Chapter Four


It was the summer of 1972 and Dragosani was back in Romania.

He looked very trendy in a washed-out blue open-necked shirt, flared grey trousers cut in a Western style, shiny black shoes with sharply pointed toes (unlike the customary square-cut imported Russian footwear in the local shops) and a fawn-chequered jacket with large patch pockets. In the hot Romanian midday, especially at this farm on the outskirts of a tiny village some way off the Corabia-Calinesti highway, he stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. Leaning on his car and scanning the huddled rooftops and snail-shell cupolas of the village, which stood a little way down the gently sloping fields to the south, he could only be one of three things: a rich tourist from the West, one from Turkey, or one from Greece.

But on the other hand his car was a Volga and black as his shoes, which suggested something else. Also, he didn't wear the wide-eyed, wary/innocent look of the tourist but a self-satisfied air of familiarity, of belonging. Approaching him from the farmhouse yard where he'd been feeding chickens, Hzak Kinkovsi, the 'proprietor', couldn't make up his mind. He was expecting tourists later in the week, but this one had got him beat. He sniffed suspiciously. An official, maybe, from the Ministry of Lands and Properties? Some snotty lackey for those stone-faced bolshevik industrialists across the border? He'd have to watch his step here, obviously. At least until he knew who or what the newcomer was.

'Kinkovsi?' the young man inquired, eyeing him up and down. 'Hzak Kinkovsi? They told me in lonestasi that you have rooms. I take it that place - ' (a nod towards a tottering three-storied stone-built house by the cobbled village road)' - is your guesthouse?'

Kinkovsi deliberately looked blank, feigned a lack of understanding, frowned as he stared at Dragosani. He didn't always declare his earnings from tourism - not all of them, anyway. Finally he said: 'I am Kinkovsi, yes, and I do have rooms. But - '

'Well, can I stay here or can't I?' the other seemed tired now, and impatient. Kinkovsi noted that his clothes, at first glance smart and modern, actually looked crumpled, much-travelled. 'I know I'm early by a month, but surely you can't have that many guests?'

Early by a month! Now Kinkovsi remembered.

'Ah! You must be the Herr from Moscow? The one who made inquiry in April? The one who booked lodgings - but sent no money in advance! Is it you, then, that Herr Dragosani who has the name of the town down the highway? But you are indeed early - though welcome for all that! I shall have to prepare a room for you. Or perhaps I can put you in the English room, for a night or two anyway. How long will you stay?'

Ten days at least,' Dragosani answered, 'if the sheets are clean and the food is at all bearable - and if your Romanian beer is not too bitter!' His glance seemed unnecessarily severe; there was that in his attitude which got Kinkovsi's back up.

'Mein Herr,' he began with a growl, 'my rooms are so clean you could eat off the floor. My wife is an excellent cook. My beer is the best under all the Carpatii Meridi- onali! What's more, our manners are good up here -which seems to be more than can be said of you Muscovites! Now, do you want a room or don't you?'

Dragosani grinned and held out his hand. 'I was pulling your leg,' he said. 'I like to find out what people are made of. And I like a fighting spirit! You are typical of this region, Hzak Kinkovsi: you wear a farmer's clothes but you're a warrior at heart. But me, a Muscovite? With a name like mine? Why, there are some who'd say that you're the foreigner here, "Hzak Kinkovsi!" It's in your name, your accent, too. And what of your use of "Mein Herr"? Hungarian, aren't you?'

Kinkovsi briefly studied the other's face, looked him upand down, decided he liked him. The man had a sense of humour, anyway, which in itself made a welcome change. 'My grandfather's grandfather was from Hun gary,' he said, taking Dragosani's hand and giving it a firm shake, 'but my grandmother's grandmother was a Wallach. As for the accent, it's local. We've absorbed a good many Hungarians over the decades, and a good many settled here. Now? - I'm a Romanian no less than you. Only I'm not as rich as you!' He laughed, showing yellow, worn-down teeth in a face of creased leather. 'I suppose you'd say I'm a peasant. Well, I'm what I am. As for "Mein Herr" - would you prefer me to call you Comrade"?'

'Heavens, no! Not that!' Dragosani answered at once. 'Mein Herr" will do nicely, thanks.' He too laughed.

me on, show me this English room of yours...' Kinkovsi led the way from the big Volga to the tall, h igh-peaked guesthouse. 'Rooms?' he grumbled. 'Oh, we' ve plenty of rooms, all right! Four to each floor. You can have a whole suite of rooms if you like.' || 'One will be fine,' Dragosani answered, 'as long as it as its own bath and toilet.' 'Ah - en suite, is it? Well, then, that's the top floor. A room with its own loo and bath up under the roof. Very modern.'

'I'm sure' said Dragosani, not too dryly.

He saw that the ground floor walls of the house had been rendered and pebble-dashed on top of the sand-coloured cement. Rising damp, probably. But the upper levels showed their original stone construction. The house must be three hundred years old if it was a day. Very suitable. It took him back in time - back to his roots and beyond them.

'How long have you been away?' Kinkovsi asked, letting him in and showing him to a room on the ground floor. 'You'll have to stay here for now,' he explained, 'until I can get the upstairs room ready. An hour or two, that's all.'

Dragosani kicked off his shoes, hung his jacket over a wooden chair, dropped onto a bed in a square of sunlight where it came through an oval window. 'I've been away half of my life,' he said. 'But it's always good to come back. I've been back for the last three summers now, and four more to go.'

'Oh? Got your future all planned out, have you? Four more to go? That sounds sort of final. What do you mean by it?'

Dragosani lay back, put his hands behind his head, looked at the other through eyes slitted against the glancing sunlight. 'Research,' he finally said. 'Local history. At only two weeks each year, it should take me another four years.'

'History? This country is steeped in it! But it's not your job, then? I mean, you don't do it for a living?'

'No,' the man on the bed shook his head. 'In Moscow I'm ... a mortician.' That was close enough.

'Huh!' Kinkovsi grunted. 'Well, it takes all kinds. Right, I'm off now to sort out your room. And I'll make arrangements for a meal. If you want the loo, it's just out here in the corridor. You just take it easy...'

When there was no answer he glanced again at Dragos ani, saw that his eyes were closed - the warm sunshine and the quiet of the room. Kinkovsi picked up his guest's car keys from where he'd tossed them down at the foot of the bed, quietly left the room and eased the door shut behind him. One last glance as he went; the rise and fall of Dragosani's chest had taken on the slow rhythm of sleep. That was good. Kinkovsi nodded to himself and smiled. Obviously he felt at home here.

Dragosani chose new lodgings each time he came here. Always in the vicinity of the town he called home -within spitting distance - but not so close to the last place that he'd be remembered from the previous year. He had thought of using an assumed name, a pseudonym, but had thrown the idea out untried. He was proud of his name, probably in defiance of its origin. Not in defiance of Dragosani the town, his geographical origin, but the fact that he'd been found there. As for his parents: his father was that almost impregnable mountain range up there to the north, the Transylvanian Alps, and his mother was the rich dark soil itself.

Oh, he had his own theories about his real parents; what they'd done had probably been for the best. The way he imagined them, they had been Szgany, 'Romany', Gypsies; young lovers out of feuding camps, their love had not had the power to reconcile old slights and spites. But they had loved, Dragosani had been born, and he had been left. As to actually tracking them down, those unknown parents: he had thought to do that three years ago and had come here for precisely that reason. But... it had been utterly hopeless. A task enormous, imposs ible. There were as many gypsies in Romania now as ever there had been in the old days. Despite their 'satellite' designation, old Wallachia, Transylvania, Moldavia and all the lands around had retained something of autonomy, of self-determination. Gypsies had as much right to be here as the mountains themselves.

These had been the thoughts in Dragosani's mind as he drifted into sleep, but the dream he dreamed then was not of his parents at all but of scenes from his childhood, before he'd been sent out of Romania to complete his education. He had been a loner even then, had kept himself to himself, and sometimes he'd wandered where others feared to go. Or where they had been forbidden to go...

The woods were deep and dark on hillsides steep and winding as fairground Figures-of-Eight. Boris had only ever seen a Figure-of-Eight once, three days ago on his seventh birthday (his seventh 'found' day, as his foster- father would have it) when his treat had been to go in to Dragosani and visit the little picture house there. A short Russian film had been shot entirely from fairground rides, and the Figure-of-Eight had been so real that Boris had actually suffered from vertigo, so that he'd nearly fallen out of his seat. It had been very frightening, but exciting, too; so much so that he'd devised his own game to simulate the thrill of the ride. It wasn't as good and it was hard work, but it was better than nothing. And you could do it right here, on the slopes of the wooded hills not a mile from the estate.

This was a place where no one ever went, a completely lonely place, which was why Boris liked it so much. The woods had not been cut here for almost five hundred years; no gamekeeper had penetrated the pine-grown slopes, where only the rarest sunbeams ever cut through to lighten the dusty gloom; only the muted cooing and occasional flapping of wood pigeons disturbed the deep silence, and the rustle of small, creeping creatures; it was a place of dancing dust motes, of pine cones and needles, of fungi and a few fleet, strangely silent squirrels. The hills were on the old Wallachian plain, sloping down from the foothills of the Alps forty-five miles away. They were shaped like a crucifix, with the central spine almost two miles long from north to south and the crossbar a mile long east to west. Around them were fields, divided by walls, hedges and fences, and occasionally narrow avenues of trees; but the fields in the immediate vicinity of the hills which formed the cross were unfilled, where wild grasses grew long and thistles stood tall and gleamed green and lush. Now and then Boris's foster-father would let horses or cattle graze there, but not often. Even the animals shunned the place; they shied a lot for no reason and sometimes broke down fences or jumped hedgerows to be away from those wild, too quiet fields.

But for little Boris Dragosani the place was something else entirely. He could hunt big game there, penetrate to the unexplored interior of the Amazon, search for the lost cities of the Incas. He could do all of these things and more - provided that he never told his foster-family about his games. Or rather, where he played them. But for all that they were forbidden, the woods fascinated him. There was that in them which drew him like a magnet.

It was there now as he clambered up the steep slope near the centre of the cross, clawing his way upward from close- grown tree to tree, puffing and panting and dragging behind him the big cardboard box which was his vehicle, his Figure-of-Eight car without wheels. A long climb, yes, but worth it. He would have one last ride, this time from the very top, before setting off for home. The sun was low in the sky now and it seemed likely that he was in trouble already for being late, so one more ride couldn't hurt.

At the top he paused to draw breath, sat for a moment swatting at motes in the pale beams of sunlight lancing down through tall, dark pines, then dragged the box along the crest of the ridge to a place where he could see a track running clear to the bottom. In some forgotten yesteryear, a fire-break had been cut here before the lumbermen had remembered or been told about the nature of the place; since when saplings had sprung up once more to almost but not quite obscure the scar. Now that scar was to become the track of Boris's daredevil ride.

And balancing his 'car' on the rim, he jumped aboard and clutched the sides, tilting the box forward until it began to ride.

The box rode smoothly and well at first, slipping easily over a bed of pine needles and coarse grasses, between low bushes and slender saplings, following the old scar of the fire-break. But... Boris was a child. He had seen no danger, had not reckoned on the steepness of the slope or rate of acceleration.

Now the box picked up speed, and now his ride more closely approximated the terrifying, dizzy rush of the car on the Figure-of-Eight. He hit a hummock of grass and the box jumped clear of the slope. It came down, struck a glancing blow at a sapling, shot off sideways into the denser pines where they marched breakneck down the almost sheer hillside alongside the scar.

There was no controlling the careening ride of his 'car' now. Boris had no brakes, no guidance system. He could only go where the box took him.

With many a jolting crash and sideways slide, more bruised and shaken with every passing second, he was rattled in his box like a loose pea in a pod. And now, away from the scar of the fire-break, the failing light was shut out almost completely; so that Boris ducked his head, a precaution against unseen, whipping branches, as his nightmare descent continued. But with the trees grown so close, it could only go on for a little while longer.

At last, in a place where the ground beneath the trees was of sliding shale and scree, where their humped roots stuck up above the surface like thick-bodied serpents, suddenly the ride as such came to a halt. With a jarring crash the bottom of the box was ripped out from beneath Boris and the sides quite literally disintegrated in his clutching, terrified fingers. He was thrown not quite head- on into the bole of a tree and sent spinning. Tumbling head over heels, bouncing and sliding, Boris hardly felt the many brittle branches flying into shards as he plunged through them; he was aware only of glimpses of a whirling sky scanned through the tops of frowning pines, of a sick plunging and jolting that seemed to go on forever, and finally of shooting over a lip or ledge of rock and hurtling into dark, dusty space.

Then the impact and after that nothing. Nothing for a time, anyway...

Boris might have been out for one minute, for five, or fifty. Or he might not have been out at all. But he was shaken up, and badly. If he hadn't been, then what happened next could easily have killed him. He might have died of fright.

'Who are you?' asked a voice in his reeling head. 'Why Have you come here? Do you ,...ffer yourself to me?'

The voice was evil, utterly evil. In it were elements of everything horrific. Boris was only a boy; he did not Understand words like bestial, sadistic, diabolic, or the of phrases like 'the Powers of Darkness', or the by which such Powers are invoked. To him there was fear in a creaking tread on a dark landing; there was terror in the tapping of a twig on his bedroom window, when all the house was asleep; there was horror in the suddensquirm or hop of a toad, or the startled freezing of a cockroach when the light is switched on, and especially in

its scurrying when it knows if is discovered!

Once, in the deepest cellar under the farm, where his foster-father kept wines in racks and cheeses wrapped in muslin on cool shelves, Boris had heard the rustling cheep of crickets. In the beam of a tiny torch he'd seen one, leprous grey from the sightlessness of its habitation. As he moved closer, to step on it, the insect jumped and disappeared. He found another and the same thing happened. And another, and so on. He saw a dozen and stepped on none. They had all vanished. Climbing the steps out of the place, as daylight filtered down from above, a cricket had jumped from Boris's shorts. They were on him! They had jumped onto him! That way he couldn't step on them. And oh how Boris had danced then!

That was his idea of nightmare: the knowledge of sly intelligence where none should be. Just as it should not be here...

'Ah!' said the voice, stronger now. 'Ah! - so you are one of mine! And because you are one of mine, you came here. Because you knew where to find me...'

It was then that Boris knew he was conscious and that the voice in his head was real! And its evil was the slimy touch of a toad, the leaping of crickets in darkness, the slow tick of a hated clock, which seems to talk to you in the night and chuckle at your fears and your insomnia. Oh, and it was much worse than that, he was sure - except he didn't have the words or knowledge or experience to describe it.

But he could picture the mouth which spoke those guttural, clotted, sly and insinuating words in his head. And he knew why it was clotted and gurgling. In his mind's eye the picture was vivid and monstrous: the mouth dripped blood like liquid rubies, and its gleaming incisors were pointed as those of a great hound!

'What ... is your name, boy?'

'Dragosani,' Boris answered, or at least thought the answer, for his throat was too dry for speech. In any case, it was enough. 'Ahhhh! Dragosani!' The voice was a hoarse sigh now, like autumn leaves skittering on cobbles. A sigh of dawning r ealisation, of understanding, of satisfaction.' Then indeed you are one of mine. But alas, too small, too small! You have not the strength, boy. A child, a mere child. What can you do for me? Nothing! Your blood runs like water your veins. It has no iron...'

Boris sat up, stared frightenedly about in the gloom, his darting and his head reeling. He was more than half- down the hillside on a sort of flat ledge of rock beneath the trees. He had never been here before, never guessed the place existed. Then, as his eyes became more accustomed to the gloom and his senses returned to him more fully, he saw that in fact he sat upon lichen-clad stone flags before what could only be- A mausoleum! Boris had seen the like before; his uncle (at least, his S ister-father's brother) had died a month ago and had been interred in just such a place; but that had been in holy ground, in the churchyard in Slatina. This place, on lithe other hand... . this was not a holy place. No, not by any stretch of the imagination...

Unseen presence's moved here, stirring the musty air without stirring the festoons of cobwebs and fingers of dead twigs that hung down from above. Here it was cold - clammy cold - where the sun had not broken through for five hundred years.

Behind Boris, hewn from a great outcrop of rock, the -tomb itself had long since caved in, its roof of massive slabs lying in a tangle of masonry. In his hurtling rush from above, Boris must have flown over that jumble of stone, or doubtless he'd have brained himself. Perhaps he had anyway, for certainly he was feeling and hearing things where there was nothing to be felt or heard. Or where there should not be anything.

He pricked up his ears and squinted his eyes in the dusk of this enclosed place, but... there was nothing.

Boris tried to stand up, managed it on his third attempt. He leaned his trembling weight on a sloping slab which had once formed the front lintel of the tomb's door. Then he listened and looked again, straining ears and eyes in the gloom. But no voice now, no mouth dripping blood in the mirror of his mind. He sighed his relief, his breath rasping in his throat.

A thickly matted crust of dirt, lichens and pine needles fell away from the slab beneath his hands, partly revealing a motif or coat of arms. Boris cleared away more of the grime of centuries, and -

He snatched away his hands at once, reeled back, tripped and sat down again, gasping. The arms had consisted of a shield bearing in bas-relief a dragon, one forepaw raised in threat; and riding upon its back, a bat with triangular eyes of carnelian; and surmounting both of these figures, the leering horned head of the devil himself, forked tongue protruding and dripping gouts of carnelian blood!

All three symbols - dragon, bat, devil - now came together in Boris's mind. They became amalgamated as the author of the voice in his head. The voice which chose that precise moment of time to speak to him yet again:

'Run, little man, run... begone from here. You are too small, too young, too innocent, and I am far too weak and oh so very old...'

On legs that trembled so fearfully he was sure he would fall, Boris stood up, backed away. Then he turned and fled the place full tilt - away from the pine-needle-strewn flagstones, which the gnarled roots of centuries were push ing upward; away from the tumbled tomb and whatever

buried secrets it contained; away from the gloom of the place, so menacing as to seem to have physical substance.

And as he went - under the dark, uncut trees and down the steep hillside, torn by whipping branches and bruised from fall after fall, so the voice chuckled in his mind like a file on glass or chalk on a blackboard, obscene in its ancient knowledge. 'Aye, run - run! But never forget me, Dragosani. And be sure I shall not forget you. No, for I shall wait for you while you grow strong. And when your blood has iron in it and you know what you do - for it must be of your own free will, Dragosani - then we shall see. And now I must sleep...'

Bursting from the trees at the foot of the hill, bounding a low fence where the top bar was broken down, Boris flew forward into long grass and thistles, and blessed, blessed light! But even then he did not pause, but scrambled to his feet and ran for home. Only in the middle of the field, with no breath left in him to carry him on, did he stop, collapse to the earth, turn his face and look back at the looming hills. Away in the west the sun was setting, its last lances of fire turning the topmost pines to gold; but Boris knew that in the secret place, the tree-shrouded glade of the tomb, all was clammy and crawly and dark with dread. And only then did he think to ask:

'What... who... who are you?'

And as if from a million miles away - carried on the evening breeze, which has blown over the hills and fields of Transylvania since remembered time began - the answer came to him in the back of his mind:

'Aaahhh! - but you know that, Dragosani. You know that. Ask not "who are you" but "who am I". But what does it matter? The answer is the same. I am your past, Dragosani. And you ... are. .. my ... fuuutuuure!'

'Herr Dragosani?' 'What... who... who are you?' Repeating his question from the dream, Dragosani came awake. Eyes gazed at him, almost triangular, unblinking, searing in the unexpected gloom of the room; so that for a moment, a single second, he almost fancied himself back in the glade of the tomb. But they were green eyes, like a cat's. Dragosani stared at them and they stared back, unabashed. They were framed by a white face in an oval of raven-black hair. A female face.

He sat up, stretched, swung his feet down to the floor. The owner of the eyes curtsied peasant fashion -inelegantly, Dragosani thought. He sneered at her. Rising from sleep, he was always testy; waking before his time, as by an intrusion, like now, he was especially so.

'Are you deaf?' he stretched again, pointed directly at her nose. 'I said who are you? Also, why have I been allowed to sleep so late?' (He could also be contrary.)

His rigidly pointing finger didn't seem to impress her at all. She smiled, one eyebrow arching delicately, almost insolently. Tm Use, Herr Dragosani. Use Kinkovsi. You've been asleep for three hours. Since you were obviously very tired, my father said I should leave you sleeping and prepare your room in the garret. That has been done.'

'Oh? So? And what do you want of me now?' Drago sani refused to be gracious. And this wasn't the same game he'd played with her father; no, for there was that about her which genuinely irritated him. She was far too self-assured, too knowing, for one thing. And for another she was pretty. She must be, oh... twenty? It was odd she wasn't married, but there was no ring on her finger.

Dragosani shivered, his metabolism adjusting, not yet fully awake. She saw it, said: 'It's warmer upstairs.

The sun is still on the top of the house. Climbing the stairs will get your blood going.'

Dragosani looked about the room, used his delicate fingertips to brush the crusts of sleep from the corners of his eyes. He stood up, patted the pocket of his jacket where it hung over the back of the chair. * Where are my keys? And... my cases?'

'Yes,' she nodded, smiling again, 'my father has taken your cases up for you. Here are your keys.' When her hand touched his it was cool, his was suddenly feverish. And this time when he shivered she laughed. 'Ah! A virgin!'

'What?' Dragosani hissed, probably giving himself away completely. 'What - did - you - say?'

She turned towards the door, walked out into the hall and towards the stairs. Dragosani, furious, snatched up his coat and followed her. At the foot of the wooden stairs she looked back. 'It's a saying hereabouts. It's just a saying...'

'What is?' he snapped, following her up the stairs.

'Why, that when a boy shivers when he's hot, it's because he's a virgin. A reluctant virgin!'

'A bloody stupid saying!' Dragosani scowled.

She looked back and smiled. 'With you it doesn't apply, Herr Dragosani,' she said. 'You are not a boy, and you don't look at all shy or virginal to me. And anyway, it's just a saying.'

'And you are too familiar with your guests!' he grumbled, feeling that he'd been let off the hook, as if she'd taken pity on him.

|| On the first landing she waited for him, laughed and $aid: 'I was being friendly. It's a cold greeting when people don't talk to each other. My father told me to ask you: will you eat with us tonight, since you're the only one here, or will you have a meal in your room?'

I'll eat in my room,' he growled at once. 'If we ever get to it!'

She shrugged, turned and started up the second flight. Here the stairs climbed more steeply.

Use Kinkovsi was dressed in a fashion quite out of date in the towns but still affected in the smaller villages and farming communities. She wore a slightly longer than knee-length pleated cotton dress, gathered in tightly at the waist, a short-sleeved black bodice buttoned down the front, with puffs at the shoulders and elbows, and (ridiculously, as Dragosani thought) calf-boots of rubber; but doubtless they were fine in the farmyard. In winter she would also wear stockings to the tops of her thighs. But it was not winter...

He tried to avert his eyes but there was nowhere else to look. And, damn it, she flounced! A narrow black 'V separated the swivelling white globes of her buttocks.

At the second landing she paused, deliberately turned to wait for him at the head of the stairs. Dragosani stopped dead in his tracks, held his breath. Looking down at him - and looking as cool as ever - she leaned her weight on one foot more than the other, rubbed at the inside of her thigh with her knee, flashed her green eyes at him. Tm sure you'll like it ... here,' she said, and slowly shifted her weight to the other foot.

Dragosani looked away. 'Yes, yes - I'm sure I ... I

Use took note of the fine film of sweat on his brow. She turned her face away and sniffed. Perhaps she had been right about him in the first place. A pity...

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