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       Chernevog, p.13

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  It made a faint, angry sound. The god only knew what it said. It dogged them for a while.

  But ghosts did that sometimes, in the worse places in this woods.

  “Papa?” Eveshka said, feeling the change in pitch. The deck tilted sharply and something splashed.

  Hush, the whisper said. Everything's all right.

  The old mast creaked against its stays, the rush of water past them grew faster and faster. The ropes hummed, or it was her father singing spells, in his tuneless way.

  Remember, the ghost said to her, remember when you were five, and wanted the snow?

  She did. She rubbed her nose, tucked up in her cloak and ruefully thought of the storm she had raised, that had piled up drifts high as the east eaves of the house and made the roof creak.

  Snow deep and white, snow like a blanket, lying in tall, precarious ridges on the branches, branches that wishes could shake, making small blizzards...

  You remember, the ghost said. You do remember. You weren't afraid of magic then...

  Maybe it was a spell on the place, maybe only that their eyes were tired enough to take the ridge in front of them for more dark behind the trees. They had crossed the small ravine and were almost on the slope before the land began to make sense, and Volkhi snorted and Babi hissed at the rotten stench a skirl of wind carried to them.

  “It's the mound,” Sasha said, and Pyetr, slinging his sword around where he could get at it:

  “No nicer than it ever was.”

  A smell of rot and earth hung about the side of the ridge as they climbed, up and up to a barren top where the south wind blew unchecked. Water-sound whispered to them out of the dark as they walked the crest toward the river, with the hollow, ruined mound on their left, until the ridge ended in a long slope to a flat grassy edge and black water beyond.

  “No sign of the boat,” Pyetr said quietly, and after another moment: ‘‘I'm honestly not sure whether that's good or bad. — Is the old snake in his hole down there?”

  ‘‘I don't know. But I can't rely on anything, either. The quiet's still with us.”

  “One way to find out.”

  “Don't even talk about it!” Sasha said. He tried not to draw any more from the trees than kept them going; but when he slacked off his thievery, he felt so cold and weary his knees began to shake. Or the place frightened him that much—the mere thought of the cave down there, and the deep pit on their right, that had been part of the cave once: he wanted to know where the vodyanoi was, and was sure of nothing, as if he had his ears stopped and his eyes shut. “We'd do better to sit up here tonight and wait for daylight. The boat's not here, that's all we need to know, it's all we can find out tonight.”

  Pyetr said: “I want to have a word with the snake, myself.”

  “Not in the dark!”

  “Well, god, he's not going to come out in the light, is he? You've got the salt.”

  “I've got it.”

  ‘‘Good.” Pyetr took Volkhi by a shorter rein and started leading him downhill. Babi growled, hissed, then bounded after, a small moving black spot in the starlight.

  “We're not up to it!” Sasha protested; and Pyetr ignoring him: Stop! Sasha wished him, and saw Pyetr hesitate in the same instant, set his feet on the slant and look up at him with a look he imagined as indignation.

  “I'm taking from the forest, Pyetr, I can't go on doing that!”

  “You can keep on doing it till we know what we're dealing with!”

  “Not against him! I'm stealing what I've got—I don't know, I can't hold on to it—”

  I find no limit—

  “Long enough for questions!” Pyetr said. “Dammit, Sasha, don't doubt! Isn't that what you tell me?”

  Eveshka 's grave, beneath the willow—

  I've seen this, he thought. The bannik showed me this, god, we've arrived exactly where it said we would be.

  “What are we going to do,” Pyetr asked, “camp here, go to sleep, not knowing whether he's here or not—not knowing whether she is, more to the point?”

  “I don't know. Pyetr, I just don't know, I'm not sure—”

  “God. All right, wait here if you want to. Just keep wishing, all right?”

  ‘‘I can't!” he cried, feeling everything slipping. But Pyetr had already turned and started downhill, intending to go into that cave below the roots of the dead willow—with the bones and the dead things—

  Eveshka's bones, for all they knew, the irresolvable paradox of her existence—

  “Wait!” he cried, plunged into a reckless, weak-kneed descent. Pyetr never so much as slowed down, that was what his wizardry was worth at the moment. He reached the flat strip along the water, seized Pyetr's arm. “Wait!” he said, and Pyetr was going to resist him until he said, breathlessly, “Let me try.”

  “Do it,” Pyetr said. And he was trapped, looking into Pyetr's face—not up, nowadays. Eye to eye. Pyetr believed in him, Pyetr wanted him to produce thunder and lightnings, the tsar and all his horses: Pyetr, who did not always believe in magic, had an absolute faith in him, at least, and no belief in limits.

  Eavesdropping had its penalties. He was trapped, enspelled by a man without a drop of magic. He felt in his pocket to be sure, in all the rain and the stumbling about in the woods, that he still had the little packet of salt and sulfur, while his wits were still wondering why he was doing this and telling him that they both were fools.

  But he started walking toward the old willow down the shore— and stopped at once as he heard Pyetr leading Volkhi behind him. Pyetr nudged him in the ribs, saying, this man all Vojvoda knew for wild risks and breakneck escapades, “Go on. I 'm here in case the magic doesn't work. Babi's right with me.”

  Sasha clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering... chill and exhaustion, perfectly natural, he told himself. He was not sure any longer whether Pyetr was wrong, whether he had been right, whether in approaching the vodyanoi with stolen strength they were not doing something supremely stupid. It was certain at least that doubt was fatal: he tossed alternatives to the winds and resolutely wanted the vodyanoi out of his cave as they reached the willow.

  “Can you feel anything?” Pyetr asked, and he jumped, losing his concentration.

  ‘‘Shush!” He waved at Pyetr to be quiet, gathered his courage and, deciding the willow itself might afford him some feeling of the cave below its roots, he worked his way along one large root and leaned against the trunk, almost over the water as he wished down, down into the earth, where the River-thing collected bones and wove his own magic—he could feel that magic, now, dark and snaky and many-turning as its wielder, but he found nothing at the heart of it, as if the dark down there were vacant.

  “Hwiuur!” he called to the vodyanoi. “Answer me!”

  But there was no response under the bank. He heard the random lap of the river against the roots, smelled the dank breath of the cave under his feet as he balanced there—with very mixed feelings about finding the creature not at home. But the arm that supported him was starting to shake and, with the growing conviction that Hwiuur was not, wherever he was, asleep, he was very anxious to get off his precarious perch and away from the water edge. He pushed away from the trunk.

  The tail of his eye caught a shape swinging in the willow branches beside him.

  “God,” he gasped, afraid for an instant it was some drowned body snagged there.

  It hissed at him, Babi hissed, and Volkhi shied up, as the creature suddenly took on an elbows-out outline, moving spiderlike toward him.

  Blood on thorn-branches—

  Pyetr's sword rang free of its sheath. Pottery crashed. Volkhi thundered away along the shore.

  Fall of rain... gray sky, gray stone...

  Burned timbers... and lightning...

  Pyetr's sword crossed his vision and Sasha put out his hand to restrain him from that recklessness.

  Black coils slipping into dark water, flowing and flowing into the deep...

  Eveshka sitting at the rail
, pale hair blowing in the wind...

  The shape vanished from the branches in the blink of a night-confused eye.

  “What in hell was that?” Pyetr breathed.

  ‘‘The bannik. At least—it's what showed up in our bathhouse. It's not supposed to be out here. It's not supposed to do things like this!”

  A gust of wind blew willow-strands against his cheek, feathery and chill as the touch of a ghost. He faltered in his balance on the roots, snatched at the branches and immediately let them go—then grasped them again to be sure, while his heart thumped so hard it all but stifled his breathing. “Pyetr, it's alive. The willow's alive.”

  Pyetr caught a handful of the willow switches in his left hand and let them go again as quickly. “Maybe some green left in the roots,” he said, his voice none so steady either. “Trees do that.”

  One prayed the god it was only that—or at least that it meant something good, this life returned to dead branches, to Eveshka's willow, Eveshka's dreadful willow—that had been the last thing alive when the woods had died.

  “What did you see?” Sasha asked him. “Did it show you anything?”

  “No,” Pyetr said. Then: “Damn. Volkhi!”

  Sasha looked. There was no trace of the horse but the baggage he had dumped on the grass—in which he held out little hope for the jars of herbs and powders.

  The fire-pot at least had survived. And the vodka jug—which, by the one real magic of a very foolish young wizard, had no possibility of breaking or of emptying. Driftwood gave them convenient kindling. They shared a portion of bread and sausages, while Volkhi grazed on the margin at a good distance from the willow and the cave.

  “Can't blame the poor horse,” Pyetr muttered, while Sasha sorted broken pottery among other surviving pots, to tell what had spilled in the bottom of the bag.

  Comfrey and their other pot of sulfur and salt—that was the real disaster: one wondered what comfrey did in a mix that repelled River-things.

  “Probably,” Pyetr said, “he's thinking life might be better with 'Mitri, after all.” He broke a piece of wood in his hands, a crack muffled by the river-sound. “Probably he's right. —I'm not going to sleep, understand? I don't want to sleep tonight, in this place, I don't care if the River-thing's not at home, it's not safe here, it spooks Babi, and don't you dare work any of your damn tricks on me, hear me?”

  “I'm not,” Sasha said.

  “A wonder he didn't break a leg out there.”

  “He's all right. Some of our wishes stuck, didn't they? So it's not everything that's not working. We did get here, didn't we?”

  ‘‘Whose wishes?” Pyetr asked.

  ‘‘Fair question,” Sasha said, glumly, and tossed a bit of broken pottery into the river. Splash. Firelit ripples spread.

  Pyetr unstopped the vodka-jug, took a drink, stared off into the dark where the tree stood and said,

  “We should be out of here. We're not going to find him—”

  “Pyetr, I can't keep doing what I’ve done, I can't!”

  “You can do it a few damn days! 'Veshka did it for years! Pick on some scrub for the god's sake—it needs thinning anyway!”

  “It's not like that. It's not like that, Pyetr, you don't—”

  “Don't what?”

  “You don't understand. I don't use magic, I'm not really magical, I don't deal with it! There's a difference between being a wizard and being a sorcerer.”

  “Nothing's happened yet!”

  “Pyetr, -”

  “I don't understand,” he said. It was a challenge. It was hurt and frustrated expectation. “I feel fine, we can keep walking... ”

  “And wear ourselves down again. Pyetr, I've hedged terribly close—terribly close to something I shouldn't do—and the leshys won't like what I've already done—”

  ‘‘We haven't got damn many choices!”

  “Pyetr, I'm killing things!”

  That seemed to reach Pyetr. His frown changed, as if he were really looking at him for a moment.

  “The vodyanoi's not here,” Sasha said. “Eveshka's not. We can't do anything tonight and I can't keep us going at this pace if we have to go all the way—all the way north...”

  “Let's say it.”

  “Let's not. —I can steal a little.” Even that promise sent a shiver through his bones. “I can keep us going faster than we might. But I can't take and take and take, Pyetr.”

  Pyetr rubbed the back of his neck, looked up. “All right. All right. But if you could steal enough, just once—once, to make 'Veshka hear you—”

  He thought about that. It scared him. He said, still thinking about it, “I’m not sure that's a good idea.”

  “The leshys?”

  “I'm not sure of that either.”

  Pyetr shook his head in despair, rubbed his neck again and looked at him with tired, desperate eyes, saying, “No one's ever sure. No one's ever damn well sure.”

  “I have to be.”

  ‘‘Then nothing's damn well going to get done, is it? My wife's evidently sure.”

  “Pyetr, I'm scared. I'm scared it's all coming undone up there. I don't know magic. I understand wishes. They only work natural ways. You can't wish something against nature.”

  “Things change that can change,” Pyetr said. A muscle worked in his jaw. “I’ve seen 'Veshka come back to life, I've seen shapeshifters run like puddles... Babi, over there. Is that nature!”

  “Magic's different. Like that jug we can't break. Things don't always turn out what you'd expect. It's hard enough to think about consequences with wizardry. Magic just doesn't make any sense to me. If there are rules I can't figure them out—Chernevog didn't find any. Uulamets just said that why you do something has something to do with it, but it doesn't make any difference, if something like the vodyanoi gets a hold on you, because he's older and he's smarter and he is magical. Your body can wear out when I use it the way I was using it. Trees can die. Magic can't. Magic's a whole other thing, magic's that place Babi goes to when he wants to get out of the rain, but it's where the vodyanoi comes from, too. And if he's wishing on there and not here when he changes shape, if that's the way it works—”

  “You're not making sense.”

  “Would you bet against Dmitri Venedikov's dice?”

  “No!”

  “Well, I won't use magic on the River-thing, either.”

  Pyetr fell silent then, rested his elbow on his knee and a hand on the back of his neck.

  Sasha said, desperately, “I'm doing all I can, Pyetr.”

  Pyetr nodded, jaw tight. And did not look at him. Eventually Pyetr said, in response to nothing Sasha remembered, “She never plans on anybody else doing anything right. —Maybe when you're a ghost that long you stop believing in people, do you think?”

  “Eveshka loves you.”

  “I don't know what that means,” Pyetr said after a moment, and sighed and bent his head and poured Babi a drink from the jug, Babi leaning expectantly on his knee. The liquid went down Babi's throat. “I truly don't know.”

  ‘‘You don't know what what means?”

  “Her loving me.”

  “She does. Of course she does!”

  “I had a lousy father. I had lousy friends. Women all over town said they loved me, while they were cheating on their husbands. I don't know what the hell it means, loving somebody.”

  “You don't mean that.”

  “I'm not so sure.”

  “Because 'Veshka's doing something we don't understand?” This turn of Pyetr's thoughts frightened him—it was a pain he had never dealt with, this whole mystery of wives, that turned a light-hearted man to hurt and constant worry. He resented Veshka's hurting Pyetr. He tried not to make judgments. He said, “What's that to do with anything? We've been wrong before. She might be right, do you think of that?”

  “I never can make sense of her, you know. She never thinks I understand anything. Maybe she dunks ordinary folk are stupid.”

  “She knew we were goin
g to follow her. She knew you would.”

  “Is that love—because she knows I'm a damned fool?”

  “Pyetr, I swear I don't know if she's right or wrong; but I do know that whatever she's doing, she's got a reason. She thought she was doing the right thing—”

  ‘‘What reason? What reason, for going off where she's got the least excuse in the world to be going? The ghosts, the vodyanoi—she's no business dealing with anything to do with him, for the god's sake! Let alone Chernevog! Why in hell doesn’t she turn the boat around and come back and find us if she's so damn sure I'm following her?”

  “She doesn't want us in trouble. I don't think she's being smart in going alone—but I don't know how she'd get me to go and argue you into staying at the house. You know how that would work.” That came out saying 'Veshka would think him helpless. He tried to patch it. “She's not in love with me.”

  Pyetr drew a long breath and let it go slowly. He said, staring out at the river, “Keeping her heart wasn't really a good idea, was it?”

  Pyetr always managed to get past him—far past him, to ideas he did not himself want to deal with. “It may not have been,” he said. “But you've given her a lot, a lot, Pyetr, you don't guess how much. Wizards are lonely. You make her think of someone besides herself. Uulamets always said—that was what she ne most.”

  ‘‘Uulamets.” Pyetr said the word like a bad taste in his mouth, and his jaw clenched, making shadow. Pyetr refrained from speaking about the old man, for his sake, Sasha supposed-hated him passionately; blamed him for Eveshka's faults, but I never brought the matter up of his own accord. The god only knew what it took Pyetr to keep his calm tonight. He had already blundered into sensitive spots, but something had to be said now, while there was a chance to say it so Pyetr would understand it:

  “Pyetr, don't think she's weak. She doesn't like to use what she's got: I think what she's been through makes it hard for her, maybe in ways nobody understands. But she's so very strong she was terribly hard to teach. Even her own father was afraid of her.”

  “Well, then, we don't have to worry about her, do we? She'd handle everything. No need of help. We shouldn't have left the house. We can go back home and sit and wait.”

 
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