In Radu's dreams, his father and sister lived again, and walked and talked with him, reminding him of his past. Waking was invariably a bad time, when suddenly he would know that they were dead, of course, and discover himself a loner. And but for the company of Singer (so named for the fact that when Radu sang to himself of an evening, she would join in to serenade the moon), he suspected he might very easily lose his mind. Nor would he be the first loner to go mad from the solitude of his ways.
But Singer was there, hunting with and for Radu, constantly by his side, more of a friend and companion than any human creature he had ever known, except for the mother he had loved for so short a time, and his family which was no more. But despite the presence of the white she-wolf, ever more frequently he would find himself dwelling upon the fate of his father and sister, and the fact that he'd been thwarted in the hour of his vengeance. At the time, two for two had seemed satisfactory ... now he felt the scales had been weighted again him, and knew how he'd been cheated.
Looking down on western Sunside from the heights where the barrier mountains commenced to crumble to the swamps, he would fancy he saw the fires of Zirescu encampments. And despite his Szgany vow to be gone from the western forests forever, he would feel this oh so strong compulsion to return, for however brief and bloody a time ...
He was a man full-grown now, firm in all his limbs, still lean but springy as a sapling, swift as a bolt from a crossbow and just as deadly a hunter, no less than his lupine companion. And he wondered how fat and idle were grown the Zirescu twins, Ion and Lexandru, and their loathsome father, Giorga; and how long, tall and pimply the Ferenczys brothers, Rakhi and Lagula? Perhaps Giorga was dead; Radu hoped so. But strangely, he hoped the Zirescu twins and the Ferenczy brothers yet lived. And when thoughts like that came to him, then he would run
with Singer, and hunt to take his mind off things.
Until eventually, weary of the mountain heights in spite of all their grandeur (and perhaps afraid of his feelings when he looked down on western Sunside), he sought new horizons, new scenes and sensations. The far western lowlands lay mainly unexplored; Radu fancied there must be havens in the green fringes, where birds sang and creatures played, and fishes leaped in the cool clear water before it all ran to swamp.
But in any case he dreamed of the dark and misted forests he'd known as a boy, and once more walked with his father, sister and mother (despite that she had died when Magda was born) along old Szgany trails, and so would go down into the unknown badlands. If he dared, he would prefer to go down into the Sunside of his childhood, however unhappy that had been, but could not for reasons already explained. At the moment he was an outlaw, true, but to the best of his knowledge men didn't seek him for his life. All of which could change if he deliberately set himself against the Zirescus. And so it was the badlands, which were not named that way for nothing.
At first, all seemed well. Streams fell from on high, cascading into cool, misted depths, and Radu and Singer swam where the falls had formed basins in centuries-hollowed rocks. Vines and hybrid flowers flourished in the spray from the waters and the sunlight streaming from Sunside, and in fertile valleys between black, eroded spurs the foliage was lush and filled with living things. But then, as the course of their descent turned away from Sunside, abruptly things changed.
The warmth from the sun lancing overhead was still present, but now the rising mist was dark and dank, no longer silver-edged and glowing. The shrubbery was lush and tangled, but there were fewer and smaller flowers; the nights were cold, and Singer full of some strange uneasiness of spirit. Radu supposed it was because they had turned their faces from Sunside, and at his earliest opportunity turned south again while yet continuing his descent. The freshness of the heights never returned, however, and down in the western bottoms, where the mountains crumbled to a desert of mud, Radu found no such green fringes as he'd hoped for and never a haven to mention.
What he did find was a marshy bogland of fallen, rotting trees and low, thick-leaved, flabby grey shrubs, under an evil miasma which rose as a mist from the apparently endless swamps. Of croaking, hopping things there were plenty, and of snapping lizardlike things, too, but of the clean, warm-blooded life of Sunside's forests ... never a sign, except for the occasional slumped, black, unrecognizable carcass, rapidly turning to rot and becoming one with the swamp. It was like a different world, even a dawnworld, whose dwellers were primal creatures out of time. And in the swampy margins were toadstools as black as tar, bursting underfoot and sending up clouds of red spores to drift in the foggy reek. It was as if the very air was poisonous, and something warned Radu to fasten a rag over his nose and mouth; but Singer went on all fours like the wild dog she was, drinking the water between patches of scum and breathing the spore-laden air. Then, as they began a retreat towards higher ground, they saw a ragged, mud-streaked fox stumbling in the mire, all bleary-eyed and three-quarters done for.
Radu was loath to waste a bolt on this poor emaciated creature, yet knew it would be a mercy to put it out of its misery. In the time he'd spent with Singer, some two years now, he had trained her in the hunt (though truth to tell, in certain aspects she had trained him!) Now he told her: 'See to it!' Which was the order to kill.
Leaping out into the mud, she came upon the fox at once, to break his neck in her jaws. And shaking the poor thing, she let it fall on its side. That should have been enough, but in the next moment ... an amazing thing! For the jaws of the fox yawned open and it snapped at Singer's face, and what with the spray of flying mud, and the snarling, snapping, and threshing of their heads where their jaws seemed locked, it appeared to Radu watching from the bank that something passed between them, from fox to wolf. Or it could have been that Singer had ripped out the fox's tongue to swallow it whole! Whichever, that signalled the end of it; the fox sprayed red from his mouth, sank down into the mud and gave up the ghost.
But it was not the end of it for Singer. Leaping to firm ground, she sprang this way and that, coughed and choked, and bounded in the air, until finally she collapsed. Unconscious, she lay with her sides heaving, then grew still, and only the faintest of heartbeats to let her master know she yet lived.
Dismayed, Radu sat with Singer a while, there by the rim of the swamp, with her head in his lap and her tongue lolling, until it appeared she wouldn't die. Then, draping her over his shoulders, he carried her out of that place, and in an hour or so she struggled to be put down. Shortly after that, to Radu's great relief, she seemed as good as new. She seemed that way, at least ...
They explored for an afternoon and an evening - that was all, but more than enough in that place - before Radu headed south and a little east, to skirt the barrier mountains into Sunside. He knew it to be a route which must take him into Zirescu territory sooner or later, but by then he would have climbed back up into the mountain heights and so put temptation behind him. So he thought.
And when the ominous twilight failed and the long night fell at last, because the region was strange to Radu and possibly dangerous with hitherto unknown hazards, and the swamps alive with mosquitoes and other flying things, he found a cave in an outcrop at the foot of the mountains and built a fire in the entrance to keep injurious insects and other creatures at bay; behind which he and the now strangely withdrawn she-wolf sheltered and prepared for sleep ... ... When down from the heights echoed a distant howling in praise of a blotchy yellow moon tumbling through the murky sky. And though Singer's nose lifted and her eyes lit with recognition, still she made no reply to the songs of the grey brothers on the mountain flanks. And even when Radu sang a low tune to himself (as he was wont to do in strange places), Singer held back from joining in; not even a growl escaped her, or a yawn of her long-jawed, soft-leather mouth. So that all in al Radu considered it weird, but perhaps a mood was on her, which in a place like this he could understand well enough ...
During the night on those several occasions when Radu woke up to toss branches on the fire, stretch his legs or relieve himself, he discovered Singer awake, silent, staring out past the slow-burning fire into the night, or whining low in her throat, or shaking her head from some unknown irritation and pawing at the earth where she stood in the entrance of the cave.
Far more worrying, on the last such occasion, she was on her belly close by, forepaws outstretched in Radu's direction, peering at him intently through her feral - or sick? - yellow triangular eyes. Following which he felt it prudent to remain awake, and sat by the fire until the twilight before the dawn, then moved on with all speed towards the risen but as yet hidden sun somewhere on the far flank of the crumbling mountains. And it has to be said that Radu was glad the night was over ...
As the Sunside/Starside nights are long, the days are longer still. But the territory was unknown to Radu, the rotting rock of the lower mountains was treacherous (so that he must go with care and patience), and there always seemed to be a new, higher ridge behind whichever false plateau he had just negotiated.
For he had made up his mind that instead of skirting the mountains, he would cut diagonally across their lower ramparts and so arrive in the western part of Sunside already aloft and in the heights. But because of the dangers and arduous nature of the route (which seemed far more difficult than the one by which he'd descended to the swamps), it wasn't until the twilight before the night, and after several camps, that at last he arrived over Sunside; and even then not nearly as high on the mountain flanks as he had intended.
The twilight before the night: a dull orange afterglow slowly fading over the far furnace desert, and the sky to the south banded from amethyst on the horizon to a dark indigo in the vault of the sky, where several stars were already evident. While over Starside the skies were long since jet, whose stars seemed like chunks of ice frozen in their orbits; but Starside itself was obscured by virtue of the mountain peaks. A myriad of Sunside's tiny bats, along with a handful of a larger species, whooshed and whirred on the air where they hunted, while down in the woods the scattered fires of Szgany camps lit the night, sending aromatic odours drifting on thermals of their own making.
And there was a conflict of longings in Radu hard to describe: the need to be among men again, oh yes - but good men, brothers, men he could trust - and the need to avoid them at all costs, for this was surely Zirescu territory. The need to sit in the glow and warmth of a campfire, and chew on a joint of meat with its juices hot and dripping, washed down with a jug of good Szgany wine ... and the dark desire to glimpse a startled face by starlight (that of Ion or Lexandru, perhaps? Or Rakhi or Lagula?) and squeeze off an ironwood bolt at point-blank range. Oh, a medley of longings, wishes, desires and urges; but the certain knowledge, too, that to surrender to them must bring about the worst possible result, when he would not only be a loner but an outcast, too, from all men and for the rest of his days.
Well, and wasn't that his way? And wouldn't it suit him well enough? To be a loner, yes, but not to be pursued as a murderer, when in fact he would be an avenger of the weeping dead. (For in Radu's mind and memory, and in his dreams, his father and sister were given to weeping, causing him to cry, too).
And so, as always, he put it from his mind, climbing up into the mountains while yet there was the light for it. And Singer with him as ever, but a Singer changed now and almost unknown to him. For now when she hunted the great white she-wolf kept her kill, and now when he would hug her she backed off from him, whining and showing her fangs. And whatever it was that was at odds between them, Radu knew that the difference wasn't in him.
Not yet, at least ...
It happened quickly. Radu made camp that night in a delve in a cliff high over the foothills, where a great boulder had weathered free of the bedrock, rolled away and left a hollow behind. Scarcely a cave, still it was dry and would shelter him if the rains came. Soft heather made a passable bed, and a cured skin was his blanket; it would suffice. Normally he would have Singer, too, to snuggle close and keep him warm. But the she-wolf didn't want that now, and truth to tell, neither did Radu. She had a look about her, a light in her eyes, a flattening of her ears, that warned of further changes in the offing -
- Which came as he slept.
It was a sound that woke him: a whine, a snarl, a cough or grunt. One or all of these things, but a sound anyway ... made by Singer. And sitting up in his bed of heather, backing away from her, Radu was astonished and horrified by this picture of a dog of the wild so patently torn between loyalty and strange, alien emotions. She crept towards him, shied away, whined as in some inexpressible agony ... and was at once drawn back to him, slavering and showing her scythe teeth, where the soft leather of her muzzle was drawn quiveringly back. And Radu understood that she now saw him as prey of sorts - yet remembered him as her friend and master! He sensed that she was driven by something, and fought it with whatever remained of her former loyalty. He knew something of her torment, which must in a way be similar to his own. For while he lusted after the blood of certain men, still he remembered a handful of times when men had been good to him; and while she came upon him to kill him, she yet loved him with at least a spark of her old love.
And even as he drew back the string of his crossbow until it nocked, and even as he slid a bolt into the tiller's groove, Radu Lykan grieved over what he must do, for the companionship they had known together. But plainly Singer was mad and al of that was over now, and like the fox in the swamp she'd be better off dead and out of her misery.
He aimed direct at her forehead - her brain, to make a quick end of it - and knew he couldn't miss. For even though Singer had witnessed the power of his weapon, still she crept closer, and closer yet, almost as if begging him to kill her! And all the while she stared fixedly at Radu, pleadingly with eyes he knew yet didn't know, not any longer. She was almost upon him; her eyes were yellow lamps shining on him; powerful jaws yawned open! And:
'Goodbye, old friend,' Radu told her, squeezing the trigger.
In the last moment Singer had lunged forward . . . only to be stopped dead by the ironwood bolt that chopped through her sloping skull into her brain; so that she fell twitching upon Radu's chest where he had jerked back away from her. Her jaws still gaped open, however; his, too, as he saw something writhing in the dark cavern of her mouth!
Then, but too late, he once again remembered the diseased fox in the swamp: the thing he had seen passing from the one to the other, which he'd mistakenly thought was the fox's tongue, torn out at the roots by Singer.
It was the same now, but as the shiny-black, corrugated body of the leech-thing ejected from the wolfs mouth, and in the instant that it transferred to Radu's, he saw that it was no tongue! It lived - it thought, reasoned, or instinctively knew - and it moved like lightning as it sought...
... A new, better, stronger, more intelligent host!
Impossible to close his mouth! Such was the girth of the horror that his jaws were made powerless, like taking too big a bite of an apple and stalling on it - except this loathsome thing was no apple. Head-first, it fed itself to him, putting out hooks into his throat to draw itself down inch by choking, vile-tasting, stomach-heaving inch. Then ... it was in him and he could breathe again. He did -gasping, coughing, and massaging his throat - and came lurching to his feet as he tried desperately to vomit, to rid himself of the nightmarish parasite within. And it knew that, too!
Radu would never know just exactly what the horror did to his insides then, but even as he blacked out he guessed it was the same thing that it had done to Singer's. And as incredible pain hounded him into a merciful oblivion, he could more fully appreciate how she had felt when she'd collapsed at the rim of the swamp ...
... And something of how she must have felt when she came awake. His throat burned; it was dry, cracked, bruised inside from the thing's passage into his body. And so it had been no nightmare, no subconscious association of ideas lingering from his recent visit to the swamps, but the real thing. A real Thing had vacated Singer's body in favour of his! It was in there even now, hiding in his body, lodged there where he could neither see nor feel it, nor affect it in any way. Like the fox, and then Singer, he was now the host of this parasitic creature, this leech that he imagined to be similar to the tapeworms that occasionally got into the systems of the Szgany.
Well, Radu knew the cure for that well enough! He'd seen how the sufferers of such infestation submitted to starvation, and when they were almost dead of hunger allowed themselves to be tied down with their mouths propped open, so that the parasite could be lured out of them by the stench of rotting fish or meat! But that was something a man couldn't do on his own; the temptation to bite such a thing in half and spit it out as it disgorged must be overwhelming - not to mention a complete waste of time and effort! For only leave a segment of the creature inside the host body, an entire new worm would grow from it! Then again, the tapeworms Radu had seen were slender, many-sectioned creatures; they could be bitten in half!
But ... he knew that his parasite was different. He knew it without knowing how he knew. He felt it: a malign intelligence of sorts, a sentience other than the basic, natural, instinctive hunting and breeding knowledge of beasts of the wild, or the higher spiritual or morality-guided intelligence of men. This thing would use the guile of the fox, the ferocity of the hunting wolf, and his superior knowledge and intelligence for its own! Except ... there would be nothing spiritual or moral about it. And nothing remotely human.
These were thoughts that entered Radu's mind in his first waking moments, but he could hardly suspect that they were not his thoughts entirely, or that their source was not entirely his mind. But such was the case: by virtue of its metamorphic make-up, the leech's mutant DNA was already bringing about the most drastic changes in his own, and doing it in such a way as to link itself with his mind, his blood and bones, his very being. The thing would be him, and even though he would continue to believe himself master of his own destiny, he would be it.
Cold, it would kill off whatjwas human in him while intensifying what was cold and inhuman. Devious, it would so dilute what little was left of human love and compassion as to* remove these things entirely, while accentuating those baser emotions it could use to its own advantage ... such as lust, greed, and hatred. Tenacious, it would cling to life - to Radu's life - even as it moulded itself to his internal organs and spine. And there'd be no getting rid of it, neither by primitive medicine nor any method of man's devising. For Radu was the higher life-form it had searched for since its development from a spore to a leech in the body of the fox, and it was with him now for as long as he lived.
Ever ravenous, it would lust after the very source of life, the red-pulsing river of life, which flows through the arteries of men and beasts. Except a man has only so much life, only so much blood; so that in order to survive, Radu too must consume or be consumed. It was the burgeoning curse of the vampire, new to Sunside/Starside even as Shaitan the Unborn was new, so that as yet Radu knew neither of them. But he would, he would ...
Day finally dawned, and Radu was ill. He carried Singer out of the cave, dropped her into a crack in the rocks, filled it with stones.
Under normal circumstances the effort would be scarcely worth mentioning; now . . . it felt like a day's work. He knew he should hunt, for good red meat to fuel him through whatever was to come, but the sun had a furnace heat he'd never felt before, which raised angry red weals on his skin and crisped the hair of his forearms to small coiled cinders. Even with his back to the sun he could scarcely see to find a target! Plainly he was ill. But he knew he had a Thing in him, so it was hardly surprising. And the very thought of that Thing made him feel more ill yet.
He found water, a small waterfall with a pool, laved his scorched and rapidly roughening body and filled a skin, took up his clothes in a bundle and headed back to his cave. On the way he saw a rabbit nibbling the grass in the shade of a tree, and even in his condition couldn't miss such an easy target. Back in the cave he found himself ravenously hungry and ate raw red flesh.
This wasn't the first time Radu had had it red; now and then when it rained and the grass he used for tinder was damp, he might find it impossible to get a fire going. Then he would simply skin his catch, cut himself a good hindquarter joint and fill his belly. And of course Singer had been there to dispose of the rest of their kill, which she naturally preferred that way. But on this occasion there was no such excuse. The day was hot and dry; Radu had flintstones; he could easily have cooked his food - but he ate it raw anyway. Perhaps it was simply a question of expedience.
And perhaps not...
And he slept ... and slept. Never such a long sleep in al his life. Never before, and never again. For this was the Sleep of Change. This was his leech's chance to complete the melding, and make itself one with him. Something of the fox's wiles went into him, but not a lot, for that poor creature had been out of its own environment; it had never been afforded the opportunity to display its skills. On the other hand, a great deal more of the great white she-wolf found its way into Radu; for the leech had liked her strength and ferocity, her sense of the wild, her sinuous shape and speed. Singer had been a child of the night, a hunter of lesser creatures, an eater of raw meat, who slaked her thirst on blood. Good!
But the man ... knew things! He had something that neither fox nor wolf of the wild could ever match: a creative mind with the power to override instinct, to say 'No!' or 'Later!' to the normaly irresistible hereditary urges and demands which alone command the actions of lesser creatures. And because he could guide and control his own actions, he could himself be guided and controled.
Thus, even as Radu had trained Singer, now his leech would train him. And with filament extensions of itself rooted in his brain, the vampire leech lay with Radu where he tossed and turned in his cave through the long Sunside day, ignoring al the nightmares which its presence inspired, while 'listening' with rapt intent to his dreams. And learning from them.
And determining how it would be ...
Radu woke in the evening twilight and was himself again ... so he thought. He stretched upon his heather bed, and there was a new suppleness in al his joints.
His throat no longer gave him pain, and there was no aching in his bones. Whatever smal symptoms of his solitary ways had been, they were no more. He knew a physical comfort - a sensation of real wel-being - such as he had never experienced before. He was 'a new man.' And he was more than a man. And less.
During his recovery, Radu had defecated in a secondary cave that branched off from the main one close to its entrance; the smel of his shit would keep creatures at bay. Strange for it was something he had never done before. Singer had done it from time to time, but she was a child of the wild. Rather, she had been a child of the wild. Then, remembering that Singer was no more, Radu grieved a little while he dressed.
His short trousers of stitched skins seemed baggy on him; obviously he'd lost weight, but he didn't feel too hungry, not for his usual fare, anyway. Radu's sandals seemed too short for his feet, and his jacket
failed to connect with his trousers or tie properly across his deep chest. And there were short, dark manes of hair on the backs of his hands, and trailing down his wrists. Astonished, he found twin pads of hair in the palms of his hands, too! Moreover his fingernails were longer, thicker, darker, and pointed at their tips like claws.
But. . . how long had he lain there? Why, he must have been delirious! These changes in him had surely taken longer than a single night. But they were natural changes, obviously: loss of weight, and some slight wrinkling and shrinkage of his clothes, and his hair and nails growing al unhindered by normal wear and tear. But a healing sleep, for sure. For there was such a zest in him that -
- Except here Radu's thoughts were arrested by an echoing, ululant, faint but concerted howling from the high plateaux and passes, as his grey brothers in the heights began to serenade a full and glorious moon where she tumbled through the darkening skies. But...
... His grey brothers?
Radu wasted no time puzzling over it, for now his zest had turned to something other than a human passion. Now he longed for the thrills of the wild: the hunt, the chase, and the kill. But again, his bloodlust was not for the blood of the wild but for that... of his own kind? Or those who had been his kind, at least. And down there in the western forests, that was Zirescu territory.
He paused for a moment in the mouth of the cave to sniff at his excrement. His, yes, but it was black. The black of the digested blood of the rabbit. And perhaps the digested essence of something else? What of the leech-thing? Was this it, liquefied and turned to black shit by his juices? Radu thought not. But then why couldn't he feel it inside him, a Thing as big as that? He frowned and gave a shrug. What had been had been. What was become was become. And what would be ... would be.
But up in the mountains his grey brothers were aprowl and howling, and Radu threw back his head and howled with them. It felt good, as good as the night against his flanks! And pausing beside the pool to go down on all fours and sip, and seeing his face reflected in moonlight, Radu scarcely wondered at the fact that his eyes were triangular and gleamed feral yellow, or that his long-toothed smile was the smile of a wolf. For in the silver light of the moon al was made clear to him, and he remembered his dreams of vengeance and knew that it was time. Except he would go among men as a man, so that they would know who he was and why he had returned ...
In his descent into Sunside, Radu was quick and surefooted as a wolf, but a wolf with al the agility and climbing skils of a man.
Head first, with his chest and belly close to the earth, he dug in the heels of his hands to brake himself, sliding and skittering where the way was treacherous.
Upright but bent forward, he loped where the going was level and easy. Whenever he found his way barred by cliffs, he reverted to human skills and clambered like a man, and at al times he stuck to the shadows as much as possible. For his eyes were suited to the night; he saw as clearly as in daylight. Or beter, for he was Wamphyri! But as yet he wouldn't have recognized the word, or known that it described his condition, even if he'd heard it shouted.
In the first quarter of the night Radu was down into the foothills. Now the night was dark, lit only by starshine, for the orbit of the hurtling moon had taken her beyond the rim of the world. Which was just as wel; her gravity no longer enraptured Radu's mind, and he was more himself... or he would be, if not for his symbiont. And in fact his leech was a true symbiont, for it gave as wel as took. Now, if Radu were wounded, the vampire would heal him. Now his strength was that of eight or nine men - even ten, if need be. Now he was near-indefatigable, not to mention near-immortal! For barring accidents or an atack of the utmost ferocity, or a disease such as leprosy which even his leech could not cope with, he would not die.
Not that Radu knew any of this; these were wonders he was yet to discover, mysteries as yet unfathomed - or irredeemable depths as yet unplumbed. Al he knew was that he felt... wel, fiter, faster, and fiercer than ever before, and that his body burned with an inner fire; also that he was a force to be reckoned with greater than he'd ever been, but not nearly as great as he would be. But mainly he knew that he had the ability to right several great wrongs.
Revenge, aye, against the Zirescus and the Ferenczys!
And this would be what he gave to his leech; this was his part of the unspoken, unspeakable, unbreakable pact: that what he apparently did for himself, he in fact did for the vampire. Radu knew how to kill, and now must learn how to enjoy it. His life had been governed by fear and hatred; now his own hatred, enhanced tenfold by his vampire, would be an instrument with which to inspire fear. His human passions, hitherto suppressed, contained within the dam of his humanity, could now spill over in an inhuman orgy of emotion and violence beyond the range of common men. He could feel it in his blood. Wamphyri!
And the weirdest thing of al was this: that not even his leech knew these things! Al it 'knew', and this by some alien instinct, was that its host was a strong one, and that through him it lived. And al it had was its metamorphism, its tenacity, its awful hunger. For the fuel of its degenerate, regenerative engine was blood - which was why that engine was geared to drive Radu's lust for life, and for death. Aye, even at the expense of every life he touched from this time forward .. .
Coming upon the camp of the Zirescus, Radu was cautious. The camp's watchdogs (wolves reared from pups) would be out in the dark forest, silent but alert.
Trained, they wouldn't bark to scare an intruder off but simply tree him, then whine or howl till someone came to discover what was what. Or, if their victim should choose to fight, they'd just as soon hamstring him behind his knees, and bark to attract their masters. Al very daunting.
Yet Radu was not overly concerned. For somehow he felt he understood the ways of wolves; he believed he could handle them even as he'd handled the great white she-wolf of the wild. Perhaps even better than he'd handled Singer ... now.
Sure enough, when they came to sniff him out, Radu held out his arms to them, and after a moment they crept close and licked his hands where he stood in the forest's shadows. Then, when they would whine, he cautioned them with a low 'Tut-tut!' Until they were silent.
And while he could sense that they were worried, stil they were silent. For al of this was at a time when the Wamphyri were unknown in western Sunside; as yet, and apart from the frightful campfire tales of the occasional lone traveller (old wives' tales at best), the Zirescus had no real knowledge of the terror out of Starside's towering aeries that even now ravaged in the eastern woods. Thus the Zirescu wolves had not been trained against such as Radu - but after tonight they would be.
The wolves were satisfied (half-satisfied, at least) that Radu was not a threat; he sent them about their business, then advanced upon the camp. The night was young and there were men about the central fire. Radu was more than wel acquainted with the habits of the Zirescus; he knew where to find old Giorga's caravan on the outskirts of the encampment. That is, if the fat old bastard were stil alive! Of course that last was as yet a mater for conjecture: what with the Old Zirescu's swinish eating and drinking habits and al, and the ungovernable nature of his temper. But z/he yet survived ... well, the future extent of his span was hardly conjectural at al! It would end right here, right now, this very night. And Radu's father would be waiting to greet him in hel.
Yet... Radu held back, waiting in the shadows a while to think things out. For it seemed somewhat bold to simply walk up to Giorga's wicker door, knock and wait for a reply. If the old man were to look out through a peephole, suspect something and cry out -what then? The stars were too bright, the night too clear. Better if there were a ground mist, to soften the sound of Radu's approach or the clatter of any brief scuffle. Better if the damp, fertile earth and the trees of the forest were to exhale the moisture they'd gathered during the day, and throw a soft lapping blanket of white over the entire camp. Except, the earth and the trees couldn't do that - could they?
In some worlds it would be thought of as witchcraft, magic, the supernatural. And perhaps in Radu's world, too. Yet in the Himalayas of Earth, Tibetan priests are known to test themselves by faling asleep in water turning to ice, and upon waking generate sufficient bodily heat to melt it! And the firefly turns on the lamp in his own body without burning himself, and by its light finds a mate. And certain creatures winter through in a state of hibernation where others would surely die a freezing death. But here in this world ... despite that Radu knew little or nothing of such things, suddenly he sensed a measure of his power -of a new power, in Sunside/Starside.
Radu was like - no, he was, or would be if he wiled it - a catalyst! His presence in these woods was alien, even as he himself was alien to mundane mankind; the very chemistry of his body, no longer a human or entirely natural chemistry, had the power to bring about changes in natural things. He felt it burgeoning within him; he had desired something and now would wil it. He would breathe a mist, and cause the forest itself to reciprocate!
And with the metamorphic assistance of his leech, he did exactly that. The pores of his body opened and seemed to steam; the mist poured off him as if he were dry ice; his heavy breath issued from his lips as an expanding evil essence that bilowed out from him and appeared to cal lesser mists out of the woods and up from the very earth itself. And on the outer rim of the Zirescu encampment, Radu flowed within his mist to reach up and tap lightly on the wicker door of Giorga's caravan.
'Eh? Who?' (Radu would know that bass, grumbly, rumbling voice anywhere; the Old Zirescu was still alive.) 'What is it? Can't a man catch up on a little sleep around here?' There came the sound of movement from within, a smal barred window opened inwards, and a puffy, bearded, squinting and red-eyed face appeared behind the bars. Radu stood at the foot of the caravan's steps and kept his face averted. His vampire mist obscured him a little where it sweled, roled, and sent up wispy tendrils, serving to hide his actual identity, but the sparse and ragged clothing of a mountains loner gave him away as a stranger. And:
'Eh?' Giorga mumbled again, but sharper now. 'What, a wanderer, come at night to try the hospitality of the Zirescus? So why bother me? There are men at the campfire, I'm sure. Go sing for your supper there.' Giorga was probably drunk; certainly his brandy breath was strong in Radu's nostrils. But before the old man could close his window:
'I haven't come to take anything but to give something,' Radu told him, disguising his voice as best possible - which wasn't in fact difficult, except now he must also disguise it from a growl! And continuing: 'Giorga Zirescu, I bring a warning. But I can't talk out here - ' And he glanced quickly this way and that, as if worried that he might be overheard. ' - So let me in, and I'll tell you of the doom that hangs over you and yours even now!'
'A warning?' the other gasped. 'A doom? Whatever can you mean?' And more harshly, commandingly: 'Speak up, man, and perhaps I'll hear you out!'
Radu straightened up but kept his face averted. 'I'm not one of yours,
Giorga, that you can speak to me like an underling. I'm a loner, yes, a wanderer ... ah, but the places I've wandered, and the things I've heard! They say that Giorga Zirescu grows old and fat and sodden, and his sons no better than young shads in the rut, and the Zirescu women all slatterns who would open their legs to dogs rather than take the pigs his men have become!'
'What!' Giorga's eyes bulged at the window. 'Who says these things? Who dares issue these lies? I have no truck with neighbours, so who's to know that... that I ...'
And Radu looked at him sideways, just a glance, but a look that said it all. 'Yes, go on. Who's to know, that you ... "
The other calmed down a little, snarled, 'I've no time for gossip. Sticks and stones may hurt me, but catcalling ...'
'Sticks and stones, aye,' Radu repeated him. 'And crossbow bolts -and men who lust after your land, because they believe you're not fit to hold it?' And when that sank in:
'Eh?!' Again Giorga's gasp. 'Is that it? Land thieves? But this is my land, as it was my father's before me! So someone's after me for my territory, is that it? A land feud? But no one has the right! Tell me more.'
'I would, gladly,' Radu answered with a shrug, beginning to turn away. 'Except it would seem that the one they call the Old Zirescu is much too proud to talk face to face with a loner and wanderer. It seems he's too high and mighty! And should I stand out here in this damp and clinging mist, without even a sip of your good plum brandy to warm my throat? No, I reckon not. So now you'll just have to guess where they'll strike ... and how many ... and when. Well, and good luck to you ...'
Turning his back on the caravan, Radu made as if to stride away. But:
'Wanderer, whoever you are, wait!' Giorga's voice was anxious now, all of the bluster driven out of it. 'And yes, you're right: I'm an ungrateful old wretch at times! But come in, come in and warm yourself. Brandy, did I hear you say? Why, I could use a drop myself! And look, I've a jug of the very stuff right here!' The bolt was drawn back, and Radu heard the creak of the caravan's wicker door.
In another moment, soundlessly, he turned and was up the wooden steps, and something of his mist flowed inside with him. What's more, Giorga Zirescu had invited him in of his own free will!
Well, with a little help from Radu's lying leech ...