They prowled the silent edges of the darkened village, never getting too close to the man-smell. They would pause occasionally to listen, wise eyes shining, their ears erect for the first sign of what they had traveled far to witness. They ventured as close to the narrow streets as they dared. They communicated with head movement, body language, subdued sounds, and with their eyes and their tails and their teeth and their tongues.
They waited for the first sight or sound of new life to wail out from the small house.
Outside the house, standing in the snow and the bitter cold, an old priest and a young priest argued quietly but heatedly. They were not yet aware of the packs of wolves that sat or lay or crouched in silence, completely encircling the small village in Romania's Transylvanian Alps.
“I will tell the father to kill the child,” the old priest said.
“And if he listens to you, I will stop him,” the young priest replied.
“You are a fool, Doru! This child is not heaven-sent. This child comes from the bowels of hell!”
“Viorel, you are imagining things. You had a nightmare, not a message from God. We are religious men. We don't do harm to children.”
The old priest caught a shadowy movement in the timber, only a few dozen yards away. He stared for a moment, his eyes picking out other shapes. Icy fingers of fear clutched at his heart. He could clearly make out the shapes of large wolves. He looked up the street. There in the snow he could see other wolves. He stepped away from the house and looked between the house and the hut located off to one side. Wolves. There had to be dozens of them; maybe hundreds.
The old priest stumbled back to the side of his younger friend. “Go see for yourself, Doru. The devil has sent his emissaries to stand guard on this night of the birth of his spawn!”
Doru laughed softly, his breath steaming in the cold air. “It's very cold, Viorel. The wolves are hungry, looking for scraps of food. Nothing more than that.”
“Bah!” the old priest said, just as a thin cry of newborn pain wafted from the cottage.
And with the infant's first thin cry of life, the wolves began howling in one voice, until no other sound could be heard. Inside their homes, the residents of the small village huddled together in fear, for this was the time of werewolves, and the people were highly superstitious. But strangely, when the infant heard the primitive calls, he ceased his crying and listened, his eyes bright and alert.
“He's dead!” the father cried as the child fell silent.
The mother smiled as the child began to feed at her breast. “No, he's very much alive.”
“But the others, they cried and cried at birth.”
“This one is different,” she replied.
She would soon find out just how different he really was.
It was Christmas day, A.D. 1300.
Spring, 1995. Idaho. USA.
“You ever see that young fellow who built the cabin up in the big lonesome, Rick?”
The ranger shook his head. “Not very often. He doesn't get out much. He hikes down to the ranger station where I let him park his old pickup and drives into town about every couple of months for supplies. It's usually dark when he returns, and I'm in bed.”
“He hikes back up in there in the
“He's pretty surefooted.”
“He must have eyes like a cat.”
“More like a wolf,” the ranger muttered.
“What's that, Rick?”
Rick Battle shook his head. “Nothing, Tom. Nothing at all. Just talking to myself.”
“This job will do that to you,” said Tom, the ranger in charge of the district. “What's that young fellow's name?”
“Darry. Darry Ransom.”
“He doesn't do any poaching, does he?”
“Oh, no. No trapping either. He hunts in season and fishes a lot. But no poaching. It's funny you should mention that.”
“Ever since he got here, there hasn't been
poaching that I'm aware of.”
“None? No reports at all?”
Rick shook his head. “None.”
“That is odd. Rick, I'm getting reports of wolf packs in this area.”
“Oh, yes. They're certainly here. I lay in bed at night and listen to them. I've caught sight of them a few times. Timber wolves.”
“Well, that should make some groups very happy and others very unhappy.” The environmentalists, and the ranchers and farmers, in that order.
“I'm glad to see them return.”
“In this part of the country, you're in the minority, Rick.”
“I am well aware of that, Tom.”
The two men stood in silence for a moment, surrounded by the majesty of the Idaho wilderness. Tom smiled and said, “You ready for the influx of summer tourists, Rick?”
Rick grunted. “As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose.”
His boss laughed and punched him on the arm. “See you later, boy.”
Rick stood for a long time after his boss had left the lonely one-man ranger station located on the edge of the Great Primitive Area. “Who the hell are you, Darry Ransom?”
* * *
He was named Vlad Dumitru Radu, and his mother sensed early on that this child was no ordinary baby. He seldom cried, and after six months, he never cried at all. Vlad was a handsome baby, with a shock of dark brown hair and strong features. But it was his eyes that held and captivated her. They were a very pale gray, almost spit-colored, with a slight slant . . . much like a wolf.
Since the birth on that snowy night, the old priest in the village had never set foot in the cottage. The word had gotten to Vlad's mother that the old priest thought the boy to be evil. She would not learn why until years later.
Vlad made it very clear at a young age that he preferred to be left to his own devices, and that he much preferred the company of most animals to humans. Dogs flocked to him; cats gave him a wide berth. The night of Vlad's birth, the family cat disappeared from the cottage and never returned, taking up residence at a neighbor's house.
Vlad was not an unfriendly child; but he was aloof and standoffish, and that did not endear him to others his age. Still, if the opinion of others mattered at all to him, Vlad never let it show.
* * *
Darry stepped out onto the porch of his cabin, which he had built himself, and sat down in a chair that he had also built, breathing deeply of the clean, fresh and cool air. His two dogs, which he had named Pete and Repeat, came around the side of the house and lay down on the porch. The animals were hybrids, a very foolish mixture of husky and wolf. Sometimes the breeding of wolves and domesticated dogs worked out well, but not often. It was unfair to both wolf and dog, for no one could be certain which genes would be dominant, the animal didn't know whether it was a wolf or a dog, and it was virtually impossible to domesticate a wolf. Wolves were fun to watch (from a distance; if you could get that close). With each other they were social and playful and the bond between them was strong. But wolves were wild animalsâperiod.
Sadly, in many cases, the hybrid animal proved to be too much for the owner, and it attacked some child and had to be destroyed or was abandoned in the timber. A hybrid wolf was not a plaything. The wolf side was highly complex, and there were things one simply did not do with a wolf. Most humans never took the time to learn the do's and don'ts and ended up getting hurt, or getting someone else hurt. Sadder still, the hybrid was the one that suffered the most. People who wanted to make cute with wolves often forgot that wolves were predators.
Darry had found the two abandoned hybrids, or rather, they found him, shortly after he arrived in the area; and a bond was quickly formed.
Pete and Repeat were large animals, each weighing just over a hundred pounds. They were fiercely protective of Darry, and he with them. The hybrids had sensed immediately that while Darry stood upright and was human in appearance, there was much more to the man-shape than met the eye.
Pete and Repeat were correct in that assumption.
“Maybe we can live in peace here, boys,” Darry spoke aloud. “Maybe we have found a home after all.”
Pete and Repeat cut their very expressive eyes to him as if saying, “You have to be kidding!”
“Don't be such pessimists, boys,” Darry said, picking up on their feelings. “I've made it work many times in the past.”
Indeed he had. For over six hundred years.
* * *
Vlad soon began spending time on the edges of the dark forest that surrounded the village of his birth. As he grew older, he began to venture deeper into the foreboding woods. At first his mother was frightened half out of her wits when her son would disappear into the timber for hours at a time, but as the months passed, she began to relax when no harm came to her son.
It was in the hushed quiet of the woods that Vlad felt most at peace. He was well aware of the dark shapes that flitted silently about him, and knew what they were. But he also knew, while not knowing how he knew, the big wolves would not harm him.
After a time, Vlad realized that the wolves were pacing him to protect him from other predators. And that brought a smile to his lips.
By the time Vlad slipped into his early teens, he knew all the wolves in the timber around his village. He had been accepted into the pack society and had named them all. He could walk freely among the wolves, lie down beside them during their rest periods, and play with the newly born without fear of being harmed.
Vlad had attained nearly all of his adult growth. He was a couple of inches below six feet tall, and had turned into a very strong young man. He could move as silently as his four-footed friends and often warned the various packs when the men of his village were about to set out on a wolf hunt, for the wolf was as much misunderstood by the majority of humans then as it would be hundreds of years later.
Because Vlad would take no part in any wolf hunting, he became someone not to be trusted. He was shunned by most in the village.
Which suited the young man just fine, for he knew with a certainty that anyone who feared a wolf was just ignorant.
* * *
Darry enjoyed sitting on the high bluffs above the river and watching the tourists traverse the white water. The area nearest to his cabin was actually a smooth-flowing stretch of the river, and many times the boaters would pull over to the shore to rest for a time or camp for the night along this tranquil stretch. When that happened, Darry and his hybrids would vanish, for Darry sought no human contact.
Darry would occasionally run into someone who lived year-round in the wilderness, and they would pause for a moment to exchange a few pleasantries. But for the most part, the people who chose to live in the wilderness were loners, and tended to mind their own business. Live and let live, so to speak. Darry was aware that the media referred to these people by several names: survivalists, separatists, segregationists, racists, and other often insulting and very ill-chosen names. Darry had found that most were just people who had said to hell with modern society and gone off to live closer to nature. Some did not like the direction their government was taking. Others were sure a race war was imminent. Still others were certain the government was on the verge of collapse. Some wanted to teach their children values they were not receiving in public schools.
There was a small commune of what used to be called hippies living not too many miles from Darry's cabin, and he found them to be open and honest and friendly. It was with them he socialized the most . . . which was not much according to society's interpretation of the word. The hippies raised sheep and goats and chickens, tended their gardens, and were good neighbors. Darry would occasionally come up on a tiny patch of cannabis growing in the woods, and left it alone, knowing it was not for sale and distribution on the streets but for someone's personal use. The nation's furor over marijuana amused Darry, for in his opinion the smoking of the weed was far less dangerous than the consumption of alcohol or the smoking of cigarettes, although he personally imbibed only occasionally but had not smoked in years.
But Darry also knew that some miles away from his small but snug home, there were the cabins of a group of men and women who subscribed to a very dangerous and violent philosophy. They loathed anyone not of the Aryan race and worshipped the memory of a man who they felt would have been the savior of the world: Hitler.
* * *
Shortly after his fourteenth birthday, just as the weather was beginning to warm, announcing the nearness of spring, Vlad's world underwent a drastic change. Since entering his teen years, Vlad's senses had sharpened and increased. He could see and hear and smell far beyond the capacity of a “normal” human being. He could sense danger before it happened. He could smell fear in another human. He could see things clearly that lay far beyond the eyesight of humans.
Vlad told no one in the village of his finely tuned senses. He knew the villagers did not like or trust him. His brothers and sisters did not associate with him. Even his own father had little to do with his youngest son. Only his mother showed warmth and love and affection for Vlad.
Vlad was returning from spending the day in the timber when he came up on three boys his age tormenting a small puppy. The frightened puppy was whimpering in pain and fear. Furious, Vlad felt a strange force take his mind as he hurled himself toward the trio. He opened his mouth to yell at the boys to get away, to leave the animal alone. But it was not words that sprang from his mouth. It was a hideous snarl. Unable to control what was taking place in his mind and body, Vlad dropped to all fours as he ran toward the boys. He felt his skin change, his face change, his legs change, his hands and feet becoming clawed and pawed. When he was fifteen feet away from the now panicked and terror-stricken boys, Vlad leaped and struck the trio with all his weight, knocking them rolling. He stood protectively over the puppy, huge fangs bared, snarling at the boys.
The trio leaped to their feet and ran away, screaming in sheer horror. “Wolf, wolf!” one screamed hysterically. “Wolf in the village!”
Suddenly, Vlad was standing upright. He lifted his hands to his face and gingerly felt his skin. “I must have imagined it,” he murmured.
But in his mind, he knew he had not.
He knew what he had become.
He picked up the puppy and comforted it until it had stopped its whimpering. Then Vlad walked slowly to his cottage. There was dread in his heart, but it was mixed with a curious sort of relief as he knew his days in the village were over. If his parents were to be spared their lives from the superstitious wrath of the villagers, he would have to leave, and do it quickly.
He dropped off the puppy at the home of the priest who had been his friend since birth and entered his own cottage through the back door.
His mother met him. “You must go,” she said. “The men of the village have already been here and taken your father away for questioning. If you stay here, we all will die.” She looked deeply into her son's strange-colored eyes. “What are you, Vlad? What are you?”
The boy answered as truthfully as he knew how. “I don't know, Mother. I just don't know.”
* * *
The wind shifted, and Darry heard the faint sounds of gunfire. The group of racist malcontents had returned to the area and were blasting away at paper targets. When they had pulled out for the winter months, Darry had gone over to the site and inspected it. Not knowing what to expect, he had been surprised to find a very neat camp, military in appearance. The cabins were well-built and maintained, the latrines covered. The group had left no litter scattered about, and Darry had found only two brass casings. A 9mm and a .223. The windows of the cabins were covered with heavy shutters, locked in place, and it would take a man using a sledge hammer to smash in the doors, and then only after a considerable amount of work.
Darry was uncomfortable in the camp, for he could sense the hate that hung like an invisible shroud around the area. Pete and Repeat stayed close to him as he walked the camp, the wolf-dogs as uneasy as Darry.
On this warm spring day, Darry looked at the hybrids and said, “Stay. Guard.”
Pete and Repeat hopped up onto the small porch and lay down. They would obey him only because Darry was the dominant male, and he was as them. He had shown them once.
Darry hiked toward the camp of the hate group. He carried only a sheath knife on his belt. He seldom needed any other weapon. Over the long and seemingly countless years, Darry had wandered the world, learning self-defense tactics from the masters. But there was still another reason Darry seldom carried a weapon: how do you kill an immortal?