I: Castle Ferenczy
TRANSYLVANIA, THE FIRST WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 1981 ...
Still an hour short of midday, two peasant wives of Halmagiu village wended their way home along well-trodden forest tracks. Their baskets were full of small wild plums and the first ripe berries of the season, all with the dew still glistening on them. Some of the plums were still a little green ... all the better for the making of sharp, tangy brandy! Dark-robed, with coarse rioth headsquares framing their narrow faces, the women cheerfully embroidered tidbits of village gossip to suit their mood, their teeth flashing ivory in weathered leather as they laughed over especially juicy morsels.
In the near distance, blue wood smoke drifted in almost perpendicular spirals from Halmagiu's chimneys; it formed a haze high over the early-autumn canopy of forest. But closer, in the trees themselves were other fires; cooking smells of spiced meats and herbal soups drifted on the still air; small silver bells jingled; a bough creaked where a wild-haired,dark-eyed, silent, staring child dangled from the rope of a makeshift swing.
There were gaudy caravans gathered in a circle under the trees. Outside the circle: tethered ponies cropped the grass, and bright-coloured dresses swirled where bare-armed girls gathered firewood. Inside: black iron cooking pots suspended over licking flames issued puffs of mouth-watering steam; male Travellers tended their own duties or simply looked on, smoking their long, thin-stemmed pipes, as the encampment settled in. Travellers, yes. Wanderers: Gypsies! The Szgany had returned to the region of Halmagiu.
The boy on the rope in the tree had spotted the two village women and now uttered a piercing whistle. All murmur and jingle and movement in the Gypsy encampment ceased upon the instant; dark eyes turned outwards in unison, staring with curiosity at the Romanian peasant women with their baskets. The Gypsy men in their leather jackets looked very strong, somehow fierce, but there was nothing of animosity in their eyes. They had their own codes, the Szgany, and knew which side their bread was greased. For five hundred years the people of Halmagiu had dealt with them fairly, bought their trinkets and knickknacks, and left them in peace. And so in their turn the Gypsies would work no deliberate harm against Halmagiu.
"Good morning, ladies." The Gypsy king (for so the leaders of these roving bands prided themselves, as little kings) stood up on the steps of his wagon and bowed to them. "Please tell our friends in the village we'll be knocking on their doors--pots and pans of the best quality, charms to keep away the night things, cards to read, and keen eyes that know the lie of a line in your palm. Bring out your knives for sharpening and your broken ax handles. All will be put to rights. Why, this year we've even a good pony or two, to replace the nags that pull your carts! We'll not be here long, so make the best of our bargains before we move on."
"Good morning to you," the oldest of the pair at once answered, if in a breathless fashion. "And be sure I'll tellthem in the village." And in a hushed aside to her companion: "Stay close; move along with me; say nothing!"
As they passed by one of the wagons, so this same older woman took a small jar of hazelnuts from her basket and a double handful of plums, placing them on the steps of the wagon as a gift. If the offering was seen, no one said anything, and in any case the activity in the camp had already resumed its normal pace as the women headed once more for home.
But the younger one, who hadn't lived in Halmagiu very long, asked, "Why did you give the nuts and plums away? I've heard the Gypsies give nothing for nothing, do nothing for nothing, and far too often take something for nothing! Won't it encourage them, leaving gifts like that?"
"It does no harm to keep well in with the fey people," the other told her. "When you've lived here as long as I have, you'll know what I mean. And anyway, they're not here to steal or work mischief." She gave a small shudder. "Indeed, I fancy I know well enough why they're here."
"Oh?" said her friend wonderingly.
"Oh, yes. It's the phase of the moon, a calling they've heard, an offering they'll make. They propitiate the earth, replenish the rich soil, appease ... their gods."
"Their gods? Are they heathens, then ... ? What gods?"
"Call it Nature if you like!" the first one snapped. "But ask me no more. I'm a simple woman and don't wish to know. Nor should you wish to know. My grandmother's grandmother remembered a time when the Gypsies came. Aye, and likely her granny before her. Sometimes fifteen months will go by, or eighteen--but never more than twenty-one--before they're back again. Spring, summer, winter: only the Szgany themselves know the season, the month, the time. But when they hear the calling, when the moon is right, when a lone wolf howls high up in the mountains, then they return. Yes, and when they go, they always leave their offering ..."
"What sort of offering?" The younger woman was more curious than ever.
"Don't ask," said the other, hurriedly shaking her head."Don't ask." But it was only her way; the younger woman knew she was dying to tell her; she bided her time and resolved to ask no more.
But in a little while, fancying that they'd strayed too far from the most direct route back to the village, she felt obliged to enquire, "But isn't this a long way round we're taking?"
"Be quiet now!" hushed the older woman. "Look!"
They had arrived at a clearing in the forest at the foot of a gaunt outcrop of grey volcanic rock. Bald and domed, with several humps, this irregular mound stood perhaps fifty feet high, with more forest beyond, then sheer cliffs rising to a fir-clad plateau like a first gigantic step to the misted, grimly forbidding heights of the Zarundului massif. The trees around the base of the outcrop had been felled, all shrubs and undergrowth cleared away; at its summit, a cairn of heavy stones stood like a small tower or chimney, pointing to the mountains.
And up there, seated on the bare rock at the foot of the cairn, working with a knife at a shard of stone which he held in his lap--a young man: Szgany! He was intent upon his work, seeing nothing but the stone in his hands. He gazed down across a distance of little more than one hundred feet--gazed seemingly head-on, so that the women of the village must surely be central to his periphery of vision--but if he saw them he gave no sign. And indeed it was plain that he did not see them, only the stone which he worked. And even at that distance, clearly there was something ... not quite right with him.
"But ... what's he doing up there?" the younger of the two enquired in a hoarse whisper. "He's very handsome, and yet ... strange. And anyway, isn't this a forbidden place? My Hzak tells me that the great stone of the cairn is a very special stone, and that--"
"Shhh!" the other once again cautioned her, a finger to her lips. "Don't disturb him. They don't take kindly to being spied upon, the Szgany. Not that this one will hear us anyway. Still ... best to be careful."
"He won't hear us, you say? Then why are we talking inwhispers? No, I know why we're whispering: because this is a private place, like a shrine. Almost holy."
"Unholy!" the other corrected her. "As to why he won't notice us--why, just look at him up there! His skin's not so much dark as slate grey, sickly, dying. Eyes deep-sunken, burning. Obsessed with that stone he's carving. He's been called, can't you see? He's mazed, hypnotised--doomed!"
Even as the last word left her lips, so the man on the rock stood up, took up his stone, and ground it firmly into position on the rim of the cairn. It sat there side by side with many dozens of others, like a brick in the topmost tier of a wall, and anyone having seen the ritual of the carving would know that each single stone of that cairn was marked in some weird, meaningful way. The younger woman opened her mouth to say something, but her friend at once anticipated her question.
"His name," she said. "He carved his name and his dates, if he knows them. Like all the other names and dates carved up there. Like all the others gone before him. That rude stone is his headstone, which makes the cairn itself a graveyard!"
Now the young Gypsy was craning his neck, looking up, up at the mountains. He stood frozen in that position for long moments, as if waiting for something. And high in the grey-blue sky a small dark blot of cloud drifted across the face of the sun. At that, the elder of the two women gave a start; she herself had become almost hypnotised, stalled there and without the will to move on. But as the sun was eclipsed and shadows fell everywhere, she grabbed the other's elbow and turned her face away. "Come," she gasped, suddenly breathless, "let's be gone from here. Our men will be worried. Especially if they know there are Gypsies about."
They hurried through the shadows of the trees, found the track, soon began to see the first wooden houses on Halmagiu's outskirts, where the forest thinned down to nothing. But even as they stepped out from the trees into a dusty lane and their heartbeats slowed a little, so they heard a sound from behind and above and far, far beyond.
Not quite midday in Halmagiu, the sun coming out frombehind a small, stray cloud; the first days of true winter still some seven or eight weeks away--but every soul who heard that sound took it as a wintry omen anyway. Aye, and some took it for more than that.
It was the mournful voice of a wolf echoing down from the mountains, calling as wolves have called for a thousand, thousand years and more. The two women paused, clutched their baskets, held their breath and listened. But:
"There's no answering cry," said the younger eventually. "He's alone, that old wolf."
"For now." The other nodded. "Aye, alone--but he's been heard all right, take my word for it. And he will be answered, soon enough. Following which ..." She shook her head and hurried on.
The other caught up with her. "Yes, following which?" she pressed.
The older woman peered at her, scowled a little, finally barked, "But you must learn to listen, Anna! There are some things we don't much talk about up here--so if you want to learn, then when they are talked about, you must listen!"
"I was listening," the other answered. "It's just that I didn't understand, that's all. You said the old wolf would be answered, soon enough. And ... and then?"
"Aye, and then," said the older one, turning towards her doorway, where bunches of garlic dangled from the lintel, drying in the sun. And over her shoulder: "And then--the very next morning--why, the Szgany will be gone! No trace of them at all except maybe the ashes in their camp, the ruts in the tracks where their caravans have rolled, moving on. But their numbers will have been shortened by one. One who answered an ancient call and stayed behind."
The younger woman's mouth formed a silent "O."
"That's right," said the first, nodding. "You just saw him--adding his soul to those other poor souls inscribed in the cairn on the rock ..."
That night, in the Szgany camp:
The girls danced, whirling to the skirl of frenzied violinsand the primal thump and jingle of tambourines. A long table stood heavy with food: joints of rabbit and whole hedgehogs, still steaming from the heat of the trenches where they'd baked; wild-boar sausages, sliced thin; cheeses purchased or bartered in Halmagiu village; fruit and nuts; onions simmering in gravy poured from the meats; Gypsy wines and sharp, throat-clutching wild-plum brandy.
There was a festival atmosphere. The flames of a central fire, inspired by the music, leaped high and the dancers were sinuous, sensuous. Alcohol was consumed in large measure; some of the younger Gypsies drank from a sense of relief, others from fear of an uncertain future. For those who had been spared this time around, there would always be other times ...
But they were Szgany and this was the way of things; they were His to the ends of the earth, His to command, His to take. Their pact with the Old One had been signed and sealed more than four hundred years ago. Through Him they had prospered down the centuries, they prospered now, they would prosper in all the years to come. He made the hard times easier--aye, and the easy times hard--but always He achieved a balance. His blood was in them, and theirs in Him. And the blood is the life.
Only two amongst them were alone and private. Even with the girls dancing, the drinking, the feasting, still they were alone. For all of this noise and movement around them was an assumed gaity, wherein they could scarcely participate.
One of them, the young man from the cairn, sat on the steps of an ornately carved and painted wagon, with a whetstone and his long-bladed knife, bringing the cutting edge to a scintillant shimmer of silver in the flicker of near-distant firelight. While in the yellow camplight behind him where the door stood open, his mother sat sobbing, wringing her hands, praying for all she was worth to One who was not a god--indeed, to One who was the very opposite--that He spare her son this night. But praying in vain.
And as one tune ended and bright skirts whispered to a halt, falling about gleaming brown limbs, and mustached menquit their leaping and high-kicking--in that interval when the fiddlers sipped their brandy before starting up again--then the moon showed its rim above the mountains, whose misted crags were brought to a sudden prominence. And as mouths gaped open and all eyes turned upwards to the risen moon, so the mournful howl of a wolf drifted down to them from unseen aeries of rock.
For a single moment the tableau stood frozen ... but the next saw dark eyes turning to gaze at the young man on the caravan steps. He stood up, looked up at the moon and the crags, and sighed. And sheathing his knife, he stepped down to the clearing, crossed it on wooden legs, headed for the darkness beyond the encircling wagons.
His mother broke the silence. Her wail, rising to a shriek of anguish, was that of a banshee as she hurled herself from their caravan home, crashed down the wooden steps, came reeling after her son, her arms outstretched. But she did not go to him; instead she fell to her knees some paces away, her arms still reaching, aching for him. For the chief of this band, their "king," had stepped forward to embrace the young man. He hugged him, kissed him on both cheeks, released him. And without more ado the chosen one went out of the firelight, between the wagons, and was swallowed by darkness.
"Dumitru!" his mother screamed. She got to her feet, made to rush after him--and flew into the arms of her king.
"Peace, woman," he told her gruffly, his throat bobbing. "We've seen it coming a month now, watched the change in him. The Old One has called and Dumitru answers. We knew what to expect. This is always the way of it."
"But he's my son, my son!" she sobbed wrackingly into his chest."
"Aye," he said, his own voice finally breaking, sending tears coursing down his leathery cheeks. "And mine ... mine too ... aye."
He led her stumbling and sobbing back to their caravan, and behind them the music started up again, and the dancing, and the feasting and drinking ...
Dumitru Zirra climbed the ramparts of the Zarundului like a fox born to those heights. The moon lit a path for him, but even without that silver swath he would have known the way. For there was guidance from within: a voice inside his head, which was not his voice, told him where to step, reach, grasp. There were paths up here, if you knew them, but between these hairpin tracks were vertiginous shortcuts. Dumitru chose the latter, or someone made that choice for him.
Dumiitruuu! the dark voice crooned to him, drawing out his name like a cry of torment. Ah, my faithful, my Szgaaany, son of my sons. Step here, and there, and here, Dumiitruuu. And here, where the wolf stepped--see his mark on the rock? The father of your fathers awaits you, Dumiitruuu. The moon is risen up and the hour draws niiigh. Make haste, my son, for I'm old and dry and shrivelled close to death--the true death! But you shall succor me, Dumiitruuu. Aye, and all your youth and strength be miiine!
Almost to the treeline the youth laboured, his breath ragged and his hands bloody from the climbing, to the blackest crags of all, where a vast ruin humped against the final cliff. On the one side a gorge so sheer and black it might descend to hell, and on the other the last of the tall firs shielding the tumbled pile of some ancient keep, set back against sheer-rising walls of rock. Dumitru saw the place and for a moment was brought up short, but then he also saw the flame-eyed wolf standing in the broken gates of the ruin and hesitated no more. He went on, and the great wolf led the way.
Welcome to my house, Dumiitruuu! that glutinous voice oozed like mud in his mind. You are my guest, my son ... enter of your own free will ...
Dumitru Zirra clambered dazedly over the first shattered stones of the place, and mazed as he was, still the queer aspect of these ruins impressed him. It had been a castle, of that he was sure. In olden times a boyar had lived here, a Perenczy--Janos Ferenczy! No question of that, for down all the ages since the time of Grigor Zirra, the first Szgany "king," the Zirras had been sworn in allegiance to the BaronFerenczy and had borne his crest: a bat leaping into flight from the mouth of a black urn, with wings outspread, showing three ribs to each wing. The eyes of the bat were red, likewise the ribs of its wings, made prominent in scarlet, while the vessel from which it soared was in the shape of a burial urn.
Aye, and now the youth's deep-sunken, staring eyes picked out a like design carved on the shattered slab of a huge stone lintel where it lay half-buried in debris; and indeed he knew that he stood upon the threshold of the great and ancient patron of the Zirras and their followers. For it was that same sigil as described which even now was displayed on the sides of Vasile Zirra's caravan (however cleverly obscured in the generally ornate and much-convoluted lacquer and paintwork designs). Similarly old Vasile, Dumitru's father, wore a ring bearing a miniature of this crest, allegedly passed down to him from time immemorial. This would have been Dumitru's one day--had he not heard the calling ...
Some little way ahead of Dumitru the great wolf growled low in its throat, urging him on. He paused, however, uncertain where the shadows of fallen blocks obscured his vision. The front edge of the ruin seemed to have been tossed (tossed, yes, as by some enormous explosion in the guts of the place) out to and beyond the rim of the gorge, where still a jumble of massive stones and slates were spread in dark confusion, so that Dumitru supposed a large part of the castle had gone down into the gorge.
As to what could have caused such destruction, he had no--
But you hesitate, my son, came that monstrous mental voice, oozing like a slug in his mind, overriding and obliterating all matters of question and conjecture and will. That voice which had completely overwhelmed and taken control of him during the course of the last four or five weeks, making him its zombie. And I see that it is as I suspected, Dumiitruuu ... you are strong-willed! Good! Very good! The strength of the will is that of the body, and the strength ofthe body is the blood. Your blood is strong, my son, as it is in all your race ...
The great wolf growled again and Dumitru stumbled after. The youth knew he should flee this place, run headlong, break his bones in the dark and crawl if he must--anything but carry on. And yet he was powerless against the lure of that ancient, evil voice. It was as if he had made some promise he could not break, or as if he kept the promise of some long-dead and honoured ancestor, which was inviolable.
Now, guided by the voice in his head, he stumbled among leaning menhir blocks in search of a certain spot; now he went on all fours, clearing away fresh-fallen leaves, damp grey lichens, and shards of black rock; now he discovered (or merely uncovered, for the voice had told him it would be here) a narrow slab with an iron ring, which he lifted easily. A blast of foul air struck his face, filled his lungs, made him more dizzy yet where he crouched over the black and reeking abyss; and when at last his head cleared--of the fumes, at least--he was already descending into nightmare depths.
Now the voice told him: Here, here my son ... a niche in the wall ... torches, a bundle, and matches all wrapped in a skin ... aye, better than the flints of my youth ... light one torch and take two more with you ... for be sure you'll need them, Dumiitruuu ...
The stone stairwell spiralled; Dumitru descended nitrous steps, obliged to clamber in places where the stair had collapsed. He reached a buckled floor littered with blocks of fire-blackened masonry; another trapdoor; the descent continued through dankly echoing bowels of earth. Down, ever down, to sinister and sentient nether pits ...
Until at last:
Well done, Dumiitruuu, the dark voice complimented him--a voice that smiled monstrously, invisibly, whose owner was well pleased with himself--his pleasure grating like a file on the nerve-endings of the young man's brain. And suddenly ... Dumitru might have bolted. For a split second he was his own man again--he knew he stood on the very threshold of hell!
But then that alien intelligence closed like a vise on his mind; the inexorable process started five weeks ago guided him towards its logical conclusion; the strength of free will flickered like a guttering candle in him, almost extinguished. And ...
Look about you, Dumiitruuu. Look and learn what are the works and mysteries of your master, my son ...
Behind Dumitru on the stone staircase, the great flame-eyed wolf. And before him--
The lair of a necromancer!
Such things were legends amongst the Szgany, tales to be told about the campfires in certain seasons, but neither Dumitru nor any other who might view this scene would require any special knowledge or explanation save that of his own imagination, his own instinct. And wide-eyed and gape-mouthed, with his torch held high, the youth wandered unsteadily through the ordered remnants and relics of chaos and madness.
Not the chaos of the upper regions, which was purely physical, for these secret nether vaults had suffered little of the destruction of the higher levels; they were preserved, pristine under the dust and cobwebs of half a century. No, this was a mental chaos: the knowledge that these were the works of a man or men--or, again taking into account all manner of Szgany myth and legend, the works of things disguised as such.
Of the vaults themselves:
The stonework was ancient, indeed hoary. Nitre-streaked and yet not noticeably damp, in places the masonry even showed signs of dripstone concretion. Wispy stalactite strings depended from the high-vaulted ceilings; and around the edges of the rooms, where the floor had been not so frequently trodden, smooth-domed stalagmite deposits formed small nodes or blisters on the roughly fitted flags. Dumitru was no archaeologist, but from the primitive roughness of the dressed stone and the poor condition of the ancient mortar alone, even he would have dated the castle--or at least these secret regions of the castle--as being some eight or nine hundredyears old. It would need to be at least that for the formation of these calcium deposits--or else the solutions seeping from above must be heavily laced with crystalline salts.
There were numerous archways, uniformly eight feet wide and eleven high, all wedged at their tops with massive keystones, some of which had settled a little from the unimaginable tonnage of the higher levels. The ceilings--none of them less than fourteen or fifteen feet tall at apex--were vaulted in an interlocking design similar to the archways; in several places massive blocks had fallen, doubtless shaken loose by whatever blast had doomed the place, shattering the heavy flags of the floor like schoolroom slates.
Beyond the archways were rooms all of a large size, all with archways of their own; Dumitru had descended to a maze of ancient rooms, where the tenant of this broken pile had practised his secret arts. As to the nature of those arts:
So far, with the single exception of his first terrified guess, Dumitru had avoided conjecture. But this was no longer possible. The walls were covered in frescoes which, however faded, told the entire tale; and many of the rooms contained undeniable evidence of a much more solid, much more frightening nature. Also, the voice in his head, now cruel and full of glee, would not permit of his ignorance: it desired that he know the way of these old matters.
Necromancy, you thought, Dumitru, when first your torch cast back the shadows down here, the voice reiterated. The resurrection of defunct salts and ashes back into life for the purpose of interrogation. The history of the world, as it were, from the horse's mouth, from the reanimated, imperfect wraiths of them that lived it. The unravelling of ancient secrets, and perhaps even the foretelling of the dimly distant future. Aye, divination by use of the dead ... ! That is what you thought.
Well, (and after a small pause the voice gave a mental shrug) and you were right--as far as you went. But you did not go far enough. You have avoided looking ... you avoid it even now! What, and are you my son, Dumitru, or somepuling babe in arms? I thought I had called strong wine in unto myself, only to discover that the Szgaaany have been brewing water all these years! Ha-haa-haaa! But no ... I make jokes ... don't be so angry, my ,son ...
... It is anger, is it not, Dumiitruuu? No?
You fear for your life, Dumiitruuu? The voice had sunk to a whisper now, but insidious as the drip of a slow acid. But you shall have your life, my son--in me! The blood is the life, Dumiitruuu--and that shall go on and on ... aaand ...
But there! Now the voice sprang alive, became merry. Why, we were grown morose, and that must never be! What? But we shall be as one, and live out all our life together. Do you hear me, Dumiitruuu ... ? Well?
"I ... I hear you," the youth answered, speaking to no one.
And do you believe me? Say it--say that you believe in me, as your father's fathers believed in me.
Dumitru was not sure he did believe, but the owner of the voice squeezed inside his head until he cried out, "Yes ... ! Yes, I believe, just as my fathers believed."
Very well, said the voice, apparently placated. Then don't be so shy, Dumiitruuu: look upon my works without averting your eyes, without shrinking back. The pictures painted and graven in the walls--the many amphorae in their racks--the salts and powders contained in these ancient vessels ...
In the flaring torchlight Dumitru looked. Racks of black oak standing everywhere, and on their shelves numberless jars, urns: amphorae, as the voice had termed them. Throughout these rooms in this subterranean hideaway, there must be several thousands of them, all tight-stoppered with plugs of oak in leaden sheaths, all with faded, centuries-stained labels pasted to them where handles joined necks. One rack had been shattered, thrown aside by a falling ceiling stone; its jars had been spilled, some of them breaking open. Powders had trickled out, forming small cones which themselveshad taken on the dust of decades, and when Dumitru looked at these spilled ... remains ... ?
See how fine they are, these essential salts, whispered the voice in his head, which now contained a curiosity of its own, as if even the owner of that voice were awed by this ghoulish hoard. Stoop down, feel them in your hands, Dumiitruuu.
The youth could not disobey; he sifted the powders, which were soft as talc and yet free as mercury; they ran through his fingers and left his hands clean, without residue. And while he handled the salts in this fashion, so the Thing in his mind gave a mental sniff: it seemed to taste of the essence of what it had bade Dumitru examine. And:
Ah ... he was a Greek, this one! the voice informed. I recognise him--we conversed on several occasions. A priest from Greek land, aye, who knew the legends of the Vrykoulakas. He'd crusaded against them, he said, and carried his crusade across the sea to Moldavia, Wallachia, even to these very mountains. He built a grand church in Alba lulia, which possibly stands there even to this day, and from it would go out among the towns and villages to seek out the monstrous Vrykoulakas.
Individuals of the townspeople would name their enemies, often knowing them for innocents; and depending on the power or stature of the accuser, the "Venerable" Arakli Aenos--as this one was called--would "prove" or "disprove" the accusation. For example: if a famous boyar gave evidence that such and such persons were bloodsucking demons, be sure that the Greek would discover them as such. But only let a poor man bring such a charge, however faithfully, and he might well be ignored or even punished for a liar! A witchfinder and a fake, old Aenos, who upon a time accused even myself! Aye, and I must needs flee to escape them from Visegrad, who came to put me down! Oh, I tell you, it was a very troublesome business, that time.
But ... time settles many a score. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. When he died, they buried the old fraud in a lead-lined box in Alba Iulia, beside the church he'd built there. What a boon! For just exactly as had been intended, so the imperishablelead of his coffin sufficed to keep out the seepage and worms and all manner of rodent malefactor--until a time one hundred years later when I dug him up! Oh, yes--we conversed on several occasions. But in the end, what did he know? Nothing! A fraud, a faker!
Still, I evened the score. That pile of dust you sifted there: Arakli Aenos himself--and ah, how he screeaaamed when I gave him back his form and flesh, and burned the dog with hot ironsss! Ha-haa-haaa!
Dumitru hissed his horror and snatched back his fingers from the strewn "salts." He slapped his hands as if they, too, were burned with hot irons, blew on them, wiped them trembling down his coarsely woven trousers. He lurched upright and backed away from the broken urns, only to crash into another rack which stood behind him. He fell sprawling in dust and powder and salts; but his confusion had served to clear his mazed mind a little--which the owner of the voice at once recognised, so that now he tightened his grip.
Steady now, steady, my son! Ah, I see: you think I torment you to no purpose--you believe I derive pleasure from such instruction. But no, no--I deem it only fair that you should know the gravity of the service you perform. You make unto me a considerable offering: of succor, sustenance, replenishment. Wherefore I grant you knowledge ... for however short a time. Now stand up, stand tall, hear well my words, and follow their directions.
The walls, go to the walls, Dumiitruuu. Good! Now trace the frescoes--with your eyes, my son, and with your hands. Now look and learn:
Here is a man. He is born, lives his life, dies. Prince or peasant, sinner or saint, all go the same way. You see them there in the pictures: holy men and blackguards alike, moving swiftly from cradle to grave, rushing headlong from the sweet, warm moment of conception to the cold, empty abyss of dissolution. It is the lot of all men, it would seem: to become one with the earth, and all the lessons learned in their lives wasted, and their secrets remaining secret unto them alone forever ...
But some there are whose remains, by circumstance of their interment--like the Greek priest, perhaps--remain intact; and others, perhaps cremated and buried in jugs, whose powdered ashes are kept apart from the earth and pure. There they lie, a crumbled bone or two, a handful of dust, and in them all the knowledge of their waking seasons, all the secrets of life and sometimes of death--and maybe even conditions between the two--which they took with them to the grave. All lost.
And again I say ... oh?
And you will say: but what of knowledge in books, or knowledge passed down by word of mouth, or carved in stone? Surely a learned man, if he so desire, may leave his knowledge behind him for the benefit of others to come after?
What? Stone tablets? Bah! Even the mountains are worn down and the epochs they have known blown away as dust. Word of mouth? Tell a man a story and by the time he retells it the theme is altered. After twenty tellings it may not even be recognised! Books? Given a century and they wither, two and they become so brittle as to snap, three--they crumble into nothing! No, don't speak of books. They are the most fragile of things. Why, there was once in Alexandria the world's most wondrous library ... and where, pray, are all of those books now? Gone, Dumiitruuu. Gone like all the men of yesteryear. But unlike the books, the men are not forgotten. Not necessarily ...
And again, what if a man does not desire to leave his secrets behind him?
But enough of that for now; for see, the frescoes are changed. And here is another man ... well, at least we shall call him a man. But strange, for he is not alone conceived of man and woman. See for yourself: for parent he has ... but what is this? A snake? A slug? And the creature issues an egg, which the man takes in unto him. And now this most fortunate person is no longer merely human but ... something else. Ah! And see--this one does not die but goes on and on! Always! Perhaps forever.
Do you follow me, Dumiitruuu? Do you follow the pictures on the wall? Aye, and unless this very special One is slain by some brutal man who has the knowledge--or dies accidentally,which may occur upon a time--why, then he will go on forever! Except ... he has needs, this one. He may not sustain himself like ordinary men. Rather, he knows better sources of sustenance! The blood is the life ...
Do you know the name of such a one, my son?
"I ... I know what such men are called," Dumitru answered, for all the world speaking to a vault empty of life other than his own. "The Greeks call them 'Vrykoulakas,' as you have made mention; the Russians 'Viesczy'; and we Travellers, the Szgany, we call them 'Moroi'--vampires!"
There is another name, said the voice, from a land far, far away in space and time. The name by which they know themselves: Wamphyri! And for a moment, perhaps in a certain reverence, the voice paused. Then:
Now tell me, Dumiitruuu: do you know who I am? Oh, I know, I'm a voice in your head, but unless you're a madman, the voice must have a source. Have you guessed my identity, Dumiitruuu? Perhaps you've even known it all along, eh?
"You are the Old One." Dumitru gulped, his Adam's apple bobbing, throat dry as a stick. "The undead, undying patron of the Szgany Zirra. You are Janos, the Baron Ferenczy!"
Aye, and you may be a peasant but you're in no wise ignorant, answered the voice. Indeed I am that one! And you are mine to command as I will. But first a question: is there one among your father Vasile Zirra's band whose hands are three-fingered? A child, perhaps, male, born recently, since last you Szgany were here? Or perhaps a stranger you've seen on your travels, who desired to join your company?
A strange question, some would think, but not Dumitru. It was part of the legend: that one day a man would come with three fingers on his hands instead of the usual four. Three broad, strong fingers and a thumb to each hand; born that way and natural enough; neither surgically contrived nor even grotesque to look upon. "No," he answered at once. "He has not come."
The voice gave a mental grunt; Dumitru could almost see the impatient shrug of broad, powerful shoulders. And: Not come, the voice of Janos Ferenczy repeated him. Not yet come ...
But ... the attitude of the unseen presence was mercurial; it changed in a moment; disappointment was put aside and resignation took its place. Ah, well, and so I wait out the years. What is time to the Wamphyri anyway, eh?
Dumitru made no answer. In examining the faded frescoes, he had reached a part of the wall which showed several very gruesome scenes. The frescoes were like a tapestry, telling a story in pictures, but these pictures were straight out of nightmare. In the first, a man was held down by four others, one to each limb. A fifth tormentor in Turkish breeches stood over him with a curved sword raised high, while a sixth knelt close by with a mallet and sharp stake of wood. In the next picture the victim had been beheaded and the stake driven through him, pinning him down--but a huge, fat, sluglike worm or snake was emerging from his severed neck, so that the men about him reared back in horror! In a third picture the men had encircled the Thing with a ring of torches and were burning it; likewise the head and body of its once-host, upon a pile of faggots. The fourth and penultimate scene of the set was of a priest, swinging his censer in one hand, while with the other he poured the vampire's ashes into an urn. Presumably it was a rite of exorcism, of purification. But if so, then it was mistaken, wasted.
For the final scene was of the same urn, and above it a black bat in flight, rising like a phoenix from the ashes. Indeed, the very sigil of the Ferenczy! And:
Aye, said Janos darkly, in Dumitru's head, but not until the advent of the three-fingered man. Not until he comes, the true son of my sons. For only then may I escape from one vessel into the next. Ah, for there are vessels and there are vessels, Dumiitruuu, and some of them are of stone ...
Again the youth's mind had started to unmaze itself. Of his own will, suddenly he saw how low his torch had burned where he'd placed it in a stone bracket on the wall. He tookit down and tremblingly lit another from it, waving it a little to get the flame going. And licking his dry lips, he looked at the myriad urns and wondered which one held his tormentor. How easy it would be to shatter the thing, scatter its dust, thrust his torch amongst those sentient remains and see if they'd burn a second time.
Janos was not slow to note the resurgence of Szgany will, or to read the threat in the mind he'd mastered. He chuckled voicelessly and said, Ah, not here, not here, Dumiitruuu! What? You'd have me lie among scum? And could it be I heard you thinking treacherous thoughts just then? Still, you'd not be of the blood if you didn't, eh? And again his evil chuckle, following which: But you were right to rekindle your torch: best not let the flame die, Dumiitruuu, for it's an exceeding dark place you've come to. Also, there's yet a thing or two I want to show you, for which we'll need the light. Now see, there's a room to your right, my son. Go in through the archway, if you will, and there discover my true lair.
Dumitru might have struggled with himself ... but useless; the vampire's grip on his mind had returned more solid than ever. He did as instructed, passing under the arch and into a room much like the others except for its appointments. No racks of amphorae or frescoed walls here; the place was more habitation than warehouse; woven tapestries were on the walls, and the floor was of green-glazed tiles set in mortar. Centrally, a mosaic of smaller tiles described the prophetic crest of the Ferenczy, while to one side and close to a massive fireplace stood an ancient table of dense, black oak.
The wall hangings were falling into moldering tatters and the dust lay as thick here as anywhere, but yet there was a seeming anomaly. Upon the desk were papers, books, envelopes, various seals and waxes, pens and inks: modern things by comparison with anything else Dumitru had seen. The Ferenczy's things? He had assumed the Old One to be dead--or undead--but all of this seemed to suggest otherwise.
No, the baron's viscous mental voice contradicted him, not mine but the property of ... shall we say, a student of mine? He studied my works, and might even have dared to studyme! Oh, he knew well enow the words to call me up, but he did not know where to find me, nor even that I was here at all! But alas, I fancy he's no more. Most likely his bones adorn the upper ruins somewhere. It shall delight me to discover them there one day, and do for him what he might so easily have done for me!
While the voice of Janos Ferenczy so darkly and yet obscurely reminisced, so Dumitru Zirra had crossed to the table. There were copies of letters there, but not in any language he could read. He could make out the dates, though, from fifty years earlier, and something of the far-flung postal addresses and addressees. There had been a M. Raynaud in Paris, a Josef Nadek in Prague, one Colin Grieve in Edinburgh, and a Joseph Curwen in Providence; oh, and a host of others in the towns and cities of as many different lands again. The writer to all of these names and addresses, as witness his handwriting on the browned paper, was one and the same person: a certain Mr. Hutchinson, or "Edw. H." as he more frequently signed himself.
As for the books: they meant nothing to Dumitru. A peasant, however much travelled and practised in certain tongues and dialects, such titles as the Turba Philosophorum, Bacon's Thesaurus Chemicus, and Trithemius's De Lapide Philosophico meant nothing to him. Or if they did, he made no real connection.
But in one book which still lay open, and despite the dust lying thick on its pages, Dumitru saw pictures which did mean something, and something quite horrific. For there, in painstaking and pain-giving detail, were shown a series of the most hideous and brutal tortures, the like of which caused him--even half-hypnotised as he was--to flinch and draw back a little, distancing himself from the page. But in the next moment, his eyes were drawn to the rest of that room's appurtenances, which until now had not impressed themselves upon his mind; that is, to the great manacles fastened to the walls by heavy chains, to certain badly corroded implements idly tossed to the floor in one corner, and to theseveral iron braziers which still contained the ashes of olden fires!
Before he could give these items any further attention, however, if he had wanted to:
Dumiitruuu, crooned that gurgling voice in his head, now tell me: have you ever thirsted? Have you ever wandered in a dry desert, with never sight or sign of water, and felt your throat contract to a throbbing ulcer through which you can scarce draw breath? Well, possibly you may have known a time when you felt dry as salt, which might help you understand something of the way I feel now. But only something of it. Certainly you have never been as salt. Ah, if only I could describe my thirst, my son!
But enough; I'm sure now that you perceive something of my arts, my meaning, my power and destiny, and that the requirements of One such as I have importance far above any question of common life and lives. And the time has come to introduce you to the final mystery, wherein we both shall know the most exquisite ecstasies. The great chimney, Dumiitruuu --go in.
Go into a chimney, a fireplace? Dumitru looked at it, felt the urge to draw back from it, and could not. Massively built, the fire-scarred hole was all of four feet wide and five high, arched over and set with a central keystone at its top; he need stoop only a little to pass inside. Before doing so, he lit another torch--a pause which Janos Ferenczy saw as a sign of hesitancy. Quickly now, Dumiitruuu, the awful voice urged, for even in dissolution--no, especially in dissolution--my need is not to be kept waiting. It is such that I cannot endure it.
Dumitru passed into the fireplace, held up his torch to light the place. Above him soared a wide, scorched flu, which angled back gradually into the wall. Holding his torch away, the youth looked for light from above and saw only darkness. That was not strange: the chimney must pass through several angles in its climb to the surface, and of course it would be blocked where the upper regions lay in ruins.
Bringing the torch close again, Dumitru saw iron rungs set in the sloping back wall of the flue. In its heyday, the castle'schimneys would need sweeping from time to time. And yet ... there was no accumulation of soot such as might be expected; apart from a superficial scorching, the chimney seemed hardly used at all.
Oh, it has been used, my son. Janos Ferenczy's mental voice chuckled obscenely. You shall see, you shall see. But first, step aside a little. Before you ascend there are those who must descend! Small minions of mine, small friends ...
Dumitru crushed back against a side wall; there came a fluttering, rapidly amplified by the chimney into a roar, and a colony of small bats whose hurtling bodies formed an almost solid shaft rushed down and out from the flue, dispersing into the subterranean vaults. For long moments they issued from the flue, until Dumitru began to think they must be without number. But then the roaring in the chimney diminished, a few latecomers shot by him, and all was silence once more.
Now climb, said the Ferenczy, again closing his grip on the mind of his mental slave.
The rungs were wide and shallow, twelve inches apart, and set very firmly into the mortar between stones. Dumitru found that he could carry his torch and, using only his feet and one hand, still climb easily enough. After only nine or ten rungs the chimney narrowed considerably, and after as many again flattened through about forty-five degrees to become little more than an upward sloping shaft. Within the space of a further twenty feet the rungs petered out and were replaced by shallow slablike steps; the "floor" then levelled out entirely and the "ceiling" gradually receded to a height of some nine or ten feet.
Now Dumitru found himself in a narrow, featureless stone passageway no more than three feet wide and of indeterminate length, where a feeling of utmost dread quickly enveloped him, bringing him to a crouching halt. Trembling and oozing cold sweat--with his heart fluttering in his chest like a trapped bird, and clammy perspiration sticking his clothes to his back and thighs--the youth thrust out his torch before him. Up ahead in the shadows where they flickered beyondthe full range of illumination, a pair of yellow triangular eyes--wolf eyes and feral--floated low to the floor and reflected the torch's fitful light. They were fixed upon Dumitru.
An old friend of mine, Dumiitruuu. Janos Ferenczy's voice crawled in his mind like mental slime. Just like the Szgany, he and his kith and kin have watched over me many a year. Why, all manner of curious folk might come wandering up here but for these wolves of mine! Did he perhaps frighten you? You thought him below and behind you, and here he is ahead? But can't you see that this is my bolt hole? And what sort of a bolt hole, pray, with only one way in and out? No, only follow this passage far enough, and it emerges in a hole in the face of the sheer cliff. Except ... you shall not be required to go so far ...
The voice scarcely bothered to disguise its threat; the Ferenczy would not be denied his due now; his grip on Dumitru's mind and will tightened like a vise of ice. And: Proceed, he coldly commanded.
Ahead of the youth the great wolf turned and loped on, a grey shadow that merged with the greater darkness. Dumitru followed, his step uncertain, his heart pounding until he thought he could actually hear the blood singing in his ears, like the ocean in the whorl of a conch. And he wasn't the only one who could hear it.
Ah, my son, my son! The voice was a gurgle of monstrous anticipation, of unbridled lust. Your heart leaps in you like a stag fixed with a bolt! Such strength, such youth! I feel it all! But whatever it is that causes such panic in you, be sure it is almost at an end, Dumiitruuu ...
The passage widened; on Dumitru's left the wall as before, but on his right a depression, a trench running parallel, cut in the solid rock--indeed in bedrock--that deepened with each pace he took. He extended his torch out over the rim and looked down, and in the deepest section of the trench saw ... the rim and narrow neck of ... of a black urn, half-buried in dark soil!
The rim of the urn--like a dark pouting mouth, with lips that seemed to expand and contract loathsomely in the flickeringlight--stood some five feet below the level of Dumitru's path. Beyond the urn, the bed of the trench had been raised up. Cut in a "V," like a sluice, it sloped gently downwards to a raised rim channelled into a narrow spout which projected directly over the mouth of the urn; in the other direction, the V-shaped bed sloped upwards and out of sight into shadows. The raised rim of rock and carved spout above the urn looked for all the world like guttering over a rain barrel, and like guttering they were stained black from the flow of some nameless liquid ...
For several long moments Dumitru stood trembling there, gasping, not fully understanding what he saw but knowing with every instinct of his being that whatever it was, this contrivance was the very embodiment of evil. And as he oozed cold, slimy sweat and felt his entire body wracked with shudders, so the voice of his tormentor came again in his staggering mind:
Go on, my son, that terrible voice urged. A pace or two more, Dumiitruuu, and all will become apparent. But carefully, very carefully--don't faint or fall from the path, whatever you do!
Two more paces, and the youth's bulging eyes never leaving that terrible urn, nor even blinking--until he saw the place where the trench came to an end: a black oblong like an open grave. And as the light of his torch fell within--what that terrible space contained!
Spikes! Needle-sharp fangs of rusted iron, filling that final gap side to side and end to end. Three dozen of them at least--and Dumitru knew their meaning, and the Ferenczy's terrible purpose in an instant!
Oh? Ha-haa-haaa! Ha-haaa! Terrible laughter filled Dumitru's mind, if not his ears. And so finally it's a battle of wills, eh, my son?
A battle of wills? Dumitru's will hardened; he fought for control of his mind, his young, powerful muscles. And: "I ... won't ... kill myself for you ... old devil!" he gasped.
Of course you won't, Dumiitruuu. Not even I can make you do that, not against your will. Beguilement has its limits,you see. No, you won't kill yourself, my son. I shall do that. Indeed--I already have!
Dumitru found his limbs full of a sudden strength, his mind free at last of the Ferenczy's shackles. Licking his lips, eyes starting out, he looked this way and that. Which way to run? Somewhere up ahead a great wolf waited; but he still had his torch; the wolf would back off before its flaring. And behind him ...
From behind him, in this previously still place, suddenly the air came rushing like a wind--fanned by a myriad of wings! The bats!
In another moment the crushing claustrophobia of the place crashed down on Dumitru. Even without the bats, whose return seemed imminent, he knew he could never find courage to retrace his steps down the false flue, and then through the castle's vaults with their graveyard loot, and on up that echoing stone stairwell to the outside world. No, there was only one way: forward to whatever awaited him. And as the first bats came in a rush, so he hurled himself along the stone ledge--
Which at once tilted under his weight!
Ahaaa! said the awful voice in his head, full of triumph now. But even a big wolf weighs much less than a man full-grown, Dumiitruuu!
Opposite the spiked pit, the ledge and entire section of wall that backed it--an "L" of hewn stone--tilted through ninety degrees and tossed Dumitru onto the spikes. His single shriek, of realisation and the horror it brought combined, was cut off short as he was pierced through skull and spine and most of his vital organs--but not his heart. Still beating, his heart continued to pump his blood--to pump it out through the many lacerations of his impaled, writhing body.
And did I not say it would be an ecstasy, Dumiitruuu? And did I not say I'd kill you? The monster's gloating words came floating through all the youth's agonies, but dimly and fading, as was the agony itself. And that was the last of Janos Ferenczy'storments, his final taunt; for now Dumitru could no longer hear him.
But Janos was not disappointed. No, for now there was that which was far more important--an ancient thirst to quench. At least until the next time.
Blood coursed down the V-shaped channel, spurted from the spout, splashed down into the mouth of the urn to wet whatever was inside. Ancient ashes, salts--the chemicals of a man, of a monster--soaked it up, bubbled and bulked out, smoked and smouldered. Such was the chemical reaction that the obscene lips of the urn seemed almost to belch ...
In a little while the great wolf came back. He passed scornfully under the bats where they chittered and formed a ceiling of living fur, stepped timidly where the pivoting floor and wall of the passage had rocked smoothly back into place, and paused to gaze down at the now silent urn.
Then ... he whined deep in the back of his throat, jumped down into the pit and up onto the runnelled slab above the urn, and crept timidly between the spikes to a clear area at the head of the trench. There he turned about and began to free Dumitru's drained body from the spikes, lifting the corpse from them one at a time.
When this was done, he'd jump up out of the pit, which wasn't deep here, reach down and worry the body out, and drag it to the Place of Many Bones, where he could feed at will. It was a routine with which the old wolf was quite familiar. He'd performed this task on several previous occasions.
So had his father before him. And his. And his ...