Authors: Brian Lumley
Tags: #Horror, #Fiction, #Vampires
“What you have to remember,” their guide had told them in an aside as they negotiated the price of their rooms, “is that these people are peasants. They’re not sophisticated like me and used to the ways of foreigners, city-dwellers and other weird types. They’re more primitive, suspicious, superstitious! So let me do the talking. You’re climbers, that’s all. No, not even that, you’re … ramblers! And we’re not going walking up in the Zarundului but the Metalici.”
“What’s the difference?” Vulpe asked him later, when they were eating. “Between the Zarundului and the Metalici, I mean?”
The old hunter pointed north-west over the rooftops, to a serrated jaw of smoky peaks, gold-rimmed with sunlight. “Them’s the Metalici,” he said. “The Zarundului are behind us. They’re grey … always. Grey-green in the spring, grey-brown in the autumn, grey in the winter. And white, of course. The castle is right up on the tree line, backed up to a cliff. Aye, a cliff at its back and a gorge at its front. A keep, a stronghold. In the old days, one hell of a place to crack!”
“I meant,” —Vulpe was patient,— “why shouldn’t the locals know we’re going there?”
Gogosu wriggled uncomfortably. “Superstitious, like I said. They call those heights the “Szgany Mountains” because the travelling folk are so respectful of them. The locals don’t go climbing up there themselves, and they probably wouldn’t like us doing it, neither.”
“Because of the ruins?”
Again Gogosu wriggled. “Can’t say, don’t know, don’t much care. But a couple of winters ago when I tried to shoot an old wolf up there … why, these people treated me like a leper! There are foxes in the foothills that raid the farms, but they won’t hunt or trap ‘em. They’re funny that way, that’s all. The grandfathers tell ghost stories to keep the young ’uns away, you know? The old
in his castle?”
“But they’ll see us headed that way, surely?”
“No, for we’ll skirt round.”
Vulpe was wary. “I mean, we’re not moving onto government property or something, are we? There isn’t a military training area or anything like that up there, is there?”
“Lord, no!” Gogosu was getting annoyed now. “It’s like I said: stupid superstition, that’s all. You have to remember: if a young 'un dies up here, and no simple explanation for it, they still put a clove of garlic in his mouth before they nail the lid down on him! Aye, and sometimes they do a lot more than that, too! So leave it be before you get me frightening myself, right?”
Seth Armstrong spoke up: “I keep hearing this word Szgany. What’s it mean?”
Gogosu didn’t need an interpreter for that one. He turned to Armstrong and in broken English said, “In the Germany is
da? Here is Szgany. The road-peoples.”
“Gypsies,” said Vulpe, nodding. “My kind of people.” He turned and looked back into the dusty yellow interior of the inn’s upper levels, looked into the rooms, across the stairwell and out
the rear wall. It was as if his gaze was unrestricted by the matter of the inn. Tilting his head back he “looked” at the grey, unseen mountains of the Zarundului where they reared just a few miles away, and pictured them frowning back at him.
And thought to himself: Maybe the locals are right and there are places men shouldn’t go.
And unheard (except perhaps as an expression of his own will, his own intent, which it was not) a chuckling, secretive, dark and sinister voice answered him:
Oh, there are, my son. But you will, Gheorrrghe, you will …
The climb was easy at first. Almost 5.00
and the sun descending steadily towards the misted valley floor between Mount Codrului and the western extremity of the Zarandului range; but Gogosu was confident that they’d reach the ruins before twilight, find a place to camp inside a broken wall, get a fire going, eat and eventually sleep there in the lee of legends.
“I wouldn’t do it on my own,” he admitted, picking his way up a stepped ridge towards a chimney in a crumbling buttress of cliff. “Lord, no! But four of us, hale and hearty? What’s to fear?”
Vulpe, the last in line, paused to translate and look around. The others couldn’t see it but his expression was puzzled. He seemed to recognize this place.
He let his companions draw away from him.
Armstrong, directly behind their guide, asked: “Well, and what is there to fear?” He reached back to give Laverne a hand where he puffed and panted.
“Only one’s own imagination,” said Gogosu, understanding the question from its modulation. “For it’s all too ready to conjure not only warrior-ghosts out of the past but a whole heap of mundane menaces from the present, too! Aye, the mind of man’s a powerful force when he’s on his own; there’s plenty of scope up ahead for wild imaginings, I can tell you. But apart from that … in the winter you might observe the occasional wolf, wandering down here from the northern Carpatii.” His tone of voice contained a careless shrug. “They’re safe enough, the Grey Ones, except in packs.”
The old hunter paused at the base of the chimney, turning to see how the others were progressing where they laboured in his tracks.
But Vulpe had skirted the ridge and was moving along the base of the cliffs to a point where they cut back out of sight around a corner. “Oh?” the old hunter hailed him. “And where are you off to, then, Gheorghe?”
The young American looked up and back. His face was pale in the shadow of the cliff and his forehead furrowed in a frown of concentration. “You’re making hard work of it, my friend,” he called out, his voice echoing from crag to crag. “Why climb when you can walk, eh? There’s an old track here that’s simplicity itself to follow. The way may be longer but it’s faster, too—and a sight kinder to your hands and knees! I’ll meet you where your route and mine come together again half-way up.”
“Where our routes—?” Gogosu was baffled at first, then annoyed and not a little sarcastic. “Oh, I see!” he yelled. “And you’ve been this way before, eh?”
But Vulpe had already turned into the re-entry and out of sight. “No,” his voice came echoing. “It’s just instinct, I suppose.”
Gogosu snorted. “Instinct!” But then, as he started in to tackle the chimney, he gave a chuckle. “Oh, let him go,” he said. “He’ll double back soon enough, when the track runs out and the shadows start to creep. Mark my words, it won’t be long before he’s seeing wolves in every shrub—and by God, how he’ll hurry to catch up then!”
But he was wrong. An hour later when the way was steeper and the light beginning to fail, they reached the broad ledge of a false plateau and found Vulpe stretched out, chewing on a twig, waiting for them. He’d been there some time, it seemed. He nodded when he saw them, said: “The rest of the way’s easy.”
Gogosu scowled and Anderson merely returned Vulpe’s nod, but Laverne was hot and angry. Taking a bit of a chance there, weren’t you, George?” he growled. “What if you’d got lost?”
Vulpe seemed surprised by the testiness in his friend’s voice. “Lost? I … I didn’t even consider it. Fact is, I seem to be something of a natural at this sort of thing.”
Nothing more was said and they all rested for a few minutes. Then Gogosu stood up. “Well,” he said, “half an hour more and we’re there.” He bowed stiffly to Vulpe from the waist and added: “If you’d care to lead the way …?”
His sarcasm was wasted; Vulpe took the lead and made easy going of the final climb; they reached the penultimate crest just as the sun sank down behind the western range.
The view was wonderful: blue-grey valleys brimming with mist, and the mountains rising out of it, and smoke from the villages smudging the sky where the distant peaks faded from gold to grey. The four men stood on the rim of a pine-clad saddle or shallow fold between marching rows of peaks. Gogosu pointed. “Along there,” he said. “We follow the rising ground through the trees until we hit the gorge. There, where the mountain is split, set back against the cliff —”
“The ruins of the Ferenczy’s castle,” Vulpe anticipated him.
The hunter nodded. “And just enough light to settle in and get a fire going against the fall of night. Are we all ready, then?”
But George Vulpe was already leading the way.
As they went, the eerie cry of a wolf came drifting on the resin-laden air, gradually fading into mournful ululations.
Gogosu cursed as he stumbled to a halt. He cocked his head on one side, sniffed at the air, listened intently. But there was no repeat performance. Unslinging his rifle from behind his back, he said: “Did you hear that? And can you credit it? It’s a sure sign of a hard winter to come, they say, when the wolves are as early as this.”
And turning aside a little from the others, he made sure his weapon was loaded …
N THE HOUR BEFORE MIDNIGHT A MIST CAME UP THAT
lapped at the castle’s stones and filled in the gaps between so that the ancient riven walls seemed afloat on a gently undulating sea of milk. Under a shining blue-grey moon whose features were perfectly distinct, George Vulpe sat beside the fire and fed it with branches gathered in the twilight, watched the occasional spark jump skyward to join the stars, and blink out before ever they were reached.
He had volunteered for first watch. Having slept through most of the day, he would in any case be the obvious choice. Emil Gogosu had insisted there was no real need for anyone to remain awake, but at the same time he had not objected when the Americans worked out a roster. Vulpe would be first and take the real weight of it, Seth Armstrong would go from 2:00
till 4:30, and Randy Laverne would be on till sevenish when he’d wake Gogosu. That suited the old hunter fine; it would be dawn then anyway and he didn’t believe in lying abed once the sun was up.
Both Gogosu and Armstrong were now fast asleep: the first wrapped in a blanket and wedged in a groove of half-buried stones with his feet pointing at the fire, and the last in his sleeping-bag, using his jacket wadded over a rounded stone as a pillow. Laverne was awake, barely; he had eaten too many of the boiled Hungarian sausages and too much of the local black bread; his indigestion kept burping him awake just as he thought he was going under. He lay furthest from the fire in the shadows of the castle’s wall, his sleeping-bag tossed down on a bed of living pine twigs stripped from the branches of trees where they encroached on the ruins. Facing the fire, he was drowsily aware of Vulpe sitting there, his occasional motion as he shoved the end of this or that branch a little deeper into the red and yellow heart of incandescence.
What he was not aware of was the insidious change coming over his friend, the gradual submersion of Vulpe’s mind in strange reverie, the pseudo-memories which passed before his eyes, or limned themselves in the eye of his mind, like ghostly pictures superimposed on the flickering flames. Nor could he know of the hypnotic vampiric influence which even now wheedled and insinuated itself into Vulpe’s conscious and subconscious being.
But when a branch burned through and fell sputtering into the heart of the fire, Laverne heard it and started more fully awake. He sat up … in time to see a dark shadow pass into even greater darkness through a gap in the old wall. A shadow that moved with an inexorable, zombie-like rigidity, like a sleepwalker, its feet causing eddies in the lap and swirl of creeping mist. And he knew that the shadow could only have been George Vulpe, for his sleeping-bag was empty where it lay crumpled against a leaning boulder in the glow of the fire.
Laverne’s mind cleared. He unzipped himself from his bed, sought his climbing shoes and pulled them on. With fingers which were still leaden from sleep he drew laces tight and tied fumbling knots. Still rising up from his half-sleep, he nevertheless hurried. There had been something in the way George moved: not furtive but at the same time silently … yes, like a sleepwalker. He’d been that way, sort of, all day: sleeping through the journey, not entirely with it even when he was fully awake. And the way he’d climbed up here, like it was something he did every Friday morning before breakfast! Passing close to Gogosu and Armstrong where they lay, Laverne thought to wake them … then thought again. That would all take time, and meanwhile George might easily have toppled headfirst into the gorge, or brained himself on one of the many low archways in the ranks of tottering walls. Laverne knew his own strength; he’d be able to handle George on his own if it came to it; he didn’t need the others and it would be a shame to rouse them for nothing. So he’d take care of this himself. The only thing he mustn’t do, if in fact George was sleepwalking, was shock him awake.
Careful where he stepped through the inches-deep ground mist, Laverne followed Vulpe’s exact route, passed through the same gap in the wall and moved deeper into the ruins. They were extensive, covering almost an acre if one took into account those walls which had fallen or been blasted outwards. Away from the sleepers and the firelight, he switched on a pocket torch and aimed its beam ahead. The ground rose up a little here, where heaps of tumbled stones stood higher than the lapping mist, like islands in some strange white sea.
In the torch beam, caught in the moment before he passed behind a shattered wall, George Vulpe paused briefly and looked back. His eyes seemed huge as lanterns, reflecting the electric light. George’s eyes … and the eyes of something else!
They were there only for a single moment, then gone, blinking out like lights switched off. A pair of eyes, low to the ground, triangular, feral… A wolf?
Laverne swung his beam wildly, aimed it this way and that, crouched down a little and turned in a complete circle. He saw nothing, just ragged walls, mounds of stones, empty archways and inky darkness beyond. And a little way to the rear, the friendly glow of the campfire like a pharos in the night.
They’d made a wise choice not to start exploring this place in the twilight; it was just too big, its condition too dangerous; and maybe Laverne had been mistaken to leave the others sleeping.