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       Chernevog, p.19

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  Most of all Uulamets had renounced sorcery as foolhardy, wealth as useless to him, human company as dangerous—that was all the sum of Uulamets' goodness.

  For a moment he did not know whether that last was Chernevog's thought or his own. Then he found a thought like flotsam in the flood: 'Veshka wouldn't let her father put any wishes on us, she'd know, surely she'd know, now. She would never let anything go on working on us—I'd know, for the god's sake, with his book and all—

  (But we didn't know about the patch on the teacup. I didn't, until I started worrying about it...)

  He stared past that dark gulf of panic to the real world of misty woods, to Pyetr riding just ahead of them, Pyetr ducking to miss a branch, resettling his cap—Pyetr knew the world in ways he never would, had gotten along in Vojvoda's streets, fought actual duels—Pyetr could live anywhere. He didn't need to stay here...

  Why did Pyetr stay if there weren't any wishes? It was Kiev he wanted, it was Kiev he dreamed of—but Uulamets stopped that. I did. Eveshka did.

  Find Uulamets... god, I don't really want to find Uulamets, I don't want to meet him again, I didn't trust him while he was alive, until I knew he needed me enough to keep away from Pyetr.

  Now I don't know how to keep him away from me.

  “Shut up!” he said to Chernevog, thinking: Both of us had Uulamets for a teacher—both of us had to stand up to the old liar, and he's using that, damned if he isn't... he's asking about Pyetr, that's what he's doing.

  Chernevog laid his hand on Missy's neck as Sasha ducked the same branch in his turn. ’‘Listen to me,” Chernevog said softly, “listen—”

  Pyetr turned around, leaning on Volkhi's rump. “Let him alone, snake. Get your hand off the horse!”

  Chernevog said, “I'd look out for that limb.”

  “Pyetr!”

  Pyetr made it, only scarcely, lying back on Volkhi; and looked around again, scowling.

  “It's a mistake to go to Uulamets,” Chernevog said. “The leshys can be wrong. Uulamets wanted nothing but his own welfare. Ask his daughter.”

  “For the last time, shut up!”

  “She's alive, isn't she? The old man actually brought her buck.”

  ‘‘Shut up!” Pyetr cried. “—Sasha, shut him up.”

  It was hard to hear what Pyetr was saying. Sasha ducked the same oncoming limb. He collected presence of mind enough to watch Pyetr's trail while Pyetr was looking back, watching Chernevog. The silence grew and grew. For a moment the constant wishing and watching ahead made his head spin and Missy's motion under him confused him—but Pyetr was stopping, Pyetr got off and led Volkhi back past Chernevog—

  “No,” Sasha said as Pyetr took Missy's reins too. Pyetr asked him something, but he was snared in a different kind of silence, one in which he could hear a deep, distant whisper, as if the whole forest sighed, the air growing colder and the world rapidly grayer—

  As if a storm were coming—but the sky was already overcast, and the mist falling now was only the wind shaking drops from wet limbs—

  He knew exactly where 'Veshka was, he knew there was something wrong on the river. He said, in panic no wizard should give way to—”Pyetr, Pyetr, 'Veshka's in a bad spot, there's something wrong out there and I don't think she knows it—I think she's asleep or something—”

  “Tell her!” Pyetr said. “Wake her up!” and Sasha tried to do that with all the attention he dared take from Chernevog.

  Chernevog seized at him with a fervent wish for silence. Pyetr grabbed Chernevog by the shirt and flung him away.

  But Chernevog was not the worst danger he was feeling. It was a different thing. It had place, but no course that he could find, it was neither good nor evil and might not even have intent...

  “Can you find her?” Pyetr was asking him, and it was strangest of all to him that the horses should stand so quietly in this storm, as if there was not a thing amiss in the world.

  “Sasha!”

  Pyetr had his knee, Pyetr was shaking at him, glancing anxiously back at Chernevog. “For the god's sake—Sasha, wake up!”

  There was nothing wrong. In the daylight where Pyetr was, where Missy was, where his own body was, there was absolutely nothing wrong.

  But Chernevog was saying, “God, get away from it—”

  Everything came back to clarity again—the daylight, the slight mist of rain, Pyetr's worried face.

  And with that came the slight, constant sighing of the trees and the small awareness of life in the woods and the sky and the river, as plainly, as constantly available to him as if mere had never been a silence in the woods.

  Nothing was wrong, nothing might ever have been wrong— except for Chernevog's face, pale and sweating, and Pyetr's worried expression. Missy sighed under him and ducked her head, like Volkhi, to examine the weeds underfoot for edibility.

  “We're passed outside their circle, now,” Chernevog said. “Or they've just stopped protecting us.”

  “What in hell's going on?” Pyetr asked, and shook at Sasha's leg a second time. “Sasha?”

  “'Veshka's across the river.”

  “Across the river—”

  “I don't know why. There's something wrong over there. I'm afraid she's in the middle of it and I still can't make her hear me.”

  “God,” Pyetr said with a disgusted shrug, as if it were some town squabble Eveshka had involved herself in. Pyetr walked a step or two aside, swept his cap off and stood there holding it, looking out in the direction of the river.

  As if we're deaf to each other, Sasha thought desperately, as if all of us are deaf to him, and he can't make anybody hear him, ever.

  God, Pyetr.

  Pyetr hit his leg with his cap, turned and motioned with it ahead of them, toward the river. “Well, we've got to go there, don't we? Find Uulamets! Uulamets is in the damn middle of this, that's what's going on. He wants us over there, hell! It's 'Veshka he wants!”

  For a moment it made a terrible, clear sense. It was like Chernevog's warning. It was frighteningly like the things Chernevog had just been saying to him. “He brought her back from the dead, Pyetr, he died bringing her back.”

  “He died getting her away from him! He died making sure Chernevog didn't get his way in the world! That doesn't say he's happy being dead, or that he's through meddling!” Pyetr shoved his hair back with the cap, pulled it on and caught a breath while Sasha tried to think whether Pyetr was sane or he was. But Pyetr said then, quietly, hand on hip, with a shivery twitch of one shoulder, “God, I don't know. I don't like this. I don't like anything to do with him. —Why the shapeshifter? Why did it look like him?”

  “Was there a shapeshifter?” Chernevog asked.

  “You shut up!” Pyetr said; but Sasha was thinking that both of those questions were important. He said,

  “There was. It tried to lead Pyetr off somewhere.”

  “What are we doing?” Pyetr cried. “Asking his advice now?”

  “My advice,” Chernevog said, “is exactly yours—don't trust Uulamets.”

  “God,” Pyetr said, leaning on Missy's shoulder.

  “The dead aren't loyal,” Chernevog said. “You can't trust them. Uulamets had no idea what he was doing with that kind of magic, he didn't understand it. I do. Believe me, Ilya Uulamets was never on anyone's side but his own.”

  ‘‘God, of course, you're our lifelong friend, you want the very best for us!”

  “Pyetr,” Sasha said anxiously—but Chernevog said calmly, with a wave of his hand in Pyetr's direction,

  “I can't blame him. I only hope you aren't as abysmally stupid as Uulamets was. He didn't know what he was doing, and if he's delivered himself to something that can use him—I don't know what he might be by now. I'm sure you don't.”

  “The leshys trust him.”

  “I don't know what the leshys understand and don't understand, and I doubt you do. I'm telling you—”

  “You're telling us what you damn well want us to believe!” Pyetr said. “
Sasha—”

  Sasha pleaded for Pyetr's patience with a look and maybe a wish, he had no least idea, but he was afraid not to listen to what Chernevog might say, foolish and dangerous as that attention might be.

  And Chernevog, bitterly: “You've killed Owl, you've put me in the same trap you've put yourselves in—dabble in wizardry to its limits, but you don't ever deal in magic with your heart in reach, boy! Magic can't wish on its own, magic can't imagine nature—but if you're fool enough to let my enemies get to me as I am now, then I'll remember you, damned if I won't, along with everything else I had to do with.”

  A chill went down Sasha's back; he forgot even to breathe— and Pyetr's hand was on his sword. But Chernevog said, further,

  “Boy, let me free. Something's hunting us, now that we're outside the leshys' keeping—or if it's not yet, it will be, and if I fell, the first thing I'll trade them is two fools, hear me? I won't have any choice.”

  He remembered Uulamets saying, Doubt is Chernevog's weapon...

  He said, coldly, from Missy's height, “I'll bear that in mind.”

  ‘‘Arrogant young fool”

  “No!” Sasha cried, as Pyetr went for his sword: it occurred to him that dead, Chernevog was no more catchable than mist or water. He gave that thought to Pyetr, and said to Chernevog, leaning on Missy's white shoulders while she cropped a wildflower or two, “What would the vodyanoi give, I wonder, to know what I could tell him about you? I've read your book. I doubt he could read it for himself.”

  Chernevog went a shade paler, wiped his lips with the back of a finger. “You'd be an absolute fool to do that.”

  “Not if you're going to work against us anyway. You don't want me dead, Kavi Chernevog, and let me tell you this: you don't want any harm to Pyetr or 'Veshka, either, because you don't want my heart taking over my good sense, now, do you? —Because when you care about something besides yourself, Kavi Chernevog, you take care of your friends, and you don't want anything happening to them. I don't need your magic. Wizardry is enough for me—because I believe you, I believe you made one terrible mistake and you'd give everything you have to be where I am.”

  “To be a young fool?”

  “A young fool still has all his choices left, doesn't he?”

  Chernevog said nothing then, only stepped back from Missy in angry, offended quiet. Sasha thought: God, I shouldn't have said those things to him, shouldn't have talked that way to him... whatever he looks to be, he's a hundred years older than I am and he knows things I don't even imagine. God, make him mad, Sasha Vasilyevitch, give him a reason if he needed one— he's nothing if not vain.

  He said, with Chernevog scowling and Pyetr looking at him us if he had taken leave of his senses, “None of this is getting us to the river, is it?”

  “Right,” Pyetr said on a breath, as if that was all he could find to say, and took up Volkhi's reins and swung up again.

  Pyetr rode closer to him after that, herding Chernevog in front of both of them. Pyetr was worried, that was clear, and Sasha thought in despair that if he had his choice he would stop right now and write everything down and study for days to see if there was a way out of the wishes he was making one after the other.

  But things when they were going wrong never waited for slow wits. That was what Pyetr had been trying to tell him in these most important years of his growing up: Get out of the damn books, boy.

  He thought, I had three years, I didn't know that was all the time I was ever going to have. I thought everything would come from the books.

  Everything can't depend on me. God, this is all a mistake...

  He felt for the bag at Missy's shoulder, the precious one with the books, he laid his hand on the oiled canvas.

  Woven branches. Branches over sand and water...

  They mounted a wooded hill. Gray sky showed between the trees, as if the world ended in nothing but cloud. The sound out of that gulf might have been wind in leaves, but it was the river whispering to them.

  Chernevog stopped at the crest, silhouetted against the gray light. Volkhi took the last climb with a sudden effort and Pyetr reined back abruptly, saying, breathlessly, “God.”

  Missy made the hill at her own pace and stopped at Volkhi's side, giving Sasha his own look at gray river, gray sky, a thin, long ribbon of vines and logs that arched out and vanished into the mist above the river.

  16

  “It's our way across,” Sasha declared, as if that thin wooden arch were the most wonderful sight in the world. “I thought of logs, myself,” Pyetr said, with a fluttering in his stomach, “maybe floating across—you know, keeping the horses up, rigging something with canvas and rope—the river's not that fast here...”

  ‘‘It's leshy work. They made this for us. They planned for our crossing!”

  “Good, it's leshy work. Tell that to the horses. —They're not going out on that damn thing, for the god's sake. Look at it!”

  “You can do it. You rode The Cockerel's porch on the Ice-”

  “I was drunk, boy!” He saw Chernevog gazing out at that thread of a bridge, arms folded, with the god only knew what kind of ill wishes already shaping in his head. “It sways in the wind. Look at it! It's only wishes keep that thing up as it is!”

  “The horses will go. It won't fall, Pyetr. We won't. I won’t let us.”

  “God,” he said, and turned and patted Volkhi's neck and apologized—for riding him across The Cockerel's porch, too, while he was at it.

  But Sasha was preparing to lead Missy up that muddy slope.

  Pyetr took a deep breath, said, “Come on, Volkhi, lad,” and motioned Chernevog to go ahead of them.

  Chernevog shrugged and trudged up the soggy earthen mound to the head of the bridge.

  The slope was hard enough for man or horse—Pyetr helped where he could, got out of the way where he could not, and reached the top where Chernevog stood in the wind and the mist.

  It was split logs, whole trees torn lengthwise by main force, cobbled together with vines and wishes, and supported from beneath—god, one did not even want to think about the security of those braces—with whole trees set in the river-bed, their broken stubs of branches sticking out about the bridge at all angles.

  Two logs wide—at most, and sometimes. Beyond Chernevog the arch of splintered wood disappeared outright into mist and distance.

  “I'm coming!” Sasha called out from below.

  Meaning there was another horse coming up and this one had to move.

  “Come on, lad,” Pyetr said, and tugged gently on the reins, coaxing Volkhi up to the logs while Chernevog turned and walked out onto that splintery, uneven surface.

  Volkhi came, looking it over, a first few uncertain steps. Pyetr kept the reins slack, let Volkhi see where he was putting his feet, trusting wizardry would keep Volkhi calm—and the bridge steady. Personally he had no wish to look down, but he had to, at least as far as the surface of the logs, to be sure of Volkhi's footing, to ease him over the joints. Step by slow step, while sweat ran on his face and the wind chilled it.

  Past one set of braces, like a shattered forest on either side of him, the pale ribbon of wood stretching in front of them into nowhere. He was all in gray now. Gray to either side, gray below and above, and on the bridge ahead of him, Chernevog, walking faster than he was. The wind blew. The span creaked.

  God...

  I'm losing him, he's getting ahead of us...

  “Sasha!” he yelled, risking a look back past Volkhi's shoulder, where Sasha and Missy followed at a distance. “He's getting too far ahead of us—”

  Another gust, cold and wet. He suddenly lost his sense of up and down, felt Volkhi stop behind him, while the bridge quaked and swayed perhaps a finger-breadth, but it felt like it was going for a moment.

  He got a breath, got his balance, started Volkhi forward and look a hasty look ahead to be sure where he was going.

  Chernevog was gone, vanished in the mist.

  God, god, god...

 
; “Easy, lad, there's a good lad, nice grain and honey-lumps when we get off this damned thing—god!”

  A cold spot went through him, left to right—a ghost, a haunt, Hitting across the arch of the bridge.

  “Seen Uulamets?” he asked it, while his heart fluttered like a trapped bird. In daylight, something as pale as a ghost seldom showed. “We're looking for him. Lost a wizard up ahead of us just now. Named Chernevog. You might want him. We certainly won't object.”

  Wherever it went, it did not come back. He kept going, nerved against more such encounters, and watched Volkhi's feet and his, taking his own time.

  One could finally see the other shore, at least, stealing a quick glance ahead: it showed as a hazy green in the gray.

  “At least it's alive over there. That's—”

  A joint in the logs. Down to one width, here, knotty and uneven. Sweat was running down his neck, while his hands and loot were numb from the wind.

  “—encouraging, isn't it? Lots of green things, I promise you, stay calm, lad, easy, easy—watch the feet, god, don't rush me—”

  He could see the end of the bridge. He could see the other shore—

  And a figure waiting in the mist where the bridge ended.

  Chernevog. The god only knew his reasons.

  A shelter against the misting rain, fire to boil up something edible—that was Sasha's job. A few sips of vodka to settle the stomach and Pyetr paid off the promised honey-lumps, curried Volkhi and Missy until his arms ached and his knees were shakier than they had been coming off the bridge. They worked— while Chernevog sat at his leisure and idly, with his fingernails, stripped a leaf down to its skeleton.

  That reminded him of that damned bridge out there.

  Pyetr wiped his hands on his breeches, put the straw curry brush away in the proper bag, came wobbling back to the fire for a cup of hot tea fortified with vodka.

 
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