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       Chernevog, p.18

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  It was a disturbing lot of questions, all of which nested ominously in that confusion Chernevog occupied in his thinking. “We don't know how far we are from the river,” Sasha said. “I don't know. I don't know about the shapeshifter. Maybe he did send it. Maybe it's the vodyanoi trying to stop us getting here.”

  “Fine. Fine. ‘Veshka's on the river and maybe the vodyanoi's loose—”

  “Pyetr, he has his heart, I really think that's what happened. He must have sent it away a long, long time ago—and he wasn't very old, then, he can't have been, he was a boy when he came to Uulamets and he didn't have it then. I don't know what it would be like—but I'm not sure it wouldn't still be the same as it was then.”

  Pyetr looked at Chernevog, scowling. “That's no damn boy.” “But his heart, Pyetr, —something brought the owl here and brought us here, and the owl shouldn't have died.” “Fine. The owl's dead. He wants us to feel sorry for him!” “I don't feel him wanting anything right now.” “He wants to be free, is what he wants,” Pyetr said. “He wants us dead, is what he wants, and just because he hasn't got his wish yet doesn't mean he won't if we turn our backs on him. 'Veshka's coming here—we hope to the god she's coming here— and we'd damn well better do something about him before she walks into this. I don't want him trying any of his damn tricks with her!”

  “Don't—”

  “—swear. I'll swear, dammit, I'll swear—Misighi, dammit, wake up and give us an answer!”

  Something happened, then. It might have been a voice. It felt like a reassurance. It felt like a light moving around them when everything outside this grove was dark.

  A leshy voice said, “No more, no more strength...”

  “No more time... no more. Keep him safe.”

  Misighi said, deep as bone, “Trees die. This will not. Take him to Uulamets.”

  After which—Misighi stood as still as if he had never moved, as if not even wind could stir him.

  “What does that mean?” Pyetr cried. “Misighi, what are you talking about, take him to Uulamets! —Uulamets is dead, Misighi! Uulamets has been dead for three years! Wake up and listen to me!”

  Misighi did not move again. The only sound was thunder, the wind moving in the woods—

  And the first few spatters of rain.

  Owl was dead... he truly could not understand that. Owl was a ball of fluff, a hungry mouth—one had to feed him, one had to keep him in secret—Draga would kill him, else. He had taught him to fly, wished him safe and free and sent his heart where he had thought Draga could never catch it. It was not that many years ago.

  But Owl was gone, without his ever knowing Owl was in danger at all—and everything he knew seemed to have changed. Lightnings flickered overhead. He could seize them—if he knew beyond a doubt that was what he wanted. He could free himself if he cared for one thing more than anything. But Owl was gone and Draga was dead and the pattern his own blood made, rain-washed on the leaves where he knelt, was of equal fascination with his warders' argument about whether it was wiser to kill him. He could have offered his own opinion, but it seemed superfluous: the leshys had given their orders, and he felt—truly, mostly numb now, the pain in his hands a welcome distraction from wishes. He could not gather the pieces of his magic up again. He dared not, and it was the same as being blind.

  ‘‘Get up,” Pyetr said to him; and he did, caught Pyetr eye to eye for an instant and with all his heart wanted this extraordinary man's goodwill...

  He felt Sasha's instant intervention—turned his head and for a panicked moment it was Sasha he was looking at, Sasha wishing him helpless and quiet.

  Then for no apparent reason things slid into order: he was aware of the ground they stood on, aware of the boundary of nature and magic, and for an instant of utter terror wavered this way and that of that line.

  He clenched his hands, courted the momentary pain—he had that much sense left: think of running water when things went wrong: water and stones, no fear, change without change. He caught his breath and his balance then, looked back toward Pyetr—

  And in complete simplicity cast his heart in that direction, quite the same as he had given it to Owl—because a man like Pyetr could no more use it than Owl could. He hoped it might appease Sasha—and no one had ever said of Kavi Chernevog that he was a coward.

  But Sasha snatched it himself, before he could more than think of his own survival, and sent it back to him with a wish so strong he had no defense. He recalled the moment before he had given it to Owl, and tears came to his eyes—that was what Sasha did to him, while Pyetr said, completely extraneously to everything that was happening— “Find Uulamets! Misighi's lost track, that's what he's done—he's forgetting things the way I was forgetting!”

  Sasha said, distractedly: “I don't think so. It's very possible there's something left. I'd be surprised if there wasn't a ghost or something.”

  “There's a damn shapeshifter!” Pyetr said. “We met that! No, thank you!”

  Chernevog listened to the argument, remembering his house, remembering Uulamets coming to kill him, and how they had fought with magic the old man had all his life abhorred—

  (Fool, Uulamets had railed at him, when Uulamets had first caught him at it, when he was a student in the river-house. Don't you know there's no creature wants to help you for free? The things that swear they will, want you, that's what they want, boy, don't ever think otherwise! Someday they'll turn on you— at first chance they'll turn on you, and then you'll have not a chance in hell, boy!)

  It was true—and maybe if early on he had had the old man's

  advice he might have stayed with simple wizardry—and had his heart in Uulamets' grasping hands instead of where it was now, in himself, causing him pain and threatening his very existence. So very many things might not have happened: Uulamets would not be dead and he might have been, like Eveshka, under Uulamets' orders, doing forever whatever Uulamets told him.

  He thought of that, too. For some chances missed he could be truly grateful.

  What Draga had dealt with had ultimately turned to someone cleverer and less indolent and less interested in pleasure and comforts. He had been there, when she had begun to fail.

  Now it could find other possibilities, now that Sasha had him helpless as he was and exposed everything he had ever felt and wanted and dreamed of to, the god knew, anything that might happen by. He wanted Sasha to understand the appalling folly of what he had done—he tried, completely honest in what he offered, but Sasha wished him silent so violently and so angrily it stung.

  Dammit, he had not had to bear that kind of rebuff since Draga's time. And this boy did it to him with impunity, refusing to listen, the way he had refused to listen, if he had ever truly had a chance—

  “Fool!” he said aloud. “It's your own lives you're throwing away!”

  Pyetr looked at him anxiously. But he felt Sasha take what else he would say and turn it into silence. He fought that back and forth with Sasha until he knew Sasha would not hear his reasons, nor would he let Pyetr hear him: Sasha doubted everything he would say and every argument he could possibly make, because Sasha knew his own ignorance of magic, and simply had to assume he was lying in everything.

  He knew that defense too: it was one he had used when he had been that young and that foolish and that damnably, blindly ignorant, and not Draga nor Uulamets nor even Eveshka had ever gotten past it.

  There were broken jars: pottery grated as Sasha picked up his bag: “The god only knows,” Sasha said with a shake of his head, and squatted down to investigate the damage, trusting him, Pyetr supposed, to keep an eye on their prisoner, all this in a leaden, drizzling rain, at the edge of the dying wood. The leaves were almost all fallen now, the wind had stripped the limbs bare: black trees, golden, sodden ground.

  No Babi, no horses, and no sign of Eveshka. Pyetr kept his sword in hand and one eye on Chernevog: even an ordinary man knew enough to worry when, in wizardly company, he found himself doing stupid things or o
mitting to do smart ones.

  “A snake,” he muttered, standing guard while Sasha tried to put things to rights, “is still a snake. Whether his heart was in that owl or not, it's still his heart, and it's still a snake. —I hope you've noticed we haven't done what we came here to do, I hope you've noticed this viper is still getting his own way.”

  “Not all of it,” Sasha said, “I assure you.”

  “I'd like to know what he's missed. What do we do, let him loose while we go searching after a damn ghost that's just as good let alone?”

  All this while Chernevog was listening. He was acutely conscious of that. But privacy to speak meant leaving Chernevog unwatched.

  Pyetr wanted to go down to the river, he wanted—desperately, on some premonition or someone's wish—to go down to the river. He said quietly to Sasha, “I've got this feeling, I don't know where it's coming from...” Chernevog had sat down with his head on his knees and his hands locked on the back of his neck, no longer paying any apparent attention to them—but a cold unease nagged him, a sense of disaster no matter what they did. “I keep thinking we ought to head for the river, however far it is.”

  “I think that's as good an idea as any,” Sasha said.

  It was not the kind of answer Pyetr wanted. He wanted the upset in his stomach to go away. “Are you sure it isn't him wanting it?” he asked. “Look at him over there, pretending he doesn't hear—dammit, he wants us dead! A heart doesn't make any difference in that!”

  “He can want that anywhere,” Sasha said. “I know what I want right now. I want to do exactly what Misighi said to do.”

  “Hunt down Uulamets?” It was stupid to listen to irrational feelings, sudden notions, or chills down the back of his neck. But Pyetr knew where to start looking for ghosts if one wanted to find them, particularly Uulamets' ghost—and that place was over on the other side of the river, the god knew how far from here, a burned house and a shallow grave. “Conjure him from here, can't you?”

  “I'm not sure I ought to conjure anything—I'm not sure magic's a good idea right now. They said 'Take him.' So we'll take him where Uulamets is.”

  “I don't like this 'not sure,' you know.”

  Sasha stood up. “We've got no choice, Pyetr—”

  ‘‘Damn right we've got a choice! How in hell are we going to cross the river? At least try calling him here, for the god's sake! If we go out of here and magic starts working again outside this woods, it works for him too, doesn't it?”

  “It already is working,” Sasha said, in a low voice. “I have this awful feeling—that we need to find 'Veshka. I need her myself, Pyetr, I really need her help—the books don't tell me everything—”

  “God.” He heard the fear shaking Sasha's voice, grabbed his arm and held it hard. He had loaded too much onto the boy, everything had, for days, he saw that. Sasha was exhausted, white-faced. “Let's not panic, shall we?”

  Sasha got a breath. “I'm not Uulamets, Pyetr.”

  “Thank the god.”

  “I think,” Sasha said on a second deep breath, “right now, you'd be a lot safer if I were.”

  He squeezed Sasha's arm. “I've every confidence in you. You're doing fine, boy. You're on your feet, he's not, you're doing perfectly fine.”

  Several more breaths. “I keep thinking about the boat. I keep thinking that 'Veshka... might look this way right now if she wanted to. But she doesn't. I don't know why.”

  Now Pyetr's stomach was truly upset, and he looked narrowly at Chernevog, wondering how far this whole thing went and whether the wiser course was not after all to kill him without warning.

  But Chernevog lifted his face just then with a haunted look the match of Sasha's, and said: “Eveshka's outside the leshys' spell. It's fading. It's only here, now.”

  No more damn sense than any other wizard. “Here,” Pyetr echoed, “what, 'here'? “ and looking at Sasha: “What in hell's he saying?”

  But at the moment he had two wizards on his hands, both looking off into nowhere and murmuring things like, in Chernevog's case:

  “They haven't the strength...” And in Sasha's: “Pyetr, the horses are coming.” An ordinary man just gathered up the baggage and hoped for something very soon to make sense—but he could very well wish the two wizards in question were not unanimous.

  15

  Volkhi turned up first. Then Missy arrived out of the woods, looking at them across Volkhi's back as if she were none so sure now about anything she saw—ordinary trees having lately proved unreliable.

  But of Babi there was no sign at all, and Sasha found that fact both understandable and worrisome. The leshys' silence was rapidly drawing in on itself, encompassing less and less, twining through this last small grove with a feeling angrier by the moment, and he kept thinking, while the horses were on their way to them, It may get worse here, it's only a handful of them will talk to wizards at best.

  He said to Pyetr:

  “They're down to protecting themselves now: we've got only so long to get to the river. After that, I wouldn't be near this place.”

  He scared Pyetr with his vagueness, he knew that he did, but he was thinking, desperately listening all around him: he had no reassurance to give and words came hard to describe things without substance or sense: there was foreignness, confusion as if whatever maintained the silence about them was also smothering the clear thinking essential to wizardry, the god only grant Chernevog was no less addled at the moment.

  He thought not: Chernevog's wishes tumbled through his awareness, fear-crippled, wanting escape, wanting this, wanting that, going nowhere. Chernevog continually assailed him with promises: Chernevog swore he would defend them and Eveshka with his wizardry, Chernevog railed at him as a young fool who was confusing him and killing all of them—

  Uulamets taught you! he could hear Chernevog saying, clear as spoken words. God, boy, he stifled everything in you he couldn't use, he wanted someone to use, don't you see it? He failed with me and he failed with Eveshka, and here you are in our place. He wanted his own way, and that damned wish of his is still going, Sasha Misurov!

  “Let me alone,” he muttered, taking Missy's trailing reins. He flung them over her neck, slung the packs up, wishing Missy to stand still. He kept trying to reach Eveshka through the silence, he kept worrying over the leshys' riddles—and wondering in a certain cold corner of his mind what it was going to feel like if they did find Uulamets: Eveshka already accused him of thinking her father's thoughts, echoing her father's advice.

  “He set you to do what he wanted done,” Chernevog said aloud, behind his back. “Uulamets was no one's friend, you surely knew that. Don't you remember?”

  It was not childlike bewilderment he was hearing now. It was a harder, clearer presence. He looked at Kavi Chernevog.

  “You're dealing with magic,” Chernevog said. “He was. And the god only knows what might have taken him.”

  Sasha heaved himself up to Missy's back and looked down at him. “Let me alone!” he said, and Pyetr came leading Volkhi and roughly shoved Chernevog away from Missy, saying: “You walk. You're not getting your hands on either one of us.”

  Chernevog might have resisted that shove if sudden anger had given him clear direction: the thought gave Sasha a sudden chill-but Chernevog did nothing and Pyetr, unscathed, handed him up the sack with the pots and the books.

  God, the books...

  “Pyetr,” he whispered, hugging that sack close, “be careful of him. Don't touch him. Don't do things like that!”

  “I'm all right. It's all right, boy, just take care of us, hear?”

  Pyetr turned away. Sasha settled the bag with the books and his little pots carefully in front of him. Chernevog stood waiting as Pyetr took Volkhi's reins and swung up to Volkhi's back—and in a moment's clarity Sasha thought of wishing Volkhi to go to the river, Volkhi's nose seeming a better guide for them than erratic wizardry in this numbing, angry hush. “Let Volkhi go,” he said to Pyetr, then. “He knows the way.”

/>   “Good,” Pyetr said with an uncomfortable look, and stopped holding Volkhi in.

  One did try not to sound like Uulamets, one earnestly tried not to, but thoughts grew difficult and details kept trying to slip past his attention.

  He thought, while Chernevog walked in front of Missy, was II me or was it Chernevog who thought of wishing the horse?

  He thought of a ball of white fluff, a hungry baby-owl mouth—

  He drove that image out of his mind with a deliberate thought of the stone and the ring of thorns. He knew where the thought must have come from. He listened to Missy a moment, smelled after some scent of the river—if he wanted, he could catch such things for a heartbeat or two, more wholesome than listening to mice and foxes, attention so flooded with smells and sounds and Nights that a gust of wind was cataclysm—one dared eavesdrop only by moments, or one risked panic…

  But Chernevog slid into his thoughts, wizard-fashion, walking beside Missy with his head meekly bowed:

  Draga set Owl to catch me. I was a stupid boy. She wanted me to find that nest, I really think so. I suspect she killed his mother, all with the notion I'd set my heart on him, because she had a spell on Owl, and she had that until I killed her.

  That's horrible, he thought, sorry for Chernevog, it was so ugly a trick: he thought of Vojvoda, and his own upbringing, at best neglected, never at worst, mat cruelly used. He remembered all too vividly what it was to be unwelcome in a place... but never what it was to be trapped.

  Chernevog asked: What do you suppose Uulamets wanted you to have, that you had to fear losing?

  He wished Chernevog silent then, but with a sudden sinking remembrance of Uulamets threatening Pyetr, making Pyetr's life the price of his help—

  A cup shattering, in Pyetr's hand, Pyetr doing nothing more than arguing with Uulamets—

  Himself saying, terrified: Pyetr, that could as well have been your heart...

  Uulamets had been a good wizard, virtuous because, although Uulamets had made his threats against Pyetr as plain as a shattered cup, although Uulamets had most particularly hated the idea of Pyetr being courted by his ghostly daughter—Uulamets had not, after all, killed Pyetr and he certainly had not wrung everything he could have gotten from his student.

 
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