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       Chernevog, p.11

           C. J. Cherryh

  —Oh, leave that alone, Pyetr, let me do it!

  —Here, stop, you're making a mess!

  —Don't touch that, Pyetr!

  And when, too often lately, she would frown and stare into nowhere, chin on fist—and he would ask: What's worrying you, 'Veshka?

  She would say, Nothing. Nothing at all... As if she were looking past the walls, past everything he could see or think of seeing...

  “When I left her here,” Sasha was saying at the edge of his attention, a hoarse and weary voice, “she kept wanting to hear from the leshys: maybe she got an answer. Maybe she just she had to go get one. She left the bread. So she knew we were coming back.”

  Pyetr refused to be comforted. He said, tight-jawed, “Any-thing's possible,” got the vodka jug from the shelf and cut down a couple of small sausages to take along with it. For his supper. And Babi's. “I just wonder what the hell answer she did get, myself. Or whose. —I'll take care of outside. I'll wait out there till you call me. But for the god's sake let's not just trust to wishes. Do what you can and let's get closer to her where we can do some good.”

  “I'll hurry,” Sasha promised him, “as much as you can hurry magic, I promise you.”

  * * *

  It was an eerily uncomfortable feeling Sasha had, entering Pyetr's and Eveshka's room—carrying the kitchen lamp into a behind-doors privacy he had never entered since the day he and Pyetr had moved the furniture in. He felt strangely furtive and guilty here—as if Pyetr would object to him being in this room, as if Eveshka herself might have set some wish here that he was crossing. He would never have expected that of her.

  But he had his own specific purpose in this room, and wishing nothing else he searched the floor around the wash-basin and the table where one would expect her comb and her brush to be, if she had not taken them with her—a woman thinking of necessities, he thought—and searching by lamplight under that table and against the wall he found the leavings he was looking for—perhaps a last, hasty brushing as she was packing, a few pale strands broken and disregarded on a floor otherwise immaculately swept. He wrapped them around his finger and tucked them into his pocket: that was the link that he wanted, the single personal tie to her, be it ever so slight.

  Everything indicated a point of decision, quick packing, reliance on the provisions the boat always had: a very worried young woman who likely had not slept baked bread, slow work, and left it neatly wrapped, two loaves, all the rising tray would hold, for menfolk she surely, desperately, wanted home; then, evidently suddenly, with book, inkpot and scant personal things—she went down to the boat.

  He had herb-pots of his own to bring up from the cellar. The bread he had left the domovoi was gone, neither crumb nor track showing on the smooth-worn floor: “Little grandfather,” he called, but the House-thing made no appearance even when he brought his lamp into that area of the cellar it most haunted. He searched the shelves there for feverfew and woundwort, willow bark and yarrow, salt and sulfur, little pots he and Eveshka had neatly labeled, everything to Eveshka's exacting sense of order.

  Her touch, her presence was strong in this dark place, in the depths of the house she had grown up in, died near, returned to as a wife... He told himself there was nothing in the world to fear from Eveshka's lingering wishes, there was nothing she would ever do or want that might harm him or Pyetr...

  But he kept remembering—Chernevog came and went here, often.

  He heard Uulamets shouting, heard her saying, in tears:

  —You never give anyone a chance, papa. You never trust anyone! Why should anyone be honest with you?

  Eveshka walking on the misty river shore, among like ghosts of trees long dead—toward a cloaked man waiting for her—

  “God.” Sasha all but lost his breath, caught his balance against the shelf, pottery rattling against his arms.

  Cold and dark, roots above a hollow bank, where the vodyanoi lived, Chernevog's old ally—

  Eveshka's grave, such as it was, whatever it still contained...

  He wished with all his heart for her to hear him. But that smothering hush fell like deep snow. He stood there smelling age and preservation, and listening to the distressed creaking of old timbers.

  One never knew how long wizardry was going to take once It got started, Pyetr knew that, and there was no telling what Sasha meant to do in there, but a body was well advised not to walk in on things, no matter how tired he was or how desperate, no matter that it was dark out in the yard and he had no lamp.

  A wizard did not have to think about such petty things. A wizard could talk about packing damned little pots while a man's wife was in danger, a wizard could talk about reason while the sky was falling and then still cast about to be sure and double sure before he did anything.

  So Pyetr had himself a supper of cold sausage, and poured a drink for Babi while Volkhi lipped up the last of his grain in the moonlight, under ragged cloud. Babi had zealously done what a proper Yard-thing should do: he had gotten Volkhi out of the garden and into his pen, Volkhi none the worse for a few greens on the way, and not at all disturbed about Babi, who had been, when Pyetr had arrived in the back yard, sitting in the gap he had left in the pen—insisting something at least behave itself and stay where it was supposed to.

  Now Babi was a small black furball tucked as close to Pyetr's boot as he could get.”Find 'Veshka, can you?” Pyetr had asked him, and maybe Babi had tried, silently, in whatever way a dvorovoi might know where his people were. Certainly Babi was not his ordinary cheerful self tonight—he moped, drank his vodka and dropped his chin on his small hands with a sigh.

  “We'll find her,” Pyetr said, and stroked Babi's shaggy head. Babi growled then, which might mean almost anything.

  But Babi had his head up staring across the dark yard; and Pyetr looked at the bathhouse, where Babi was looking, with the most uneasy feeling there was something in the shadows staring back at him.

  Sasha fed kindling into the fire in the hearth, flung in herbs that master Uulamets had recommended; salt, baneful to certain wicked things; lastly a few strands of Eveshka's hair: that was the essence of the spell he was casting. He looked for patterns in the light, he leaned close and fanned the smoke to him, taking whatever thoughts the smoke brought.

  The spell was not the smoke, the spell was not in the smoke, it was in thinking about the things it held, not in one's own order of importance—

  It was in letting the smoke mix everything equally and spin out a new order of things—no one thing and no one question, momentarily, in greater importance than anything else—

  A willow leaf balanced on a still current, a bubble stopped in the act of breaking—

  In the quiet, think about hearth and house: Pyetr and Uulamets and Eveshka. Think of Vojvoda and Kiev; think of ordinary folk, oblivious to what existed beyond their fields and over the hills, think of all the tsars in all the kingdoms in all the world, because the currents went that far—

  Everything poised motionless and waiting—

  Think of a butter churn and a mud puddle; a house far north of this house, all in charred ruins—

  Chernevog's house. Malenkova's house, once. Even Uulamets had lived there, when Uulamets had been himself an apprentice...

  Be rid of hearts, Uulamets' voiceless voice chided him: never rely on them; love nothing and nowhere above everything and all places.

  Nothing more than anything, everything passing like the river passing the house. Uulamets' wife was in that river and his daughter was in that river, Uulamets' life was in that river: everything flowed past him, everything was always there, the paradox of leaves on the water-Breathe in the smoke, boy, breathe in, breathe in, breathe in...

  Head above heart, boy. Head always above heart.

  He pressed his hands against his eyes, thinking: Head without heart—that made Chernevog. Heart without head—what can that make anyone, but the town fool?

  Thank the god, Uulamets had said, most wizards lose their gift young, m
ost smother it, most wish the power of wishing away—

  Always that choice was available, until the power grew too great, until one dared do nothing—not even retrace the steps leading to that one frozen moment—

  'Veshka saying: I don't want to be stronger—so that's that, isn't it?

  He sat in front of the fire, he listened to the shifting of the domovoi in the cellar, bound to the house, lost in its memories; he thought about Pyetr out there alone in the yard.

  Babi was with him. But there were things Babi could not deal with, there were things Babi had no power to fight—nor did he have. God, if it was Chernevog at die root of this, and if the leshys were failing to hold him...

  A ring of thorns... where Forest-things wove in the danger that Kavi Chernevog had been—

  He got up, shaking in the knees, he got all the books from the kitchen table and sat down again cross-legged in the heat and the light of the hearthside. He breathed the smoke, he asked himself what he was doing here, in Uulamets' place, alone... it was Uulamets' book he wanted, it was Chernevog's he profoundly dreaded—but dread seemed like doubt to him, and wondering whether he was a fool even to contemplate what he was doing, he wished for answers from Chernevog's: let it fall open to any page it would and let his eye find anything that stopped it—

  Today Draga is dead. She had begun, I think, to worry about me.

  Another skip of the eye:

  ... But she wanted me more than she wanted power: she had so much of that she didn't want any more, so she settled for her own indulgence. That was her mistake...

  —I don't want to be stronger—so that's that, isn't it?

  Learning it, I surpassed my teacher; understanding it, I despised her; using it, I killed her...

  God, what's it saying? Is it about 'Veshka?

  Or does it mean anything at all? It's like the smoke, it's not what's in it, the spell's not in the smoke, it's not in the words—

  Chernevog's not a wizard any more, he's a sorcerer, whatever that means. Uulamets had to use real magic to stop him—he had to do it and the god only knows what he paid for it or how he got it or what helped him. That's not in his book. That's not in anything he left me.

  He sat there in the smoke with the book open in front of him and felt colder and colder despite the sweat on his face: he thought of Eveshka out there on the river, Eveshka wanting Pyetr safe with all her might—

  Uulamets saying: A rusalka is a wish—

  A wish to live, a desire so strong it stole every life in its reach, up and down the river, leached life out of the woods, destroyed everything but what her father could keep from her grasp... until her wishing set itself finally on Pyetr—

  Things change that can change—Always at the weakest point.

  That was, they had always thought, Pyetr... but—

  God—no, he did not want-Leaves moved, the bubble burst, dark water swirled aside from the bow—

  What have I wished? he wondered, cold through and through. Father Sky, what did I just wish besides her getting home again?

  He shut Chernevog's book, he took up his own, desperate to recover his wits and remind himself of his own recent wishes. He opened it to the page last written.

  There was Eveshka's fine writing, the very last line. Take care for Pyetr. I know you 'II follow me. But I beg you don't.

  The spookiness from the bathhouse came and went. Pyetr took to glancing at the ground, talking to Babi, soothing Babi's upset with a constant touch, then abruptly stealing a glance in the direction of the bathhouse, in hopes of surprising whatever was lurking in the shadows of its doorway, no matter that the door was shut.

  Banniks, Sasha had said. Magical things. He had no pressing desire, in Sasha's absence, to go over there and open that door: he did very well at believing in magic these days, even in dealing with it face-to-face—but this thing, bannik, ghost, whatever it was, made him sure if he opened that door it was going to dash out at him, and maybe get away from him altogether—along with everything it might tell them if he could only keep it for Sasha to deal with.

  But it might be what Sasha was trying to raise with his magic, it might be the very answer he was conjuring—and in the completely unreasonable way of magical creatures, it might not stay long enough for Sasha to realize it was there.

  He stood up, uncertain in the persistence of that feeling; he walked a few steps toward the bathhouse, stopped then in an increasingly unreasoning dread of that door, asking himself, on second and third thoughts, what a bannik might want with an ordinary man—the one of them hardest to bespell and most vulnerable if something actually got its hands on him—

  Of a sudden something hit his leg, strong arms locked tight about his knee, Babi clinging to him and growling deep in his throat—while as strong as the terror of that closed door now was the idea the bannik might not intend to talk to anyone else, it might not wait for Sasha, it truly might not wait and they might lose every wisdom it might have for them.

  But just then he heard the door of the house slam open, heard Sasha running hard down the boards, calling out, “Pyetr!”

  He waited, while Babi let go of his knee and growled, with stay and go shivering through his exhausted wits. Sasha reached him, out of breath and he said, “There's something in there.” He pointed at the bathhouse, expecting Sasha to find that of major significance, but Sasha caught his arm, saying,

  “We're going. Right now. Come inside, help me get the packs sorted out.”

  “There's a bannik!” Pyetr said; and Sasha:

  “Let it be!”

  Perhaps he was entirely muddled from lack of sleep, perhaps he expected Sasha to make clearer sense than he was making. Sasha held him painfully hard by a slack arm and drew him back to Volkhi's pen, Babi growling as they went. “Just let it be! Don't ask me anything, don't argue, just get Volkhi around front.”

  “What's wrong, for the god's sake? What did you find out?”

  “Hush. Just bring Volkhi. Now!”

  “Sasha, for the god's sake—” Pyetr stopped and made a furious gesture back toward the bathhouse. “Did you even hear me? Are you listening? It wants something. It's been trying to talk to me and I was waiting for you, before I did anything— Why are we suddenly scared of it?”

  “Never mind! Just do it. Come on!”

  There were times the boy showed a disturbing tendency to Uulamets' habits—or it was wizardry that made one sit for hours and then, of course, immediately, the moment an ordinary man just momentarily began to believe the last piece of advice was gone—it was face-about in the other direction, and hurry about it -even though he had a gnawing feeling now that he truly wanted to open that door yonder, and he truly wanted to know what was in there and hear what it had to tell him. Eveshka was in trouble and that Thing in the bathhouse was the only creature in the world who knew precisely what was going on—it wanted to tell them—

  “Come on!” Sasha hissed at him, and pulled at his arm. He hesitated, looking back—

  But in any case of magic, he did exactly what Sasha asked.

  The wind sang a steady song in the rigging, shifting only as the river turned, and Eveshka sat on the bench Pyetr had made beside the tiller, her arm over the bar, her eyes on the dark ahead. She distracted herself with recollections and precise reckonings, wished herself calm: Fear lends a certain strength to your wishes, papa had been wont to say, but does it ever make them wiser?

  Papa's advice. Always. She said, coldly, to the rushing wind and the dark, “Does arrogance, papa?”

  And the dark said back, “You're right, of course. You couldn't possibly have that fault yourself.

  The answer disturbed her. There were ghosts aplenty in these woods, ghosts mat haunted her solitary walks, ghosts she met in anguish and in guilt—but of all the ghosts that could exist, this one she had decided by now would never come back.

  And it had no right to turn up now, god! he did not, slipping up on her quiet as a memory. She still was not sure the manifestation was no
t exactly that: overwrought imagination—and dammit, she refused to flinch. This ghost owed her an apology by the god he did!

  It said, so faintly it might have been the wind, Do I owe one to a fool? Just what are you doing up here, daughter?

  She tossed her head, shook the blowing hair out of her eyes-aware in the same instant that the wind was changing, the pitch of the deck decreasing, the sail about to slat, uncertainty in every motion, her wishes all overwhelmed.

  “Papa?” Fear struck her for a moment, her heart tottering unstable as the boat, but the wind came back to the sail, steadied the deck, carried the boat on its way, a wish as sure as the arms that had used to carry her. Her heart settled with a familiar, infuriating confidence—fluttered then, the whole world seeming to reel and pitch in the smothering silence and the humming of the ropes and the hull. One could sleep in that sound.

  Going north? that whisper said to her. The tiller rocked and swayed beneath her arm, and the water hissed under the thrumming hull. —Young fool. I expected this. Sleep now. I'll keep us steady.

  She did not want to sleep. She hated her father taking things out of her hands, damn, he always did that to her; and she hated the quiet tone he took, as if she were a little girl again—god, she had even forgotten he could use that voice: papa tucking her in at night, kissing her on the forehead, walking away to bank the fire and blow out the light, in the single room the house had been in those years.

  Good night, he would say then, out of the dark. Good night, mouseling. Safe dreams.

  She tried to keep her eyes open. But the hiss and the hum ran through her bones, made her eyes heavy. Her head began to droop, the motion of the tiller rocking her to sleep.

  The voice said, more substantial now, rough as she remembered him: Shut your eyes. You've taken on far too much this time. You need help. If you've not discovered it yet, young fool, that's my grandchild you're carrying.

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