometimes wondered: whose will was it? His or his parasite leech's? And from then on the question of free will, and integrity of spirit, became matters of great importance to Shaitan, even assuming dimensions of obsession in him.
And in all subsequent vampires.
The trogs likened Shaitan to certain 'men' on the far side of the mountains, in Sunside. He determined to conquer Sunside, which would be as subtle as all his works. First he would approach the sunsiders as their friend, later as their master.
And so in the twilight before the night Shaitan went into Sunside, and in the gloamy foothills was drawn to the fires of hunters. East and west as far as his eyes could see, the fires lit up the night like beacons. The Sunsider tribes were legion! In his black heart Shaitan was glad, believing that at last he had found true men upon which to impose his wil.
His dreams of conquest quickly evaporated. With Starside's trogs it had been easy, but these men (the 'Szgany' of Sunside) were very different... and their women different, too. Unlike trog females, Szgany women were lovely creatures. Shaitan was the Great Seducer; he seduced - and he murdered! But his crime was discovered and he was hounded out of the Szgany camps.
His trackers set a wolf upon him, and for the first time Shaitan used metamorphism to change his shape and become more animal than the wolf itself! Furious in his rage, he slew not only the watchdog but certain of his human pursuers, and took others for his thrals. For as a dweler among Starside's cavern trogs.
Shaitan had discovered his power over men: how his bite infected their blood with an incurable fever, until they became his thrals for ever and ever.
And hidden in a vampire mist caled out of his own pores and up from the earth, Shaitan and one of his thrals went up into the dark foothills, finding refuge in a cave. For the purple dawn twilight was fading, and a poisoned golden blister was poising itself even now on the southern horizon far across the forest. Shaitan's symbiont had become a two-edged sword - impossible to accept its advantages without its disadvantages.
Sunlight: it was a seething agony in his eyes and against his hide! It burned him, visibly steamed the moisture from his flesh, and sapped his great strength! He could go out from the cave for seconds, but minutes would deplete him horribly, and an hour would kill him and his leech both. He had suspected it, which was why he had gone into Sunside in the evening. But now he had proof positive: the sun was his mortal enemy.
The long day crawled endlessly by; more men of the Szgany whom Shaitan had vampirized came to him as thralls; when night fell he took these poor creatures over the mountains and down into Starside, where several trog thralls were waiting on the return of their master. Now his band numbered thirteen in all, and Shaitan named them his disciples (though in fact they were his blood-slaves). And thirteen would become a number of ill-omen from that time on, in more worlds than one ...
Coming down into Starside, Shaitan saw a light shining up into the night, which one of his band said must be the fallen white sun that some called a gateway into hell. Shaitan was curious, and said he must see this hell-gate.
They climbed a low crater wal, stood on its rim and gazed down upon the dome of cold fire within. Blinded, the trogs staggered to and fro. One tripped, fell, landed on a ledge close to the white glare. Fearful of the strange light, he put up a hand to fend it off; his hand touched the dazzle's surface, and sank into it... he cried out in his guttural fashion, as the hellgate dragged him in and swallowed him whole!
And Shaitan said: This shall be a punishment for any who would offend me three times. Three chances, for I am forgiving, as you see. And there shall be other punishments, aye. I am the Lord Shaitan, who can make men undead!
Anyone who would do me harm, let him first think on this: I shall drain his blood and bury him deep in the ground.
And he shall lie there and scream forever, or until he stiffens to a stone in the earth. And that land there to the north; I perceive it is icy cold and no fit habitation. Therefore, let him who would deny me beware. In my house there shall be no warm bed or soft woman-flesh for him; no kind master to guide and instruct him; neither wonders to be witnessed nor mysteries revealed. For I shall banish him north to freeze in the ice all alone. But for him who would obey me in all things, and be my true servant, a rich red life forever ... aye, even unto death - and beyond! So be it...'
Lord Shaitan and his followers came to a region of giant stone stacks weathered out of the mountains. In their bases they were fortified with fallen scree jumbles; in their columns were fissures, ledges and caverns, many as vast as halls.
Shaitan much admired these soaring stacks, which were very grand and gaunt. 'One of these shal be my house,'he said.
And a thral told him: They are like unto the aeries of the mountain eagles!'
'Aye,' said Shaitan. The aeries of the Wamphyri!' He set to and built his house. The task was enormous; only a vampire and his thrals could ever accomplish it.
Except Shaitan would build not only a house but an empire of vampires. He recruited trogs out of their caverns, and sent his lieutenants into Sunside to hunt Szgany. And in the bowels of his rearing house, Shaitan experimented with his own metamorphic flesh, to furnish himself with al of his requirements.
He bred trogs into cartilage creatures, whose minds were smal and bodies elastic. From these he made leathers and coverings for the aerie's exterior stairways, or articles of furniture for his rooms. And al of his materials still living a life of sorts, gradualy petrifying and becoming permanent in their places. He mated men with trog women, the issue of which was unseemly. He got foul, bloated things, al gross and mindless, which he bred into gaslings, for the heating of the stack, and into things-which-consume, for his refuse pits.
Shaitan took mindless vampire flesh and converted it; he would build flying creatures, and soar out from his aerie upon the winds like his familiar bats. At first he failed; later he provided his flyers with the altered brains of men, that they should have something (but never too much) of volition. Al of which creatures, nascent and ful-formed, were his thrals.
Word of his works went abroad into Sunside. Starside was now damned and shunned uterly - by men, at least. But by now the Szgany had problems other than Shaitan and his raiders. Far in the west the swamps were a spawning ground for monsters! Foolish men and innocent creatures went down to the scummy waters to drink, and things other than men and wolves came up!
And in the early years of Shaitan's ascendancy, a great many beings who were like unto him came over from Sunside to build their houses in the rearing stone aeries of the Wamphyri. And because they were even as strong as Shaitan and much of a kind, he made no protest but let them be. For in any case there was space enough among the great stacks and even Shaitan was unable to lay claim to al of them. Also, across the barrier mountains there was food and entertainment for al. Still, as a precaution, Shaitan fashioned fierce warrior-creatures, to. fill any would-be enemies with terror ...
And in the next two hundred years the Wamphyri became a great many. Too many ...
On Sunside, the Szgany had become clans of Travelers,' moving nomadicaly from place to place by day, and sleeping in deep forests or caves at night. Even so, the Lords of Starside gave them no peace, and the tol in blood was monstrous!
Then Shaitan saw his error in permitting other Lords to wax so strong and so many. He determined to get bloodsons out of comely women, with which to whelm the other Lords and keep them down; and his sons and daughters were many. Of the latter: he used them in their turn, for his own flesh was the sweetest. Which would be the way of it with vampires down al the ages.
And as the Lords and Ladies of the Wamphyri proliferated, so they degenerated, going from evil to evil, and descending depth to irredeem able depth ...
Eventually all of the greater stacks had masters or mistresses; the lesser aeries were occupied; there was no room left in al the heights for men and their sons, daughters, thralls and creatures. And so, finally, they warred for possession of the stacks, until Starside's skies were ful of flyers and warriors fighting under the ice-chip stars and in the ramparts of the great aeries. Gongs sounded, war-drums pounded, and banners fluttered, displaying the devices of their masters. Vampire destroyed vampire -even fathers, sons and brothers - as the boulder plains and lands around were drenched in blood and littered with the grotesque, shattered corpses of falen beasts.
Even Shaitan came under attack, but he was clever in the defence of his aerie, and went not out to war. But as various Lords were weakened in stacks close by, then he would swoop on them and put them down. In this manner a cluster of aeries al came under Shaitan's command.
When his strategy was seen, the others called a truce and came upon him as a single force, and Shaitan was almost trapped in Shaitanstack. Only his metamorphism saved him, when like the falen angel he was he used it to develop a bat's design and glide from his higher ramparts to safety in a secret place. Meanwhile his forces had ralied and regrouped under his lieutenants, and Shaitanstack had not been taken ...
The bloodwars lasted a hundred years; the fashioning of flyers and warriors became an art; Wamphyri numbers were decimated in al the reek and roil of mindless slaughter. It was the era in which Sunside's Szgany backed off from the abyss and breathed again, and reorganized their lives and what little remained of their society. Except it couldn't last.
For Shaitan was now the undisputed Lord of Vampires, the 'high magistrate' to whom lesser Lords took their disputes for his judgement. And as the clamour of war subsided, so the period of mercifully infrequent raids on Sunside was over, and the nightmare sprang up again with renewed vigour. For now the Wamphyri must see to the provisioning of their ravaged and undernourished aeries, whose sustenance roamed on Sunside.
For sixty years this was the way of it, and Shaitan doled out hunting permits and took his tithe of trembling flesh from whatever the others brought back. But the lesser Lords loathed him and would whelm him if they could. He knew it and when the coup came at last was ready to put it down. All who had conspired against him, he brought to trial -even his own son, who he banished to the Icelands: the least of his punishments.
As for the others who. had plotted to overthrow him, these were several, and their punishments various. Some were buried alive (or undead) on the boulder plains, to 'stiffen to stones' in the shuddering earth. One, Nonari the Gross, was tossed with his entire court and the leaders of his Szgany supplicants into the Hell-lands Gate. And if this Nonari's bloodname, Ferenczy, had been a curse to the Szgany of this world, then it was destined to become just such a curse in another.
Likewise banished through the Gate were the Drakul brothers, Karl and Egon, who rivalled Shaitan in their evil, and one other who was a great thorn in Shaitan's side. For in the earliest days of Shaitan's coming he had tried to work his will on such as Radu Lykan, but all in vain; the grey brothers of the barrier mountains acknowledged no master but the Leader of the Pack and owned no mistress but the hurtling silver moon at her ful. And Radu Lykan was of that sub-order of Wamphyri: a wolf, or more properly, a werewolf! Lord Shaitan abhorred such 'dog-Lords,' the sons of wolves, and even if there'd been no bloodwars he would have found a way to dispose of such as Radu.
So for a while there was peace again on Starside, and a truce between the Wamphyri Lords and Ladies. But because they were Wamphyri, it couldn't last. Greedy, jealous, territorial, they were a plague unto themselves. And eventually even Shaitan was whelmed and fell, and was driven from Starside into the cold and inhospitable Icelands.
All of these things are legends told aforetime. But what remains to be told was previously undisclosed ...
Perhaps wolves, like men and bears, foxes and bats, and other species, were creatures of both worlds: Sunside/Starside, and the so-called Hell-lands on the far side of the Starside Gate. Perhaps, springing from the one cosmic germ, a universal soup of genesis, similar forms of life were pre-ordained in the primal plastic of many worlds.
The fossil record of earth suggests it was so. But unless some palaeontologist was fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to know exactly where to dig, he would never in all the world find anything remotely resembling the Wamphyri of Sunside/Starside. He would not discover them among the strata of Earth's prehistory, for in their beginning Earth was not the homeworld of the Wamphyri. But for an accident of
Nature (the Gate on Starside, and later a second Gate, forged in error and ignorance by men), the Wamphyri could never have ventured here. There would have been wolves of the wild in our world, but not werewolves.
Of the latter:
It has been told how men and beasts went down to the vampire swamps to drink, and how creatures other than men - but most certainly beasts - returned from that place. Until they learned better, the grey brothers of the mountains were among the first victims of the swamp-born horror. Contaminated with a vampire spore, occasionally a sick wolf would return to the pack. But he would be different and changed forever. Like any human wanderer or explorer suffering the same fate, he would become an outcast from his own kind.
Men savaged by such an animal would usually die, to rise up again as vampire thralls - but without a master! Then they in turn must flee from their families and friends to wander as outcasts until their former brothers tracked them down, or the furnace sun found them wanting. Or they could cross the mountains into the dubious safety of Starside.
But they were different again from the victims of human vampires; not only did they fear the sunlight but revelled in the moonlight! For there was something of the grey brothers in them, whose mistress is the full and tumbling moon.
Also, they were generally insane - lunatics -or at the very least, they lacked total command of their senses. As such and despite that they were dangerous, they fell easy prey to men, the sun, the human vampires of Starside. Thus, in the language and psychology of the world beyond the Starside Gate, it was such pitiful creatures as these who would have been the true lycanthropes: madmen who thought that they were wolves!
Except... there was another sort.
Paradoxically - and for all that it sickened such lifeforms as suffered its infection - vampirism was the source of an incredible longevity. For the sickness was spiritual and of the soul, while life was physical and of the blood. Which meant that rarely, mercifully rarely, a wolf infected with a vampire spore would live long beyond the years of a true wolf, and its leech ... would mature! Then the real danger, when a wolf such as this should savage a man!
For the vampire is tenacious, and the bite of this wolf would carry a deal more than venomous spittle! Indeed it might even carry the egg of its leech, by means of which a true vampire extends something of itself down all the ages.
And whether or no the victim died, he would rise up again undead and Wamphyri! Such men were. They were men -but the vampire egg of a wolf was in them, with whatever it had contracted or inherited of its former host's makeup.
And unlike the poor lycanthropes of a different civilization and world (whose blood might be infected however slightly with some faint trace descended from Starside?) the werewolves of that paralel world did indeed have the power of transformation: metamorphosis into their ancestral form. Al it took was the moon flying ful over the boulder plains, to transform man into beast-man, to turn certain Lords of the Wamphyri into men with the faces, forms, and ferocious appetites of wild dogs!
Homo sapiens, Canis sapiens, loup-garou ... werewolf.
Radu Lykan - banished through the Hel-lands Gate by Lord Shaitan, as we have seen - was one such. But before he was a dog-Lord, Radu was a man. And this is his story:
Radu had been a loner, a mountain man ... until he and his companion wolf had ventured east of the barrier mountains into the swampy badlands. He had been a man who rarely bothered with his own kind, favouring the company of a dog of the wild whose broken leg he had healed when he discovered the animal half-buried in sliding scree; since when they had been inseparable.
But where other Szgany loners were usualy dul, slothful felows -disinclined to the companionship of the camp, or to working alongside their gipsy brothers on Sunside; or defective of mind or spirit, which might tend to make them brutish, turning them into thieves, vagabonds, and finaly outcasts from the camps of the Szgany by virtue of the fact that none would have truck with them - Radu was very different.
He had been born into the band of Giorga Zirescu, a buly of a tribal chieftain whose twin sons were no beter than their father, made worse by virtue of Giorga's influence and protection. Ion and Lexandru Zirescu had grown up with Radu, or rather he had grown up suffering their constant brutalities - but no more or less than the rest of the tribe suffered under Giorga and his sons. For while the Szgany Zirescu were strong in numbers, they were weak in resolve and easily cowed by their chief. And despite that Giorga was loathed, he and his sons were huge men, as hard-headed as they were hard-fisted.
Radu's mother had died giving life to his sister, Magda; that had been when he was seven years old, folowing which his own childhood had been lost to caring for the smal girl-child, while his father Freji hunted, gathered, or beat the bounds on the perimeter of Giorga's territory, in the lee of the barrier mountains where they commenced their gradual slump towards the western swamps and badlands. And in Freji's frequent absence, Radu fel prey to the Zirescu brothers.
The twins were two years Radu's senior, and their various torments ranged from trifling insults to major beatings. They would even have hurt little Magda, if Radu had not been there to redirect and absorb their spite, so protecting her. But he always was - which served to earn him yet more insults, when Ion and Lexandru were wont to catcal and name him 'Radu the wetnurse,' and so forth.
Radu was tall; indeed, and for all that his father was a slight man, Radu's height was extraordinary. Aged nine he was tall as a fifteen-year-old, yet lithe and willowy as a lath - or as 'a lass,' as Ion and Lexandru would have it! Perhaps it was his nature to be thin; more likely it was the lack of good food (and the fact that hard work was plentiful) that kept him that way. But he was not without physical strength, and likewise his character was strong, however repressed. His face was usually expressionless, with dark, deep-sunken and humourless eyes, long cheekbones and jaw, and strong straight teeth in a thin mouth closed as if clamped shut. For he had learned even as a child that it was best to say very little, especially in the company or presence of the Zirescu brothers.
As a child, Radu's hair had been black - black as night, black as jet! -but even in his early teens it had started to turn grey, and ashen streaks were prominent at his veined, sensitive temples. His nose was long but not severe . . . until Ion Zirescu broke it in a one-sided scuffle, and it healed squat at the base and hooked in the middle, lending Radu a hawkish mien tempered by self-imposed strictures of iron will, with which he held himself in rein. It was necessary that he exercise a firm control over himself, if only to appease his ailing father, who was a pacifist at best, a coward at worst, and no match for the Zirescus at any time. Which might explain why Radu usually lost his battles: (why, in his circumstances it might even be considered prudent to lose!) For while the Zirescu twins were trouble enough in themselves, their cronies among the tribe's young men were numerous and the times several when these had held Radu down while the brothers kicked and pummeled him. So the young Radu had learned to control himself, while events shaped which would be quite uncontrollable.
Into Radu's mid-teens, the bullying of the Zirescus went on unabated; the youth suffered many a bloodying, many a sore bone and broken face, but never once complained to his father, whose health had for long and long been failing. But if Freji Lykan was feeling the weight of his years and the weariness of many deprivations under his swine of a chief, then Giorga was likewise declining ... except in his case it was the good plum brandy and surfeit of meat that were taking their tol. And of course his brutish sons looked on like the vultures they were, wondering where and when he would fal down for the last time, and who would bully the Szgany Zirescu when Giorga was no more. Perhaps both of them, if only out of mutual fear and suspicion. Oh, for they knew well enough how much they were hated among a majority of their people.
All of which brings us to a time approximate with the era of Shaitan, when he came out of the west on Starside and built his aerie on the boulder plains, and the swamps in the badlands seethed with vampire spores. But as yet the incidence of their evil manifestations on Sunside were few and far between. As in al mankind, however, other evils were ever present. And in the Szgany Zirescu, the evil was in the name of their most prominent family: the Zirescus themselves.
The morning came when Freji could no longer work. His eyesight was failing, and in any case he had never been much of a hunter. Now his back gave him such pain that he could scarcely walk, and it was his turn to go into the forest to gather nuts and fruit.
In the Szgany Zirescu, a man worked till he dropped, then lay there while the tribe moved on, or until he found the strength to get up again. There were few drones among the Zirescus (with the exception of Giorga, of course, his sons and a handful of their cronies), and precious few old ones. And despite that Freji was half-crippled, his chief sent him stumbling off into the forest with a basket - from which task he failed to return. The Sunside days were worth four of those in a parallel world that lay all unknown beyond the Starside Gate, yet night fell and stil Freji was not back.
Radu had had his own duties that day; likewise his sister Magda, now grown to a beautiful girl, even as beautiful as her mother had been.
And when finaly Radu left the camp and went off into the woods to search for his father, he went without knowing or suspecting that it would be Magda - or her beauty, or her loss - that would finaly forge the iron in his blood into cold, hard steel.
Magda - and the Zirescu twins, of course ...
But when he'd found his father's body, and seen the truth of his dying - that it had been no accident, and certainly not the natural end of Freji's life - then the rest of it had gone blazing across Radu's mind like some mad meteorite through Sunside's night skies!
For more than a year now the Zirescu twins had been paying court (of sorts) to Magda, not yet fifteen ...
Giorga had said that eventually she must choose one or the other ... Magda had scorned both of them; she knew that already they were a scourge among the Szgany Zirescus girls and young, unmarried women - and among some of the married ones, too ...
Her father, Freji, who had a parenfs say in such matters, had been stalling the twins and their father, telling them that Magda was too young. But it was not uncommon among Szgany girls to take husbands at the age of thirteen, and Freji had known he couldn't delay matters indefinitely. Giorga had fumed, cursed, threatened! He wanted grandsons from his sons (real grandsons, and not bastards), to carry his name on. Freji Lykan had fumbled and fawned, but still he'd stood his ground ...
The twins had poured scorn on Magda, and declared that she would end up an old maid, or a tart for any man. And deep down inside, Radu had bubbled and boiled ...
And now this:
Freji stiff and dead - murdered and left to the flies in an area of the forest rarely visited. His body had been tumbled into dense undergrowth; Radu discovered it when a vixen started away from the corpse. Then, after lighting a smal fire, he had seen the cause of his father's death: the long blade of an ironwood knife broken off and still buried ... in Freji's thin back! A cowardly atack -typical of the backstabbing Zirescu twins. But Freji's wicker basket was missing, and never a sign of the fruit and nuts which he had surely gathered that morning...
Back at the Szgany Zirescu encampment, Radu went direct to the keeper of the foraging, caled Provisioner Borisciu, and asked him if anyone had brought in food from the forest that day. But despite that Radu held himself under tight rein, perhaps Borisciu saw something in his face. Answering Radu's question carefuly, he told him that it had been an extremely good day; but surely he must already know that, since he had been one of the hunters, hadn't he?
'From the forest,' Radu repeated himself, clutching the other's wrist, however coldly. 'I'm talking about greenstuffs, not meat, Provisioner.' And now Borisciu was sure that there was something hard and cold and different in Radu's eyes.
'Fruits, aye,' he answered. 'But isn't the forest always good to us?' And quickly, as if to change the subject: 'But the catch in fishes was exceptional! A good day at the river, Radu! Keep it to yourself, and I'll perhaps find you a fat trout for your sister to cook for you and your father's supper ...' With which he'd paused, remembering that someone had told him Freji Lykan was late coming in.
'Fruits,' Radu's grip tightened more yet, while his voice became a growl. Tel me about the fruit, and nuts. Did anyone bring in plums, apples, almonds? A wicker basket of fruit, out of the woods? Tel me quickly!'
'Radu, I - '
' - Who was out gathering today? Do you know what I'm saying? Or were you in on this too, Provisioner Borisciu?'
'What?' Borisciu's mouth fel open. 'In on something, me? Why, the Govasci family were gathering today, likewise Andreas Tuvi, and ...' But here he paused again.
'And your father, I remember now.' But the Provisioner's eyes had suddenly gone very wide; he was frightened for his own skin. Something that had struck him strange earlier in the day, when the Zirescu twins had come in very quietly and secretively with a great basket of fruit, struck him even stranger now. Or perhaps not. And: 'What is it that you are thinking, Radu?' He trembled in the other's grip. 'What is it with your father?'
'Dead!' Radu hissed in answer, releasing him with a shove, so that Provisioner Borisciu staggered back behind his counter, against the side of his caravan. 'Dead! Murdered in the forest, and his basket taken.'
'By some enemy of the Szgany Zirescu, no doubt!' Borisciu gasped. 'Would-be settlers, claim-jumpers, land-thieves - on Giorga's territory!' But Radu cocked his head on one side and said, 'Enemies of the Szgany Zirescu? Aye, it's true - the twins themselves!' At which Borisciu knew he'd been right, even though he'd scarcely dared admit it even to himself. And Radu saw it in the Provisioner's eyes.
Nodding slowly, grimly, the young man said, 'Now tel me: did they bring in a basket of fruit?' His voice was cold as the wind through the mountain passes. Though his eyes showed litle or no emotion, his lips were thin and pale; his chest rose and fell, rose and fell, as if from running. And suddenly Borisciu saw the right and wrong of it - the cold-blooded murder of it - and could keep his peace no longer.
They did,' he gulped at last. 'A basket laden with fruit and nuts. And I remember thinking it strange that for the first time in as long as I could remember, the Zirescu twins had done a litle hard work!'
'Dirty work, aye,' the other muttered, turning away. 'They must be mad or half-witted, to bring that basket back here.'
'Or they don't give a damn,' The Provisioner caled after him, quietly. 'Because for too long they and their father have stood taller than any law, even their own. But you ... you're grown to a tal one in your own right! Only go carefully, lad, and look for them at Hzak's brandy stall. They were half-way drunk when 1 passed by an hour and a half ago. By now they'll have had a skinful; they shouldn't give you too much trouble. But what's this? Wil you go hot-blooded and without a weapon? I like you, Radu Lykan; even as I liked your father. I'd hate to see you dead, too.'
Good advice. Radu went to the caravan of Freji Lykan, now his ... and found it dark and stil, the lamps unlit, the door swinging ajar in a night breeze. But an empty clay jug lay on the grass outside, and a whiff of brandy stil drifting on the air: foul breath of the beasts who had been here before him.
Magda ... was in the bushes close by, where they'd dragged her, used her, and left her broken and naked and dead. And Radu incapable of believing it; he could only sit holding her in his arms, rocking her and shaking his head. Until in a little while he grew cold, then hot, then bitterly cold again, and trembling as from a fever - or from the fury building inside, as he pictured in his mind's eye that which he could not bear to picture:
The blood under her fingernails, some of which were broken, a sure sign of the furious fight she'd put up. The coarse-weave scarf around her neck, with which they'd choked her screams and eventually her life. The bruises and other ... signs, upon her tanned body. Many hands had gripped Magda's flesh, to hold her down (even as Radu had been held down, upon a time), their fingers digging in, to leave disgraceful, impure marks on what had been purest of al. And al of them had shared in her - shared in her! And there had been more than just the Zirescu twins ...
Back to the caravan Radu went, his feet finding their own way, for his mind was somewhere else. To the box under his bed, where in the afternoon he had cleaned his crossbow, and wrapped it in an oiled rag until the next time. For now it was the next time, except he wasn't after goats now but pigs.
Then to the campfire, where the coarse, gutural laughter of drunken men - or louts - rang out loud in the red-flickering light; and a half-dozen of them sitting there, where decent men no longer sat, for the Szgany Zirescu were ashamed of themselves. But no shame here, only whispers and jeers and the mention of ... of a name! Magda's name! But to have heard it from the rubbery, brandy-sodden lips of her violators and murderers! To have heard it in such a context: That's a fuck I'll never forget! And tight as the skin on a tambourine -wel, until we were al done with her, anyway!' The speaker was one Arlek Bargosi. He burst out laughing at his own coarse wit - then coughed, choked, and lurched to his feet. The others looked to see what was wrong with him -
- And saw the flighted half of a crossbow bolt sticking out of Arlek's Adam's apple, and the red-dripping barb protruding from the back of his neck! Arlek clutched uselessly at the stout ironwood shaft, said, 'Urk! Urk! Urk!' Then spewed blood and fel on his face in the fire. And as hot cinders flew this way and that, Radu Lykan stepped into view, stretched the gut on his weapon, and laid a second bolt in the tiller's groove.
But Radu was changed, his face no longer expressionless but broken in a nightmarish grin, his eyes reflecting the red firelight, and teeth bared like bars of white light where saliva foamed in the corners of his mouth. Taler and greyer than ever, he looked, and even more hawklike - except the hawk was blooded now, and stooping to its second prey.
The Zirescu twins shot to their feet. Bulky, bearded, red with booze, they were nevertheless sober in a moment. For this time, in the astonished silence, they heard the thrum as Radu released his bolt, and the hiss as it flew true to Ion's heart... or would have flown true, if another of their cronies had not stood up and put himself stumblingly in the way.
That one's name was Kherl Fumari, and Radu's bolt smashed through his spine and pushed out his jacket a little in front before it lodged there. And as Kherl gave a gurgling cough and crumpled to his knees, Ion Zirescu saw how close he had come. For Kherl clutched at him as he slid to earth, and looked up into his face with eyes already glazing over.
And there stood Radu grinning his mad wild grin, chil as the night but fluid as a river, nocking his weapon and sliding home his third bolt on the tiller ... a shot destined never to be fired. Behind him, a massive figure loomed out of the darkness: that of Giorga Zirescu himself! A club was in Giorga's hand; he hefted it, then swung it with smashing force against the back of Radu's head. And that was that.
Giorga tossed the club aside, scowled at his dumbfounded sons and their stumbling coleagues. And: 'Huh!' he growled. 'As wel I still have a friend or two -despite that I sired such as you two!'
'Father, we - ' Lexandru started to speak.
' - Be quiet!' his father told him. 'Do you think 1 don't know what brought al this about? Wel, I do! I was woken from my sleep by a friend, as I said. And he had overheard you talking about it round the fire. Radu's sister, Magda - dead, and by your hands! Six of you, onto one girl! This pair of mangy corpses here, Kherl Fumari and Arlek Bargosi, and the Ferenczy brothers, Rakhi and Lagula,' (Giorga glowered at the Ferenczys where they stood shuffling their feet and glancing sly-eyed at each other), '... and you two, of course!'
'Not al our fault,' Ion shook his tousled head. 'It was you who sent us after Freji, to do him in. Wel, and there was that in Radu's eyes as told us he knew! He must have found his father out in the woods. As for the girl: that... was an accident. She wouldn't hold still.'
Coming closer round the fire, the old man kicked Arlek Bargosi in the side so that he roled over out of the embers. Smoke and the smel of roasting meat came up from Arlek's scorched corpse; his black face crackled and popped. Giorga stepped around his body, and paused where Kherl Fumari lay sprawled on the trampled grass. 'Huh!' he said again. 'A hel of a to-do, al this!' And to Ion: 'Help me with Kherl.'
Ion stepped forward -
- And met Giorga's fist like a rock, smashing into his face! 'Never accuse me again!' Giorga stood over him where he fel. 'Never answer me back in any way. Do you understand?'
And Ion could only look up dazedly at his father, dab at his bloody mouth and nod.
Giorga nodded, too, glanced from face to face, narrowed his eyes and mutered, 'Now then, listen in and I'll tell you what's to be done.'
The four gathered round him, and waited while he considered it. Then: 'First the girl,' he said, 'where is she?'
Lexandru started to answer but Giorga cut him short. 'No, don't bother telling me. I don't want to know. Two of you can colect her from wherever she is, take her into the woods and bury her. And bury her deep!' He looked scathingly at his sons. 'Later, when everyone has their heads down, you two had beter do the same for Freji Lykan. Except this time make sure no one can find him - ever! As for Radu: if that clout I gave him on the head didn't do for him, the river wil. So drag him to the river bank where it's deep, put a weighted rope round his neck and toss him in. In the morning we're moving on; the next time we come round this way, there'l be nothing of evidence left. That's it: a whole family dealt with. And our hands clean ...'
Ion said, 'And no one wil ask questions?'
Giorga nodded. 'Probably. But this is how it was: 'Radu went mad. He was always the weird one, as everyone knows, quiet and sneaky and what have you. So he was overheard arguing with his father. Then he must have folowed Freji into the woods and done away with him. His sister guessed the truth of it and accused him. He threatened her and she ran off. Knowing that she might come back and tell what she suspected, Radu made to go after her. Before he could leave camp, Kherl Fumari and Arlek Bargosi, who had learned something of the story from the frightened girl, chalenged him; Radu kiled them - one in a cowardly fashion, from the rear - and ran off. As for the veracity of the tale: why, here's poor Arlek, al done to a turn, and Radu's bolt in his neck. And here's Kherl with another bolt in his back, and Radu's crossbow lying where he dropped it. And there were witnesses: you four.
'All of this was tonight... you must work out the finer details for yourselves, for from now on I don't want anything to do with it. But in any case, and since we'l never see any of the Lykans again, there'l be no one to deny your story.'
As Giorga finished speaking, Ion and Lexandru looked at each other. A mutual message, however silent, passed between them: that they'd beter have words with Provisioner Borisciu, too, to ensure that his lips were likewise sealed. Or maybe to seal them permanently, if they weren't already. And:
'Wel, what are you waiting for?' Giorga wanted to know. 'Best get to it, before this spreads any further.'
And all four of them, they got to it ...
Radu knew nothing of the fact that he was dumped in the river, and that a big rock dragged him down to the mud and weeds. But the Zirescu twins had been very sober by then and in something of a hurry; the knot around his neck was fumbled; it had slipped loose before he hit the bottom. Then the current found him, buoyed him up, and whirled him downstream.
Midnight found him on his back, where wavelets washed white pebbles at a bend in the river. He was tethered by weeds, supported by a mat of drifted branches. The swelling at the back of his head was large as a hen's egg, but apart from a handful of scratches and bruises he was in one piece, and felt all the better for it after he'd emptied his system of river water. He remembered . . . well, something of the night before (the vengeful killing he had done, certainly, and of being knocked down and dragged through night-dark undergrowth; fragments of whispered conversation) but precious little. Still, it was enough for now. Sleep and warmth were what Radu needed most, to give the soft spot at the back of his head a chance to harden up.
He managed to get a fire going, dried out his clothes and got back into them, built a bed of bracken and grasses to sleep out the night. And spent most of the next day in sleeping, too, and in trying to forget about his father and his sister. It was hard, but he tried anyway.
Because by then he'd decided to forget about mankind in general and be a loner, one of the strange wild men who came down out of the hils now and then to sit by a campfire in the night. Except Radu would be a real loner; no campfires for him but his own, and no man's company, either.
All his life he'd known the brutalities of his 'brother' men, and for al he knew it would be the same in any tribe as it had been with the Szgany Zirescu. With which Radu Lykan was gone from the Szgany of Sunside, and claimed by the forest and the wild mountains. He had no friend but himself (at least for a while), no cares but his own, no counsel but that of the sun, moon, and stars. For the first time in his life he was free.
And he moved from place to place and territory to territory as if there were no bounds to speak of, taking to the ways of the wild as if it had been preordained. Thus Radu became a creature of nature, a man alone who went where his fancy took him. He left no tracks, and skirted or otherwise avoided the camps of men. But more especially he vowed to keep apart from the Szgany Zirescu, for he knew that if he returned to them it would be a bloody thing ... his blood or theirs, whichever.
But he also knew that having tasted the blood of his foes, he'd found it to his liking, which meant it could easily become a habit. Two of his had died, and two of theirs had paid the price. Let that suffice; let Giorga, Lexandru and Ion Zirescu, and the Ferenczy brothers, stew in the juice of their own miserable existence, and if they thought Radu was dead so be it, he was dead - to them, anyway.
East lay the territories of the Szgany Hagi, the Szgany Tireni, the Mirlus, Lidescis, and many another band or tribe.
Radu often heard their babble, saw their fires reflected from clouds drifting low over the woods at night, read their boundary marks and crossed their trails; but other than that he had nothing to do with them, and they never once knew he was there.
So he wandered the length and breadth of Sunside's woods; he climbed through the foothills to the tree-line, turned west, and explored the passes and mountain heights. For a year, two, three, he was alone, until the day when he found a great white she-wolf trapped in the scree where the flank of the mountain had slipped a litle. And it was a rare, strange thing ...
Radu had been hungry and could have kiled and eaten the wolf. It would have been easy; he'd stolen a good crossbow in his wanderings and could have put a bolt in her, then dug her out and built a fire to roast her joints. She was a dog, true, but she was meat.
But looking into her great, feral yelow eyes, Radu decided against it. He, too, had been crippled in his time - by apathy and cowardice, and by the shame of the Szgany Zirescu, unable to escape from the shadow of a shameless leader - but he'd freed himself, grown strong in his freedom, and survived. This she-wolfs crippling was a purely physical thing: a forepaw was broken where it stuck up awkwardly from the rubble and debris, and she was unable to drag herself free. But Radu saw paralels, and couldn't bring himself to kill her. It was one of those strange paradoxes; if she'd been Funning with a pack he wouldn't have thought twice about shooting her. But now:
He made his way out onto the dangerous sloping surface of the sliding scree, and patiently dug her free. And with every passing moment the treacherous rocks could have slipped and falen away, grinding both of them into oblivion; or the bitch could have turned on him and grabbed his throat. But the mountain held its breath, and the she-wolf made no such vicious protest; finaly Radu put a rope round her chest and dragged her to one side -
- At which the scree jumble gave a shudder and a mighty groan, and avalanched down onto Sunside!
Wel, maybe she knew Radu had saved her life. But whether or no, she let him splint her paw, and accepted cooked food out of his hand when he shot and roasted a rabbit. And a day later, when Radu thought she could probably make it on her own and set off west again, the she-wolf came hobbling after him. For while her pack had forsaken her, this man had not, and she would not forsake him. After that, going from strength to strength, eventualy she was fuly recovered.
From which time on there were two of them.
In Radu's entire life, this incident was one of the very few good things that had ever happened to him. Who could have guessed that it would result in the very worst thing of al?