Chapter Five


Without any more delay, Use Kinkovsi now took Dragosani straight to the garret, showed him the bathroom (which, surprisingly, was quite modern) and made as if to leave. The rooms were very pretty: whitewash and old oak beams, with varnished wooden corner cupboards and shelves, and Dragosani was beginning to feel much better about things. As the heat went out of the girl, so he warmed a little towards her - or more properly towards the as yet unseen Kinkovsi family in its entirety. It would be extremely gauche of him to eat here, alone in his room, after the Kinkovsis, father and daughter both, had shown him such hospitality.

'Use,' he called after her on impulse. 'Er - Miss Kinkovsi - I've changed my mind. I would like to eat at the farm, yes. Actually, I lived on a farm when I was a boy. It won't be strange to me - and I'll try not to be too strange to the family. So ... when do we eat?'

Descending the stairs she looked back over her shoulder. 'As soon as you can wash and come down. We're waiting for you.' There was no smile on her face now.

'Ah! - then I'll be two minutes. Thank you.'

As her footsteps on the stairs faded into silence, he quickly took off his shirt, snapped open one of his cases and found shaving gear, towel, clean, pressed trousers and new socks. Ten minutes later he hurried downstairs, out of the guesthouse, and was met by Kinkovsi at the farmhouse door.

I'm sorry, I'm sorry!' he said. 'I hurried as fast as I could.'

'No matter,' the other took his hand. 'Welcome to my house, please enter. We'll eat at once.'

Inside, it was just a little claustrophobic. The rooms were large but low-ceilinged, and the decor was dark and very 'old' Romanian. In the dining-room, at a huge square deal table which could have seated a dozen easily, Dragosani found himself with a side of his own, facing a window. The light was such that the face of Use, who, after she had helped her mother serve, sat opposite, was set in a vague semi-silhouette. To Dragosani's right sat Hzak Kinkovsi, with his wife when her duties were done, and to his left two sons of maybe twelve and sixteen years respectively. A small family by farming community standards.

The meal was simple, abundant, deserving of an accol ade. Dragosani said as much and Use smiled, while her mother Maura beamed delightedly across the table at him, saying: 'I thought you would be hungry. Such a long journey! All the way from Moscow. How long did it take you?'

'Oh, well I did stop to eat,' he answered, smiling. And then, remembering, he frowned. 'I ate twice, and both meals were unsatisfactory and very expensive! I even slept for an hour or two, in the car, just this side of Kiev. And of course I came via Galatz, Bucharest and Pitesti, chiefly to avoid the mountain passes.'

4 A long way, yes,' Hzak Kinkovsi nodded. 'Sixteen hundred kilometres.'

'As the crow flies,' said Dragosani. 'But I'm not a crow! More than two thousand kilometres, according to my car's instruments.'

'And all this way just to study a little local history,' the farmer shook his head.

They had finished their meal now. The old boy (not really old, more weathered than withered) sat back with a clay-pipeful of fragrant tobacco; Dragosani lit a Roth- mans, one of a pack of two hundred Borowitz had purchased for him back in Moscow at a 'special' store for the party elite; the two boys left to tend to evening chores, and the women went off to wash dishes.

Kinkovsi's remark about 'local history' had taken Dra gosani a little by surprise, until he remembered that was his assumed reason for being here. Drawing on his cigarette, he wondered how much he dare say. On the other hand, he was also supposed to be a mortician; perhaps it would not seem too strange if his inclinations ran altogether morbid.

'Local history in a way, yes - but I might just as easily have gone into Hungary, or cut short my journey in Moldavia, or gone on across the Alps to Oradea. Or Yugoslavia for that matter, or as far east as Mongolia. They all hold a common interest for me, but more so here for this is my birthplace.'

'And what is this interest, then? Is it the mountains? Or perhaps the battles, eh? My God - this country has known some fighting!' Kinkovsi was not merely polite but genuinely interested. He poured more farm-brewed wine (made from local grapes and quite excellent) into Dragos ani's glass and topped up his own.

The mountains are part of it, I suppose,' the younger man answered. 'And in this part of the world, the battles, certainly. But the legend in its entirety is far older than any history we can hope to remember. It's possibly as old as the hills themselves. A very mysterious thing - and very horrible!'

He leaned across the table, stared fixedly into Kin kovsi's watery eyes.

'Well, go on, don't keep me in suspense! What is this mysterious passion, this ancient quest of yours?'

The wine was very heady and had robbed Dragosani of most of his natural caution. Outside, the sun had gone down and dusk lay everywhere like a mantle of blue smoke. From the kitchen came the clinking of dishes and soft, muted voices. In another room, an old clock ticked throatily. It was the perfect setting. And these country folk being so superstitious and all -

Dragosani couldn't resist it. The legend of which I speak,' he said, slowly and distinctly, 'is that of the vampir!'

For a moment Kinkovsi said nothing, looked stunned. And then he rocked back in his chair, roared with laughter and slapped his thigh. 'Hah! - the vampir - I should have known it! Every year there are more of you, and all looking for Dracula!'

Dragosani sat astounded. He was not sure what reaction he'd expected, but certainly it was not this. 'More of us?' he said. 'Every year? I'm not sure I understand...'

'Why, now that the restrictions have been relaxed,' Kinkovsi explained. 'Now that your precious "iron cur tain" has been opened up a little! They come from America, from England and France, even one or two from Germany. Curious tourists, mainly - but at other times learned men and scholars. And all of them hunting this same lie of a "legend". What? Why, I've pulled a dozen legs here in this very room, by pretending to be afraid of this... this "Dracula". But what fools! Surely everyone knows - even "ignorant peasants" like myself -that the creature is only a character in a story by a clever Englishman, written at the turn of the century? Yes, and not more than a month ago there was a film of the same title at the picture house in town. Oh, you can't fool me, Dragosani. Why, it wouldn't surprise me at all to discover that you're here as a guide for my English party. They're due in on Friday. And yes, they too are searching for the big bad vampir!'

'Scholars, you say?' Dragosani fought hard to hide his confusion. 'Learned men?'

Kinkovsi stood up, switched on the dim electric light where it hung in a battered lampshade from the centre of the ceiling. He sucked at his pipe and got it going again. 'Scholars, yes - professors from Koln, Bucharest, Paris. For the last three years. All armed with their notebooks, photocopies of mouldy old maps and documents, their cameras and sketchbooks and - oh, all sorts of paraphernalia!'

Dragosani had recovered himself. 'And their cheque books, too, eh?' he feigned a knowing smile. Again Kinkovsi roared. 'Oh, yes, of course! Their money, too. Why, I've heard that up in the mountain passes there are little village shops which actually sell tiny glass bottles of earth from this Dracula's castle! My god! Can you believe it? It'll be Frankenstein next! I've seen him on film, too, and he's really frightening!' Now the younger man began to feel angry. Irrationally, he felt himself to be the butt of Kinkovsi's joke. So the snag-toothed simpleton didn't believe in vampires; they made him roar with laughter; they were like the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster: tourist attractions born out of myths and old wives' tales..."?

... And right there and then Dragosani made himself a promise that -

'What's all this talk about monsters?' Maura Kinkovsi came in from the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron. 'You be careful, Hzak! Mind how you speak of the devil. And you, Herr Dragosani. There are still things in the lonely places that people don't understand.' 'What lonely places, woman?' her husband chuckled.

'Here's a man come down from Moscow in little more than a day - a journey which once would have taken a week and more - and you talk about lonely places? There's no room for lonely places any more!'

Oh, but there is, Dragosani thought. It's a terribly lonely place in your grave. I've felt it in them: a loneliness they don't even know is there - until they waken to my touch!

'You know what I mean!' Kinkovsi's wife snapped. 'It's rumoured that in the mountains there are still villages where they yet put stakes through the hearts of people taken too young or dead from no obvious cause - to make sure they don't come back. And no one thinks ill of it.' (this last to Dragosani) 'It's just custom, so to speak, like doffing your hat to a funeral procession.'

Now Use also appeared. 'What? And are you a vampir- hunter, too, Herr Dragosani? But what a dark, morbid lot they are! Surely you can't be one of them?'

'No, no, of course not,' Dragosani's feigned smile was fixed now, frozen on his face. 'I was just having a laugh with your father, that's all. But my joke seems to have backfired.' He stood up.

'Eh?' said Kinkovsi, obviously disappointed. 'Early night, is it? I suppose you're still tired. Pity, I was looking forward to talking to you. Never mind, I've jobs a-plenty to get on with. Maybe tomorrow.'

'Oh, we'll find time for talking, I'm sure,' said Drago sani as he followed his host to the door.

'Use,' said Kinkovsi, 'take a torch and see the Herr to the guesthouse, will you? The dusk is worse than darkest midnight when you're not sure of your step.'

The girl did as she was told and guided Dragosani across the farmyard, out of the gate and into the guesthouse. There she switched on the lights for the stairs. Before saying goodnight, she told him:

'Herr Dragosani, there is a button beside your bed. If you require anything in the night just press it. Unfortu nately, it will probably wake up my parents, too. A better way would be to open your curtains half-way - which I would see from my own bedroom window...'

'What?' said Dragosani, pretending to be slow on the uptake. 'In the middle of the night?'

But as to her meaning, Use Kinkovsi left little doubt of that. 'I don't sleep very well,' she said. 'My room is on the ground floor. I like to open my window and smell the night air. Sometimes I even go out that way and walk in the silver moonlight - usually about 1:00 a.m.'

Dragosani nodded his head but made no answer. She was standing very close to him. Before she could further clarify the situation he turned away from her and hurried up the stairs. He could feel her mocking eyes on him until he turned the corner onto the first landing.

In his room Dragosani quickly closed the curtains at the window, unpacked his cases, ran himself a bath full of water. Heated by a gas jet, the water steamed invitingly. Adding salts, Dragosani stripped himself naked. In the bath he lay and soaked, luxuriating in the heat

and languid swirl of the water when he moved his arms. I n what seemed a very short while he found himself nodding, his chin on his chest, the water growing cold.

Stirring himself, he finished bathing and prepared for bed. It was only 10:00 p.m. when he slipped between the sheets, but within a minute or two he was fast asleep.

Just before midnight he woke up, saw a vertical white band of moonlight, deep and inches wide, like a luminous shaft, streaming into the room where the curtains missed coming together. Remembering what Use Kinkovsi had said, he got up, took a safety pin and firmly pinned the

curtains shut. He half-wished it could be different - more than half- but... it couldn't.

It wasn't that he hated women or was frightened of them, he didn't and wasn't. It was more that he couldn't understand them, and with so many other things to do -so much else to learn and try to understand - he simply had no time to waste on dubious or untried pleasures. Or so he told himself. And anyway, his needs were different to those of other men, his emotions less volatile. Except when he needed them to be. But what he'd lost in common sensuality, he more than made up for in uncommon sensitivity. Though even that would seem a paradox to anyone who knew his work.

As for those other things he had to learn or at least try to understand - they were legion. Borowitz was happy with him the way he was, yes, but Dragosani was not. He felt that at the moment his talent was one-dimensional, that it lacked any real depth. Very well, he would give it the very greatest depth, a depth unplumbed for half a millennium! Out there in the night lay one who had secrets unique, one who in life commanded monstrous magics, and who even now, in death, was undead. And there, for Dragosani, lay the fount of all knowledge. Only when he had drained that well would there be time for the rest of his sorely neglected 'education'.

It was midnight now, the witching hour. Dragosani wondered how far the sleeper's dreams reached out beyond the borders of the dark glade, wondered if they might meet half-way. The moon was up and full, and all the stars were bright; high in the mountains wolves prowled and howled even now, as they had five hundred years ago; all the auspices were right.

He lay back in his bed, lay very still, and pictured the shattered tomb where roots groped like fossil tentacles and the trees leaned inward to hide their secret. He pictured it, and out loud but also in his mind said:

'Old one, I've come back. I bring you hope in return for knowledge. It's the third year, and only four remain. How goes it with you?'

Outside in the night a wind sprang up, blowing down from the mountains. Trees soughed as their branches bowed a little, and Dragosani heard a sighing behind the rafters over his head. But as quickly as it had risen the wind fell, and in its place:

Ahhh! Dragosaaani! Is it you, my son? Are you then returned to me in my solitude, Dragosaaani ... ?

'Who else would it be, old devil? Yes, it is Dragosani. I have grown stronger, I am become a small power in the world. But I want more! You hold the ultimate secrets of power, which is why I have returned and why I will continue to return, until... until...'

Four more years, Dragosani. And then... then you shall sit upon my right hand, and I shall teach you many things. Four years, Dragosani. Four years. Ahhh!

'Long years for me, old dragon, for I must wake each morning and sleep each night and count all the hours between. And time is slow. But for you...? How has it been, old one, this last year?'

It would have been the merest moment, fleeting, speed ing, gone! - had you not disturbed me, Dragosani. But you have given me... yearnings. Here I lay and for fifty years hated, and lusted for revenge on them that put me here. And for fifty more I desired only to be up and about my business, which is to put down my enemies. And then ... then I thought me: but my murderers are no more. They are bones in graves of their own now, or dust blown on the winds. And in another hundred years... what of even the sons of my enemies then? Ah! Well might I ask! What of the legions who came up against these mountains in ages past and met my father's fathers waiting? What of the Lombard and the Bulgar, the Avar... and the Turk? Ah! - a brave fighter in his time, the Turk - he was my enemy, but no more. And so five hundred years fleeting by, for I was forgetting the glories just as a grandfather forgets his own infancy, until I had forgotten - almost. Until I was forgotten - almost! And what then, when there was nothing left of me but a word in a book, and when the book itself crumbled to dust? Why, then surely I would have no reason to be at all! And perhaps glad of it. And then you came, a mere boy, but a boy whose name... was... Dragosaaaniiii...

As the voice faded so the wind sprang up again, the two merging and dying away together. Dragosani thought of what was to be done and shivered in his bed. But this was his chosen course, this his destiny. And fearing that he had lost the other, he called out urgently:

'Old one, you of the Dragon-banner, of the bat and the dragon and the devil - are you there?'

Where else would I be, Dragosani? the voice seemed to mock. Yes, 1 am here. I quicken in my forsaken place, in this earth which was my life. I thought I was forgotten, but a seed was sown and blossomed, and you remembered and knew me. And by your name, so I knew you, Dragosaaaniiii...

Tell me again!' Dragosani was eager. Tell me how it was. My mother, my father, their coming together. Tell me it.'

Twice you have heard it, the voice in his head sighed. And would you hear it again? Do you hope to seek them out? Then I cannot help you. Their names were of no importance to me; I knew them not, knew nothing of them except the heat of their blood. Aye, and of that I tasted the merest drop, a small pink splash. But afterwards there was that of them in me, and that of me in them - which came out in you. Don't ask after them, Dragosani. I am your father ...

'Would you walk on earth, and breathe, and slake your thirst again, old one? Would you slaughter your enemies and drive them back as before - as your ancestors before you - and this time as your own man, not merely a sellsword to ungrateful Dracul princelings? If you would, then trade with me. Tell me of my parents.'

Sometimes a bargain sounds more like a threat, Drago sani. And would you threaten me? The voice hissed in his head like ice on the strings of an ill-tuned violin. You dare speak to me - you dare remind me - of Vlads, Radus, Draculs and Mirceas? You call me a sellsword? Boy, in the end my so-called 'masters' feared me more than the Turk himself! Which is why they weighed me down in iron and silver and buried me in this secret place, in these same cruciform hills which I had defended with my blood. For them I fought, aye - for the sake of their 'Holy cross', their 'Christianity' - but now I fight to be free of it. Their treachery is my pain, their cross the dagger in my heart!

' A dagger which I can draw for you! Your enemies have come again, old devil, and none to drive them out save you. And there you lie, impotent! The crescent of the Turk is grown into the sickle of another, and what he cannot cut down he hammers flat. I am a Wallach no less than you, whose blood is older than Wallachia itself. Nor will I suffer the invader. Well, and now there's a new invader and our leaders are puppets once more. So how is it to be? Are you content, or would you fight again? The bat, the dragon, the devil - against the hammer and the sickle!'

(A sigh, whispering with the wind in the rafters.) Very well, I will tell you how it was, and how you ... became.

It was... springtime. I could feel it in the soil. The growing time. The year... but what are years to me? A quarter-century ago, anyway.

'It was 1945,' said Dragosani. 'The war would soon be at an end. The Szgany were here, fled into the mountains for their refuge, as they've done right down the centuries. Refugees from the German war machine, they were here in their thousands. And the Transylvanian plateau shielded them, as always. The Germans had been rounding them up - Szgany, Romany, Szekely, Gypsy, call them what you will - all over Europe, for slaughter along with the Jews in the death-camps. Stalin had deported many minority peoples, alleged "collaborators," from the Crimea and Caucasus. That's when it was, and that's when it stopped. Spring 1945, but we had surrendered more than six months earlier than that. Anyway, the end was in sight, the Germans were on the run. By the end of April, Hitler had killed himself

/ know only what you have told me of that. Surrender, you say? Hah! / am not surprised. But 1945? Aieee! More than four and a half centuries, and still the invader came - and I was not there to drink the wine of war. Oh, yes, you stir old yearnings in me, Dragosani.

Anyway, it was springtime when these two came. I suspect that they were in flight. Perhaps from war, who can say? Anyway, they were very young and of the old blood. Gypsies? Aye. In my day, as a great Boyar, thousands such had worshipped me, owed me allegiance more than the puppet Basarabs and Vlads and Vladislavs. And would they worship me still? I wondered. And did I yet have influence over them?

My tomb was broken down then just as it is now, unvisited since the day I was interred - except in the first half-century, by priests who cursed the ground where I lay. And so they came, one night as the moon rose over the mountains. Young ones, Szekely, a boy and a girl. It was spring and warm, but the nights were cold. They had blankets and a small lamp with oil. Also, they had fear. And passion. It was that, I think, which stirred me from my slumbers. Or perhaps I had been half awake anyway. After all, engines of war were rumbling, and their thunder was in the earth. Perhaps it was that which stirred these old bones...

I felt what they were doing. In four and a half centuries and more I had learned to recognise the fall of a leaf from a tree, the timid landing of a woodcock's feather. They put a blanket across two leaning slabs, forming a shelter. They lit the lamp to see each other, also for warmth. Hah! Szekely? They didn't need a lamp to be warm.

They... interested me. For years I had called, for centuries, and no one came, no one answered. Perhaps they were kept away by priests, by warnings, by myths that had grown into legends down the long years. Or - perhaps in life my. excesses had been...

You have told me, Dragosani, how many of my greatest deeds are now accorded to the Vlads, and how I am reduced to a ghost for frightening children. More than this, my very name will have been stricken from the old records, for that was their way in those days. If they feared something they destroyed it and pretended it had never been. Ah, but did they think I was unique of my sort? I was not - I am not! I was one of a few who once were a great many. Aye, and word of my plight must surely have found its way to the others? For hundreds of years it had angered me that someone had not come to release or at least avenge me! And when at last someone did come... gypsies, Szkeleys!

The girl was frightened and he could not calm her. I calmed her. I crept inside her mind, gave her strength to face her fears, whatever they were, and to meet him in a hot collision of flesh. Ahhh!

Yes, and she was a virgin! Her maidenhead was intact. I might have died again, in my grave, from lusting after it! A maidenhead, intact! To quote an old, old book of lies: how are the mighty fallen! I had broken two thousand in my day, one way or another. Ha, ha, ha! And they called young Vlad 'the Impaler'!

So... they were lovers, but not yet in the fullest sense of the word. He was a boy - a mere pup, and never breached a bitch - and she a virgin. And so I got into his mind, too. Ah! - and I bequeathed the night to them. I drew strength from them and they from me. One night they had from me, just one, for before the dawn they left. After that - (a mental shrug) - / know no more of them...

'Except that she bore me,' said Dragosani, 'and left me on a doorstep to be found'

The answer to that was a while in coming, sighing in a wind little more than a breeze now. The old one in the ground was tired; he had little more of strength left in him, not even for thinking; the earth held him in its hard- packed womb and turned on its inexorable axis and lulled him. But at last, sighingly:

Yesss. Yes, but at least she knew where to bring you. She was a Gypsy, remember? A wanderer. And yet when you were born she brought you back here. She brought you... home! She did that because she knew your real father, Dragosani! You might say that of my whole life, which was bloody beyond measure, that one night was a true labour of love. Aye, and my only tribute a single splash of blood. The merest drop, Dragosaaaniiii...

'My mother's blood.'

Your mother's, splashed on the earth where I lay. But such a precious drop! For it was your blood, too, and runs in your veins even now. And then, as a child, it brought you back to me.

Dragosani was quiet, his head full of thoughts, visions, pseudo-memories evoked of the other's words in his head. Finally he said, I'll come to you tomorrow. We'll talk more then.'

As you will, my son.

'Sleep now... father.'

A last gust of wind rattling a loose tile, and with it a long, last sighing.

Sleep well, Dragosaaaniiii... .

And some ten minutes later down in the farmhouse, Use Kinkovsi got out of bed, went to her window and looked out. She thought it was the wind that woke her up, but there wasn't the slightest breath of breeze. It made no difference, she had intended to wake up just before 1:00 a.m. anyway. Outside all was silvery moonlight - but in the guesthouse garret Boris Dragosani's curtains were drawn tighter than she'd ever seen them. And his light was out.

The next day was Wednesday.

Dragosani ate a quick breakfast and drove off in his car before 8:30 a.m. He took the road which led him close to the hills in the shape of a cross. Down in a wide depression to the west of those hills lay the farm where he'd spent his childhood. New people had it now, for the last nine or ten years. Dragosani found a vantage point on a little-used track and looked at the place for a while. It no longer did anything for him. Maybe a very small lump in his throat - which was probably dust or pollen from the dry summer air.

Then he turned his back on the farm and looked at the hills. He knew exactly where to look. As if his eyes were the lenses of binoculars, they seemed to focus on the place, blowing it up large and with incredible clarity and detail. He could almost see beneath the green canopy of the trees to the tumbled slabs and the earth beneath. And if he tried hard enough, maybe even deeper than that.

He dragged his eyes away. It would be useless to go there anyway, before nightfall. Or late evening at the earliest.

And then he remembered another evening, when he had been a small boy ...

After that first time when he was seven, it had been six months before he went to the place again. He had been out with his sledge, a dog bounding by his side. Bubba was a farm dog, really, but where Boris went he always had to be. There was a slope on the other side of the farm towards the village, a place where the kids snowballed and sledged each winter. Boris should be there, but he knew where there was a better run: the fire-break, of course. He also knew - as he had always known - that these hills were forbidden, and since the summer he had known why. People sometimes dreamed funny things there, things which stuck in their minds and came back in the night to bother them. That must be it. But knowing it didn't stop him. Rather it drew him on.

Now, with the snow deep and crisp, the hills didn't look so forbidding and the fire-break made for near-perfect sledging. Boris was good at it. He'd come here last winter, too, alone, and even the winter before that, when he was very small. But today he used the slope only once, and then half-way down he'd looked across to his right to see if he could pick out the spot under the trees. After that he left the sledge at the bottom of the hill, and he and Bubba had climbed up under the pines, stark black against the snow. He was going back to the tomb (he told himself) to satisfy himself that that was all it was: just the burial place of some old and long-forgotten landowner, and nothing more. That first time had been a bad dream, after he'd bumped his head when he was thrown from his cardboard cart. And anyway he now had Bubba for company and for his protection.

Or would have Bubba, except the dog gave a whining, worried bark as they approached the secret place and ran off. After that Boris saw him once through a break in the trees, down at the bottom of the slope near the sledge, wagging his tail nervously, in sporadic bursts, and offering up the occasional bark.

Then at last he was there and the place was just as he remembered it. If anything it was even darker, for snow on the higher branches shut out most of what little light would normally penetrate; and here where the winter had been kept out, the ground was black to eyes used to a white glare. Airless as ever, the place seemed; and what air there was, as before, seemed stirred by unseen shapes and presences. Oh, certainly, it was a place for bad dreams. Especially in the evening. And evening approached even now...

Distantly, heard with only the edge of his conscious mind (for he was absorbed with the place, its genius loci) Boris was aware of Bubba's occasional barking like frozen gunshots cracking the air. Wishing the dog would be quiet, he scrambled to where the slabs leaned and the fallen lintel bore the ancient shield.

Now that his eyes were growing accustomed to the gloom y and with his cold fingers to help him trace the bat-dragon-devil symbols carved in stone, he remem bered the voice of uttermost evil which he had thought to hear last time he stood in this place. A dream? But such a real dream: it had kept him from the wooded slope for half a year!

And what was he afraid of, anyway? An old tomb, broken down? The whispers of ignorant peasants, their mumblings and obscure signs? A fancied voice, like the taste of something rotten in his mind? Rotten, yes, but so insistent! And how often since then had it come to him in the night, in his dreams, when he was safe in his bed, whispering, 'Never forget me, Dragosaaniiii...'

On impulse, out loud, he suddenly called out: 'See, I didn't forget. I came back. I came here. To your place. No, to my place. My secret place!'

His breath plumed in the air in bursts which turned white and drifted upward, dispersing. And Boris listened with every fibre of his being. Blue icicles depended from the rim of a leaning slab like gleaming teeth; the pine needles formed a frozen crust beneath his pigskin-booted feet; his last breath fell to earth in frozen crystals before he drew another. And still he listened. But... nothing.

The sun was sinking. Boris must go. He turned from the tomb. His words, caught in the frozen crystals of his breath, sent down their message into the earth.

Ahhh! It might have been the sighing of a wind in the high branches, but it rooted Boris to the spot like nails through his feet.

'You...!' he heard himself saying to no one, to nothing, to the gloom. 'Is it... you?'

Ahhh! Dragosaaniiii! And has the iron crept into your blood then, boy? Is that why you've returned?

Boris had rehearsed this moment a hundred times: his response, his reaction, should the voice ever speak to him again in the secret place. Bravado, he remembered none of it now.

Well? And has the winter frozen your tongue to your teeth? Say it in your head if you can't speak it, boy. What, are you a vacuum? The wolves howl over the passes even now, the winds likewise above the seas and mountains. Even the snow in its falling seems to sigh. And you, so full of words - bursting with questions, thirsting for knowledge - are you struck dumb?

Boris had meant to say: 'These hills are mine. This place is mine alone. You are merely buried here. So be quiet!' And he had meant to say it boldly, just as he'd rehearsed it. But now what he said, and stumblingly, was this: 'Are you...real? Who - what - how are you? How can you be?'

How can the mountains be? How can the full moon be? The mountains grow and are eroded. The moon waxes and wanes. They are, and so am I...

For all that he failed to understand, Boris grew bolder. He at least knew where this being was - in the ground - and how could he harm anyone from down there?

'If you are real, show yourself to me.'

Do you play with me? You know it cannot be. Would you have me put on flesh? I cannot do that. Not yet. Also, I see that your blood is yet water. Yes, and it would freeze like the ice on my tomb, if you saw me, Dragosani. 'Are you ... a dead thing?'

/ am an undead thing.

'I know you!' Boris suddenly clapped his cold hands.

'You're what my step-father calls "imagination". You're my imagination. He says I have a strong one.'

And so you have, but my nature is ... other than that.

'No, I am not merely a thing of your mind. Do not flatter yourself.'

Boris tried hard to understand. Finally he asked: 'But what do you do?'

I wait.

'For what?'

For you, my son.

'But I'm here!'

It grew darker in a moment, as if the trees had leaned closer together, shutting out the light.

The touch of the unseen presences was feather-light but suddenly bitter as rime. Boris had almost forgotten his fear, but now it flooded back. And because it is a true adage that famili arity breeds contempt, he had almost forgotten just how much evil that voice in his head contained. Now he was reminded of that, too:

Child, do not tempt me! It would be quick, it would be sweet, and it would be futile. There is not enough of you, Dragosani, and your blood lacks substance. I hunger and would feast - and what are you but a nibble?

'I... I'm going now...'

Aye, begone. Come back when you're a man and not merely an irritation.

And over his shoulder as he quickly, tremblingly left the place and headed for the clean snow of the firebreak, Boris called back: 'You're only a dead thing. You know nothing! What can you tell me?1

/ am an undead thing. I know everything that needs to be known. I can tell you everything.

'About what?'

About life, about death, about undeath!

'I don't want to know those things!'

But you will, you will.

'And when will you tell me these things?'

When you can understand, Dragosani.

'You said I was your future. You said you were my past. That's a lie. I have no past. I'm just a boy.'

Oh? Ha, ha, ha! So you are, so you are. But in your thin blood runs the history of a race, Dragosani. I am in you and you are in me. And our line is... ancient! I know all you want to know, all you will want to know. Aye, and this knowledge shall be yours, and you shall be one of an elite and ancient order of beings.

Boris was half-way to the break now. Until this point and from the moment he fled, his conversation had been part bravado, part terror, like a man whistling in the dark. Now, feeling safer, he became curious again. Clinging to the bole of a tree and turning to look back, he asked: 'Why do you offer anything to me? What do you want of me?'

Nothing which you will not give freely. Only that which is offered freely. I want something of your youth, your blood, your life, Dragosani, that you may live in me. And in return... your life shall be as long, perhaps even longer, than mine.

Boris sensed something of the lust, the greed, the eternal endless craving. He understood - or misunderstood - and the darkness behind him seemed to swell, expand, rush upon him like some black poisonous cloud. He turned from it, fled, saw ahead the dazzling white of fire-break through the black boles of trees. 'You want to kill me!' he sobbed. 'You want me dead, like you!'

No, I want you undead. There is a difference. I am that d ifference. And so are you. It's in your blood - it's in your try name - Dragosaaniiii...

And as the voice faded to silence Boris emerged into the open space of the fire-break. In the fading light he felt fear falling from him like a weight, felt strangely - uplifted? - so that he held himself erect as he descended to the foot of the hill and found his sledge. Bubba had waited there, patiently, but when Borisreached out a hand to pat him the dog snarled and drew back, the hair rising in a stiff ridge all along his back. And after that Bubba would have nothing at all to do with him...

Under Dragosani's gaze the snow faded from memory and the slopes turned green again. The old scar of the fire-break was there still, but merging into the natural .contours of the hill under the weight of almost twenty years of growth. Saplings were grown into trees now, their foliage thickening, and in another twenty years it would be difficult to tell that the fire-break had ever been there in the first place.

Dragosani supposed that somewhere in the land ordi nances governing these parts, there must be a clause which still forbade farming or hewing or gaming on the green cross of the hills. Yes, for despite old Kinkovsi's lack of more typical peasant superstition (which was doubtless a direct spin-off of the relative tourist boom) the old fears still lived. The taboos were still there, even if their origins were forgotten. They still existed, as surely as the thing in the ground existed. Laws which were intended to isolate it now protected it, preserved it.

The thing in the ground. That was how he thought of it. Not as 'he' but 'it'. The old devil, the dragon, the vampir. The real vampire and not merely a creature of sensational novels and films. Still there, lying in the ground, waiting.

Again Dragosani let his mind slip back through the years...

When he was nine the local school in Lonesti had closed and his step-father had boarded him out to a school in Ploiesti. There in a very short time it had been discovered that his intelligence was of a high order, and the State had stepped in and sent him to a college in Bucharest. Always on the lookout for talent in the young of their satellite nations, Soviet officials from the Ministry of Education had eventually found him there and 'recommended' that he go on to higher education in Moscow. What they meant by 'higher education' was in fact intensive indoctrination, following which he would one day be sent back to Romania as a puppet official in a puppet government.

But before that - when he had first learned that he was to board in Ploiesti, and that he could only come home once or twice a year - then he had gone back to the dark glade under the trees to ask the advice of the thing in the ground. Now he went there again, on the wings of memory, and saw himself as he had been: a boy, sobbing into his hands where he kneeled beside a broken slab and poured his tears over the bas-relief motif of bat-dragon-devil.

What? Knowing I seek iron and strong meat, you offer me salt and gruel? Can this be you, Dragosani, who has the seed of greatness in him? Was I mistaken, then? And am I doomed to lie here forever?

Tm to go to school in Ploiesti. I'm to live there and only come back now and then.' And this is the cause of your grief? 'Yes.'

Then you are a girl! How would you hope to learn the ways of the world here in the shadow of the mountains? Why, even the birds that fly see more and farther than you have seen! The world is wide, Dragosani, and to know its ways you must walk them. And Ploiesti? But I know this P loiesti: it is distant by only a hard day's riding - two at the most! And is this a good reason to weep?'

'But I don't want to go...'

I did not want to be put in the ground, but they put me here. Dragosani, I have seen a sister with her head cut off, with a stake through her breast and her eyes hanging on her cheeks, and I did not weep. No, but I pursued her payers and skinned them and made them eat their skins, and I raped them with hot irons and before they could die soaked them in oil and put them to the torch and hurled them from the cliffs at Brasov! Only then did I cry - tears of sheerest joy! What? And did I call you my son, Dragosani?

'I'm not your son!' Boris snapped, tears angrily flying. I'm no one's son. And I have to go to Ploiesti. And it's not two days away but only three or four hours, in a car! You pretend you know so much, but you've never even seen a car, have you?'

No, I never have - until now. Now I see it, in your mind, Dragosani! I've seen a great many things in your mind. Some have surprised me, but none have awed me. So, your step-father's 'car' will make it easier for you to get to Ploiesti, eh? Good! And it will make it easier for you to come back again when the time comes...

'But -'

Now listen: go to school in Ploiesti - become as clever as your teachers, more clever - and when you return, come back as a scholar. And as a man. I lived for five hundred years and was a great scholar. It was necessary, Dragosani. My learning stood me in good stead then, and will again. One year after I rise, I shall be the greatest power in this world! Oh, yes! Once I would have been satisfied with Wallachia, Transylvania, Rumania, call it what you will - and before that it was enough that the mountains were mine, which no one else wanted - but the world is a smaller place now and I would be greater. When I took part in man's wars I learned the joy of the conqueror, so that next time I would conquer all. And you, too, shall be great, Dragosani - but all in good time.

Something of the importance of what the voice said got through to Boris. Behind its words, he sensed the raw power of the creature which issued them. 'You want me to be...a scholar?'

Yes. When I walk this world again I would speak with learned men, not village idiots! Oh, I shall teach you, Dragosani - and far more than any tutors in Ploiesti. Much knowledge you shall have from me - and in my turn I shall doubtless learn from you. But how shall you teach me if you yourself are ignorant?

'You've said as much before,' said Boris. 'But what can you teach me? You know so little of things as they are now. How can you know more? You've been dead - undead - in the ground, anyway - for five hundred years, you said so yourself!'

There came a throaty chuckle in Boris's head. No fool you, Dragosani. Well, and perhaps you are right. Ah, but there are other seats of knowledge, and other sorts of knowledge! Very well, I have a gift for you. A gift... and a sign that indeed I can teach you things. Things you cannot possibly imagine.

'A gift?'

Indeed. Go, quickly now, and find me a dead thing.

'A dead thing?' Boris shivered. 'What sort of dead thing?'

Any sort. A beetle, a bird, a mouse. It makes little difference. Find me a dead thing - or kill me a live thing -and bring the body to me. Give it to me as a gift, and you in turn shall have your gift.

'I saw a dead bird at the foot of the slope. A pigeon chick, I think. It must have fallen from the nest. Will that do?'

Hah! And what dire secret has a pigeon chick, pray tell? But... yes, it will suffice. If only to prove a point. Bring it to me.

In twenty minutes Boris was back, laying the poor limp body on the dark earth near the broken, fallen slabs.

And again the cynical snort heard in his head: Hah! Small tribute indeed. But no matter. Now tell me, Drago sani, would you learn the ways of this small dead thing?

'It has no ways. It's dead.'

Before it died. Would you know the things it knew?

'It knew nothing. It was a fledgling. What could it know?'

// knew many things! Now listen carefully: spread the wings, pluck out the down and small feathers and feel them, smell them, rub them between your fingers and listen to them. Do it...

Boris did as instructed, but clumsily, without feeling or expectation. Mites and fleas and a small beetle scurried, fleeing the small corpse.

No, no! Not like that. Close your eyes, let me more fully into your mind. Now, like this . ...there!

Boris was in a high place; he felt a swaying and heard the soughing of high branches. Overhead the beckoning blue vault of the sky opened outward forever. He felt he could fall upward into that sky and never stop. Vertigo overtook him; he fled back to his own mind, dropped the dead bird and clutched at the earth.

Ah-hahhh! said the devil in the ground. And again: Ah-hahhh! What? And was the nest not to your liking, Dragosani? But no, don't stop, there's more. Take up the bird, squeeze its body, feel it pliant in your hands. Feel the small bones under the skin, the tiny skull. Lift it to your face. Open your nostrils. Smell it, breathe it in, let it instruct you! Here, let me help...

Boris was not alone - he was a twin-thing - and he was not Boris! The sensation was weird, frightening. He clung tightly to the memory of Boris, rejected the other.

No, no! Let yourself go. Enter the thing. Be one with it. Know what it knew. Like this:

There was warmth ... a hard firm platform beneath, soft warm down overhead... sky no longer bright and blue but dark... many white pricks of light, which were stars ... the night was still ... a warm weight pressing down, wings covering ... the twin-thing snuggling... something close by, a sound, a hooting! ... the warm body above - the parent body - pressing down protec tively, wings closing tighter, trembling ... a slow, heavy beating of the air, growing louder, passing, fading, grow ing faint... again the hooting, farther afield ... the owl hunted smaller prey tonight ... the parent body relaxing a little, her rapidly beating heart slowing... bright points of light filling the sky ... soft down... warmth.

Now break the body, Dragosani! Tear it open! Crush the skull between your fingers and listen to the vapours of the brain! Look at it in your hands, the entrails, the guts and feathers and blood and bones! Taste it, Dragosani! Use all your senses: touch, taste, see, hear, smell! Use all five - and you will discover a sixth!

Time to fly! ... time to go ... the air calling, lifting the small new feathers and beckoning... and the twin-being already gone, flown ... the parent beings eager, frustrated, fluttering, guiding, calling, 'come, fly, like this, like this!' ... the earth a dizzy distance below, and the nest swaying in the wind.

Part of the fledgling, Boris launched himself with it from the shuddering platform of twigs which was the nest. For one brief moment he knew the triumph of flight... and in the next knew failure. A squally, blustery day, the wind caught him unawares, side on. After that: utter confusion rapidly turning to nightmare! Spinning, tumbling - an untried wing catching in the fork of a branch, twisting and breaking - the agony of hanging by broken wing, and then of falling, fluttering, plummeting - and the final sharp crack of a small skull upon a stone...

Boris snapped back into himself, snapped out of the spell, saw the mess of a thing he held in his hands. There! said the old devil in the ground. And do you hill think I can teach you nothing, Dragosani? How is this for knowledge, and was there ever a rarer gift? In all my lifetime I knew only a handful with a talent such as this. And you have taken to it as a- why, as a fledgling takes to flight! Welcome to a small, ancient, very select fraternity indeed, Dragosani.

The mess slid from Boris's hands, stained the earth, left slime on his palms and slim fingers. 'What?' he said, his jaw hanging open, clammy sweat suddenly starting from his brow.


Boris Dragosani (answered the devil in the ground) - necromancer!

Then, the horror of the thing bursting over him, Boris had screamed long and loud; and once more he'd fled, and fled in such panic that later he could remember very little of it except the pounding of his feet and heart.

But he couldn't run from his 'gift', which from that moment on had gone with him.

Or perhaps it wasn't the horror of what he had done (or the suspicion of what he had become) which robbed his mind of the memory of his terror-flight that time, but something else, which came between his screaming and the flight proper. At any rate, vague pictures of that something had remained in his mind ever since, and would spring to its surface on occasion when he least expected them - as now:

The gloomy glade of the tomb, and the shattered corpse spread in a welter of feathers and guts and limbs wrenched from their sockets. And a thin and leprous tentacle thrusting upward through the scummy earth, pushing aside soil, pine needles, clots of lichen and chips of stone. Leprous, yes, and composed of something other than flesh, but with scarlet veins pulsing.

And then... and then ... a crimson eye forming in its tip and avidly scanning the ground. The eye dissolving away and a reptilian mouth and jaws taking its place, so that now the tentacle seemed a blind, smooth, mottled snake. A snake whose forked scarlet tongue flickered over the pitiful remains, whose fangs gleamed white and needle sharp, and whose jaws chomped slaveringly until every last morsel was devoured!

Then the swift withdrawal and the spell broken as the pulsing, sickening member was sucked back down out of sight into the naked earth.

A 'small tribute', the thing in the ground had called it ...

When Dragosani was done with memories and daydreams he drove into the town whose name he bore. Between the railway stockyards and the river on the outskirts of town, he found the trade and barter market which had flourished there on Wednesdays since a time when the town was the merest huddle of shacks; indeed Dragosani might well have sprung up from this marketplace, this meeting place. And more than that, it had been a fording place. Now there were bridges across the river, several, but in olden times the crossing had been by ford.

It was here those long centuries ago that the invading Turk, pillaging and burning as he came from the east, met the river where it flowed down out of the Carpatii Meridionali to meet the Danube. Here, too, the Hunyadi, and after him the Princes of Wallachia, had come down from their castles to call together the fighting men under their banners and set territorial Voevods over them, warlords to defend the lands against the incursion of the marauding Turk. The banner these warlords had fought under was that of the Dragon - immemorial seal and sigil of a defender, especially a Christian defender against the Turks - and now Dragosani found himself wondering if that were perhaps the source of the town's name. Certainly it was the source of the dragon on the shield in the place of the forgotten tomb.

In the marketplace he bought a live piglet which he took away in a sack with holes for ventilation. He took it back to his car and put it in the boot, then drove back out of town and found a quiet track off the main road.

There he opened the sack a little way, broke a chloroform capsule into the boot, slammed the lid shut and left it that way for a count of fifty. Another ten minutes saw the boot flushed out (he used the car vacuum-cleaner, reversed, to disperse the fumes), following which the unfortunate pig went back inside again. Dragosani certainly didn't want the animal dying on him. Not just yet, anyway.

By early afternoon he had driven back up out of the low-lying river valley and into the foothills, where once again he parked the car within a few hundred yards of the forbidden cruciform hills. In bright sunlight, but keeping low and sticking to a hedgerow, he made his way to the densely wooded slopes and began to climb. There, under the cover of the frowning pines, he felt more at ease as he toiled towards the secret place. The piglet in its sack was slung over his shoulder, completely oblivious to a world from which it would soon depart.

At the site of the tomb, Dragosani laid the doped animal in a hollow between twining roots, tethered it to the bole of a tree and tossed the sack over it for warmth. There were plenty of wild pigs in the hills; if the piglet came to in his absence and made a commotion, anyone hearing it would believe it to be one of the wild variety. Not that that was likely; just as in Dragosani's boyhood, the fields were deserted and grown wild for a mile and more around.

At any rate that was where he left the piglet, returning to his lodgings in mid-afternoon, booking an early evening meal, and sleeping through the rest of the day. There was still more than an hour's light when Use Kinkovsi woke him with a substantial meal on a tray, leaving him on his own to enjoy it and wash it down with a quart of local beer. She hardly spoke to him at all, seemed surly, glanced at him with a sort of sneer. That was all right; indeed it was very much to his liking - or so he tried to tell himself.

But as she left his room his eyes were drawn to the jiggle of her hips and he was given to reconsider his attitude. For a peasant she was a very attractive woman. And again he wondered why she hadn't married. Surely she was too young to be a widow? And even then she'd still wear her ring, wouldn't she? It was curious...

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