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       Chernevog, p.16

           C. J. Cherryh
 
“What, then?”

  “I'm asking you. You're good at getting around things.”

  “Tavern keepers. Creditors.”

  “Are wizards smarter? —What would you wish?”

  “I want 'Veshka safe! Can't you wish that, with no equivocation?”

  “Safe could mean—”

  One lived with wizards, one learned such simple truths. “God,” Pyetr sighed and put both arms over his eyes. “Get some sleep, boy, just for the god's sake, get some sleep.” He thought a moment more. The idea would not turn him loose.

  The fact was, what he truly wished was embarrassing—but he thought it might help if Sasha threw it in. ‘‘I wish her still to love me.”

  “Is that fair?”

  “To protect her—absolutely it's her!”

  Sasha said nothing to that. Pyetr thought about it, and worried over it, and Eveshka's damnable independence, and said, finally, thinking that by morning he was going to be embarrassed about this: “Then wish me to be someone she'd rely on.”

  ' “That's already true,” Sasha said.

  “Wish it anyway. I do. —And while you're about it, wish us smarter than our enemies.”

  “I don't think you can do that. You either are or you aren't. That's how you win and lose. “You have to be specific.”

  “Then—” He thought of Vojvoda's upstairs windows, of balconies, latches and shutters. “Wish us not to forget the little things. Wish us—” He thought about the years of his boyhood, that he had gambled his way up from tavern cellars to the fellowship of young gentlemen—and deluded himself about their loyalties. “—to see through our most cherished self-deceptions.”

  “That's good,” Sasha said. “What else? What about Chernevog?”

  Pyetr shook his head slowly. “I don't know.” God, he found himself don't-knowing, the same as Sasha. But there was so damned much to keep track of.”Wish a snake to bite him. Wish a bear to eat him.”

  “Awake or asleep? Now or later? You can't put much complication in a wish. There might not be a bear in the neighborhood.”

  “Well, find one! God, what can you predict? What use is the damn bannik, if it doesn't give you that? —Get some sleep, for the god's sake. We're crazed, we're getting nowhere closer, talking all night.”

  ‘‘Uulamets used to say, Never ill-wish.”

  “Well, it never damn well stopped Uulamets. Did it?”

  “No,” Sasha admitted, and then said, on another sigh, “A bear isn't really such a bad idea.”

  12

  Slow thump of hooves on earth, quicker and quicker—an ominous sensation of presence behind him—

  Sasha looked over his shoulder. Eyes shone out of the dark. Babi hissed, or something did.

  White mane flew in his face, dead branches rushed past him. He was riding he had no idea where with something clinging to his back, riding double on the horse—

  Volkhi made an odd noise, and Sasha waked with a start in fogbound daylight—with the pale horse of his dream leaning over him.

  A white and brown spotted horse, actually, looking at him down a very familiar bowed nose.

  He scrambled up, sending the horse shying back in offense; he asked, wobbling on his feet, “Missy?”

  Ears pricked forward to his voice—and switched back again as Pyetr staggered upright, “God, boy, where are you getting them?”

  “I didn't intend to. I honestly didn't intend to—”

  “Isn't that the carter's horse?”

  “It's Missy, yes.”

  “Well, god, don't let her get away! —Here, Missy. Good

  Missy, here, girl, Volkhi's a gentleman, I swear to his behavior.”

  Missy shied back from Pyetr's enticements, even from Babi; but Sasha cheated, afraid she might indeed bolt back into the woods. He wished and whistled softly, stood with his hands held out as Missy took one cautious step and another, until he had her soft nose smelling over his fingers.

  Old friends, old memories, in the midst of troubles—god, it was good to see her. It was wonderful to put his arms around her neck. “Poor old girl,” he said against her warm, broad cheek. “Poor old girl, I'm sorry, I wouldn't have brought you here. This is a dreadful place.”

  Missy distractedly butted him with her head, cracking his teeth, looked up and surveyed Volkhi and Pyetr and Babi with a worried eye, doubtless asking herself what this odd gathering was, or what an honest working horse might possibly have to do with present company.

  But that something had gone right suddenly began to seem too improbable. Missy's presence, however loved, became a threat. He had dreamed about a white horse: he had never thought of white-maned, white-rumped Missy.

  “I wished for her the night Volkhi came,” he said dazedly, holding Missy's cheek-strap while Pyetr was busy throwing the packs together. “I knew I'd done it. I thought I'd stopped it. That was why I was up writing, when the shelf fell. I wished other things—god!—about my uncle—”

  ' “The black god take your uncle. And I doubt Missy had much to do with the shelf.”

  “It doesn't. But she had to have come straight up from town— to where we were going to be this morning...”

  “Well, damn little use her coming to the house today, is it? Your wish just took care of us, friend, it crossed a flood getting here—”

  ‘‘But that's just it. She didn't go the way we did. There wasn't time. The only way she could have gotten here since I wished is straight across from Vojvoda, not even by the road, no path, nothing—since that night.”

  “So maybe she got a head start. Maybe for your wish to work she had to.”

  “You don't do things like that. Things don't happen before they happen.”

  Pyetr looked at him under one brow. “Good. I'm glad. The world should work like that.”

  “I mean I honestly don't know. Pyetr, I don't like it, I don't like any of this. I'm telling you I don't think it was my wish that got her here.”

  “Maybe it was 'Veshka wished it.”

  '‘‘Veshka didn't even want Volkhi!”

  ‘‘Which means you did it. I damn well don't think Kavi Cher-nevog did.” Pyetr gathered up two of their packs and flung them over Volkhi's back, shaking his head. “Just let's get moving this morning. Whatever it came from, whyever it came here, isn't it what we do with it that counts? Let's just wish not to be fools.”

  “Wishing's never helped that,” Sasha muttered. “Babi? — God, where's Babi?”

  “There,” Pyetr said, indicating about head-high. Sasha looked over his shoulder, ready for disasters, and found Babi perched comfortably on Missy's rump, a ball of black fur for all the world like a slit-eyed and comfortable stable cat.

  It made him feel better about Missy being Missy.

  But not about the other things.

  Andrei Andreyevitch's mare having had the decency to run off wearing a halter, it was only a spare bit of rope she needed for a rein—if she even needed that, Pyetr thought, considering Sasha's peculiar talents. “Hauling turnips may be safer,” he murmured into the mare's white ear while he knotted the rope to the ring. “But the lad's all right. Do what he tells you. He's not all crazed. Now and again he's even right.”

  He had no notion himself why he felt in better spirits the last two days—as if, somewhat like the night he had fallen off The Doe's shed roof, this whole business with Eveshka running off had hit him hard and left him dazed; but eventually, even after a fall like that, one started walking straight and realizing nothing he had done lately was sensible.

  He got saner and Sasha got crazier—precisely the trouble with wizards, Sasha and Eveshka both.

  Hell, she needed him, absolutely she did—she was doing something crazy and she needed both of them. They would catch her...

  He swung up to Volkhi's back and Babi scrambled out of Sasha's way as Sasha tried the same trick getting up on Missy. —And failed, his booted heel sliding down Missy's flank while Babi watched from the ground.

  “Not as light as you used to be,” P
yetr observed, leaning on Volkhi's shoulders, watching the second attempt, Missy wincing, standing quite staunchly still through this. “Taller, though. Wish, why don't you?”

  Sasha gave him a dark look and made it, not elegantly, hauling himself up belly-down while Missy started to travel. He managed in a most remarkable way not to dislodge the baggage.

  At which Pyetr found himself chuckling, as if there were truly hope in the world, as if—

  —as if he had had a right to laugh, without Eveshka to approve it.

  As if he had no right to a joke with Sasha, that she would not approve—that he had not had certain rights—for a very long time.

  God, he did not want to feel what he was feeling, damn, he did not! He wanted 'Veshka to be happy: he had done everything to make her happy...

  ... which mostly seemed to mean giving up one and the other habit of his that 'Veshka could not abide, considering her delicate state, until there were bits and pieces of himself just...

  ... dying, until this morning.

  Damn, he thought in panic. No, that's not so, that's not so, I've never been happier in my life...

  Granted my misspent youth; and 'Mitri and all the rest, not to mention all Vojvoda wanting my neck in a noose...

  —That's not altogether a happy life, is it?

  “Pyetr? Is something wrong?”

  His hands had gone cold. Volkhi was wandering under him without direction. He looked at Sasha with a sudden, acute fear that Sasha might have eavesdropped just then. But Sasha only looked puzzled.

  “Pyetr?”

  “I'm fine,” he said, knowing that had not come out as reassuring as he had hoped. He took up Volkhi's reins. “Fine. I'm absolutely fine.”

  Up one foggy hill of ghostly young trees and down another— Babi jogging briskly ahead, the carter's mare going along at Volkhi's side, her ears up, her nostrils working, a constantly worried look in her eye, as if she were still looking for a familiar street, or trying to figure what dangers hereabouts particularly relished horses.

  But the mare kept up very well on the climbs, sturdy legs carrying her quite resolutely—straightforwardly trampling down the sort of nuisances Volkhi danced over.

  Precisely when and why she had started from town and whether they had indeed only arrived at a place that the mare was headed for before any of them knew they were going to need her... that was the kind of thinking a sane man left to wizards; but if some of Sasha's wishes were looking out for them before they even knew they needed it, then maybe their other wishes would come true. Maybe that was why he could feel as if—

  As if a burden that had been on him for years was falling away from him on this dismal trail—as if, away from the house, with all the rules upset and his life in danger, he could breathe again.

  He never, ever thought ill of 'Veshka, he swore to himself he never, ever begrudged her what he gave up to please her...

  But he still thought, God, what's the matter with me? What's happening to me? And why am I so damned angry with her?

  “What did she write?” he asked Sasha that night when, after a little hot tea and a bite to eat, Sasha opened his book and got out his inkpot. “Show me where she wrote.”

  Not that he knew what good it would do him to see it. He mistrusted writing, he suspected books of contributing to their troubles, but Eveshka set great store by writing things, and her curious ways of thinking had been turning over and over in his mind all day. Her likes and dislikes made him so angry that for small, frightened moments today he had not even been able to remember anything but her frown—stupid of him, he knew; and self-centered; and all the reprehensible things he knew he had been before Sasha and 'Veshka had reformed him. So it suddenly seemed to him that, writing being magical, maybe—just maybe, Sasha doing the reading, and Sasha not knowing her quite so well, or not having the right spell on him, Sasha might have missed something essential.

  So he overcame his apprehensions and asked to see the very writing; and Sasha carefully opened the book and canted it to the light while he shifted his shoulder to see past their single shadow.

  He knew where her work was before Sasha ever pointed it out—marvelous as it seemed to him, the same as he could tell 'Veshka's fine stitches from their coarser repairs, he knew precisely the two lines she had done. He did not touch the page: he had no idea whether that might disturb the spell; but he squatted on his heels looking at it, while Babi snuggled up as a warm lump in his arms, and he listened while Sasha ran his finger along the line and said what he read in it.

  But it was only the same thing. “You said that already.”

  “That's what it says.”

  One hated to accuse Sasha of inability. But it was a desperately serious point:' “Try. I really think it ought to be more than that. Try again.”

  “Pyetr, I swear by you, ink is ink, and not even a wizard can play tricks with what's on that page. It doesn't change.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Pyetr, it doesn't ever change. You can burn it, maybe, scrape it off, but nothing can make those letters into something else. It's there, exactly what she said, as long as the book lasts.”

  ‘‘What if some other wizard wishes it?”

  ‘‘Not that easy. Not in any wizard's book. Letters don't shape-shift. What's there is there. She wanted me to understand things by what she said. Bat I'm sure of exactly what's there, too. She was worried about us coming after her.”

  ‘‘And getting in her way.”

  “Yes.”

  That did sound like “Veshka. He pointed at the blank space at the end. “Then write one about her being careful, too,” he said, and Sasha not forbidding, he watched while Sasha did that—because he saw a use for writing, finally, that no matter how his thinking shifted around, and no matter what happened to him, still, ink being ink, the way Sasha said, that wish if

  Sasha wrote it might stay and take care of her, even if he failed her, or some spell on him made him forget everything he loved.

  He wished with all his heart he could think of a better wish than that. He sat there looking into the fire and trying to think of one, but it seemed to him that anything beyond that doubted Eveshka, and he knew that was no help to her at all.

  So he poured Babi a generous bit from the jug, he had some himself, and lay down to sleep, thinking, Well, we're ahead by one horse, aren't we? Things are looking better.

  Pyetr did sleep, finally. One learned to be deft about magic, when one was cheating. Sasha spun sleep like wool, wished it soft and deep while he worked, all promises to the contrary—

  Water curling white about the bow, ropes creaking—

  One tried—even with one's skin crawling, one snatched at thoughts like that the instant they came, tried to speak to Eveshka if it were at all possible... but all that echoed back was that sound, over and over, just when he thought he had the thread.

  He kept wishing, he leaned his head against his hand, fighting sleep himself, and wrote, simply, with all the wisdom he had, I wish Eveshka may see Pyetr with her heart, and never doubt him.

  That might be interfering. He was afraid that it was. It might in some unpredictable way be dangerous. But, doggedly unrepentant, he went on writing:

  If there's anything common about everything that's gone wrong with us, it's not the silence, it's our losing touch with what's going on around us.

  Things happen that can happen. Pyetr reminds me: It's the things we take for granted that we most of all mustn’t forget.

  It was up before the dawn and roll the blankets, pack half-blind in the dark and the chill, and move again, one long half-asleep confusion—a bit of sausage by daybreak as they rode, and a drink from the jug, while Babi sometimes perched on Missy's rump and sometimes Volkhi's, and occasionally, the mood taking him, jogging ahead of them.

  Pyetr gave up asking questions, reckoning he knew as much about the leshys' reasons as Sasha did—which was very little: no one knew what went through leshys' minds. But they were moving, gaining
ground with the steady rhythm of the horses' stride, up one hill that looked like another hill and down this one that looked like the last, slow down for the horses to rest, pick up the pace again, stop for the horses to recover their wind, rub their legs down with salves one could thank the god Sasha had brought plenty of, and on and on again.

  Sometimes he completely despaired, fearing he would never see 'Veshka again, that events were combining against them, and that the short rest of his life was aimed straight for a disaster even leshys could not deal with. At such moments he was in no hurry at all to get where they were going, or to discover what was waiting there.

  Then quite as suddenly all such thinking would seem completely unreasonable to him: they were riding up north simply, grandly, to deal with wizardry matters Sasha and Eveshka would realize quickly how to deal with: then all his fears seemed ignorant and foolish.

  “Are you wishing me?” he asked Sasha suddenly.

  “Sometimes,” Sasha admitted.

  “Thank the god. I thought I was losing my mind.”

  “I'm sorry.”

  ‘‘It's all right,” he said. But he began to shiver then—want of sleep, perhaps, or the sense that in one way or the other—he was constantly being lied to.

  “Pyetr?” Sasha said.

  It kept coming and going… extreme despair and foolish, unreasonable hope.

  “Are you still doing it? Stop it!”

  “I'm not. Things keep shifting. Do you feel it?”

  “What in hell is it?”

  “I don't know. I 'm not doing it. I—god!”

  They came through a curtain of young trees and the afternoon sun hit the young woods ahead of them in a blaze of transparent gold—green-veined gold on sapling boughs, all shot through with sunlight, gold leaves covering the ground…

  Pyetr was struck dumb as Sasha, first by the color and the beauty of it—as if they had ridden magically from spring into a golden autumn.

  Then he thought with a chill, It's not a healthy color. The trees are dying here...

  Sasha said, in a hushed voice: “I've seen this place. I've been seeing it for days, in my dreams.”

 
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