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       Chernevog, p.10

           C. J. Cherryh

  “It's not safe out there,” was what Sasha said, on the first step of the cellar stairs.

  Pyetr gave a twitch of his shoulders, uneasy at this urgent searching and poking about in dark places, as if something truly grim could have happened. “I know it's not safe out there, we both know it's not safe out there, but she's a wizard, isn't she? -What in hell do you want in the cellar?” Pyetr had a sudden, most terrible imagination that Sasha knew beyond a doubt that something was amiss—with a girl who could stop a man's heart with a wish.

  Certainly there was no chance any intruder could get past the front door—

  Except a shapeshifter, except someone that she knew... or thought she knew.

  Sasha said to him, casting a glance over his shoulder, there bread?”

  Pyetr glanced at the counter, where loaves of bread wrapped in towels—Eveshka had left that much for them, in the usual place, evidence she had planned for them coming home. She had at least done her usual baking...

  But damn her, he had searched the woods for her on earliest disappearances, spent sleepless nights and called himself hoarse, all to no profit. She came back when she wanted to come back. There was no reason to think it was more than that, no matter the scare they had had.

  He brought a loaf to Sasha, on the steps, waist-deep in the dark. He guessed by now what Sasha was thinking of: the domovoi, down in the cellar. The House-thing favored homey gifts like fresh bread: it had gotten fatter and fatter on Eveshka's baking in the years they had lived here; but whatever wisdom it had, it sat on. It never offered them a thing but to stir when quarrels disturbed the peace, and to make the house timbers creak on winter nights like some old man's joints. “What can it tell us?” he asked sullenly. “It's only Eveshka it talks to.”

  Sasha ignored his opinions and ducked down the stairs into the dark. What floated up to him was,

  “Just stay there, don't block the light and don't say anything!”

  Meaning that a magic-deaf fool was apt to open his mouth at the wrong moment and offend the creature. He was outstandingly good at that. If he had ever made sense to Eveshka she would not be off in the woods right now, and they would not be worrying and wondering if she was just off on a sulk or a soul-searching or whatever she did to keep herself, Eveshka would say, from her damnably dangerous tempers.

  He paced. That was all he could do.

  Then of a sudden Babi growled, leapt up and vanished right through the shut door to the outside.

  “Babi!” Pyetr crossed the room hardly slower than Babi, jerked the door open, hand on his sword—

  And saw Volkhi head across the neat rows of vegetables with Babi in pursuit, wreaking equal havoc in Eveshka's rain-soaked garden as they went.

  “Damn!” Pyetr whistled, loud and sharp. “Volkhi! —Dammit, Babi, get him out of mere!” Volkhi swung off toward the side of the house, with a kick in his gait. Babi followed. Pyetr set his arm against the doorframe and leaned his head against it, thinking, god, Eveshka had worked so hard on that garden, Eveshka had weeded it, watered and taken pride in that garden, and if she saw it before he smoothed that rain-soaked ground he would have to go and live with the leshys, that was all there was to it.

  Nothing was wrong. She would come back, please the god Eveshka was only angry at him. He deserved it for his fecklessness and his stupidity: no one in Vojvoda had ever counted him a responsible type, the god knew 'Veshka had had a great deal to put up with. He only wanted her back safe, that was all he asked.

  The domovoi did not like the light. It hated disturbances, it wanted peace, and if one ever wanted to see it, one might search the shadows at the end of the shelves, among the bins and barrels of the cellar. It stayed as far as it could get from the stairs and noisy comings and goings. So at the very limit of the dim light that came from the kitchen above, Sasha unwrapped his offering, squatted down and broke the bread for the domovoi, setting the pieces on the floor.

  Timbers creaked at the end of the cellar. A shadow moved there. It was hard to see its real shape. Sometimes it was a bear. Sometimes it was a black pig. Sometimes it was a very shaggy, very puzzled old grandfather, which was what Sasha had seen when they had summoned it to feed it and explain their plans for the house and the changes they proposed to make. It had simply wanted to know the roof would be sound, Eveshka had said: that was all it cared about, besides a loaf of bread now and again.

  One hoped it forgave them for the corner-posts.

  “Domovoi, little father—” Sasha bowed very respectfully from where he was kneeling, and edged backward to give it room. “Pyetr and I are back, but now Eveshka's gone off somewhere and we're worried. Do you know where she's gone? Do you remember her leaving?”

  It moved, the shifting of a large, heavy body; it came out of the shadows and sat on the dirt floor looking at him, which was more attention than it usually paid.

  It was a very old domovoi, by any account, and very odd.

  It blinked at him. It remembered things, Uulamets' knowledge told him: it knew very little about today, less about tomorrow, mostly dreamed about the way things had been, glossing the bad and exaggerating the good—at least a healthy one did, in a healthy house. The god only knew about one a wizard owned.

  It hunched closer. It looked a lot at the moment like an old bear, the oldest bear anyone had ever seen, and the fattest. It swiped a half a loaf up in its paws and sat up to eat it like a man... completely unconcerned, it seemed, at Eveshka's disappearance, which might be a good sign.

  But of a sudden a memory came very strongly—a young man stood like a ghost on the wooden steps, very like the figure in the bannik's vision—no feature visible, light felling on dark hair, white-shirted shoulders...

  It might be himself. It was so real Sasha turned his head to see if it was there, or perhaps a recollection of his recent presence on those steps.

  But there was nothing. He looked back at the domovoi, hands sweating. He imagined the room upstairs the way it had been He imagined violent anger in the house, Uulamets shouting till the rafters rang, Young fool! And Eveshka sobbing, Listen to me, papa—you never listen to me!

  He was trembling. He took hold of the post beside the step looked up into the twilight of the room above, hearing Eveshka say, plaintively—

  I don't believe you, papa. You're wrong! Doesn't it ever occur to you that you might be wrong about someone?

  Years and years ago—when Kavi Chernevog had come and gone on these steps, gotten herbs from this same cellar, slept by the hearth upstairs, while Uulamets and his daughter had had their beds at the end of the kitchen... and Chernevog had had his bed close to where he slept now.

  God, why is it showing me this? What's Chernevog to do with anything now? He can't be awake, please the god it doesn't mean Chernevog has anything to do with this.

  “Little father,” he whispered to the domovoi, “what are you telling me?”

  The house rang with ghostly voices:

  Fool, love's got nothing to do with him! He's got no heart, he hasn't had one for years! Good riddance to him!

  Eveshka, furiously: You never give me a chance, papa, you never credit me with any judgment! Why should I ever be honest with you? You never trust me to know anything!

  And Uulamets, then: Trust you? The plain question, girl, is whether you can trust yourself! The plainer question is whether you're my daughter or your mother's! Answer that one! Can you?

  His heart was racing. He recalled a scratching at the shutters in the night, the raven that had held Uulamets' heart prying with beak and claw to get inside... while Uulamets sat alone at the table by lamplight—reading and plotting and writing, night after night, wanting his daughter back...

  Lonely nights, silent days, the scratching at the window—and Uulamets never listened to it. Uulamets had reason enough to want his daughter alive again, and a heart had very little to do with it. Eveshka was absolutely right about that.

  Leaves on the river...

  Spray flying from the bow...

  Sasha broke out in sudden, sweating terror, scrambled up and ran up the steps, shouting at Pyetr: “The boat—”

  The dock was empty, Pyetr saw that well enough from the top of the path: the boat was gone, and he went running down to the weathered boards, to stand there like a fool and look helplessly up the river—up, because he knew it was no trip down to Kiev that Eveshka had undertaken without him.

  ‘‘She's gone,” he said as Sasha came running up beside him.

  It's a bad dream. It's a damn bad dream! What in hell does she think she's doing with the boat? Where does she think she's going?”

  “I don’t know,” Sasha said.

  “I thought she was worried I wasn't back, I thought she had this notion something just damn well could have happened to me out there! I don't mind if she's mad, I can understand if she's mad, but taking the boat—”

  “She could have heard from the leshys.”

  “Oh, god, fine, she could have heard from the leshys! Then she could damn well have had the leshys talk to us, couldn’t she?”

  Sasha caught his arm, pulled at him to bring him up the hill again to a house Eveshka had deserted, along with everything else she had a responsibility to think of. “She cares,” Sasha said, “Pyetr, I know she does. I'm sure whatever she's doing, she can take care of herself, she's thought it through—”

  “The hell!” he cried, and tore from Sasha's grip. He climbed to the top of the hill, he stood there catching his breath under the old dead trees looking out at the house and the yard in the gathering dark, with a lump in his throat and a cold fear in his stomach.

  He heard Sasha climbing the trail behind him. He was in no mood to talk about Eveshka, or to wonder aloud what kind of danger she might be in—he could think of all too many right now without a wizard's help. So he shoved his way through the gap in the hedge, stalked up to the porch and inside, into the kitchen, where he snatched a basket down off the rafters and started searching for flour and oil.

  He was aware when Sasha walked in the door, was aware Sasha standing behind him, upset and wanting to help.

  “I'm taking Volkhi,” Pyetr said, “I'm going after her, I'll find her, don't worry about it. If she's on the river, I'm not going to get lost following that.”

  “Pyetr, I know you're in no mood to listen to me—”

  “It's not your fault. —Where's the damn flour? Did she have to take all of it?”

  “It's under the counter. It should be. —Pyetr, please, just think this through with me: she's on the boat, she's not out in the woods—so at least we know something; and I didn't know exactly where you were, either, so long as I was any distance from you. It's this quiet out there...”

  He turned and glared at Sasha, expecting him to use good sense and shut up. But Sasha set his jaw and said, without flinching:

  “We'll find her. I promise we'll both find her, let's just not do anything rash, Pyetr.”

  “Rash! God, let's not do anything rash while she's out there on the river, shall we? Let's not take any chances while she's out there alone on the water in the dark with the god knows what! There's a shapeshifter loose! Who knows what shape it's got right now? Who knows what she's sailing with?” “Pyetr, I don't want you going without me, you understand me? I know you're mad and I'm sorry, but I don't want you running off out there!”

  ‘‘The hell! Don't wish at me, dammit! I know you mean well, Sasha, but just stop it! Stay out of my way! Stay the hell out of my way!”

  “Pyetr, —”

  He found the flour. “You give me advice, boy, when you've got a wife. I'm not sitting here while she's out there begging for trouble and you can't tell me what's going on.”

  “Pyetr, listen to me!”

  He felt the wish hit him: he felt his thoughts scatter, his hands shake with an intention he suddenly had trouble recollecting, even when he knew what was happening to him. He slammed his hand down on the counter, leaned on it, because sleeplessness and cold and the rest of it were suddenly making his knees weak. “Don't do that to me, dammit!”

  “Pyetr, we're going, I absolutely agree with you, we're going after her as fast as we can, but we can go off with what we need or we can go without it—I don't just throw things in a sack, Pyetr, and magic doesn't win by luck and it doesn't work by generalities!”

  “Tonight it seems it's not working at all!”

  “I can wish her well—but that's no good at all if somebody else wishes something a lot more specific, does it?”

  “Somebody else. Somebody else— Is that what we're talking about? Is that why we're not naming names right now?”

  “Pyetr, don't doubt her, don't doubt us! Doubt undoes magic, and that's the absolute worst mistake we could make.”

  “Doubt's when you start to know you're off the mark, boy, doubt's when you start to figure out you'd better do something— and the stupidest thing we can do is sit here and let her sail off on the god knows what hare-brained notion while we believe things are going to be all right! North, Sasha, north is where she's going right now, and if there's something wrong down here, then it's a good guess there's something going on up there with the leshys, and if the leshys can't stop it then I doubt my wife is the one of us who has any business up there!”

  “If it's not old magic,” Sasha said quietly. “And we don't know: it could be. It could be a hundred years old—it could be anybody who ever lived here.”

  That made no sense at all. He was not in a mood to listen to obscurities. But Sasha went on, with that worried, earnest look he had when he was trying to explain the unexplainable:

  “A wish lasts. Like that old teacup that ought to break. We don't want it to break either. I think we might keep that wish going. But I'm sure it's still Uulamets' wish keeping that cup in one piece. He's dead and it still works because we use it. A lot else he wished just doesn't matter to anybody now he's gone, so it just fades away and doesn't do anything—but there might be all sorts of old wishes floating around these woods that we don't know about. There was Uulamets before there was Chernevog, there was Malenkova before there was Uulamets, the god only knows who taught Malenkova, hundreds and hundreds of wishes could still be working, for all we know, and we don't know what we're messing with or what it's aiming at, or if it's completely harmless until it bumps into something else and starts it moving.”

  “God,” Pyetr said disgustedly.

  “It's all complicated, Pyetr, magic's always complicated like that, and we can't go off to the north rattling everything that's settled and risking the god knows what, going right for what we're most afraid of—”

  “Well, she is, isn't she? Who knows what 'Veshka's going to do? —God, it's Chernevog we're talking about, not some damn village fortuneteller—not mentioning the ghosts in the woods up there. He murdered her! He had her heart in his hands once! Tell me again she's got any kind of business going up there!”

  “We don't know for certain that's even where she went.”

  “Well, it damn sure wasn't to Kiev market! What's going on out there? What's making the forest look different every time you look at it and why's my wife off on the river in the dark if it isn't his doing?”

  Sasha bit his lip. ‘‘It could be. But—”

  “Could, could, might! —I'll tell you what I'll do, friend, I'll go up there and separate him from his head, that's what I'll do, and then we won't have to wonder! The god only knows why we didn't do it in the first place!”

  ‘‘If you ever get there—if you can find your way through the woods—”

  “I'll get there!”

  ‘‘You couldn't even find the house!”

  “Well, I don't need a guide to find the damn river!”

  “And what happens when we get up there without what we could have brought if we took time to think? —All right, all right, I don't like what Eveshka's done, I don't think it was smart, I don't think it was the best thing to have done, I want to catch up with her as much as you do—”

  “I d
oubt that!”

  “—but it's no help, scattering like sheep all through the woods with no idea what we're dealing with!”

  “Fine! Pack! Let's move!”

  “Pyetr, god— Go take care of Volkhi, take care of Babi, go outside, just for the god's sake give me time to think! Maybe I can reach her. Out! Please!”

  Pyetr bit his lip. All certainties went sliding away from him— which could as well be Sasha's doing, even without Sasha's intending it: that was the kind of thinking that could drive a sane man crazy, especially facing a second night of no sleep, so tired und so scared for what Eveshka might be doing he was all but shaking. Sasha was in no better state, his voice was a hoarse shadow of itself; and without wizardry there was no hope they could overtake the boat tonight.

  Pyetr flung up his hands. “All right,” he said, “all right.” He went to the washbasin, threw water into his face and toweled off the dirt, went to the grain bin and slammed it open, to do whatever Sasha wanted, trying not to wonder what might be going on elsewhere or what trouble the boat could get into with Eveshka sailing blind and alone. “I'll get Volkhi rubbed down,” he said, throwing grain into the bucket. “Talk to her. Turn the wind if you can. If you can't reach her I want to be out of here tonight, I don't care if it's only an hour along the shore, I'm not going to sit here waiting for word and I'm damn well not going to sleep.”

  “Volkhi's exhausted,” Sasha said. “I'm exhausted. Two nights now I've had no sleep, for the god's sake! —Just—let me try. I'll do what I can.”

  “I know. I know you will.” Pyetr filled the bucket, did the mundane things a plain man could. All his life he had known a run of luck only lasted till a fool believed it enough to commit himself. Then the god tipped the dice and everything went to hell.

  But, but, he argued with himself, he still had throws left, Sasha was saying he still knew things to try. Sasha and Eveshka could load anybody's dice.

  Only hope to the god it was not Chernevog responsible, or if it was, that Eveshka was not going up there to handle matters alone—because it seemed always the last thing in the world to occur to Ilya Uulamets' daughter—that she was not the sole, competent in a world of fools and strangers.

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