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kind, but unhappily none were within reach. My own talons and fangs tended to
be effective.
My opponents on that day were neither the least nor the most skillful or brave
that I had ever faced. The mere fact that their entire band had not yet broken
and fled testified to their basic nerve and competence. They endeavored to get
me between them, but I foiled that tactic by getting my back against a tree.
In a brief pause, before the next stage of our fight began, my nosferatu
enemies bragged to me of Radu's cleverness and power, and that they were sure
they had chosen the right side in our prolonged conflict. They taunted me with
the damage they had already done to me, but I could hear the hollowness of
fear in everything they said.
The man I had almost killed in the old chapel boasted to me that he personally
had tracked down the small peasant girl after all.
The words came out quite clearly: "She was a tasty morsel." And he licked his
lips.
My reply was also enunciated with precision: "Molesting the child was a
serious mistake. I made it clear to you that she was under my protection."
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Having issued that indictment, as it were, I paused, the better to concentrate
on the next exchange of blows and thrusts. One as experienced in combat as I
was could sense a difference in the air. My confidence that I would survive
this encounter was growing fast, and that of my opponents waning with
reciprocal speed. "But you have committed an even greater error just now, in
telling me what you had done."
I was far from convinced of my opponent's truthfulness in making such a boast
but whether I believed it or not made no difference in my determination to
finish the speaker off.
In the end I was forced to believe him, .for he produced convincing evidence,
in the form of the very talisman I had given to the child and his trembling
hand now held it out to me in a dying, taunting gesture. I snatched it away
from him before he could fling it out of reach.
And then, having disposed of his last ally, in my rage I did the very worst
that I
knew how, in the very limited span of time available, to the pain-nerves in
his guilty hand. His shrieks were deafening, but they soon ceased.
So, it was not by means of magic that he had tracked her down. How he had done
so I never learned. But alas, Radu and others might have known the child's
village, even her house, before they kidnapped her.
At least I had regained the talisman, and I hastened to hang it around my
neck.
Now Radu and whatever force he might raise next would have to pursue their
hunt for me by non-magical means alone which restriction, I thought, would
probably not deprive them of success.
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Verily I would have been gasping at that moment, were my body at all dependent
upon air. Swaying, I looked about me at death and destruction. The only one of
my foes who was still alive was he who had earlier taken to his heels, and was
by now a mile away.
Radu's people had achieved at considerable cost to themselves at least one
minor victory, freezing me in man-form all through the remainder of the night.
Then when I came to consider the matter, I thought that they might have won
much more than that; truly it began to seem to me then that my wounds were
likely to prove mortal.
* * *
My first instinct for survival after the fight, as I clutched at a tree branch
for support, was to seek sanctuary by changing form; but I realized in time
that my chance of getting through a day in mist-form would be zero instead of
only vanishingly small. I could recall how more than one old colleague of mine
had perished, changing into mist-form when seriously hurt, and being blown to
nothingness by a mere passing breeze.
I thought that in wolf-form I was not likely to fare much better. A wounded
man might obtain help at a farmhouse, might find some place indoors to shelter
from the sun. A wounded bat or wolf would certainly not. Aerial flight, and
also the speed of a four-legged run, were going to be denied him, at least
until he had had some chance to rest and heal.
Looking at the red ruin around me, I scorned to refresh myself with the blood
of any of my breathing attackers. One reason was that doing so might have made
it easier for my enemies' magic to follow my trail. Another and perhaps
stronger
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reason was that my pride had soared with the heat of combat, and I assured
myself that I was not that hungry.
Remembering the man who had chosen to run away, I told myself that even in my
wounded condition I would have had a good chance of running the coward down.
But the effort would surely have completed my own exhaustion, and I
thought there was nothing of much importance to be learned from him from the
beginning I had felt no doubt as to who had put the attackers on my trail so
I chose rather to concentrate instead upon my own survival.
It was fortunate that I did so.
I experienced a well-earned satisfaction at having survived Radu's initial
attack.
More than that, I congratulated myself upon having won the first skirmish,
diminishing the numbers in the force that was now arrayed against me. Still,
as I
surveyed my prospects for survival with fearless no, not courageous, that is
something else realism, I thought that they were not good.
I meditated quite uselessly, of course upon the fact that I might have started
to recruit an army, or at least a posse, of my own, once I knew that Radu was
again above the ground. Perhaps, I thought, I should have done.
In whatever time and place a nosferatu lives, the willing help of at least one
intelligent and understanding breather can be of tremendous benefit. I foresaw
that I would seek such aid from someone soon if I lived long enough. I was not
without friends, in France or elsewhere. But calling for help was usually the
last alternative I considered when in trouble. Earlier I had vaguely reassured
myself with the thought that I had friends but it was my own fault now that
they were none of them on hand.
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Swaying with weakness, and temporarily prohibited by my injuries from changing
shape, I made what plans I could.
My appearance at this time must have been truly ghastly. Never had I less
regretted my inability to use a mirror. I had a great lump on my forehead, not
to mention a torn flap of skin hanging over one eye. With trembling hand I
held the flap in place, until it began, very delicately and tentatively, to
heal there.
Listening, sniffing the breeze, even though I was denied the keener senses of
the wolf, I thought I detected certain evidence that more of my enemies,
though still miles distant, were gathering, swarming, on my trail.
Of course it would have been mad, suicidal, for me to go back to sleep in the
same earth. If one band of my enemies had found it, the others could do so
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