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       Chernevog, p.15

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  “Malenkova.” He had heard this story, too.

  “Uulamets said most really powerful wizards just go crazy— and most of the rest just wish not to be able to wish—and that's the cure, if you can really want that. But 'Veshka doesn't really want that either, or she would. Malenkova's dead, Draga's dead, Uulamets is dead, Chernevog—the god only knows about Chernevog; and as far as I know 'Veshka and I are the only really strong wizards alive. It's—”

  For a long few breaths there was only the sound of the fire burning, the wind whispering in the leaves.

  “—very difficult sometimes,” Sasha said. There might be a shimmer in Sasha's eyes. Sasha's knuckles were white, his arms locked around his knees. “Scary. But when you've been able to do anything you want—and you learn to use that—it's scarier to think of being helpless. So you don't do anything. When you do move, you try to be right.”

  Pyetr did not know what to say. Finally he said, ”You're better than Uulamets.”

  “I hope so,” Sasha said, and put another stick on the fire, clenching his jaw. Something happened. Pyetr felt his aches suddenly stop.

  Another theft, he supposed. A man got used to these interferences.

  “You think she's scared,” he asked, “she might do what you're doing and not stop?”

  “I think she's terribly scared of that.” A second stick. “She had terrible fights with her father. Not just shouting. Wizard fights, wishing at each other—back and forth. He stopped her. He was always strong enough to stop her—until she ran away that day. I don't think she understands yet how scared he was of her.”

  “Why? She can't have outfought him.”

  “Because” a wizard's never more powerful than when he's a child. Only thank the god no child wants very much. He can want his mother. She has to listen. Has to.” Another of those pauses, Sasha's eyes downcast in the firelight. “Which might not make her love him much. And if she doesn't love him he's going to want her to. He's going to want her to do what he wants till, the god only knows, either the baby burns the house down or wishes something really dangerously stupid or someday a mama runs or if or his papa picks him up and takes him to a wizard who can deal with him. 'Veshka's mother was a wizard, her father was, she got her gift from both sides. If there was ever somebody who was born like her, I don't know, and Uulamets didn't hear of anybody like her either.”

  ‘‘What are you saying?” He honestly had no idea, except that it seemed nothing good.

  “I'm saying I wonder now if Chernevog was even thinking about revenge on Uulamets. It's possible he killed her because he was that afraid of her.”

  He had no idea how to put that together, whether it was good or bad. Eveshka going up there alone—suddenly might have a completely different interpretation. “You think she can deal with him?”

  “I don't know. I don't think 'Veshka herself knows.”

  ‘‘What does that mean? Dammit—either she can or she can't.”

  “She doesn't like to talk about it, but I think—I think she's learned a bit about herself since she came back. I think she's gotten a better idea why certain things happened, and maybe she knows now why she and her father came to odds—even if she does hate him. I think she's afraid he could have been right. And then this business up north—if this has been coming on, and she felt it—she was linked to him once...”

  “That's wonderful. That's damned wonderful. So he's calling her up there. You think she's got any chance whatever against him? He killed her, for the god's sake! How much more can you lose than your life?”

  Sasha gave him a strange, troubled look. Pyetr suddenly wished he had not asked that question.

  Sasha said, stirring sparks from the fire, ”She might beat him. The one thing she has to do is know exactly what she wants.”

  “God,” Pyetr said before he thought, and having said it, shook his head and added, his honest thought: “Then we're in trouble, aren't we?”

  The forest lay still under the stars, not a breeze stirring.

  An owl swooped, talons struck; a hare squealed sharply into silence.

  Sasha waked with a jerk in the huddle of blankets, caught his breath and, to shake himself free of the dream, sat up to feed another stick into the embers.

  Pyetr stirred and mumbled, “Need help?”

  “Go to sleep,” he said, wishing the dawn would come. The stick took light, a line of small bright flames in the coals. “It's all right.”

  Pyetr leaned on his elbow, looking at him with concern.

  An owl called, somewhere near. Sasha fed a second stick in and tucked down again, not wishing to discuss it.

  “The rain's stopped,” Pyetr said.

  It had. There were only the droplets the wind shook loose from the trees. Thunder walked far to the north.

  Near him, Sasha could not help thinking tonight. Near Chernevog.

  God, Eveshka, listen to me...

  He felt vulnerable tonight. Perhaps it was the dream. He thought of the hare—the swiftness of the strike...

  He had never thought overmuch about carrying weapons, he had never even thought of wanting a sword for himself: a wizard with his art was more than armed. A wizard wishing to kill...

  Could.

  Pyetr trusted him to do the wise thing, the right thing to save them; he was terribly afraid that he had been making wrong choices all along, and he wondered if it was so much virtue or wisdom had made him hesitate at killing Chernevog as it was his fear of uncertainties.

  Or the force of Chernevog's own wishes.

  He shivered, listening to Pyetr settling back into his blankets. He thought, I haven't Pyetr's courage. I'm scared of consequences I can't even think of, so scared I can't think straight. Like a damned rabbit—of some shadow in the sky.

  If the leshys let him wake—and if Eveshka's gotten herself into something I can't get her out of, god, Pyetr believes I know what I'm doing, and who am I, for the god's sake, to deal with a sorcerer in the first place? Uulamets was scared of him, Uulamets couldn't beat him, except with magic...

  He thought, then, clear and cold, God, what am I doing? Magic against Chernevog?

  Dmitri Venedikov's dice...

  Fool, fool, Alexander Vasilyevitch!

  He came free of his trance, scrambled up, looking for his pack.

  “What's wrong?” Pyetr sat up and grabbed at his arm. “Sasha?”

  “It's all right, it's all right, Pyetr, I just for the god's sake woke up.” He dragged his bag into reach and set out pot after pot of herbs. ‘‘I haven't been reading what I'm writing all these years, that's what. Words. Words and words. They don't mean anything unless you listen.”

  “What do you mean, reading what you're writing? —What are you looking for?”

  “Mullein, golden-seal, and violet.”

  “Violet?”

  “I like violet.”

  He found the jars he wanted, he unsealed them and flung a pinch of each into the fire, added moss. The fire leaped up. “More wood,” he said.

  “Sasha?—” Pyetr seemed to think better of questions then, and got up and fed in three more sizable sticks.

  “I don't promise,” Sasha murmured, trying to keep his thoughts together, examining that Don't-promise for hidden doubt. He amended it, absently: ‘‘But it's a mistake to go at this with magic.”

  “Can you talk to 'Veshka? Can you find her?”

  “Maybe. I don't know.” He added more violet, breathed the smoke, tried to shut Pyetr's questions out of his mind and keep his thoughts joined, like holding so many skittish horses at once. “Magic doesn't belong in nature. Nature's shutting us out, the harder I try to use it. That's what's going on. Nothing against nature.”

  “What for the god's sake are you talking about?”

  “Dmitri's dice. Magic and nature. They don't like each other. Leshys are something special. Magical as Babi. Natural as the trees. Like wizards, more than anything else, part this, party that—but they don't know us: even if they like us they can't te
ll us apart except they smell us over. They never do know us one from the other by our faces. Us, him, no difference, no difference at all to them, if it's wizardry they don't want happening in the woods—”

  “God. You think the leshys are doing this?”

  “I don't know. I honestly don't know. It's a question of moving pebbles.”

  “Pebbles?”

  “The little things. Hush, please, Pyetr, hush!” He put his hands over his ears, in danger of losing his thought—the exact way Misighi felt when he was speaking, the things Misighi loved and noticed by choice…

  Misighi and birch trees. Misighi leaning close to smell and touch. Misighi, who heard the least twig break in his woods— his woods, long before it ever belonged in any wise to wizards... He leaned close into the smoke, under the drizzle from the trees, held his hands to the warmth, filled his eyes with the leaping flames, unblinking.

  Wood and fire. Natural as the forest. Natural as the fall of rain that snuffed it, the seeds that sprouted after it. —Natural as the fall of a single pine cone somewhere unseen—and the wish that Misighi hear it.

  “Misighi,” he whispered, “Misighi, 'Veshka's out on the river and we can't find her—can you talk to us, Misighi?”

  He expected that the answer would be faint when it came. He rested there in the warmth of the smoke, he rested his eyes against the heels of his hands till he saw lights, he thought with guilt of the borrowing he had done against the woods, not trusting wizardry, not thinking of Misighi as Misighi truly was—

  And maybe, in that thought, Misighi was chiding him for his mistakes: he did feel the woods again, distant and trying to escape him.

  But he clung to that elusive sense of presence: he remembered birch trees, he made all his thought simply of birch trees. “Misighi,” he whispered, and somewhere far away dropped another pine cone.

  One had to look ever so carefully to see a leshy when it wished otherwise. One could so easily mistake them. One had to listen ever so carefully to know a leshy's voice—and one might never, ever hear it, if one had one's mind already set only on what one expected to hear...

  It was truly amazing how long the boy could sit still: Pyetr tucked back in the narrow shelter, wrapped up in his damp coat and his blanket. The magical smoke had no effect on him but to make his nose run—but he saw the concentration in Sasha's attitude, and he was sure something was going on: if it took building fires in the middle of the night and if the boy suddenly said he understood something, then, god, if belief could put some force behind the boy's efforts, then he did believe, damn, he did, he would believe in old friends before he believed in anything.

  Misighi, he thought on his own, if you're listening—we need help. 'Veshka does. Maybe you do. We're trying to get to you. Listen to the boy, he knows how to say things...

  Babi screeched of a sudden and bounded out of the shelter: Pyetr's heart jumped. Babi took refuge on Volkhi's back, eyes glowing gold in the dark above the fire. But Sasha never flinched.

  Is it going all right? Pyetr wondered. Am I fouling things up?

  Then he heard something saying... he had no idea. It sounded like the sighing of leaves. It felt like a clean wind. It smelled like spring.

  It passed, slowly.

  That was Misighi, Pyetr thought, with no sane reason in the world to say he had heard a thing. He wiped his nose furiously, stifled a sneeze, found the arm he was leaning on trembling violently and the fist that had been in his chest let go.

  Sasha said, a whisper, ”He's listening. He knows we're here.”

  “I heard.”

  Sasha sat there a long time on his heels, elbows on knees, firelight shining on scarcely blinking eyes. Pyetr held himself on the shaking arm, dared not move, hardly dared breathe, thinking, eventually,

  God, is he all right? Ought I to wake him up? What use am I, except to keep some bear from eating him?

  Sasha murmured, finally, scarcely a movement of his lips, “The quiet is the leshys' doing. They want us up there, fast as we can.”

  “They damn near got me killed!” Pyetr whispered. “Don't they know that? They've gotten 'Veshka off alone, the god only knows where she is— If they want us up there, why didn't they damn well say so?”

  Sasha said, in the same hushed tone, “They're preventing things, that's all. All magic. They're allowing only what agrees with them. I think they're in some kind of trouble.”

  “Fine. Fine. We know what kind. Is Misighi hearing from 'Veshka? Did you ask him?”

  “I asked him. He said—he just said hurry.”

  God, he did not like the sound of that.

  “We've got to go,” Sasha said. “Now.”

  In the dark. Of course. Now. Immediately.

  Pyetr grabbed up mats and blankets and started packing.

  Fast.

  Daylight found a wholesome woods, wide-spaced growth. A fox crossed a hillside, stopped and wondered at them.

  They were out of the vodyanoi's woods, Sasha said; and in small truth, whether they had suddenly passed within the leshys' healthy influence or whether it was the sheer relief of knowing Misighi was at least aware and answering, Pyetr felt as if they had some real hope: he kept moving as fast as he could possibly walk, despite the occasional stitch in his side, keeping Volkhi's pace and insisting Sasha ride more than he did—”It's all right,” he said to Sasha. “My legs are longer.”

  Ride and walk and walk and rest—the latter only by short stretches: time to splash water in one's face and wash the dust into some spring. Walking warmed wet clothes, wet boots wore blisters, and the whole day became one long confusion of leaf-strewn hills and bracken patches.

  But the change in the woods itself was heartening. Leshys' work, for sure, Pyetr told himself: there was hardly a fallen branch in their path, no reason not to go on after dusk and into dark; and when the dark got too deep, they simply unrolled their blankets, tucked down and rested without a fire, with the branches sighing over them.

  “It feels safer here,” Pyetr murmured dizzily, on the edge of sleep: “It feels healthier. Thank the god.”

  “You've got to ride tomorrow,” Sasha said.

  “Faster otherwise.”

  Sasha said nothing to that. Pyetr had second thoughts then that maybe it was only that his walking felt faster, the god knew Sasha pushed himself as hard as he could—

  “Besides,” he amended it, “you don't think when you're busy watching your own feet, and my thinking doesn't help us: yours does.”

  Further silence. Then, a shaky: “I am trying, Pyetr.”

  “I know you are. Did I ever say not?”

  “When I was little,” Sasha said on a sigh, “when I'd burn myself or smash a finger—I'd want it to stop hurting—and it would. And that would scare me. So I'd want it to hurt again. And then I'd want it to stop, because it hurt. I feel like that sometimes.”

  He thought about that. It was more like Eveshka than he wanted to think about at the moment. He said, “I can understand that.”

  “Can you?”

  “Nobody knows what they really want. Everybody has doubts. That's the point, isn't it?”

  “I think it's the point.”

  “You should have dumped that skinflint uncle of yours in the horse trough, you know that? You put up with too much.”

  “I was scared.”

  “You were too damn polite, you truly were. You always have been.”

  “That's what I mean! I'm not—not like you.”

  “Thank the god. What do you want? The boyars after you for a hanging?”

  “I'm not as brave as you are. In a lot of ways.”

  “God, what does that mean? —Because I said I walked faster?”

  “You take chances. Chances don't scare you.”

  Walking a balcony railing. Irina's upstairs window. An icy porch and a prodigious icicle. “They scared hell out of me! I was a gambler, I knew the odds. I wasn't brave. I was broke.”

  “But you did it. You always knew what you were doin
g.”

  “I guessed.”

  “I wouldn't have had the nerve.”

  ‘‘You're a wizard. You wouldn't have to.”

  “No. I could cheat.”

  “Ridiculous. Fedya Misurov was the cheat. And you wouldn't even dump him in the horse trough.”

  “I was afraid of him.”

  “No.” Pyetr lifted his head off his arms and looked at Sasha, who lay with Babi sleeping on his chest. ““You were afraid of yourself, friend. You were afraid when you did dump him, it wouldn't be a horse trough.”

  A sigh. ‘‘You're right about that.”

  “Better damn well do something, hadn't you? You can't do worse than nothing.”

  “But that's it, Pyetr, that's exactly it—if somebody's wishing me into mistakes.”

  Pyetr leaned on his elbow. “Maybe doing nothing's a mistake. You think of that?”

  Sasha turned his head and looked at him. “If you were a wizard,” he said, ‘‘I think you'd be a good one.”

  “God, no, I wouldn't.” The thought appalled him. “Not me.”

  ‘‘What would you do? “

  “I'd wish him dead! I'd wish the woods safe and 'Veshka back home. That first.”

  Sasha scratched Babi's head. “How?”

  “What do you mean, how?”

  “That's too general. How are we going to make that happen?”

  “You tell me.”

  “I'm asking you. —I'm serious, Pyetr, you've a good head for right wishes. You think of things. Think of getting around what somebody else might have wished—think of something he won't have thought of. You always were good at that.”

  That was a hard one. Pyetr rolled onto his back and looked up at the dark branches.

  ‘‘I wish—I wish 'Veshka to make right decisions, for a start.”

  “Not bad, but too general. Specific things win out.”

 
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