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       Chernevog, p.12

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  10

  One could wish a wound to heal, one could wish strain and heat to leave tired joints—but unless one did something both reckless and foolish, that wish had no resources but the body in question—and a body had only so much to spend: it always paid afterward, in profound, watery-kneed exhaustion.

  But Volkhi had to stay sound at least to get them away, please the god, and Sasha rubbed Volkhi's legs down, wishing up new strength in himself and in Pyetr, too, while Pyetr was shutting the door and bringing his packs down. Volkhi, evidently inspired to appetite, ducked his head and unconcernedly cropped a mouthful of something that interested him.

  “You ride,” Pyetr said, carrying their several packs off the walk-up, Babi trotting at his heels. Pyetr set everything on the ground and offered Sasha a quick hand up to Volkhi's back, insisting, “I'll take second.”

  Pyetr was doing very well at the moment, Pyetr was not asking questions and Pyetr wanted no arguments. Sasha took the lift up, settled astride and took the packs Pyetr handed up to him, his own bags of books and breakables, the grain and the blanket-rolls. “I think we should take the old path,” Sasha said. ‘‘It's longer, but you're right, at least the river can keep us going right, no matter if something tries to confuse us—and there's at least a chance of spotting the boat that way.”

  “The wind's been out of the south since noon,” Pyetr muttered, shouldering his own packs. ”It's a damned long start she's had already. —Can't you do anything? Stop the wind, maybe?”

  There had come a sighing in the trees just after the sun had passed its height—just when, while they were walking home, Eveshka must have taken to the river and wished herself up a wind that... he was not sure... might be blowing a little less for his efforts.

  “I've tried. Weather takes—”

  “Time,” Pyetr finished glumly. And then looked alarmed. “She planned this ahead of time? Is that what you're saying?”

  “We don't know she raised it.” He was pushed to say that. He did not want to say anything else. He wished Volkhi to move, so that Pyetr had to go ahead quickly and open the gate.

  ‘‘You're saying—” Pyetr began.

  “Don't,” he said. “Pyetr. Later. Please. Later.”

  No need to lead Volkhi, Pyetr had found that out: the boy just wanted, and Volkhi had as well have no rein on him.

  Wizards wanted this, they wanted that, and everything moved, horses, people, friends—Eveshka was off to the god knew what, and Sasha first insisted they stay and then insisted immediately, now, in the next few moments, they be off into the dark with a wizard's clattering pharmacopeia and a load of books—

  Which told him nothing except that Sasha had found something in the house that scared him out of good sense, something he did not want to talk about in earshot of the yard or even in the house—whatever banniks had to do with it. And the wind that carried Eveshka away from them had gotten itself together in whatever time it took a wind to gather.

  ‘‘What's going on?” Pyetr asked once they were on the downward pitch of the road, beside the dock. “For the god's sake, what are we running from? What did you find out?”

  Sasha said, from Volkhi's height beside him:

  “She did leave us a note. I found it in my book. It should have been the first place I looked.”

  Pyetr looked up at him, but against the night sky Sasha was shadow, and out of the dark Sasha's voice was hoarse and thin, telling him less than it might have.

  “She wanted to go looking for you, right off,” Sasha said. “But I didn't think we should: I was afraid we might be calling you back into something, and she was going to stay and try here while I went looking—”

  “You said that already. What else did the note say, dammit? What's she up to?”

  “Finding the leshys. She was worried, the way things were going.”

  “Worried about the leshys?”

  “About the quiet. So she was going to try from the house...”

  “What? Try what? Sasha, don't make me ask every damn question: spit it out! What did she write? What did she say she was doing?”

  “She didn't say. If she knew, herself, which I'm not sure of.”

  “God! Wizards! Then guess, is that so damned hard? Tell me what goes on between you two! I live in the dark!”

  “Things don't go on between us.”

  “The hell!” He never wanted to shout at the boy, he never wanted to be unreasonable. He was losing his mind. “Dammit, just give me a guess, give me anything, I don't care! Tell me what goes on in my wife's head. And what's the bannik got to do with it?”

  “It showed up just after you left. She called you to come back—but this quiet—”

  “You said that! What about the bannik?”

  “We both asked it, and it showed us thorns and branches. She didn't trust it.”

  “Showed you thorns.” One resisted the urge to drag Sasha off the horse and shake him. One just kept asking, reasonably, patiently, shivering with the chill of wet weeds soaking one's legs as they left the empty dock behind and started along the trail, “What do you mean, showed you thorns?”

  “It doesn't really talk when it answers. You see things.”

  “So why in hell didn't we ask it a question? Are we afraid of it? Maybe it showed her something you don't know about, maybe—”

  “It wasn't the same bannik that used to live there. She didn't trust it; but you're right, that's not saying she might not have gone back in there after I left. She could have asked it something on her own.”

  She certainly would, Pyetr thought desperately. Nothing was ever right unless Eveshka did it herself.

  “—Or maybe she got an answer from the leshys,” Sasha said. “That's just as likely. She packed, we do know that. She left around noon, we can guess that by the wind and the bread and all, and I really think she might have heard me last night telling her I'd found you. That'd certainly make her feel better about leaving.”

  “Fine! That's really fine, Sasha!”

  “Not because she wanted to.”

  “Is that what the note says?”

  “It just says she knew we'd follow her and she didn't want us to—which is saying she knew she couldn't wish us not to, because she wasn't that sure she was right.”

  “Eveshka doesn't think she's right. The river'll run backward first. Where's she going?”

  “It didn't say.”

  “Didn't say. Didn't say. She left you the note, for the god's sake! She had to have said that.”

  “I told you what it said.”

  “There's got to be something else. You didn't read it right.”

  “Writing doesn't mean everything.”

  “Well, it's damn useless, isn't it? What the hell good is it if it doesn't tell you the important things?”

  Sasha had no answer for that one.

  “I'll tell you the first thing I want to know,” Pyetr said after a moment more of walking and gathering the bits and pieces of his temper. “I want to know where our old friend under the willow is, and I'll lay you odds he's not in his cave right now.”

  “I think it might be a good place to look,” Sasha said.” That's another reason I wanted to go this way.”

  “For all we know the damn Thing's in our bathhouse! The bannik talked about the river, did it? It probably wanted me for its supper!”

  “I don't think it was the vodyanoi. But I don't trust it. I'm not that sure it's a proper bannik. They're supposed to be old. This one isn't.”

  Shapeshifters, Pyetr thought. In the god knew what shape. One could come up to the house in Uulamets' likeness. Or Sasha's. Or his. And Babi, who could recognize such things, had been with them. Babi had growled at the bannik, if that meant anything. He slogged through a boggy low spot, keeping his balance against Volkhi's side. “I'll tell you,” he said, between breaths and struggles after footing, “you say you daren't doubt anything. I can, remember? Doubting's a talent of mine. I doubt everything's all right. I doubt we know what we're do
ing. I doubt we're going to find anything in the old snake's hole, and I doubt my wife's in her right mind, does that add it up?”

  “It seems to,” Sasha confessed.

  The river trail dwindled to a track under dead trees and degenerated into a brushy bog. Sasha clung to Volkhi's back, his head buzzing with exhaustion and river-murmur. Time seemed muddled. He wished Volkhi and Pyetr to sure footing where it existed—there was no hope of following Babi, who had no sense about taller folk or obstacles Babi could pop past. Blink! and he was the other side, or halfway up a hill, or wherever Babi wanted to be, puzzled because no one had followed, no matter they were half dead of exhaustion and snagged in thorns.

  “Babi!” Sasha called, wishing him to find 'Veshka, if nothing else, go to her, stay with her—but Babi paid no attention. Babi kept coming and going in his usual way, regardless of wishes. And from time to time he turned up on Volkhi's rump, when the going got damp, to sit until they reached drier ground.

  Wrong, Sasha kept thinking, desperately wrong to have come this way: recent rains had made the trail worse than the maze it was. He desperately wished them strength to keep going, wished Volkhi not to take him under branches, wished ways through this maze of dead ends and soft ground where Pyetr swore and stumbled knee-deep in water.

  ‘‘It's worse and worse,” Pyetr complained.”God, it's a damn swamp!”

  “I'm sorry,” Sasha said; but it hardly helped now. He called up more and more of their strength, telling himself he was more use on Volkhi's back than struggling along afoot—he scarcely had his wits about him now as it was, and bit by bit the well-wishing he could do, using up strength and warmth from their bodies, would wear them down to cold and chills; it would kill them if he kept it up.

  “I think we should stop,” he said, and let go his wishing slowly, argument enough, he was sure, for Pyetr to feel the truth of it in his bones. But:

  “We can make the cave,” Pyetr said.

  “The cave! God, we can't get that far! If we did we can't deal with him tonight.” He let everything go, and ached like winter in every bone. “I can't keep us going, Pyetr.”

  “I can,” Pyetr said, and took Volkhi's reins in hand and led him, to Sasha's dismay. The god only knew what strength Pyetr was going on now, swearing and struggling for footing in the morass he had advised them into, while he sat safe and dry on Volkhi's back.

  “Wait,” he said, wished Volkhi to a halt and slid down from Volkhi's bare back into ankle-deep water. The baggage came off with him. “God,” he muttered in disgust and heaved the dripping packs up onto Volkhi's back—but lifting them took more out of him than he expected, and he leaned trembling against Volkhi's shoulder while his head spun, the whole due of his well wishing suddenly come down on him with a vengeance.

  Pyetr walked back, laid a heavy hand on his shoulder, slapped Volkhi commiseratingly on the neck. “We both walk,” Pyetr said in a ghost of his own voice. ‘‘Volkhi's done enough the last two days. Let him carry the packs, that's all.”

  “He can carry you,” Sasha objected, struggling after Pyetr as Pyetr led Volkhi ahead of him. “At least you don't have to lead him! I can wish him, just let him go!” But even such simple wishes came with difficulty to his muddled wits, confused and scattered like so many birds. “Pyetr, we're both taking for granted 'Veshka's being a fool—but what if she's not? What if she knows something we don't? Maybe we ought to trust her. We don't know what we're walking into. Stop!”

  ‘‘We're not assuming anything,” Pyetr's hoarse voice said out of the dark ahead of him. “We're going up there to find out, aren't we?”

  Pyetr never had blamed him in all of this; Pyetr had never asked anything of him but answers he did not know how to give, and help he could not find—at least not in themselves any longer;

  Pyetr just assumed his wizardry had failed and did not blame him for that either—

  “Damn,” Pyetr gasped, and caught his balance, bent over as Sasha reached him, hauling his foot free of some underwater hole or root. He leaned against Volkhi a moment shaking his head and catching his breath in a coughing fit before he began to walk again.

  Thorns and branches closing about them, leshys standing still and tall as trees…

  Leaves falling in sunlight, a golden carpet on the ground...

  Visions crowded in, brighter than the real night around him, filled with omen. Sasha panted after breath, tried from moment to moment to summon up strength where they most needed it. A night might seem to go on forever—but it had an end. This trail did. Only get to higher ground and they could rest, Pyetr surely thought they would get their second wind, Pyetr was that much stronger, he would go as long as he could push himself—

  But Pyetr coughed, Pyetr swore in gasps and staggered and hurt himself and said, finally: “Dammit, Sasha, can you possibly give us some help here?”

  “I can't. There isn't any more. We've gotten as far as we can, Pyetr.”

  Pyetr just kept walking. Sasha did. His sense of direction was going, and he fended brush from his eyes in one long giddy confusion of hills and branches. He wished Pyetr's cough to stop, stealing a little of his own strength and Volkhi's to do it: dammit, he was nine years younger than Pyetr, at least his legs ought to hold up—if only he had spent less of his recent years at the books, if only, somewhere, he had learned to draw on himself the way Pyetr did, the only magic an ordinary man had to keep him going—while a wizard learned only, desperately, how to stop that kind of wish.

  A wizard could never want things beyond reason: a wizard could kill someone... He hated his failure. He hated being less than Pyetr. That found a little more strength in his body than he had thought he had. He tried to find advice in Uulamets' memories—

  But he recalled Chernevog's instead: Nature can't work against itself. But magic, pure magic, has no such limits.

  It took all a wizard's magic to move so much as a pebble against nature: once or twice in a lifetime, master Uulamets had said, a wizard past his childhood could work a real spell—

  If—

  If he wished something magical with a child's simplicity.

  Or a rusalka's ruthless single-mindedness—

  God, I do know how. I do know how—

  And we can't, we daren't, I won't.

  They climbed a bank to dry ground, moved as shadows in a starlit maze of white, peeling trunks, came down again to bog and brush. River-sound grew distant, a faint murmur out of the dark, beneath the dry rattle of limbs in the wind. “You ride,” Sasha urged Pyetr, again, panting for breath, but Pyetr refused— the foot was fine, Pyetr said, he had not hurt himself, he was only glad to get Volkhi to solid ground. “Can't be that far,” Pyetr said, leaning on his knees a moment. “I don't ever remember it being this far.”

  Sasha thought, We're not going to find Eveshka tonight. She doesn't want to be found, she doesn't want us to catch her.

  Not when Pyetr's with me. If Chernevog breaks free—Pyetr's the way to her heart. She told me—take care of him. Don't follow her.

  God, I'm a fool! Eveshka, Misighi, hear me!

  “We're being fools,” he called out to Pyetr, but Pyetr said, in a rasping voice, “Is that news? Come on—” and came back and tried to help him, taking his arm, holding to Volkhi's mane to keep his own balance.

  “Damn,” Sasha said, surprised into tears, “dammit, Pyetr!” But he could not say he was right arguing with Pyetr's judgment: he had no idea any longer what was right or wise. It was Pyetr's heart drove them both, and it was his own heart muddling up his thinking, he knew that it was: his own heart, his own doubts, his own weakness.

  Everything's going wrong, we're falling into a trap, my wishes aren't working. It's magic we're fighting—and I'm not Uulamets, I'm not even Eveshka, and I don't know any more what to do. I can't even be sure enough to stop Pyetr, Pyetr's the hardest of us to work on, and maybe he's the only one of us still in his right mind—

  “Damn,” he heard from Pyetr. “Damn! —Volkhi! Stop!” as Volkhi stum
bled in water and lurched wildly off and aside, trying to get a forefoot free—

  Volkhi made it, on a terrified wish Sasha hardly felt. Sasha stood, gasping after breath while Pyetr got down on his knees in the water, feeling after the leg that well could have snapped.

  “Is he all right?”

  “He's all right.”

  Sasha clenched chattering teeth, wished the leg sound and wished Volkhi not to be in pain, or tired as the poor creature was—surely Volkhi was worth more than the trees or the bracken, more than foolish hares or any stupid jay. The leshys might not agree: in the leshys' reckoning they and a nest of sparrows might be equal—but the whole forest might perish, god, the leshys themselves might be lost if a young and ignorant wizard lacked the moral courage or the wisdom to break their rules for their own sake.

  He made his wish not wholly rusalkalike, to draw one life till some creature died—but, in the way Eveshka had discovered to do, drew life from everything, all the woods far and wide—

  “Forgive me,” he said to the leshys, then, and deliberately widened that theft, wished Volkhi well, wished Pyetr and himself well. Magic flooded strength into them, at least enough to serve.

  “What are you doing?” Pyetr asked. “Sasha?”

  “Something I can't go on doing. Something Eveshka would have my hide for.”

  Pyetr might not have understood. Maybe Pyetr was too distracted to understand. “God,” was all Pyetr said; and Pyetr did not question the need for it, he only led Volkhi through to better ground and kept walking.

  Sasha followed him, aches fading, breath coming, frighteningly easy. The whole forest was there to draw on, all the life they had nursed back into it.

  For all their replanting—surely they could steal a little. It was not, after all, for themselves he stole. It was nothing selfish.

  The leshys had to understand... please the god they had to understand.

  Something glided off through the trees, ghostlike, pale. Eventually an owl called.

  A ghost drifted past—one of the shapeless sort, no more than a cold spot.

  “Damn!” Pyetr cried, and swatted at it. “Out! Away!”

 
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