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Chapter Three

 

The path clung to the black rock of the cliffs like a silver snake under the moon. Its surface was wide enough to take a small cart, no more; but in places the rim had fallen away, and then the track narrowed to little more than the width of a man. And it was in just such narrow spots that the night breeze off the forests picked up to a bluster, seeming to tug at and threaten the men who toiled up like insects towards that unknown aerie which was their destination.

'How long is this damned path, anyway?' Thibor snarled at the Gypsy, after maybe half a mile of slow, careful climbing.

'The same distance again,' Arvos at once replied, 'but steeper from now on. Once they brought carts up here, I'm told, but that was a hundred years or more ago and the way has not been well kept.'

"Huh!" Thibor's apish aide snorted. 'Carts? I wouldn't bring goats up here!'

At that the other Wallach, the hunched one, gave a start and pressed more closely to the cliff. 'I wouldn't know about goats,' he whispered hoarsely, 'but if I'm not mistaken we have company of sorts: the Ferenczy's "dogs"!'

Thibor looked ahead to where the path vanished round the curve of the cliff. Silhouetted against the starry void of space, hump-shouldered wolf-shapes stood with muzzles lifted, ears pointed and eyes ferally agleam. But there were only two of them. Gasping his shock, then a harsh curse, Thibor looked back into the deepest shadows - and saw the other two; or rather, he saw their triangular

moon-silvered eyes. 'Arvos!' he growled, gathering his wits, reaching for the old gypsy. 'Arvos!'

The sudden rumbling might well have been thunder, except the air was crisp and dry and what few clouds there were scudded rather than boiled; and thunder seldom makes the ground shudder beneath a man's feet.

Thibor's thin, hunched friend was hindmost, bringing up the rear at a point where the path was the merest ledge. It required but a step to bring him to safety. 'Rock fall!' he cried hoarsely, making to leap forward. But as he sprang, so the boulders rained down and swept him away. It was as quick as that: he was there - arms straining forward, face gaping white in the light of the moon - and he was gone. He did not cry out: clubbed by boulders, doubtless he'd been unconscious or dead even as he fell.

When the last pebble and plume of dust had fallen and the rumbling was an echo, Thibor stepped to the rim and looked down. There was nothing to see, just darkness and the glint of the moon on distant rocks. Up and down the trail, of wolves there was no sign.

Thibor turned to where the old gypsy shivered and clung to the face of the cliff.

'A rock fall!' The old man saw the look on his face. 'You can't blame me for a rock fall. If he'd jumped instead of shouting his warning...'

Thibor nodded. 'No,' he agreed, brows black as the night itself, 'I can't blame you for a rock fall. But from now on blame doesn't come into it. From now on if there's any problem at all - from whatever cause or quarter - I'll just toss you off the cliff. That way, if I'm to die, I'll know that you died first. For let's have something clearly understood, old man. I don't trust the Ferenczy, I don't trust his "dogs", and I trust you least of all. There'll be no further warnings.' He jerked his thumb up the path. 'Lead on, Arvos of the Szgany - and nimble about it!'

Thibor did not think that his warning would carry much weight; even if it weighed on the gypsy, it certainly wouldn't weigh on his master in the mountain. But neither was the Wallach a man to issue idle threats. Arvos the Szgany belonged to the Ferenczy, no doubt of that. And so, if more trouble was on the way from that quarter (Thibor was sure that the avalanche had been arranged) then he would see that it came to Arvos first. And trouble was coming: it waited in the defile where the cliff was split by a deep chasm, at the back of which sat the castle of the Ferenczy.

This was the sight they saw, Thibor and his simian Wallach friend, and the now sinister gypsy Arvos, when they reached the cleft. Back in the dim mists of time the mountains had convulsed, split apart. Passes had been formed through the ranges, of which this might have been one. Except that in this case the opening had not gone all the way through. The cliff whose face they'd traversed had led finally to a high crest which reared now a half mile away. The crest was split into twin peaks - like the ears of a bat or a wolf. And there, straddling the defile where it narrowed to a fissure - clinging to both opposing faces and meeting centrally in a massive arch of masonry - there sat the manse of the Ferenczy. As before, two windows were lighted, like eyes under the sharp black ears, and the fissure below seemed to form a gaping mouth.

'No wonder he runs wolves, this one!' Thibor's squat companion grunted. His words acted like an invocation.

They came down the cliff-hugging track from the castle, and not just four off them. A flood of them, a wall of grey fur studded with yellow jewel eyes. And they came at the lope, full of purpose.

'A pack!' cried Thibor's friend.

'Too many to fight off,' the Voevod shouted back. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Arvos start forward, towards the oncoming wolves. He reached out a leg, tripped the old gypsy.

'Grab him!' Thibor commanded, drawing his sword.

The squat Wallach lifted Arvos as easily as he would lift the dead, dry branch of a tree, swung him out over the abyss and held him there. Arvos howled his terror. The wolves, scant paces away, came to an uneasy halt. Their leaders threw up pointed muzzles, howled mourn-fully. It was for all the world as if they waited upon some command. But from whom?

Arvos stopped his yelling, turned his head and gazed wide-eyed at the distant castle. His gullet bobbed spastically with his gulping.

The man who held him glanced from the wolves to Thibor. 'What now? Do I drop him?'

The huge Wallach shook his head. 'Only if they attack,' he answered.

'You think the Ferenczy controls them, then? But... is it possible?'

'It seems our quarry has powers,' said Thibor. 'Look at the gypsy's face.'

Arvos' gaze had become fixed. Thibor had seen that look before, when the old man used the frying-pan mirror down in the village: as if a film of milk had been painted on each eyeball.

Then the Gypsy spoke: 'Master?' Arvos' mouth scarce moved. His words were the merest breath, vying with the mountain breeze at first but rapidly growing louder. 'Master? But Master, I have always been your faithful -' He paused suddenly, as if cut short, and his filmed eyes bulged. 'No, master, no.r His voice was now a shriek; he clawed at the hands and brawny arms that alone sustained him against gravity, shifted his once more clear gaze to the ledge and the wolves where they gathered themselves.

Thibor had almost felt the surge of power emanating from the distant castle, had almost tasted the rejection which had surely doomed the Szgany to his death. The Ferenczy was finished with him, so why delay it?

The leading pair of wolves, massive beasts, crept for-ward in unison, muscles bunching.

'Drop him!' Thibor rasped. Utterly pitiless, he urged, 'Let him die - and then fight for your own life! The ledge is narrow - side by side we've a chance.'

His companion tried to shake the old man loose but couldn't. The gypsy clung like thorns to his arms, fought desperately to swing his legs back onto the ledge. But already it was too late for both men. Heedless of their own lives, the pair of great grey wolves sprang as one creature, as if triggered. Not at Thibor - not even looking at him - but directly at his squat comrade where he tried to break Arvos' grip. They struck together, dead weight against a lurching double-silhouette, and bore the apish Wallach, Arvos, and themselves out over the rim and down into darkness.

It was beyond Thibor. He gave it only a moment's thought. The pack leaders had sacrificed themselves in answer to a call he had not heard - or had he? But in any case, they'd died willingly for a cause he could not possibly comprehend. He still lived, however, and he wouldn't sell his life cheaply.

'All of you, then!' he howled at the pack, almost in its own tongue. 'Come on, who'll be first to taste my steel?' And for long moments not a beast of them moved.

Then -

Then they did move, but not forward. Instead they turned, slunk away, paused and looked back over lean shoulders.

'Cowards!' Thibor raged. He took a pace towards them; they slunk further away, looked back. And the Wallach's jaw dropped. He knew - suddenly knew - that they weren't here to harm him, only to ensure that he came on alone!

For the first time he began to understand something of the true power of the mysterious Boyar, knew why the Vlad wanted him dead. And now, too, he wished he hadn't scoffed so much at the warnings of his court informant. Of course, he could always go back to the village and bring up the rest of his men - couldn't he? Behind him, pale tongues lolling, a crush of furry bodies crowded the track cut from the face of the cliff.

Thibor took a pace their way; they didn't move an inch, but their dog grins at once turned to snarls. A pace in the other direction, and they crept after. He had an escort.

'My own free will, eh?' he muttered, and looked at the sword in his hand. The sword of some warrior Varyagi -a good Viking sword - but useless if the pack should decide to attack in a body. Or if that were decided for them. Thibor knew it, and he suspected that they knew it, too.

He sheathed the weapon, found nerve to command: 'Lead on, then, my lads - but not too close or I'll have your paws for lucky charms!' And so they took him to the castle in the riven rock...

In his shallow grave, the old Thing in the ground shivered again, this time from fear. However monstrous a man may become in this world, when he dreams of his youth the things which frightened him then frighten him anew. So it was with the Thibor-creature, and now his dream was carrying him to the edge of terror itself.

The sun was down, its rim forming the merest red blister on the hills; but still its rays lanced across the earth and gleamed fitfully on land where shadows visibly lengthened, quickly blotting out the sun's golden stains. But even when the sun was fully down, burning on other lands, still Thibor might not 'waken' in the sense that men waken; for he was one who might dream for many a year between bouts of that black hatred called waking. It is not pleasant to be a Thing in the ground awake, alone, immobile, undead.

But the rich blood which soaked the earth would waken him, certainly, in that instant when it touched him. Even now the nearness of that warm, precious liquid roused passions in him. His nostrils gaped for its scent; his desiccated heart urged his own ancient blood faster in his veins; his vampire core moaned soundlessly in the sleep it shared with him.

Thibor's dream, however, was stronger. It was a magnet of the mind, luring him to a conclusion he knew and dreaded of old but which he must always experience again. And down in the cold earth in the glade of stirless trees, where the stones of his mausoleum lay broken and matted with lichens, the nightmare Thing dreamed on ...

The way widened, grew into an avenue of tall dark pines atop a broad levelled rim of ages-impacted scree. On Thibor's left hand, beyond the straight boles of the pines, smooth black rocks rose vertical through hundreds of feet to an indigo sky strewn with stars; on his right the trees massed, marched down the no longer sheer 'V of the gorge and steeply up the other side. At the bottom water gushed and gurgled, invisible beneath a night-black canopy. The Vlad had been right: given a handful of men - or wolves - the Ferenczy could easily defend his castle against an army. Inside the castle itself, however, things might be different. Especially if the Boyar were indeed a man alone or nearly so.

Finally the ancient pile itself loomed. Its stonework was massive, but pitted, rotten. On both sides of the defile huge towers rose up eighty feet and more; square and very nearly featureless at their broad bases, higher up there were arched, fortified windows, ledges and balconies with deep embrasures, and gaping stone spouts projecting from the mouths of carved gargoyle or kraken heads. At the top of each tower, more embrasures fronted tiled pyramid spires; but with gaping holes showing through, where repairs were badly needed; and over everything a heavy miasma of decay, a dank and clinging patina, as if the very stone issued a cold and clammy sweat.

Half-way up, the inward-facing walls sprouted flying buttresses almost as massive as the towers themselves, which met across the gorge in a single span - like a stone bridge some eighty or ninety feet from tower to tower. Supported by the buttresses, a long single-storey hall with small square windows was constructed of timbers. It had a peaked roof of heavy slates; hall and roof both were in the same generally poor condition as the towers. But for the fact that two of the windows were lit with a flickering illumination, the entire pile might seem deserted, derelict. It was not how Thibor imagined the residence of a great Boyar should look; on the other hand, if he were a superstitious man, certainly he might believe that demons lived there.

The ranks of wolves began to thin out as they drew closer to the castle's walls. Moving forward, it was not until the Wallach stood in the very shadow of those walls that he saw the castle's simple defences: a trench fifteen feet wide and fifteen deep, excavated right down to solid rock, the bottom furnished with long pointed stakes setso close to each other that any man falling in must surely be speared. Then, too, he saw the door: a heavy, oak- boarded, iron-banded affair extended at its top to form a drawbridge. And even as he looked, so the door was creakingly lowered, heavy chains rattling as the trench was bridged.

In the opening thus revealed stood a cloaked figure holding before him a flaring torch. Behind the glare of that brand, little could be seen of features but a blur; all that Thibor could make of them was their paleness, and a vague awareness of grotesque proportions. He had his suspicions, however, and more than suspicions - which were fully borne out on the instant that the figure spoke: 'And so you have come - of your own free will.'

Thibor had often been accused of being a cold man with a cold, emotionless voice. It was something he had never denied. But if his voice was cold, this voice might have issued from the grave itself. And where Thibor had found the voice soothing in the first instance, now it grated on his nerves like the ache of a rotten tooth, or cold steel on a living bone. It was old - hoary as the mountains, and possibly entrusted with as many secrets -but it was certainly not infirm. It held the authority of all dark knowledge.

'My own free will?' Thibor dared to look away from the figure, saw that he was quite alone. The wolves had melted into the night, into the mountains. Perhaps a single pair of yellow eyes gleamed for a moment under the trees, but that was all. He turned back to face his host. 'Yes, of my own free will...'

Then you are welcome.' The Boyar fixed his torch in a bracket just inside the doorway, bowed a little from the waist, stood to one side. And Thibor crossed the drawbridge, made to enter the house of the Ferenczy. But in the moment before he entered, he glanced up, saw the legend burned into the age-blackened oak of the arched lintel. He couldn't read or write, but the cloaked man saw his glance and translated for him:

'It says that this is the house of Waldemar Ferrenzig.

There is also a sign which dates it, showing that the castle is nearly two hundred years old. Waldemar was ... he was my father. I am Faethor Ferrenzig, whom my people call "the Ferenczy'.

There was a fierce pride now in that dark voice, and for the first time Thibor felt himself unsure. He knew nothing of the castle; there might easily be many men lying in wait; the open door gaped like the maw of some unknown beast.

'I have made preparations,' said Thibor's host. 'Food and drink, and a fire to warm your bones.' He deliberately turned his back, took a second torch from a dark niche in the wall and lit it from the first. As flames caught hold, so the shadows fled. The Ferenczy glanced once at his guest, unsmiling, then led the way inside. And the Wallach followed.

They passed quickly through dark corridors of stone, anterooms, narrow doorways, into the heart of the tower; then up a spiralling stone stairway to a heavy trapdoor in a floor of stone flags supported by great black timbers.

The trapdoor stood open and the Ferenczy gathered up his cloak before climbing through into a well lighted room. Thibor followed close behind, allowing the other no time to be on his own. As he emerged into the room he shivered. It would have been so very easy for someone-to spear him or lop off his head as he came up through the trapdoor. But apart from the pile's master, the room was empty of men. Thibor glanced at his host, looked all around. The room was long, broad, high. overhead, a ceiling of timbers was badly gapped; flickering firelight showed a slate roof above the ceiling; missing tiles permitted a glimpse of stars swimming in smoke from the fire. Theplace was somewhat open to the weather. In winter it would be bitterly cold. Even now it would not be warm if not for the fire.

The fire was of pine logs, roaring in a huge open fireplace with a chimney built at an angle to pass through an exterior wall. The logs burned on a cradle of warped iron bars, twisted with the heat of many such fires. At the fire's front, six spitted woodcocks were roasting over red ashes. Sprinkled with herbs, the smell of their flesh was mouth-watering.

Close to the fireplace stood a heavy table and two chairs of oak. On the table were wooden platters, eating knives, a stone pitcher of wine or water. In the centre of the table the roasted joint of some beast still smoked. There was a bowl of dried fruits, too, and another containing slices of coarse dark bread. It was not intended that Thibor should starve!

He glanced again at the wall with the fireplace; its base was of stone, but higher up it was of timber. There was also a square window, open to the night. He crossed to the window, looked out and down on a dizzy scene: the ravine, dark with close-packed firs, and away in the east the vast black forests. And now the Voevod knew that he was in a room of the castle's central span where it crossed the narrow gorge between the towers.

'Are you nervous, Wallach?' Faethor Ferenczy's soft voice (soft now, aye) startled him.

'Nervous?' Thibor slowly shook his head. 'Bemused, that's all. Surprised. You are alone here!'

'Oh? And did you expect something else? Didn't Arvos the gypsy tell you I was alone?'

Thibor narrowed his eyes. 'He told me several things -and now he's dead.'

The other showed not the slightest flicker of surprise, nor of remorse. 'Death comes to all men,' he said.

'My two friends, they're also dead.' Thibor hardened his tone of voice.

The Ferenczy merely shrugged. 'The way up is hard. It's cost many lives over the years. But friends, did you say? Then you are fortunate. I have no friends.'

Thibor's hand strayed close to the hilt of his sword. 'I had fancied an entire pack of your "friends" showed me the way here...'

His host at once stepped close to him, less a step than a flowing motion. The man moved like liquid. A long hand, slender but strong, rested on the hilt of Thibor's sword under his own hand. Touching it was like touching living - snakeskin. Thibor's flesh crawled and he jerked his hand away. In the same moment the Boyar unsheathed his sword, again with that flowing, liquid motion. The Wallach stood disarmed, astonished.

'You can't eat with this great thing clanging about your legs,' the Ferenczy told him. He weighed the sword like a toy in his hands, smiled a thin smile. 'Ah! A warrior's weapon. And are you a warrior, Thibor of Wallachia? A Voevod, eh? I've heard how Vladimir Svyatoslavich recruits many warlords - even from peasants.'

Again Thibor was caught off guard; he hadn't told the Ferenczy his name, hadn't mentioned the Kievan Vlad. But before he could find words for an answer:

'Come,' said his host, 'you'll let your food grow cold. Sit, eat, and we'll talk.' He tossed Thibor's sword down on a bench covered with soft pelts.

Across his broad back, Thibor carried a crossbow. He shrugged its strap from his shoulder, handed it to the Ferenczy. In any case, the weapon would take too long to load. Useless at close quarters, against a man who moved like this one. 'Do you want my knife, too?'

Faethor Ferenczy's long jaws gaped and he laughed. 'I desire only to seat you comfortably at my table. Keep your knife. See, there are more knives within reach - to stab the meat.' He tossed the crossbow down with the sword.

Thibor stared at him, finally nodded. He shrugged out of his heavy jacket, let it fall in a heap to the floor. He took a seat at one end of the table, watched the Ferenczy arrange all the food within easy reach. Then his host poured two deep iron goblets of wine from the pitcher before seating himself opposite.

'You won't eat with me?' Thibor was suddenly hungry, but he would not take the first bite. In the palace in Kiev, they always waited for the Vlad to lead the way.

Faethor Ferenczy reached along the top of the table, showing an enormous length of arm, and deftly sliced off a corner of meat. 'I'll take a woodcock when they're cooked,' he said. 'But don't wait for me - you eat whatever you want.' He toyed with his food while Thibor fell to with some zeal. The Ferenczy watched him for a little while, then said, 'It seems only right that a big man should have a big appetite. I, too, have... appetites, which this place restricts. That is why you interest me, Thibor. We could be brothers, do you see? I might even be your father. Aye, big men both of us - and you a warrior, and quite fearless. I suspect there are not many such as you in the world...' And after a short pause, and in complete contrast: 'What did the Vlad tell you about me, before he sent you to bring me to his court?'

Thibor had determined not to be taken by surprise a third time. He swallowed what was in his mouth, and returned gaze for gaze across the table. Now, in the light from the fire and flickering flambeaux in jutting brackets, he allowed himself a more detailed inspection of the castle's master.

It would be pointless, Thibor decided, to make any sort of guess at the age of this man. He seemed to exude age like some ancient monolith, and yet moved with the incredible speed of a striking serpent and the lithe suppleness of a young girl. His voice could sound harsh as the elements, or soft as a mother's kiss, and yet it too seemed hoary beyond measure. As for the Ferenczy's eyes: they were deep-seated in triangular sockets, heavy-lidded, and their true colour was likewise impossible to fathom. From a certain angle they were black, shiny as wet pebbles, while from another they were yellow, with gold in their pupils. They were educated eyes and full of wisdom, yet feral too and brimming with sin.

Then there was the nose. Faethor Ferenczy's nose, along with his pointed, fleshy ears, formed the least acceptable part of his face. It was more a muzzle than a nose proper, yet its length stayed close to the face, flattening down towards the upper lip, and pushed back from it with large nostrils slanting upwards. Directly underneath it - too close, in fact - the man's ridgy mouth was wide and red against his otherwise pale, coarse flesh. When he spoke, his lips parted just a little. But his teeth, what the Wallach had seen of them when the Ferenczy laughed, were big and square and yellow. Also glimpsed: incisors oddly curved and sharp as tiny scythes, but Thibor couldn't be sure. If it was so, then the man would seem even more wolf-like.

And so he was an ugly man, this Faethor Ferenczy. But... Thibor had known ugly men aplenty. And he had killed plenty of them, too.

'The Vlad?' Thibor carved more meat, took a swig of , red wine. It was vinegary stuff, but no worse than he was used to. Then he looked again at the Ferenczy and shrugged. 'He told me that you live under his protection but swear him no allegiance. That you occupy land but concede no taxes. That you could muster many men but choose to sit here brooding while other Boyars fight off the Pechenegi to keep your hide whole.'

For a moment the Ferenczy's eyes went wide, seemed flecked in their corners with blood, and his nostrils gaped in an audible grunt. His top lip wrinkled and curled back a little, and his jagged peaked eyebrows crushed together on his pale, high forehead. Then ... he sat back, seemed to relax, grinned and nodded.

Thibor had stopped eating, but as the Ferenczy brought himself under control, so he carried on. Between mouthfuls he said, 'Did you think I'd flatter you, Faethor Ferenczy? Perhaps you also thought your trickery would scare me off?'

The castle's master frowned, wrinkled his nose into ridges. 'My... trickery?'

Thibor nodded. 'The Prince's advisors - Christian monks out of Greek-land - think you're some sort of demon, a "vampire". I believe he thinks so too. But me, I'm just a common man - a peasant, aye - and I say you're only a clever trickster. You speak to your Szgany serfs with mirror signals, and you've a trained wolf or two to do your bidding, like dogs. Hah! Mangy wolves! Why, in Kiev there's a man leads great bears around on a leash - and he dances with them! And what else do you have, eh? Nothing! Oh, you make shrewd guesses - and then pretend that your eyes have powers, that they see over woods and mountains. You cloak yourself in mystery and superstition up here in these dark hills, but that only works with the superstitious. And who are most superstitious? Educated men, monks and princes, that's who! They know so much - their brains are so bursting with knowledge - that they'll believe anything! But a common man, a warrior, he only believes in blood and iron. The first to give him strength to wield the second, the second to spill the first in a scarlet flood.'

A little surprised at himself, Thibor paused, wiped his mouth. The wine had loosened his tongue.

The Ferenczy had sat there as if turned to stone; now he rocked back in his chair, slapped the table with a long, flat hand, roared his mirth. And Thibor saw that indeed his eye-teeth were like those of a great dog. 'What? Wisdom from a warrior?' the Boyar shouted. He pointed a slender finger. 'But you are so right, Thibor! Right to be outspoken, and I like you for it. And I'm glad you came, whatever your mission. Wasn't I right to say you could be my son? Indeed, I was right. A man after my own heart - in perhaps more ways than one, eh?'

His eyes were red again (only an effect of the fire's glow, surely?) but Thibor made sure that a knife lay close at hand. Perhaps the Ferenczy was mad. Certainly he looked mad, when he laughed like that.

The fire flared up as a log turned on its side. A smell of burning wafted to Thibor's nostrils. The woodcocks! Both he and his host had forgotten them. He decided to be charitable, to let the hermit eat before killing him. 'Your birds,' he said, or tried to say, as he made to get to his feet. But the words tangled themselves up on his tongue, came out slurred and alien sounding. Worse, he couldn't force himself upright; his hands seemed glued to the table top, and his feet were heavy as lumps of lead!

Thibor looked down at his straining, twitching hands, his nearly paralysed body, and even his horrified glance was slow, filled with an unnatural languor. It was as if he were drunk, but drunker than he'd ever been. It would require only the slightest shove, he was sure, to send him sprawling.

Then his eyes fell upon his goblet, the red wine from the pitcher. Vinegary, yes. That and worse. He was poisoned!

The Ferenczy was watching him closely. Suddenly he sighed and stood up. He seemed even taller now, younger, stronger. He stepped lithe to the fire, toppled the spit and steaming birds into the flames. They hissed, smoked, caught fire in a moment. Then he turned to where Thibor sat watching him. Not a muscle of Thibor's body would answer his mind's desperate commands. It was as if he were turned to stone. Droplets of cold sweat started out upon his brow. The Ferenczy came closer, stood over him. Thibor looked at him, at his long jaws, his misshapen skull and ears, his crushed snout of a nose. An ugly man, yes, and perhaps more than a man. 'P-p-poisoned!' The Wallach finally spat it out. 'Eh?' the Ferenczy cocked his head, looked down on him. 'Poisoned? No, no,' he denied, 'merely drugged. Isn't it obvious that if I wanted you dead, then you'd be dead - along with Arvos and your friends? But such bravery! I showed you what I could do, and yet you came on. Or are you simply stubborn? Stupid, maybe? I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you're brave, for I've no time to waste on fools.'

With a great effort of will, Thibor forced his right hand spastically towards a knife where it lay on the table. His host smiled, took up the knife, handed it to him. Thibor sat and trembled with the strain of his effort, but he could no more take that knife than stand up. The entire room was beginning to swim, to melt, to flow together in a dark, irresistible whirlpool.

The last thing he saw was the Ferenczy's face, more terrible than ever, as he leaned over him. That bestial, animal face - jaws open in a gaping laugh - and the crimson forked tongue that vibrated like a crippled snake in the cavern of his throat!

The old Thing in the ground sprang awake... ! His nightmare had awakened him, and something else.

For a moment the Thibor-creature thrilled with the horror of his dream, before remembering where, who and what he was. And then he thrilled again, the second time with ecstasy.

Blood!

The black soil of his grave was drenched, gorged with blood! Blood touched him, seeped like oil through leaf-mould, rootlets and earth and touched him. Drawn by the instant capillary action of his myriad thirsting fibres, it soaked into him, filled his desiccated pores and veins, his spongy organs and yawning, aching alveolate bones.

Blood - life! - filled the vampire, set centuries-numbed nerves leaping, brought incredible, inhuman senses instantly alert.

His eyes cracked open - closed at once. Soil. Darkness. He was buried still. He lay in his grave, as always. He opened the sinuses of his gaping nostrils, and immediately closed them - but not entirely. He smelled the soil, yes, but he also smelled blood. And now, fully awake, he carefully, far more minutely, began to examine his surroundings.

He weighed the earth above him, probed it with instinct. Shallow, very shallow. Eighteen inches, no more. And above that, another twelve inches of compact leaf-mould. Oh, he'd been buried deep enough that time, but in the centuries between he'd wormed his way closer to the surface. That had been when he had the strength to do so.

He exerted himself, extended pseudopods up into the soil like crimson worms - and snatched them back. Oh, yes, the earth was heavily saturated with blood, and human blood at that, but... how could that be? Could this be - could it possibly be - the work of Dragosani?

The Thing reached out its mind, called softly: Drago-saaaniiii? Is it you, my son? Have you done this thing, brought me this fine tribute, Dragosaaaniiii?

His thoughts touched upon minds - but clean minds, innocent minds. Human minds which had never known his taint. But people? Here in the cruciform hills? What was their purpose here? Why had they come to his grave and baited the earth with -Baited the earth!

The Thibor-creature whipped back his thoughts, his protoplasmic extrusions, his psychic extensions and cringed down into himself. Terror and hatred filled his every nerve. Was that the answer? Had they remembered him after all these years and come to put paid to him at last? Had they let him lie here undead for half a millennium simply to come and destroy him now? Had Dragosani perhaps spoken of him to someone, and that someone recognised the peril in what was buried here?

Senses thrilling, the Thing lay there, his scarcely human body trembling with tension, listening, feeling, smelling, tasting, using all of his heightened vampire senses except that of sight. Aye, and he could use that, too, if he dared. But for all his fear, the one thing he did not sense was danger. And he would know the smell of danger as surely as he knew the smell of blood. What hour would it be?

His trembling stilled as he gave the problem of the hour a moment's thought. Hour? Hah! What month would it be, what season, year, decade? How long since the boy Dragosani - that child of Thibor's every hope and evil aspiration - how long since he'd visited him here? But more importantly, was it day now ... or was it night?

It was night. The vampire could feel it. Darkness seeped down through the soil like the rich, dark blood it accompanied. It was night, his time, and the blood had given him a strength, an elasticity, a motivation and a mobility almost forgotten through all the centuries he'd lain here.

He put out his thoughts again to touch upon the minds of the people in the glade of stirless trees directly above him where he lay. He did not think at them, made no effort to communicate, merely touched their thoughts with his own. A man and a woman. Only the two of them. Were they lovers? Is that what they were doing here? But in winter? Yes, it was winter, and the ground cold and hard. And what of the blood? Perhaps it was... murder? The woman's mind was... full of nightmares! She slept, or lay unconscious, but panic was fresh in her mind and her heart beat fitfully, in a fever of fear. What had frightened her?

As for the man: he was dying. It was his blood the old Thing had absorbed, which fuelled his vampire system even now. But what had happened to these two? Had he lured her here, attacked her, and had she in turn cut him open before he could use her?

Thibor tried to explore the dying man's mind a little deeper. There was pain - too much pain. It had closed the man's mind down, so that now all was growing numb, succumbing to an aching void. It was the ultimate void, called Death, which would swallow its victim utterly.

But pain, yes - indeed agony. The Thing in the ground put out extrusions like flexible, fleshy antennae to trace the man's seeping life fluid; red worms of inhuman flesh extended from his ages-wrinkled face, hollow chest, shrivelled limbs, burrowing upward like tube-worms or the siphons of some loathsome mollusc; they followed the scarlet trace, converging upon its source.

The man's right leg was broken above the knee. Sharply fractured bone had sliced open arteries like a knife, arteries which even now pumped thin splashes of steaming scarlet on to the cold, dead earth. But that was a thought which was too much; it stirred the true beast in the Thibor-creature; he was ravening in a moment. His great dog's jaws cracked open in the hard earth, crusted lips quivered and salivated, flaring nostrils gaped like black funnels.

From its neck the Thing sent up a thick snake of surging protoplasm, which pushed aside rootlets and pebbles and dirt until it emerged, nodding like some vile, animated mushroom, in the glade of Thibor's mausoleum. He formed a rudimentary eye in its tip, expanded its pupil the better to see in the darkness.

He saw the dying man: a large, handsome man, which might explain the good strong blood, its quality and quantity. An intelligent man, high browed. And yet crumpled here on the hard earth, with his life leaking out of him down to the last few droplets.

Thibor couldn't save him, wouldn't if he could. But neither would he let him go to waste. A cursory glance of his obscene eye, to ensure that the woman was not coming out of her faint, and then he sent up a score of tiny red snouts from his gaping face: hollow tubes like little pouting mouths, to slide into the raw wound and draw on the last of the hot juices which flooded there. Then -

All of Thibor's hellish being surrendered itself to the sheer ecstasy - the black joy, the unholy rapture - of feeding, of drawing red sustenance direct from a victim's veins. It was ... it was indescribable!

It was a man's first woman. Not his first fumbling, hurried, uncontrolled eruption on to some girl's belly or into her pubic hair, but the first pumping of salving semen into the hot core of a groaning, sated woman. It was a man's first kill in battle, when his enemy's head leaps free or his sword strikes home in heart or throat. It was the sharp, stinging agony of a douse in some mountain pool; the sight of a battlefield, where the piled bodies of an army reek and steam; the adoration of warriors hoisting high a man's colours in recognition of his victory. It was as sweet as all of these things - but alas, it was over all too quickly.

The man's heart no longer pumped. His blood, what little remained, was still. The great blotches of crimson were hardening and turning leaf-mould to clotted crusts. Almost before it had begun, the marvellous feast was... over?

Perhaps not...

The Thibor-thing's sight extension turned its eye upon the woman. She was pale, attractive, fine-boned. She looked like the fine toy lady of some rich Boyar, full of thin aristocratic blood. Feverish highlights of colour gave her cheeks a fresh appearance, but the rest of her skin was pale as death. Cold and growing colder, exposure would kill her if the old Thing in the ground did not.

The eye-stalk extended, elongated out of the earth. Its colour was grey-green, mottled, but blood-red veins pulsed in it now, just beneath the surface of its protoplasmic skin. It swayed closer to the woman where she lay, poised itself before her face. Her breath, shallow, almost gasping, filmed the eye over and caused it to draw back. In her neck, a pulse fluttered like an exhausted bird. Her breast rose and fell, rose and fell.

The phallic eye swayed close to her throat, lidlessly observed the soft pulse of the jugular. Slowly the eye dissolved away and the red veins in the leprous nodding mushroom shuddered beneath its skin and turned a deeper scarlet. A reptilian mouth and jaws formed, taking the place of the eye, so that the tentacle might well seem a blind, smooth, mottled snake. The jaws yawned open and a forked tongue flickered between many rows of needle-sharp fangs. Saliva trickled from the distended jaws, slopped on the scummy earth. The 'head' of the awful member drew back, formed a deadly 'S' like a cobra about to strike, and -

- And the Thibor-creature gave himself a great mental shake and froze all his physical parts to instant rigidity. In the last possible moment he had realised what he was about to do, had recognised the extreme danger of his own naked lust.

These were not the old times but the new. The Twentieth Century! Except in ancient, crumbling records, his tomb here under the trees was forgotten. But if he took this woman's life, what then? Ah! He knew what then!

Search parties would come out looking for them both. They would be found sooner or later, here in the stirless glade, by the crumbling mausoleum. Someone would remember. Some old fool would whisper: 'But - that place is forbidden!' and another would say, 'Aye, for they buried something there long, long ago. My grandfather's grandfather used to tell tales about the thing buried on those cruciform hills, to put fear in his children when they were bad!'

Then they'd read the old records and remember the old ways, and in broad, streaming daylight they'd come, cut down the trees, uproot the ancient slabs, dig in the rotting soil until they found him. They'd stake him down again, but this time... this time... this time they'd take his head and burn it!

They'd burn all of him...

Thibor fought a fearsome battle with himself. The vampire in him, which had formed the major part of him for nine hundred years, was almost beyond reason. But Thibor himself could still think like a man, and his reasoning was sound. The vampire-Thibor was greedy for the moment, but the man-Thibor could see far beyond that. And he had already laid his plans. Plans which hinged on the boy Dragosani.

Dragosani was at school in Bucharest now, a mere lad in his teens, but the old Thing in the ground had already corrupted him. He'd taught him the art of necromancy, shown him how to divine the secrets only dead things know. And Dragosani would always return, would always come back here in his search for new knowledge, because the ancient Thing in the putrid earth was the very font of all dark mystery.

Meanwhile, a vampire seed or egg - the Thibor-creature's filthy, leech-like clone - was growing in him where he lay, a single drop of alien fluid which carried the complex code of the new vampire. But that was a slow, slow process. One day Dragosani, grown to a man, would come up here into these hills and the egg would be ready. A man would come up here full of monstrous talent, seeking the ultimate secrets of the Wamphyri... but when he went away, he would carry a fledgling vampire with him, inside him.

After that he would come again - would have to come again - by which time Thibor would be ready for the final phase of his plan. Dragosani would come, Dragosani and Thibor would leave - together. At last the cycle would be complete, the wheel turned full circle, when again the immemorial vampire would walk the earth - this time to conquer it!

That was how the old Thing in the ground had planned it, and that was how it would be. He would rise up from here and go out again into the world. The world would be his! But not if he killed this woman here and now. No, for that would be total madness, the very end of him and all his dreams...

The vampire in him succumbed to common sense, reluctantly allowed the twisted but human mind of Thibor to take ascendancy. Blood-lust receded, was replaced by curiosity, which in turn gave way to dormant,

ages-repressed urges. New feelings, entirely human feelings, awakened in the old Thing in the ground. He was neither male nor female, now, Thibor - he was of the Wamphyri - but he had once been a man. A lustful man.

He had known women, many women, in the five hundred years that his scourge had terrified Wallachia, Bulgaria, Moldavia, Russia and the Ottoman. Some had been his willingly, but most had not. There was no way a woman could be had which was unknown to him, no pleasure or pain a woman could offer that he had not been offered, or taken by force, times without number.

In the mid-fifteenth century, as a mercenary Voevod of Vlad Tepes the so-called 'impaler', he had crossed the Danube with his forces and taken an emissary of the Sultan Murad. The sultan's representative, his escort of two hundred soldiers, and his harem of twelve beauties were taken in the night in the town of Isperikh. Thibor had shown leniency of a sort towards the Bulgarian townspeople: they were allowed to flee while his troops sacked the town and burned it, looting and raping when the inhabitants were slow off the mark.

But as for the sultan's emissary: Thibor had had him impaled, him and his entire two hundred, on tall, thin stakes. 'In their own fashion,' he'd gleefully commanded his executioners. 'The Turkish way. They like buggering little lads, this lot, so let 'em die happy, the way they've lived!' But the women of the harem: he'd had all twelve the same night, going from one to the next unstintingly, and carrying on all through the following day. Ah! He'd been a satyr in those days.

And now... now he was just an old Thing in the ground. For the moment. For a few more years. But he could still dream, couldn't he? He could still remember how it had been. Indeed, perhaps he could do more than just remember...

The mucus matter of his probe underwent another metamorphosis. The snake jaws, fangs and tongue melted back into the body of the tentacle, whose tip flattened and spread out, becoming bluntly spatulate. The flat paddle split into five stubby grey-green worms - a rudimentary thumb and four fingers - and the central digit grew a small eye of its own which fixed itself in moist fascination upon the rise and fall of the unconscious woman's breast. Thibor flexed his 'hand', made it sensitive, thickened and elongated the stalk which was its 'arm'.

With the tiny glistening eye to guide it, the trembling gelatinous hand found its way inside the woman's jacket, under layers of clothing to her flesh. She was still warm but the sensitive hand could feel the heat gradually leaking out of her. Her breasts were soft, large-nippled, more than amply proportioned. When Thibor had been alive as opposed to undead, they had been the sort of breasts he enjoyed. His hand fondled then, growing rough in its teasing. She moaned a little and stirred the merest fraction of an inch.

Beneath the old Thing's hand, her heart was beating more strongly now, perhaps stimulated by his touch. A strong beat, yes, but desperate, panicked. She knew she should not be lying here, doing nothing, and strove to rise up from her faint. But her body was not answering her needs, her limbs were cooling; when her blood also began to cool, then shock would kill her.

Now the Thibor-creature also panicked a little. She must not be allowed to die here! In his mind he saw again the searchers finding the bodies of the man and woman, saw them peering narrow-eyed at his crumbling tomb, their knowing glances. Then he saw them digging, saw their pointed hardwood stakes, their chains of silver, their bright axes. He saw the very hillside blazing up in a

bonfire of felled trees, and for a single agonising instant felt his alien flesh melting, liquefying into fat and foul ichor where it boiled in the putrid earth.

No, she must not be allowed to die here. He must bring her back to consciousness. But first...

His hand left her breasts, began to crawl lustfully down across her belly - and froze!

Lying here through all the centuries, the Thibor-creature's senses, his awareness, had not been dulled but had amplified many times over. Deprived of all else, he had developed a super-sensitivity. In the many spring-times he had felt the green shoots rising, listened to birds mating in distant trees. He had smelled the warmth of all the summers, had crouched down deep, snarling his hatred of stray beams of sunlight where they penetrated the glade to fall glancingly upon his tomb. Autumns, and the brown, sere leaves falling against the earth had sometimes sounded like thunder; and when the rain came, streamlets roared like mighty rivers. And now -

Now the tiny, insistent, almost mechanical beat he 'heard' through his hand where it rested on the woman's belly told a story, tapped out a code, one that other creatures could not possibly detect. It told of new life, of a being unborn, as yet the merest foetus.

The woman was pregnant!

Ahhhh! said Thibor, if only to himself. He stiffened his pseudohand and pressed it harder against the woman's flesh. A child-to-be - pure innocence - a single instant of intense pleasure solidified into a seed, growing here in its dark, warm womb.

Evil instinct took over - part vampire, part human, but all evil. Night-dark logic replaced lust. The tentacle elongated more yet and its hand lost substance; it grew smaller and slimmer as it proceeded with renewed purpose, indeed with an entirely new purpose. Its destination had been the woman's most secret place, the core of her female identity. Not to harm but simply to know, and to remember. But now there was a new destination.

Down in the ground, under powdery leaf-mould and hard, cold earth, the vampire's jaws cracked open in a blind, monstrous smile. He must lie here forever, or until a time when Dragosani should come to free him; but here at last might be an opportunity, a chance to send at least something of himself out into the world.

He entered the woman - carefully, delicately, so that even awake she might not have suspected he was there -and wrapped curling, frond-like fingers about the new life in her womb. His very touch was a taint as for an instant of time he weighed the tiny thing, that minute blob of almost featureless flesh, and felt the thud of its foetal heart. And:

Rememberrrr! said the old Thing in the ground. Know what you are, what I am. More than that, know where I am. And when you are ready, then seek me out. Remember meeee!

The woman moved, and moaned again, louder this time. Thibor withdrew from her, made his hand heavier, more solid. He struck her, a ringing slap across her pale face. She cried out, shook herself, opened her eyes. But too late to see the leprous appendage of the vampire as it was sucked down swiftly into the earth.

She cried out again, cast about with frightened eyes in the gloom, saw the still, crumpled shape of her husband. Galvanised, she drew breath, cried, 'Oh God!' as she flew to him. It took only a moment more to accept the unacceptable truth.

'No!' she cried. 'Oh, God, no!' Horror gave her strength. She would not faint again; indeed she loathed herself that she'd fainted the first time. Now she must act, must do ... something! There was nothing she could do, not for him, though for the moment that fact hadn't registered.

She got her arms hooked under his, dragged him a few stumbling paces under the trees, down the slope. Then she tripped on a root, flew backwards, and her husband's corpse came tumbling after her. She was brought up short when she collided with the bole of a tree, but not him. He went sliding, lolling and flopping past her, a loose bundle of arms and legs. He hit a patch of snow crusted over with ice, and went tobogganing away out of sight, down the hill, shooting into steep shadows.

The crashing of undergrowth came back to her where she got to her feet and gaspingly drew breath. And it was all useless, her efforts all totally worthless.

As that fact dawned she filled her lungs - filled them to bursting - and stumbling blindly after him down the hill, under the trees, let it all out in a long, piercing scream of mental agony and self-reproach.

The cruciform hills echoed her scream, bouncing it to and fro until it fell to earth and was absorbed. And down below the old Thing heard it and sighed, and waited for whatever the future would bring...

In an office in London, on the top floor of a hotel which was rather more than a hotel, Alec Kyle glanced at his watch. It was 4.05, and the Keogh apparition wasn't finished yet. The story it told was fascinating, however morbid, and Kyle guessed it would also be accurate - but how much more of it would there be? Time must surely be running out. Now, while the spectral thing which was Keogh paused, and while yet the image of his child host turned on its axis in and through his mid-section, Kyle said, 'But of course we know what happened to Thibor: Dragosani put an end to him, finally beheaded and destroyed him there under the motionless trees on the cruciform hills.'

Keogh had noticed him looking at his watch. You're right, he said, with a spectral nod. Thibor Ferenczy is dead. That's how I was able to speak to him, there on those selfsame hills. I went there along the Mobius route. But you're also right that time is running down. So while we have time we must use it. And I've more to tell you.

Kyle sat back, said nothing, waited.

I said there were other vampires, Keogh continued. And there may be. But there are certainly creatures which I call half-vampires. That is something I'll try to explain later. I also mentioned a victim: a man who has been taken, used, destroyed by one of these half-vampires. He was dead when I spoke to him. Dead and utterly terrified. But not of being dead. And now he is undead.

Kyle shook his head, tried hard to understand. 'You'd better get on. Tell it your way. Let it unfold. That way I'll understand it better. Just tell me one thing: when did you... speak ... to this dead man?'

Just a few days ago, as you measure time, Keogh answered without hesitation. I was on my way back from the past, travelling in the Möbius continuum, when I saw a blue life-line crossed, and terminated, by a line more red than blue. I knew a life had been taken, and so I stopped and spoke to the victim. Incidentally, my discovery wasn't an accident: I had been looking for just such an occurrence. In a way I even needed this killing, horrible as that may seem. But it's how I gain knowledge. You see, it's much easier for me to talk to the dead than to the living. And in any case, I couldn't have saved him. But through him I might be able to save others.

'And you say he'd been taken by a vampire, this man?' Still groping in the dark, Kyle was horrified. 'Recently? But where? How?'

That's the worst of it, Alec, said Keogh. He was taken here - here in England! As for how he was taken - let me tell you...

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