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       Chernevog, p.14

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  “Pyetr, you know what the truth is: she's scared to death for you. Yes, she's got her heart, and she knows anything that want! her or me is going to go straight for you, that's why she didn't just ask me to go, she wants us looking out for each other. She can't work with people. She can't even work with me. She gets scared. Sometimes I think—” He had never brought it up. He took a breath and took the chance with Pyetr. “I think maybe she's scared of slipping back again.”

  Pyetr looked straight at him this time, with all his attention. “To being a ghost?”

  “To wanting things. To wanting things so much she can't…”

  “She could stop. She did stop. She could have killed me, and she did stop.”

  “With you she did, because you were the first person in all the world who made her think of somebody else. But if she weren't alive, if she hadn't come back all the way to life and she were with you every day—I'm honestly not sure she could have been that good, this long. I'm not sure anybody's that strong, not to have a selfish thought sometime, even if you know it's going to hurt someone—and sometimes if you have hurt someone—if you've done something really, terribly awful—your wishes won't work very well.” He was thinking of his own house, seeing the fire in the windows and hearing the voices. “I can put out fires a lot better than I can wish them to start. And if she's thinking of using her magic—I don't think she wants anyone she loves near her.”

  Pyetr stared grimly into the fire and took another drink. A big one. Then he capped the jug. “Well, I know what I'm going to do, friend, it's very simple. No magic. Nothing of the sort. I just want within reach of Chernevog. The leshys had the right idea in the first place. Old Misighi was for breaking him in little bits. I should have helped.”

  Chernevog's own wishes might well have prevented that, Sasha thought; but he kept that unsettling thought to himself; he had poured enough into Pyetr's lap tonight, and he was not at all sure he had made Pyetr understand him, about magic and rusalkas. He could wish that Pyetr did. But that broke promises— and that wish itself might go astray, Pyetr having no way to feel what it was to have wishes work—what it felt like to wish while one's enemy wished, fester and fester, until there was no time to think and no time to mend things...

  Until the power grew so much and the confusion so great—

  Sasha shivered, a twitch of his shoulders. Across the fire, Pyetr settled down in his blankets. Sasha lay back on his own mat and pulled his blanket to his chin, staring up at the sky, and listened to Volkhi moving nearby.

  Thank the god most of the baggage had survived.

  Thank the god they had Babi with them to guard their sleep. Babi had posted himself between them and the water, as good a watchdog as they could have.

  He only wished he knew where the vodyanoi was tonight; and recalling the bannik—why it had come here or why it had power here. Maybe, he thought, the bannik's behavior was like Babi's: Babi had no reason to leave a dvorovoi's duty either, faring off with them about the woods, except that being a wizard's dvorovoi seemed to make Babi different. Certainly being a wizard's bannik—might account for almost any odd behavior.

  Insoluble by any reason. His thoughts were growing random and chaotic. He worried whether Pyetr had understood anything.

  He could still change his mind about what he had said, at least he could wish Pyetr to forget specific things he had said—but that was meddling, too; the god only knew what damage it might do—even put Pyetr off his guard and endanger his life. One could not find a path without a trap in it, and he was scared to the bottom of his soul that he had said things that Eveshka would not forgive and Pyetr might never, ever forget.

  God, he did not want to hurt them. Either one.

  “Watch us, Babi,” he whispered, before he set his own mind to drift, and deliberately breaking a promise, began to wish them both disposed to sleep...

  After which the earth seemed to move and pitch under him like the river.

  A ring of thorns...

  A cold bed, a hard one—he felt the breeze and knew the touch of sun and moon; was aware of the movement of the stars...

  It was the motion of the horse he still felt. It was the dizziness one got from gazing into the heavens—

  Sky overhead, blaze of sun through branches, stars glittering through a net of thorns, a long succession of days and nights, careering madly across the heavens...

  He sat upright, caught himself on his hands as Babi hissed and barreled into his chest, holding him and burying his head under his chin. He hugged Babi back, still trembling, not wanting at all to think how close that had been.

  God, he thought, that was Chernevog, the thorns, the stone, the days and the nights. I'm dreaming his dream.

  I nearly did it, I nearly waked him myself... God, I'm a fool!

  In the same instant he felt a prickling at his nape, looked toward a sudden sense of presence in the dark at his elbow, fearing the slither of something large and snakelike—

  There was indeed a shadow, in which eyes-shimmered gold-filmed red, reflecting firelight. But the shape was human, a spiky-haired, ragged urchin.

  What do you want? he asked it, while Babi clung to him and hissed like a spilled kettle. The bannik shifted forward, grinned at him, resting bony arms on bony knees. Squatting there in the likeness of a starveling child, it made a rippling move of its fingers.

  Sound of hoof beats... pale horse running under ghostly trees.

  What are you? he asked it. Bannik, what's your name? Are you our bannik—or are you something else?

  It grinned at him. Its teeth were sharp as a rat's. It spread its fingers again.

  Spatter of blood on a golden leaf—a single drop, shatteringly ominous...

  Perhaps he dreamed that he had dreamed. Now he rode through woods, trees rushing past him, a horse's pale mane flying in his face. Everything was twilight and terror, and falling, golden leaves. He was not sure where the horse was carrying him, or what pursued them, or where hope was, except in getting away from this place before the light finally failed.

  The leaves fell, the sun came and went in patterns of dark and light, following a curve across the sky.

  Trees stretched their branches, thorns wove like serpents— and slowed to graceful leisure. Leaves unfurled, more slowly, so slowly finally the eye could no longer see them move.

  Then one droplet hung still, still, on the thorn, impaled there...

  Eventually it fell.

  The next drop gathered. One began to think, if one wished, it might stay a little longer, fall just so.

  One would know by that small sign, that one was no longer quite asleep.

  11

  Pyetr put water on to boil—tea, Sasha asked for this morning, late as they had waked, tea, for the god's sake, in this damnable vicinity, a delay hard to bear, considering the vodyanoi missing from his den, and Eveshka on the river—

  In spite of which considerations he himself had slept like a stone last night, suspiciously like someone's intervention, while Sasha complained of unrestful dreams and wrote furiously. But if one dealt with wizards, patience was a necessity, and if the lad wanted tea while he did some quick scribbling in his book, lea Sasha got: it was at least something for a man to do who had no choice but to wait.

  So Pyetr delayed the questions that were churning in him this misty morning. He made the requested tea, and set a cup by Sasha's foot and a lump of honeyed grain on Sasha's knee.

  Without a glance, Sasha reached after the grain-and-honey, stuffed the whole into his mouth and drank with the left hand-alternate with holding the inkpot, god hope he did not confound die two. An elbow braced the pages open, the quill-tip waggled more furiously than it had on the goose. Clearly Sasha was hurrying as fast as he could and an ordinary man could only hope he was coming to useful conclusions.

  Pyetr washed his own breakfast down—asked, eventually, in case spells required it, “Are you going to need the fire?” and Sasha answering with what he thought was no, Pyetr drowne
d the embers with river-water and packed as far as he could, except Sasha's book and the ink-pot.

  He thought, while he was doing all of this: 'Veshka's not a fool, either. Sasha's right: she at least thinks she knows what she's doing. If she only bothered to tell a body what she's up to—

  Or why in hell that tree's alive again—

  It had upset him last night. It worried him this morning and occasioned glances down the bank to where it stood, lithe limbs blowing in the wind. He did not understand why it should matter that an apparently dead tree had returned to life, or what obscure connection there should be to that tree and Eveshka's disappearance—except he most emphatically recalled it dying, shedding its leaves out onto the water while Eveshka became alive again. And certainly it had looked dead for all the three years he had sailed back and forth past this place replanting the forest upriver.

  Eveshka cared about the woods. She bespelled her seedlings with fervent wishes for their growth. She talked about this tree and that tree as if it was a person. This willow had held her soul once, whatever that meant; and it had survived the whole forest dying, died at the moment she lived, and come back to life suddenly after all this time, and she had never, ever, with her magic, noticed that curious fact?

  Or noticing it—happened to mention that trivial matter?

  God, he had never even imagined she might come here in her flights into the woods.

  Surely not.

  Sasha closed the book.

  “Are we going now?” Pyetr asked.

  “We're going.” Sasha put book and ink-pot into his bag. ‘‘You ride. Your turn.”

  “What are we going to do?”

  “We're going to go up there,” Sasha said, “and find out.

  “Good. Finally something makes sense. —Move, Babi.” swung up onto Volkhi's back as Babi, perched there, vanished out of his way. He set his cap on as Volkhi ambled over to Sasha in a very unnatural attraction for a horse, and he reached down to take Sasha's pack up. “Do we know anything? Have we learned anything in all this reading and writing?”

  One hoped. One did hope.

  Sasha dashed that notion with a worried shake of his head. “I only think somebody wants us here. Don't ask me who.”

  “I am asking. Or is it that name we're not saying?”

  “I don't know,” Sasha said, and shook his head again, starting Volkhi walking without laying a hand on him.

  “Well, what?”

  “I don't know what.”

  “Sasha-”

  “I'm afraid he's waking. I don't know how, I don't know why, I don't know if it's something he wished a long time ago or it's just one of those accidents that happens with wishes. Maybe something made the leshys' attention slip. It doesn't matter why. I don't think it matters, at least.”

  “Don't say Don't know. God, I'm tired of Don't know, Not sure, Don't know why. Just for the god's sake let's make up our minds how we want things and dig our heels in, isn't that the way it works?”

  “It works best,” Sasha said, “if what you wish is of no possible use to your enemy.”

  They traded off from time to time, from time to time let Volkhi carry the baggage alone to rest from both of them—in a pathless region, Sasha thanked the god, both higher and drier than the boggy ground south of the den, and further from the river now, but not often out of hearing of it. Sasha slogged along during his turns afoot as fast as he could, catching a stitch in his side he wished away, stealing only so much as kept them moving and wishing the while for some wisp of a thought from Eveshka, some break in the silence that went around them—most of all for some sign that the leshys were even aware of their difficulty. But there was no answer from any source, except that fore-boding which had been with him in his nightmare, that they were running out of time and running out of luck, that Eveshka when she had taken the boat had effectively stranded them so far behind there was no hope of catching her on the way, not so long as the wind blew from the south—and blow it did, against all his wishes.

  Pyetr in his own turns afoot spared little breath for conversation, made no demands, offered no recriminations for his shortcomings or his bluntness of last night.

  Only once: “Damn mess,” Pyetr said, when they lost time wading a substantial stream, and once again, when, immediately after, Pyetr slipped and took a ducking—”I know you've got other worries just now,” Pyetr said, standing up dripping wet, “but could we have a little attention here?”

  “I'm sorry,” Sasha said in all contrition. It was his fault. But Pyetr frowned up at him on the horse, put his hand on his knee and shook at him. “Sense of humor, boy. Sense of humor. Remember?”

  That was the way Pyetr got through things, no matter hr. friend was a fool. He realized then Pyetr was trying to cheer him up and make him quit a very dangerous brooding and wool gathering.

  “I'm sorry,” he said, and only by Pyetr's face realized it was still another damnable Sorry. He tried to joke too, and winced. “Sorry.”

  “Lend me a canvas.”

  “Why don't you ride?” Sasha said, though he had only just gotten up, because Volkhi's bare back afforded some warmth to a man in wet clothing. But Pyetr refused and only asked for the canvas, saying walking kept him warm, and that Volkhi had no need for another soaking.

  Within the hour it thundered.

  They kept traveling in rain and dusk, lightning flashing while above the trees—a miserable night, Pyetr said to himself, but they had their shelter canvases to wrap about them as they walked—soaked as he had been when it started, it still kept him warm; and at least since that ducking they had better ground underfoot—wide spaces between dead trees and new saplings, more new fern than thorn brakes, which let them keep traveling well past sundown.

  But for some reason about sunset Sasha had taken to looking over his shoulder as they went—and once Pyetr realized it, he began to have a prickly feeling at his nape, and began to his own anxious glances at their back trail.

  “What are we looking for?” he asked. “That spook of a bannik?”

  “I don't know,” Sasha said. “I just have this feeling.”

  Came a sudden crash over the woods, white glare lighting up the puddles, glancing off wet branches and leaves and bracken. Sasha looked white as a ghost himself: it might perhaps be the chill.

  But the light was failing them fast by then; and they put up their canvas in the near-dark with ropes between two trees, got a fire going at the edge of their shelter in spite of the rain, and had a fair supper, themselves and Volkhi and Babi.

  Comfort, as far as it went.

  Only now that they had stopped there was time to think, and Pyetr stared into the fire wondering if Eveshka might know he was thinking of her right now, and asking himself for the thousandth time—he could not help it—whether if he had done better for Eveshka she might just once have trusted him when it counted.

  “Don't give up,” Sasha said, perhaps eavesdropping, he had no idea. He began to think he had no shame left, or privacy, and sighed.

  “I'm not,” he said, chin on forearm. “I only wish I knew what she thinks she's doing. Or what we keep looking for, or why in hell—” Sasha always chided him about swearing, never mind that master Uulamets had never stuck at it. And it helped the knot in his throat. “—why we can't reach her.”

  “I don't know,” Sasha said, “I honestly don't know.”

  “Are you trying?”

  “Pyetr, I swear to you—constantly.”

  He ran a hand through his hair, an excuse to look elsewhere, because his eyes stung. He had no wish to distress the boy. So he said, tight-jawed, the only hopeful thing he could think of: “I trust you.” And again, after a sigh, because he felt a little better for that, and it crossed his mind that Sasha might find some things easier to explain without words, “I really don't mind you wishing at me.” It was different from just living in the house, he told himself, there were things he needed to know in a hurry, the god help them, even if it made him crazy for
the rest of his life—even if Eveshka had scared hell out of him doing II

  Sasha winced visibly, looked embarrassed, and he was sure Sasha had overheard him. Finally Sasha said, faintly, “Wish me to mind my own business when I do that.”

  “It upset Eveshka,” Pyetr said, and after recalling what he had not told Sasha, once upon a time: “That was one of those times she ran out of the house.”

  Sasha looked upset. Finally Sasha said, “She never said. Pyetr, she makes mistakes, I make mistakes—”

  “She said she'd had a hundred years to learn bad habits. She said once—” He did not like to remember it. He knew 'Veshka would kill him for telling it to Sasha. But he thought too, now, if there was one person who ought to know... “She said she thought sometimes she ought to be dead again, she said sometimes she almost wished she was—”

  Sasha's face grew grim and worried.

  Pyetr asked, because for three years he had wanted to ask someone: “Can she do that? Wish herself to die?”

  “She doesn't mean it,” Sasha said. “Or she would die. That's not what she wants, that's absolutely sure.”

  “What, then?” His wife talked about suicide—and he had to ask an eighteen-year-old boy what she meant. “Dammit, what can I do for her?”

  “Make her happy.”

  “I'm not doing that very well.” The knot was back in his throat. He picked up the vodka jug, pulled the stopper.

  Sasha said, ‘‘Better than anyone could.”

  He thought about a drink. He decided that was a coward's way. He looked at the fire instead, wishing Sasha would drop the whole thread of conversation, talk about something else now. He had found out all he wanted.

  ‘‘It's hard to grow up,” Sasha said. ’‘It's terribly hard. I killed my own parents.”

  “Oh, hell—” He knew it: he did not want Sasha going off into those thoughts.

  “It doesn't matter whose fault it was. It's just hard to grow up if your wishes work. She hates her father. But her father had to keep her from burning the house down or wishing him dead or something, and he was strong enough to stop her. Mine wasn't. What 'Veshka wanted that made her run away—that's why wizards can't live with each other. That's why bad wizards can somehow grow up in town. But Uulamets' father just took his son into the woods and left him on a wizard's doorstep.”

 
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