'Land?' Giorga asked again, after handing Radu a leather jack. 'Is that what this is all about?'
Radu took a sip of the sharp-tasting brandy - the merest sip - then put the jack down. It had been a long time and he needed a clear head. 'It's about land, and life, and death,' he said, and his voice was very deep, very gruff, as for the first time he turned his face fuly in Giorga's direction. And in the light from the Old Zirescu's lamp, he searched for some sign of recognition, but found nothing in the red-flecked, boozy, bulging eyes of the other. If he had - if Giorga had shown even a glimmer of recognition - then his time had come, be sure. His night visitor had already determined that it had come anyway, but al in good time, when Giorga had been given to know why.
'Well, we're face to face,' the old man told him. And that was true enough; in the close confines of Giorga's caravan they couldn't be anything else. 'So now let's have it: explain yourself. As for land and life and death, they're al one. If a man must fight to keep his territory, then he fights. His land is his life, and it's where he's buried when he dies!'
'And wil his people fight with him, or wil they run away because they hate him?' Radu's voice was deeper yet, a rumbling growl issuing from his throat, his suddenly chaotic emotions.
'No,' the Old Zirescu pushed his face closer yet. 'They'll fight - because they fear him! Here in these western forests, since time immemorial, the Zirescus have always been strong. In my time, I, Giorga, have been strongest of al! I had to be.'
'In your time, aye,' Radu nodded. 'But do you mean strongest, or hardest? Were you strong with your people, or hard on them?'
By now the old man had sobered a litle. His gaze was curious as he sat down on the wooden frame of his bed and looked Radu up and down.
If he'd seen this man before he was sure he would remember him. What, a man as tal as this; why, he must be al of six foot three!
And his strange looks ... those eyes of his: yelow in the lamplight. And his grey hair, swept back like a mane to fal over his colar. His slightly pointed ears and long, hairy hands ... Then again, the loners were al weird in their ways and looks - this one especialy! Why, his words were almost... what, accusing?
And suddenly Giorga suspected that this wasn't about land, and likewise that he wasn't much interested what it was about. Simultaneously, he suspected it had been a mistake to invite this man into his tiny cramped caravan in the first place.
'Whatever I've been - and whatever I've done - it was my way,' he answered at last, and placed his pilow as a rest for his back. But beneath that pilow he kept a long ironwood knife with a bone handle. Its edge wasn't so keen, but its point was sharp as a splinter.
'It was your way, aye,' Radu growled, 'and always for your own good: yours and your sons'. But never for the good of your people. They do hate you, Giorga! -even as I hated you, upon a time ...'
'Eh?' Giorga sat up straighter, puled the pilow round in front of himself, clasped the handle of his knife. There was a good crossbow hanging on the wal, but it wasn't loaded. Supposing it had been, so what? This man looked as fast as he now looked dangerous! This isn't... it isn't about land?'
'Oh, but it is!' Radu answered, sitting down carefuly at the other end of Giorga's bed and moving fractionaly, inch by inch closer. And now his voice was a hoarse throb ... of anticipation? 'Indeed, for it's about a man who worked that land for you, who hunted it for you, and beat the bounds with you, year in, year out, and for payment suffered the jibes and insults of a fat, greedy old man and his loathsome sons. It's about how he was murdered because he stood in the way of his daughter going to one of your sons; and it's about the girl, too, who was as good as you and your lot were bad! She was held down, Giorga, raped time and time again, then murdered because her father - by no means a brave man -had not obliged the Zirescus by letting her go as wife to Ion or Lexandru!'
'I ... I ... I know you now!' Giorga pointed with his left hand. But Radu knew that the old pig was right-handed, and saw that treacherous right hand trembling behind the pilow in Giorga's lap. And indeed al of Giorga trembling: his fat bely, his chins, the very jowls of his face. And: 'You're Radu, son of Freji L-L-Lykan!' he stutered.
'Aye, Freji's son, and Magda's brother. That same brother who was outlawed - or who outlawed himself - when he avenged his father's death and his sister's rape and murder. Except he was stopped in the hour of his vengeance ... by you, Giorga, I fancy! And was it Ion and Lexandru who also tried to drown me? And the Ferenczy brothers, likewise on your orders? Ah, I know it was! But as you see, I am not drowned, and not nearly dead! And it is about land, or soil, after al - this soil, Zirescu soil, where you've rooted like a pig all your days, and where you're now destined to die a swinish death. This earth, which the poisons of your loathsome gases shall turn putrid even as you're lowered into it! And no one to mourn over you, Giorga, even if they would. No, for your sons wil be down there with you!'
Giorga lunged; his black ironwood knife was in his hand, upraised; Radu grinned as he caught the other's fat wrist in his own taloned hand, and held it effortlessly. And his grin was the grin of a wolf as his leech poured metamorphic juices through his system, causing his teeth to scythe upwards from his raw red gums as his mouth yawned wider yet!
In the space of five heartbeats Radu Lykan had changed - changed before the Old Zirescu's bulging, disbelieving eyes - into something radically different from ... from anything he'd ever seen before! The man was gone, and a monster crouched in his place. And the face on that creature: the flame-eyed, salivating, grinning, panting visage of hell itself! That monstrous, gaping mouth ...!
Giorga sucked at the suffocating air, and opened his own mouth - to cry out! But too late. Pain snatched the cry from the circle of his rubbery lips, turned it to a yelp, a gurgle, a great whoosh! of expeled air, as Radu twisted his arm until it snapped at the elbow, closed a hand over Giorga's hand, and slid the knife home through unprotesting layers of fat and up under bulging ribs. Oh ... it hurt, and it did great - even fatal - damage! But not immediately. Giorga's fat protected him; the knife's tip couldn't reach his heart, not angling up from his bely like that; his left hand ceased its fluttering and reached for the knife, clasping its handle where it protruded from his gut. And he panted, 'Oh! - ah! - oh!' as he tried to draw it out, but couldn't because of the pain.
Then, stil grinning, Radu towered over him, cocked his head on one side in the inquiring manner of a great dog, and looked him right in his cringing eyes, as if he were looking into his soul. And he said, 'Farewel, Giorga!' - then caught his beard and yanked it up, and without pause drove his fangs into and slicing through the old man's windpipe!
Giorga flopped and vibrated in Radu's grasp, until the werewolf released him and let him topple from his bed to the floor, where he got jammed in the narrow space. It was over, this part of it at least. And the Old Zirescu bled and tried to scream (but had neither the air nor the strength for it), and flopped about in his own blood, and bled some more; great steaming jets of crimson, pulsing from his gaping throat and punctured gut. Air whistling in and out of his severed windpipe, where bright red bubbles formed a livid froth, but al slowing down now as life quickly ebbed.
Until finally it really was over ...
Outside the caravan in a mist of his own making, Radu paused for the merest moment to spit Giorga's taste from his mouth. His taste and the last trace of his blood. For despite that Radu was hungry, and his leech ever hungry, Giorga Zirescu's blood tasted vile to him. Yet the memory of what he had done would always remain sweet - and sweeter still when the rest of it was over and done with.
Radu had taken down Giorga's crossbow. Now he loaded it and his own weapon both, hooked the one to his belt and took the other firmly in a paw-like hand. And as the woods and the earth continued to issue his wreathing mist, he headed direct for the communal fire's dul orange glow in the centre of the encampment. For he had realized his strength at last; he knew his awesome power, and that he need not fear anything in man or nature - not yet at least.
And loping low through the mist, his senses were alive with al the sounds, scents, and sensations of the night. He was a child of the night! He heard the rustling in the undergrowth that tracked the hunting shrew; sensed the hooded eyes of an owl upon him; detected an almost inaudible shrilling of tiny bats, sounding clearer than ever before in his vampire-enhanced ears. And he smeled blood, of course - the blood of the Zirescus and the Ferenczys! For Giorga's blood had not been enough. But that of his sons and their friends might yet quell the fire raging in Radu's veins ...
The moon was up again, a ful and briliant disc shining like silver in the sky! Its beam fel in a swath, undulating on Radu's ground mist and lighting his way to the fire. Passing like a wraith between the innermost caravans and carts, he was almost there. Now he could see the ruddy faces of men in a huddle about the fire, and saw that they were frowning. Their conversation reached him; they talked about - the watchdogs, the camp's wolves!
For the wolves were there, those tame dogs of creatures; their tails were down and their ears flat, and they whimpered around the feet of their human masters. Aye, and if they could talk they'd be telling of Radu's presence, too! They probably were, in their way, but the men were too stupid to know it.
Except if the blood of men had a scent, so did the blood of the Wamphyri - Radu's blood! And now the wolves around the fire smeled it. Moreover, they smeled the death which he had so recently wrought. There were three of them; they quit their slinking about the feet of the seated men and as one creature turned in Radu's direction. Their ears pointed him out in the shadow of a caravan, and now that they stood in the company of men, they felt safe to issue a series of growls and yips.
'Eh?' someone said. 'Is there something there?' And indeed there was something there. Radu loped forward more surely into the fire's glow, came to a halt and straightened up. Without pause he scanned the faces in the firelight - and saw that Ion and Lexandru were there! Also the Ferenczys, and three colleagues. As scurvy a handful as he could imagine, but he hated the first four above al other men.
All jaws dropped, all eyes were on Radu, who now grinned in his fashion and growled, This is between me and the Zirescus - those two, Ion and Lexandru, rapists and murderers!' He pointed with his crossbow. 'And also the Ferenczys,' he pointed again. 'I've killed Giorga and now I'll kill his sons and their friends. As for the rest of you: you don't have to die if you don't want to. Enough of talk; too much, even.' No longer just pointing his weapon but aiming it, at Lexandru, Radu squeezed the trigger.
It started as quickly as that, without any warning other than that furnished by the watchdogs. Lexandru had come to his feet as Radu spoke, and as the bolt flew to its target he held up his hands in denial.
The bolt passed between them and struck him in the left breast, burying itself to the ironwood flights. 'Oh?' he said in a loud voice, as if he queried the thing. 'And is it - what, Radu? Not dead? Well, there's a th-thing!' Then he coughed blood, crumpled to his knees and fell on his face.
But one of the men at the fire had sufficient wits about him to shout, j 'Attack!' to the wolves. And as Radu hooked the empty crossbow to his belt and levelled the other, the wolves at once sprang towards him. The leader fastened to his weapon forearm; snarling fangs bit deep; Radu grasped the wolfs mane with his free hand, whirled in a circle, and i released the disorientated animal into the sprawling fire! Twin strips of ! his flesh and skin went with it, torn from his forearm by its eye-teeth, j but Radu scarcely felt it. For he was in action, doing what he'd dreamed of doing for so long. Except for now Ion and the Ferenczys must wait, for the other wolves were here.
One of them was in mid-air, coming head-on, forepaws outstretched and muzzle slavering. Radu couldn't miss; he shot his bolt and ducked, and the skewered wolf yelped, passed overhead, bounced once and struggled to its forelegs, then collapsed and lay still. The third skidded to a halt as Radu fixed it with a feral-eyed glare and said growlingly, 'Oh?
And would you die, too? Come on, then, let's get done with it. For there's room in the fire yet.' But the grey one had seen more than enough of Radu and backed off whimpering.
Radu sensed trouble, retaliation; he'd spent too long on these tame wolves! Quick as thought he fell to all fours, felt a crossbow bolt fly inches overhead even as he dropped, glanced across the fire at the knot of men.
The Ferenczys had already bolted. Ion Zirescu was making off between the caravans, heading for the forest. The man who had shot at Radu was now readying his weapon for a second try. The others stumbled this way and that; startled out of their wits, they scarcely comprehended what was happening.
Radu loped to the fire, stooped to snatch up a burning brand. And as the man with the crossbow nocked his bolt, Radu let fly with the firebrand, which hit him full in the face. His beard went up in fire and smoke; in another moment his head was a ball of fire! Dropping his weapon, he danced; yelped and beat at himself, and went rolling into a patch of undergrowth close by. By which time the others were all fled. But Radu had seen Ion go, and knew which direction he'd taken.
The moon came up over the trees at the edge of the clearing, and seeing it Radu went to all fours, threw back his head and howled. It seemed the most natural thing in the world, despite that the sound it made was surely one of the most terrible. For although it was the cry of a beast, the howling issued from the throat of a man! And all of his pent-up passions went into it. It told of all the pain and frustration of a tortured youth remembered and stored, and now released in a torrent of monstrous pleasure as it burst like a flood over the last of those who had caused it. It cried all his years of torment relieved, or in the process of being relieved, at least.
For Ion Zirescu and the Ferenczys brothers still lived, and the fact of their living was itself a great torment. But their deaths would be a pleasure incomparable: like a sigh in the soul of Radu Lykan - a sigh of relief! - if he still had a soul.
Ah, and the werewolf knew what he wanted from Ion! For he'd dreamed a dream from time to time, which he now believed was more memory than dream:
Of lying face-down in the trampled earth of a clearing, and hearing voices as if from a long way away, yet coming to him clearly through a darkness shot with brilliant flashes of light but otherwise devoid of sensation except for a terrible pain at the back of his head, and a great anger seething deep in his core, and a yearning even as great as his current yearning: to tear the living, smoking hearts out of the ones who spoke these words:
'... Radu's sister - dead, and by your hands! Six of you, onto one girl! This pair of mangy corpses here, Arlek Bargosi and Kherl Fumari, and the Ferenczy brothers, Rakhi and Lagula ... and you two, of course!' (Unmistakably Giorga's voice. And the answer):
'Not all our fault. It was you who sent us after Freji, to do him in. Well, 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, for she wouldn't hold still.'
That one had been Ion. And Magda's death had been an 'accident,' because she had tried to fight them off where they'd rutted over her like beasts!
Ah, but there are beasts and there are beasts, and the rest of it wouldn't be an accident, be sure! Giorga was dead, Lexandru, too, but Ion and the Ferenczys still lived. For now they lived, anyway. Again Radu howled - howled his bloodlust and a vow to the goddess of the moon where she floated on high: that Magda would be avenged in a manner befitting her ordeal! In answer, it seemed the moon lit his way through the woods by silvering the madly trampled, blundering trail of
Ion Zirescu ... to where the last of that loathsome family was hiding. Later, Radu would scarcely remember tracking him, loping through the dark woods and faling to al fours to sniff the trail of freshly crushed grass and rootlets, the vile-smeling spoor of sweat and fear. But in a little while there'd been a clearing, with a stand of trees to one side, and breaking from the woods into the clearing Radu had sensed ... stillness! Al was still; neither a sound nor any movement; not even the hoot of an owl or the furtive creep of smal creatures in the grass. Why? Because they had been startled to stillness by the sudden crashing of a fugitive? Possibly ...
Radu's mist had subsided by then, but the moon was still ful and high and his powers were still with him. Except they were new powers and he didn't know them; he wasn't experienced in their use. But listening to the stillness - keeping absolutely still himself and straining to detect even the slightest sound - he
'heard' something that wasn't a sound! Instead, it was ... a thought! They were thoughts! The terrified thoughts of Ion Zirescu!
At first Radu shook his head; he knew he was imagining it, this listening to another's mind. But as he concentrated even harder, so the thoughts came that much clearer, so that now he must heed them. And this was what he heard:
... Followed me! But how? Is he a man or a dog, to track me so unerringly? Radu Lykan, alive! Or perhaps his vengeful spirit? But a ghost that kills? And his strength! His great speed! No, this is no ghost but Radu himself. We thought him a coward like his father, but the youth who killed Kherl andArlek that night was no coward. And now he's back. But my father, Giorga, dead? Wel, so what...
Lexandru and I would have seen to him before too long! Ahhh ...! (That last was a gasp of horror, and it signaled that Radu had been seen).
He closed his eyes and concentrated more yet, and saw ... through another's eyes! Through Ion's, of course! Saw himself, or his shadow, poised at the edge of the clearing, head cocked forward, ears alert as they angled this way and that. And saw - and indeed felt - himself go down on al fours again, and aim himself at the stand of trees. For Ion's line of sight had given him away, and the shock of his thoughts confirmed it: ... He's pointing at me, coming straight for me! But I have my machete ...!
Oh, yes, Radu was coming. Half-upright and leaning forward, he loped towards the stand of trees. But... Ion had a machete? Oh, really? And deep in a clump of gorse, Radu paused to ready his crossbow - four seconds at most - before continuing in a new direction, apparently away from Ion. And in his head:
... He'll go right by me! He hasn't seen me! (It was a sigh of relief, almost a sob - a pitiful 'sound'! But there was no pity in Radu Lykan).
And in the corner of his eye Radu saw Ion there, crouching in the shrubbery under the trees, behind a dense patch of brambles. But not dense enough. Radu whirled, aimed, and fired; Ion utered a cry of shock, pain, as the bolt zipped through fringing undergrowth to take him in the right forearm, spinning him until his feet tangled and he went down. His machete had flown from useless fingers. And suddenly he was a man alone, unarmed, against a monster ...
A shadow grew out of the night's darker shadows, and as the moon slipped behind a cloud Radu Lykan was there, his eyes like yelow lamps in the darkness.
And: 'Up,' he panted, his voice a cough, a bark, a hideous threat. 'On your feet, Ion Zirescu, or die where you lie.' He nocked the last of his bolts.
Sobbing, Ion got up, and stumbled backwards away from Radu until he backed up against a tree. And: 'Perfect!' the werewolf Radu growled, as he pointed his weapon point-blank and squeezed the trigger. The ironwood bolt shatered Ion's left colarbone and nailed him to the tree; his cry of agony cut the night like a knife, and he would have blacked out but daren't. His weight would rip the muscle of his shoulder open, or stretch and tear the ligaments there, and cripple him for life. Radu heard his thoughts and inquired, 'What life?'
'Kill me, then!' Ion sobbed. 'Get it done with, if that's what you want.' And with a bolt in his right arm, and another through his shoulder, holding him in place, he braced himself shuddering against the tree.
Radu's voice was a low rumble as he answered, 'But that's not al I want!'
'You murdered my father, then raped and kiled my sister. Wel, Freji's paid for: Giorga paid that debt. But Magda can't ever be paid for, for she was priceless.
But you and your brother, the Ferenczys and those other two pigs, you held my sister down and took her again and again. Maybe two of you at a time ... or maybe three? I saw her body, the signs you left, your stinking froth on Magda's skin. As wel she died, for I don't think she could have lived with it. Wel, neither can I. And neither can you.'
His last words were a snarl; he hooked a hand like a claw in the front of Ion's trousers and ripped them open. Ion was caused to jerk a little, and the bolt in his shoulder dragged against raw nerves. He almost passed out, which wouldn't do at al. Radu pushed his wolfs face close, sniffed at Ion's parts and growled, That worthless thing was the instrument of your torture, your ... your pleasure?' As he closed his talon-like hand on his captive, Ion could do nothing but writhe and shudder against the tree. 'And you and the others, al six of you, you took turns to rape her of her innocence. Now it's my turn. Except you're not innocent.'
He crushed Ion to the tree, clenched his hand like a vice, used his vast Wamphyri strength to castrate and more than castrate the other. In a split second Ion lost everything, even the lower pipes of his body, dislocated, wrenched out of place, and left dangling. He lost consciousness, too, and would go on losing blood enough that he'd never again wake up. Well, and Radu wouldn't let it go to waste, not all of it.
While there was yet a pulse in his victim's neck, he sank a wolfs fangs into it to draw off the remainder of Ion's life.
And drank long and deep, giving nothing of himself but taking all from the other, even the very last dregs.
Blood ... it was what he'd needed, what his vampire leech had needed. It was the nectar of life ... it was the life!
And it was the drug that very nearly killed him, because he almost - but not quite - let himself drown in it. Because the sheer unbridled pleasure of it almost -but not quite - numbed him to everything else. Until, as if in a dream, he heard a startled gasp as someone cried:
There! But look - only look, will you!'
Radu knew the voice: Rakhi Ferenczy, the younger of that degenerate pair. Knew the next voice, too, as that of Rakhi's brother, when Lagula answered: 'I see him - and I've got the moon-crazed bastard!'
He surfaced from his delirium of bloodlust, straightened up from slaking his monstrous thirst, and shook his head -to clear his swimming senses and red-drenched vision both ...
... And moved - but not fast enough!
Lagula's bolt burned his neck, cut a shallow groove in it before burying itself inches deep in the tree. Radu laughed, a great bark of a laugh . . . until Rakhi's bolt bit deep into his left thigh, scraped bone and jammed there, midway between knee and buttock.
Radu had fired his last bolt. He had nothing to fight back with except his fierce Wamphyri strength. He would have fought, certainly, if his leech had let him. But survival was uppermost in the symbiont's 'mind'; its host's survival, and its own, of course.
The werewolf let himself fall to the forest's floor, went three-legged, limping through the undergrowth, but still with the sinuous, flowing motion of the Wamphyri. And this time he breathed his mist in earnest, knowing what he did, to obscure him as he fled. Not far from Ion Zirescu's dangling, ravaged body, he found the machete where it had fallen, and for a moment considered standing and fighting. But a greater wisdom (or a more sinister, insidious instinct?) forbade it. For the time being, survival was everything.
Once, near the edge of the clearing, Radu paused to look back, and saw the Ferenczys still blundering about in his mist, searching for him (but searching oh so carefully!) in the undergrowth on the fringe of the stand of trees. The fools, to have let him slip through their fingers like this! Didn't they know, didn't they realize, that he'd be back for them? Obviously not. Radu thought to remind them, and as the moon tumbled from view behind the treetops, he threw back his head and howled.
And from now on, whenever the Ferenczy brothers heard the howling of a wolf, they would automatically tremble and reach for the nearest weapons ...
In the western foothills, well away from the camp of the Zirescus, Radu cut the flights from the bolt that transfixed his thigh and drew it out head-first. At first there was pain, but as he gritted his teeth the pain faded to a dull throb, and in another moment all that remained was an insensitive numbness, as if his thigh were asleep.
There were medicinal leaves Radu knew of that would help in the healing, but he didn't bother with them. Something told him they weren't necessary. It was his leech, already at work on him with its vastly superior metamorphic processes.
Radu was a changeling creature now, but in the main his mind remained the mind of a man, and in his sleep he was visited by nightmares. He dreamed of the Thing that he'd become, and woke up cold and shivering, unwilling to accept the fact that he was no longer entirely human. His vampire, of course, worked on him to subdue all such fears and regrets. Dimly, he was aware of its influence: the small urging voice of some subconscious 'conscience' that nagged or advised him; no voice at al, but in fact chemical agents and catalysts in his blood and his brain, changing the way he thought. Eventually he succumbed to suggestion, stopped fearing and lost interest in it; finally he accepted that he was what he was - without considering that he was what his leech wanted him to be.
When the moon was down or on the wane, he was a man - a wolfish-looking man, by all means - but a man. When the moon was up and full, then it was hard to remain a man. But at all times he was Wamphyri, even though he still didn't understand or recognize his condition ...
He dwelled for some years between the foothills and the barrier mountains, sleeping in deep caves or crevices by day, and wandering gradually eastwards by night. And despite that his work wasn't finished in the camps of the Szgany Zirescu - by now the Szgany Ferenczy - and that it never would be while Rakhi and Lagula lived, still he put distance between. He knew that to return now would mean certain death; the entire tribe would be watching out for him, doubtless with orders to shoot on sight. And in any case he needed time to explore his amazing powers: his mentalism, metamorphism, and the source of his boundless, surging energy. As for the wound in his thigh: that had healed in a night and a day; there was scarcely a scar to show for it.
Adept at avoiding the encampments or settlements of men, he continued to do so; alas that they couldn't avoid him.
But the farther east Radu journeyed, the more surely he was aware of a change. Not in himself this time, but in the Szgany, in Sunside's people themselves.
Thus far, avoiding men, he had also avoided their challenge, or rather the challenge of his bloodlust; he had slaked his thirst (and that of his parasite) on the raw red flesh of creatures of the wild. In this respect, and without even knowing it, Radu had pitted himself against his leech! But as wel as tenacity, the vampire has al the patience of centuries of life as yet unlived. With a vampire's longevity, it's not too hard to be patient.
And meanwhile: Radu was alowed to believe that the pleasure he'd derived from slaughtering Ion Zirescu and drinking his blood had lain in the kiling, while in fact it had lain in the drinking! Revenge? That had been his motive, but necessity had been his leech's. Wel, Radu would learn in time. And meanwhile his vampire must be satisfied with the blood of beasts. Except, and as has been noted, there are beasts and there are beasts.
And indeed great beasts had come among the Szgany of Sunside, which was the reason for the changes that Radu had noted in them. For now during the long hours of daylight, there were grim-faced, determined men on the flanks of the barrier mountains, hunters who pursued and butchered ... men! Aye, and it was butchery. For with his own eyes, Radu was witness to it.
It happened at a time perhaps two years and nine months (one hundred and thirty-five or thirty-six sunups) after he'd taken his revenge on the Zirescus in the westernmost woods ...
It was the twilight before the true dawn, and the tumbling moon was already reduced to a pale stain of a disc high in the amethyst sky over Sunside. Soon the furnace sun would be up, but it wouldn't find Radu wanting. For by now his photophobia was full-fledged; he knew that direct undiluted sunlight would kil him, even if he stil didn't understand the reason.
But no sooner was he settled in the back of a shallow cave, where a single stratum of soft rock had weathered out from the face of the cliff, than he heard a panting and scrabbling from beyond the rim of his shelter. It was a man in full flight, exhausted from his exertions and hoarse from the terror of pursuit. Dried up and beginning to blister even in the first faint rays from the southern horizon, he came stumbling, croaking his relief, into Radu's cave.
Hidden in a dark corner, Radu shielded the luminous yelow glare of his eyes and waited until the man - a ragged-looking Sunsider, possibly a loner - had himself under partial control at least. And when the other's panting had slowed and his whimpering ceased, then, speaking softly, Radu asked: 'Who pursues you, and why?'
At the first word the other had jumped a foot, gasped out loud, spun about where he sat upon the dusty floor. 'What?' he croaked. 'Who?'
And then he saw Radu's eyes, and the dark shape of a man sprawled on a bed of heather in the back of the cave. Radu's crossbow was loaded; aiming it at the man, he eased himself erect - or partly erect, because of the low ceiling - and went to where the newcomer cringed against the wal of the cave. The man seemed speechless; his throat throbbed and his Adam's apple went up and down, but he merely gurgled. And finaly he pointed at Radu's face, at his eyes.
'Eh?' Radu growled, rapidly losing his patience. He wanted to know what was going on here. If this man was a fugitive, he wanted to know why, from what cause. 'Are you deaf or daft, or both? I asked why are you running?'
'Y-you, ask that?' Finaly the other had found his voice.
And perhaps Radu understood at that. He narrowed his feral eyes, sniffed his suspicion. 'Are you a Ferenczy, is that it? Have you heard about me and what I've done, and what I'll do!' He pointed his crossbow direct at the other's throat. But even in the act of speaking the words, he knew he was mistaken. The Ferenczys had become an obsession with him, that was al.
'A F-Ferenczy?' The fugitive frowned. 'No, I'm a Romani - Bela Romani, of the Szgany Mirlu. Or I was ... " And now the sob was back in his voice.
'Are you an outcast then? What, a leper?' The Zirescus had used to banish anyone even suspected of leprosy. And they'd put a bolt through him and burn his body if he tried to return!
'Leprosy?' The other looked at Radu through haggard, red-rimmed eyes. 'Ah, no. Worse than that!'
Radu backed off a pace. What? Could anything be worse than leprosy? 'Explain!' he barked.
'Who ... what are you?' Now it was Bela Romani's turn to be curious. 'A loner? A wild man of the mountains? Where have you been that you don't ... don't know of these things?'
'Of what things?' Radu was exasperated. 'Enough of riddles! Can't you explain yourself?'
The other crouched back away from him. 'I'm speaking of... of the Wamphyri!' But the way he spoke that last word, or name!
'Wamphyri?' Radu repeated him, and frowned. 'Who are they?'
The other licked his lips and shook his head. 'But you ... your eyes! Are you saying that you're not... not one of them?'
And for the first time Radu pondered it. He was more than a mere man, for sure. But Wamphyri? 'Tel me about them,' he gave a nod of his huge grey wolfish head. And Bela Romani told him:
It had started in the east, beyond the great pass into Starside and the barren boulder plains. There were rearing stacks out on those plains, vast carved butes, some a kilometre high, either weathered from the mountains over countless millennia or thrust up from below by some colossal, forgotten prehistoric upheaval. The boulder plains were empty of life, cold and dead, for which reason men never went there.
Or at least, that was how it had used to be; neither the Szgany nor any other beings had dwelled there, except leathery trog unmen in caverns under the barrier mountains. But for some years now there'd been rumours of lights in those rearing rock castles, and grey smoke issuing from fissure chimneys, and flying things that soared in the winds off the northern Icelands, around the summits of those mighty aeries of... of what?
And a hundred sunups ago the first of Them had come raiding on the Szgany camps. They came in search of provisions for their manses in the towering stacks, thrall recruits for their aeries, and fodder for their beasts. But they themselves, the Wamphyri, were the greatest beasts of all: blood-beasts out of Starside!
Huge men all, the Wamphyri looked human but were mhuman. Their strength was unbelievable! They took strong Szgany youths for their lieutenants and thralls, and beautiful girls as their odalisques. Chiefest among them was One whose nature had rapidly become a byword for everything evil: Shaitan the Unborn! He was beautiful as a golden man, but deep and dark as the swamps that spawned him. And his lust was insatiable.
At first Shaitan had restricted his raids to regions east of the great pass, and had set up tribes of Szgany supplicants there. But as other monstrous Lords had ascended to their aeries, and the needs of the Wamphyri had doubled and redoubled, so the raids had spilled over from the eastern lands into Zestos, Lidesci, Tireni, and Mirlu territories west of the pass, and sometimes to points even further west. But the Szgany Zestos, the Lidescis, Tirenis, Mirlus, were not supplicants; they fought back! And now during the daylight hours they travelled - they had become Travellers - as a matter of survival, and not merely to beat the bounds. But during the nights:
'We hid in deep caves or in the woods, with never a fire for comfort or light,' Bela continued. 'But still the Wamphyri would find us. Last night - following immediately on the evening twilight - they found us again! There was some fighting, but what can men do against Them? The Szgany Mirlu scattered ... I ran, too, into the woods! But I was caught anyway.
'Hengor "the Gust" Hagi, a blood-soaked barrel of a man, got me, clubbed me unconscious, drank blood from my veins and infected me with his poisons. When I came to in the twilight before the dawn, I remembered his instructions as in a dream: that I must go to him in Starside, and be his thrall in Hengstack. Never! I would return to my wife and children, and be a Mirlu! Oh, really? Hah!
'I was -1 am - a vampire creature, in thrall to Hengor the Gust! The sun is my mortal enemy, the night my only friend. As the poisons take hold, so my condition will worsen. I tried to return to the Mirlus; they saw the mark of Hengor's bite on my neck; now if they find me - they'll kill me! But you, your looks,' Bela turned imploringly to Radu. 'We are the same, I'm sure. Except... you seem to have learned to live with it!'
Radu shook his head. 'I don't know. But one thing is certain: I won't die with it! While you were talking, I was listening, but not as you listen. And you're right: Mirlu hunters are coming. And this cave ... is mine. I was here first.'
Bela's eyes went wild in a moment. Drawing his lips back from snarling needle teeth, he made to spring at Radu -
- Who simply caught him up in one hand, dragged him to the mouth of the cave and tossed him out!
The entrance was fringed with a little undergrowth and a few trees, and the sunlight didn't strike at Bela immediately. He tried to stay in the shade, searched for a way up the cliff. There was a goat track; he might even make it! He scrambled up above the tree level, and so came into view of the men who had followed him up through the scree jumbles of the foothills.
Crossbows twanged and bolts buzzed like angry wasps. Radu saw it all: the way the fugitive was swatted like a fly against the cliff, his feet sliding on the narrow track, his back arching like a bow, as he was struck time and time again. His body crumpling, then toppling, and turning lazily end over end, and slamming down hard into the sharp rubble and scree at the foot of the cliffs.
Anyone would think that would be enough, that Bela's pursuers would be satisfied; apparently they weren't. They took his body, drove a stake through his heart and cut off his head, and built a fire to burn him to ashes! Which apparently was enough. It would have to be, for there was nothing left of him. It took a while but finally the men left, and Radu crept back into his cave to sleep in safety from the sun.
Getting to sleep took a while, too, for there was a great deal on Radu's mind. Yet somehow, while he slept, a good many problems were resolved. And it might even be said that he resolved some of them himself...
In the twilight before the true night Radu awakened, felt the lure of the fading moon and left his cave to worship a while. And as his eerie, ululant howling echoed up into the mountain heights and down into Sunside, he knew. Knew finally and for certain that he was Wamphyri! An eater of men, aye, a Great Vampire. But more than this: he was a werewolf! A man half-human, half-wolf, with the brain of the one and al the speed and cunning and killer instinct of the other. And if changeling men - mere men! - could make it on Starside, where the sun never shone, and be Lords and masters of the great aeries there, then what of Radu? And so, turning his back on Sunside (for now, at least), he climbed for the peaks and headed for Starside and the destiny that waited for him there.
And there was such a monstrous joy in Radu - the joy of darkling knowledge, the hideous anticipation of living off the life-blood of others - that he could scarcely contain it. For Bela Romani had had it quite wrong, and Radu wasn't like him at al. Oh, the same fever was in his blood, certainly, but where Bela had been a mere thral infected with the disease of vampirism, Radu was that disease! By virtue of his parasite he was Lord Radu Lykan! And he knew it.
For weling up from deep within his werewolf body and vampire heart, it was as if he heard the first discordant notes of a strange, savage, and wonderful song.
And how that silent song of blood and eternity thriled him to his core, when at last he came padding, panting through a high mountain pass, and finaly gazed down on Starside.
Starside, aye. And faint with distance yet darkly foreboding against a backdrop of writhing northern auroras, there in the cold blue light of the Northstar ... the mist-wreathed stacks of the vampire Lords! But however awesomely bleak, the scene wasn't weird or cold to Radu. Indeed it felt... familiar? No, much more than that: it felt like home!
And as he turned his face to the sky and vanishing moon, and gave voice from a throbbing throat, it seemed to Radu that even his howling carried a new note and was more surely a song, albeit a song that was awesome and terrible: