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       Chernevog, p.17

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  Something strong and heavy hit Pyetr's boot and climbed. He caught his breath and realized it was only Babi, clambering up not to sit on Volkhi's rump this time—but to cling to his side like a frightened child.

  ‘‘I don't like this,” Pyetr said, for what it mattered to anyone.

  13

  Falling leaves, trampled under the horses' hooves— Dream of riders in a golden wood, nearer and nearer— Dream of a boat, where another sleeper lay, arm over the swinging tiller, pale hair like a veil— Dream of blood, a dark wall of thorns— Wolves... whose eyes were gold as the falling leaves...

  Every brash against a branch, every gust of wind loosed leaves about them, a constant drift against the sunlight, both beautiful and dreadful.

  This is the way the old woods must have died, Sasha thought. But it's not Eveshka's doing this time—surely not.

  He said to Pyetr, ‘‘I think we're going straight to the heart of this.”

  “Fine,” Pyetr said with an anxious look, and patted Babi, who clung to him. “Fine. How far, and what's there, and do we go on going straight to it?”

  “I don't know. I'm not sure what we ought to do.”

  “Babi's not happy with this, you know.” There was an unwonted pitch of anxiousness in Pyetr's voice. “It's not many things make Babi afraid...”

  A sudden spate of golden leaves where the riders passed... Light faded, the gold dimmed... cloud drew across the sun. Time moved now—the heart beat, faster and faster.

  “God!” Pyetr said as a sudden gale hit their backs. The horses snorted and ducked their heads, leaves and twigs pelting them. Grit of some kind went down Pyetr's neck, Babi hissed and vanished out of this sudden inclemency, and Sasha said,

  “He's waking. I'm terribly afraid he is.”

  “Wish him not to!”

  “I am!” Sasha said. “I'm just not sure it's doing any good!”

  “Don't doubt, dammit!” The blizzard of golden leaves dimmed suddenly with a shadow over the sun. Pyetr looked up and back, shielding his eyes from the wind-borne debris. A single rain-dark cloud loomed over the treetops in the west.

  ‘‘Rain and thorns,” Sasha said faintly—which made no sense, but a man got used to that.

  “I'm very tired of rain,” Pyetr said, set his cap securely on his head, and looked about him for wherever Babi might have gotten to—but there was that Place that Babi could go when the going got unreasonably uncomfortable; and at the moment he wished he were there, too, if it was out of the coming rain and whatever worse they were going into. “Damn. Damn. Damn.”

  “Don't swear,” Sasha chided him, and he kept his mouth shut, hoping Sasha was wishing something such as Chernevog staying where he was, such as them living to see the river again-such as 'Veshka and the boat safely waiting for them on that shore.

  Thunder rumbled. The sky went to iron gray, not unlikely weather for spring: storms came whisking up over the forest horizon, spat a bit and swept on again—and one did truly hope this one was that sort, and not someone else's wishing. Wizards had a knack with lightning—at least the real ones did—and the rumblings and flashes overhead could make a man very uneasy.

  “I do hope,” Pyetr said, “you're noticing the sky. And the thunder.”

  “I do,” Sasha murmured, ’‘I have,” —as if a thousand other things were more important. Sasha pointed ahead of them, where, if one squinted through the rain, one could see a gathering of leafless trees far taller and stouter than the saplings they had been seeing.

  That seemed strange, on a second thought, that the leshys should have cleared and replanted these woods so completely— and left such a grove standing.

  Tall, aged trees, Pyetr thought as they rode closer—old trees of that generation that had died with the south woods, all standing in thorn brakes and weeds, dead and dry, in springtime...

  Volkhi viewed it askance, pulling at the rein; but that was the way they had to go, and Volkhi settled with a snort, shaking his head—while poor Missy kept her steady, wizard-wished pace.

  Pyetr was about to lodge his own objection when it came to him what they were seeing in the peeling, brushy trunks ahead of them. A chill went through him.

  “Leshys!” he said on half a breath. “God, what's happened to them?”

  ‘‘I don't know,” Sasha murmured. ‘‘I honestly don't know.”

  “Leshys can't die!”

  “They're not dead.”

  “They're not doing damn well, are they?” They came to the last edge of the gold, in among thorn thickets, thorns and vines twining round leshys standing so very still, in this desolation—

  The horses stopped suddenly, and stood— Sasha's doing, Pyetr was sure; and he looked around with the strongest, most uncomfortable feeling of something ominous all about them.

  A whisper of brush surrounded them. He saw the stirring of twiglike fingers, the slow opening of vast, strange eyes in trunks all around them.

  “Wizard,” a voice rumbled, deep as the grinding of millstones.

  And another, deeper still, “Promises broken...”

  Twigs rustled, thorns bent and snapped as that leshy slowly stretched out its arm toward Sasha. It grasped Sasha's coat and dragged him from the mare's back, Sasha holding desperately to its twiglike fingers.

  “Be careful!” Pyetr shouted at it. Misighi had warned them of the wild ones, leshys from woods unaccustomed to visitors— leshys which had no appreciation at all what discomfort flesh and bone might suffer in a stone-breaking grip. “Be careful of him!”

  Foolish, he thought in the next breath. Of course Sasha was quite capable of taking care of himself—a fool going after a leshy with a sword sheathed or unsheathed was only likely to annoy the creature.

  But: “Promises,” the leshy said, and Sasha said, in a voice which clearly said he was in pain:

  “Pyetr, Pyetr, don't do anything—don't argue with them— please!”

  That was not right. Nothing was right about these creatures.

  “Let him down!” Pyetr yelled at it, waving the sword to attract its attention. ’‘Damn it, you're hurting him! Let him go!”

  It paid no heed. It began to move, striding through the thorns, bending and breaking them, Sasha's coat snagging, the god only knew about his face and hands.

  Volkhi was not moving, spell-bound as he was. Pyetr pulled his head around and waked him with a kick, rode after the leshy that had Sasha—straight on into branches that raked him off Volkhi's back and caught him up and up in a painful grip.

  “Misighi!” he yelled. It was all there was left to do, as it snatched him along. “Misighi, dammit, help!”

  Twigs wrapped him about, the sky and the ground exchanged positions more than once, and his ribs were creaking.

  “Misighi! —Sasha! Let go, damn you!”

  Maybe it listened. At least the grip let up, and it handed him on to another and another, a confusing wrapping and unwrapping of twiggy grips about his body and his face, until one took him painfully by both arms and held him in front of its huge, moss-green eye.

  “This one,” it said, in a voice like rolling stones. “Yes.”

  It let him go. He flailed out, hit the ground on his feet, and staggered into Sasha's steadying hands. “What in hell—” he said, and caught sight of the stone and the sleeping man beyond Sasha's shoulder.

  Then he knew beyond a doubt where they were.

  “Promises,” a leshy said, and the murmur from the lot of them was like the sound of stones in a river.

  “Killing the trees,” another said.

  And another: ‘‘Trust no wizards. Break bones, crack limbs.”

  Twigs reached toward them, quivering, grasped them both and drew them close, folding about them.

  “Misighi!” Pyetr yelled; and the one who had them rumbled, above the other voices:

  “Stone and brine, young wizard, fail the root, fail the leaf, fail the tree. Foolish, foolish wizards.”

  “Is it Misighi?” Sasha asked.

 
; “Misighi, yes.” Brushy arms extended, rustling in the hush that had fallen, and set them safely back on the ground. “This root goes deep, deeper than leshys drink, young wizard.” Twigs felt them over, twigs grasped and curled and faced them both about, toward the sleeper on the stone.

  “What do we do?” Sasha asked, turning about again; and Pyetr turned, seeing nothing but a grove of trees.

  “Misighi?”

  Nothing stirred. There was nothing but the grove, the thorn hedges around them—the young wizard lying pale and still.

  “God,” Pyetr said, catching a breath. “Is he asleep?”

  ‘‘He certainly seems that way,” Sasha said, and walked closer to that stone, and to Chernevog.

  Pyetr overtook Sasha and caught his arm. “Close enough. Don't touch him.”

  Rain glistened on Chernevog's pale face and hands, soaked his dark hair and his clothing. Like wax, he seemed—but he breathed. His clothes—white shirt, black breeches—were weathered and scattered with bits of twigs and leaves. That seemed to Pyetr the most disconcerting sight—that cloth should have faded, while Kavi Chernevog remained so apparently alive.

  This creature—who had murdered 'Veshka once, and caused so much harm—slept like nothing so dangerous or evil. He looked so young and so incapable of the things he had done.

  “So we're here,” Pyetr said, with a breath. He looked around the circle of leshys, that looked like nothing so much as aged, weathered trees. “Here before she is, I hope to the god. — Misighi, where's Eveshka? At least tell us that!”

  Not a branch moved, not an eye opened anywhere around the grove.

  Sasha said, “The way the river bends—it's entirely possible we've beaten her here.”

  “I don't like this, damn, I don't like this at all. What's the matter with the leshys? What in the god's name are we going to do with him? What do they expect?”

  “I don't know,” Sasha said.

  Pyetr shoved his cap back and raked his hair out of his eyes, set it again and looked at Chernevog, thinking how in his impoverished, cellar-pilfering boyhood he had killed a rat once; he had even pinked a rascal in a duel once, and he could, not enthusiastically, behead a fish; but that dreadful thump that had put finish to the rat resounded in his dreams; and the god knew he had never killed another.

  So here he was contemplating killing a sleeping man—even if it was Chernevog and even if he deserved a hundred times over to die.

  “I think you should go get the baggage,” he said to Sasha.

  “It'll be—” Sasha looked at him suddenly as if he did understand. “Pyetr,—”

  “I'll take care of things. My business. Something we should have done long since. Go on.”

  Sasha walked off slowly, shaking his head—stopped then and said, “Pyetr, I'm not sure about this.”

  “I'm hard to wish. You aren't. Get out of here!”

  “The leshys could have killed him: they don't mind killing trespassers, they've no conscience at all about it—”

  “So maybe they figure it's our job. Fair enough. I'll accept that. Go on. Go.”

  “Just—”

  “Sasha, go see to the horses, dammit!” That Sasha lingered to argue frightened him and something shook his conviction. There were wishes loose, he was sure that there were, wishes to make them make mistakes, doubts to bring them to disaster and to set this creature free again. He clenched his hand tighter on his sword. He waved at Sasha, insisting he leave.

  “Pyetr!”

  He saw alarm flash into Sasha's eyes, turned as an owl glided to a landing at Chernevog's feet.

  “So he does have a heart.”

  “Be careful of it!”

  “Damned careful! —Which should I go for, him or the bird?”

  “Not the owl—not the owl! It can't die while he's alive.”

  “Just stay back!” He shook the sheath free, walking toward

  Chernevog, to spite him; but the owl spread its wings and launched itself at his face.

  “Look out!” Sasha cried.

  He cut at the creature—but the owl evaded his blade and flung itself at his face. “Damn!” he yelled, swung and tried to fling it off, but it clung to his sword hand with its talons, beating at him with its huge wings and tearing at his hand with its beak as Sasha struck at it barehanded to distract it.

  It flew up again. Pyetr cut at it with a wild effort, hit it to his own dismay, and slung it to the ground off the edge of his blade.

  “Pyetr!” Sasha cried.

  A leaden blaze of daylight and a net of thorns—pain stabbed deep across arm and shoulder, settled in the heart—and in that pain, Chernevog flung himself off his bed and ran... wished sight, wished warmth, wished strength from the woods around him—

  But it resisted him, and the hunters were close behind.

  He was the boy again, fleeing the house, Draga's wolves loping on his track, sharp-toothed and yellow-eyed. Thorns tore his hands as he fended brush aside. He ran free a moment, always a moment to think he might get away—but a thorn hedge loomed up in front of him, thorns hemmed him in on every side, and when he turned, his back to the thorns, the hunters were the riders from his dream, closing in to kill him.

  He wanted to live, truly wanted to live, but the power failed him, and he could not remember where he was, or why the wolves had shifted into human shape. He was shivering so he held to the barbed branches to keep himself on his feet. He remembered names: Sasha, Uulamets' student: that was the one he most feared, though it was Pyetr Kochevikov who had the sword, it was Pyetr who would kill him and send him back to Draga's bed again, Draga saying, Young fool, did you ever think you could escape me?

  “God,” Chernevog said, and sat down against the thorn hedge, holding to its branches.

  ‘‘Where's my wife?” Pyetr asked him, with the sword against his heart. “Where's my wife, damn you?”

  “I don't know,” he said faintly, and it seemed to his confusion that he had no better friend in all the world than this man who would put an end to wishes, this man who of all men he had ever known had no further designs against him. He sat there waiting to die, Pyetr stood there looking at him, and the sword hurt, but not greatly. Neither of them moved, for what seemed forever.

  “Damn you,” Pyetr said finally. He thought that was the last thing he would hear.

  But Sasha pushed the point away.

  14

  Nothing had worked the way it ought, in Sasha's reckoning: the owl ought not to have died, the leshys ought not to be standing motionless and unhealthy as they were, and Chernevog ought not to be alive—but for the latter fact at least he had only himself to blame. He could not understand what he had done—or why he had not shoved Pyetr's hand the other way.

  “Get up,” Pyetr said, and Chernevog struggled to his feet against the thorn hedge, grasping branches that stabbed his palms with a cruelty that made Sasha wince. Blood came—droplets shaken from the thorns spattered the leaves.

  God, I've seen this, I've seen this, and now it's happening.

  ‘‘Move!” Pyetr said, and Chernevog, seeming dazed and lost, went where Pyetr sent him, back through the thorn-hedge maze to the clearing and the stone.

  We have to kill him, Sasha thought miserably. Surely that's the only sane thing to do. Nothing can ever be safe so long as he's alive.

  “Misighi!” Pyetr called to the leshys, who stood all about them, still as trees. “Misighi, he's awake, we’ve got him, now what in hell do we do with him?”

  The leshys gave no answer. Chernevog had knelt by the owl, blood still dripping from his fingers, falling to the ground between his knees—Chernevog wiped his cheek with the back of his hand, looked utterly overwhelmed.

  God, this is where it was telling us we'd be, this is what the bannik meant. But he's not fighting us, he doesn't act as if he understands anything—

  “Don't put on with us,” Pyetr said, “damn it all.” He had his sword in his hand. Everything about him said he was ready to use it: Sasha wis
hed he would, before Chernevog recovered his wits and wanted their hearts stopped.

  But Chernevog looked up, cradling his wounded hands one in the other, his face white with pain, eyes holding only bewilderment.

  Pyetr's sword trembled, rose in a wide, glittering sweep, and with a sudden wrench of Pyetr's arm, hit the ground at Chernevog's knee.

  “Hell!” Pyetr said in disgust.

  Chernevog had never flinched, only looked at them with that terrible lost expression.

  “Is he doing that?” Pyetr asked angrily. “Is he wishing at us?”

  Sasha said, “I'm not sure.”

  Pyetr came back to him, and turned and looked again at Chernevog, the sword still in his hand. “He is doing it, dammit.”

  The books, Chernevog's with them, were all lying out in the brush somewhere—Sasha tried not to think about that. He caught Pyetr's arm, drew him half about and whispered, “The owl shouldn't have died, we've left my bags out mere, and I'm not sure the leshys are watching anything right now.”

  “Let the damn bags stay there! Don't let's go off in separate directions like fools, all right? It's exactly what he'd want!”

  “I don't know, Pyetr. I don't know! If the owl did have his heart, and it did come back to him— Maybe that's what the leshys wanted, maybe that's what they've been doing with him all these years—”

  “We don't damn well know what the leshys have done, do we? They're not talking to us. They're not looking healthy at all right now, are they?” Pyetr's voice rose. Pyetr made an evident effort to keep it low. “Misighi's not the sort to draw off from us.”

  “Maybe it wasn't easy,” Sasha said, “working a magic like that. If they have somehow cured him...”

  “Cured him of what? Cure him of life, that would have been some help! What are we supposed to do now, take him home? Let him live in our house, eat at our table, wander the woods and talk to the foxes? Pay social visits to vodyaniye and the god knows what? There's a shapeshifter loose in the woods! Did Misighi send us that little gift? Did he send us the bannik? Or did Misighi turn the house upside down and lose me in the woods? Where's 'Veshka, that's what I want to know! She should have been here ahead of us!”

 
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