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       Chernevog, p.2

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  “You miss Kiev, don't you?”

  “I wouldn't know if I miss Kiev, I've never been to Kiev.”

  “You always said you'd go.”

  “Well, I will, when I want to.”

  “That's the point, isn't it, I mean, if we're really wishing you to stay, and not knowing it—”

  “I like it here. I'm fine. God, what should I complain about? We've got the house roofed, there aren't any more leaks—”

  “You weren't a farmer. You were never made to be a farmer. “

  “No, I was a fool on his way to a hanging, with a flock of double-crossing scoundrels I thought were my friends, to tell the truth—who'd have seen me hanged as soon as lift a finger to help me. What's Kiev to offer? More scoundrels.”

  ‘‘You never thought so.”

  “Well, I think so now. I might go to Kiev someday, but I don't see doing it this year. I've no time to do it. I like it here.”

  “It's not Kiev.”

  “Well, thank the god it's not Vojvoda either, where I'd likely be hanged, if the boyars were in an especially good mood!”

  “It's livelier.”

  “Not if you're dead. God, why should I complain? What started this? What do you think I'd want that I haven't got?”

  Sasha tried to stop himself, but he did think of something Pyetr lacked. He thought of it so instantly and wanted it so clearly he knew it was dangerous, but for some reason he could not collect his wits to know what to do next. He felt the sweat running on his face, mopped at it, his heart thumping.

  Pyetr said, flinging a dipperful of water at him: “Come on, out we go, we're not used to this. I think we're both getting a little light-headed.”

  Cold air did help. Sasha breathed deeply, leaned against the bathhouse wall and tried to think exactly what he should do about what he had just wanted.

  That was the trap a wizard so easily fell into: if wishes worked, and if a wizard had a friend, then one wanted everything that could make his friend happy.

  Of course one did—

  Especially if one felt oneself constantly in the way of that happiness as it was.

  That was the danger a wizard ran in having friends.

  Sasha knew that absolutely—one evening a month later, when a black horse turned up in the garden, nibbling Eveshka's infant cabbages.

  “God!” Eveshka cried, on the porch, wiping dusty hands; while Sasha, in the doorway behind her, said with all contrition, “I'm sorry,” and wished the horse out of Eveshka's garden.

  “Sorry!” Eveshka said, and looked back at him in wide-eyed indignation, which only made him wish-But Sasha stopped himself in time. He said, in a very small voice, “I think it's Pyetr's horse.”

  2

  Pyetr eased the old ferry in, not scraping the dockside buffers too hard. Townsman and landsman he might have been born, but the river ran quietly near the house, the hand at the tiller could also work the small sail they used for this stretch of the river (Eveshka's clever notion, to extend the ropes that far) and since two wizards could easily wish him up a favorable wind, he took the boat out alone now and again, when his foresting and his foraging and his sometime trading took him upriver or down.

  Today was one of those days, wizards being the peculiar folk they were, inclined to long stints of reading and writing in the books they kept—or, the case in the house today, to long, laborious grinding and brewing and boiling of things some of which were delightful and most of which were not. One supposed that wizardry noses got used to it: his certainly had not.

  So off he had gone on his own this morning with pots and boxes of willow seedlings and herbs and packets of seeds of all kinds to plant upriver, where willows had once grown; and back he came gliding up to the dock in the evening, pleasantly recalling Eveshka had promised him honey-cakes in recompense.

  He jumped ashore with the rope, made fast, returned aboard to gather up a bag of mushrooms he had found (Eveshka knew everything that grew in the woods, and saved them from his fatal mistakes). He took up his empty lunch-basket, in which he had tucked sprigs of several things he did not recognize, along with an interesting double oak gall: Eveshka was always interested in curiosities, some of which became part of her recipes.

  “Babi!” he called out, whistled sharply, and a black furball bounded ashore after him. It might have been a dog: it scampered around his feet, panting, doglike. Then, not at all doglike, it grabbed his trouser-leg with small black hands, making a thorough nuisance of itself.

  “Go on, Babi,” Pyetr said, shaking the dvorovoi loose, and dropped the lunch-basket, which Babi, sitting upright, caught neatly in his hands. “Don't eat it, hear?”

  Babi hugged the basket in his arms and trotted on small bowed legs beside him, more basket than Babi, up the steep path to the house. Boats and riversides were not a dvorovoi's proper place, of course: a Yard-thing had an important duty in the world, keeping rabbits and birds and less common marauders out of a house's garden, and warding garden gates from going maliciously unlatched to strangers. But Eveshka and Sasha alike had wished their dvorovoi to keep an eye on him when he was off alone in the woods (they had separately confessed it) and Babi offered no objection at all: Babi seemed thoroughly to enjoy the outings, even the odd meetings with leshys, at which he growled and hissed and bristled. The leshys forgave him, even old Misighi: one had to grant Babi had the same manner with everyone.

  Babi hissed too when they reached the top of the hill; and growled and bristled, growing rapidly and ominously larger as they walked—and that was not his habit at a homecoming.

  In the same moment Pyetr saw the horse beyond the hedge and had the immediate apprehension of some visitor, though the god knew no visitor had ever come to this house in their tenure, nor was likely to, nor was welcome.

  But as the black horse lifted its head and sniffed the wind in his direction—it looked very like a certain black horse Pyetr had once owned. Besides which, it was loose in the yard, which was a careless thing to allow any horse with a growing garden nearby.

  So one supposed that Sasha and Eveshka knew the horse was there and that they had wished it safely out of the vegetables.

  And one supposed that if they both knew it was there, one of them had wished it to be—and if one of them had wished it to be, then one could surmise on the instant it was a certain rascally young stableboy-now-wizard who liked horses.

  Damn, it looked like Volkhi, it truly did, and the sight reminded Pyetr what he had lost when he lost that horse.

  Still, Babi's behavior did give Pyetr a chill thought of shape-shifters, too, some insidious attack getting into the house past Sasha and Eveshka, and this—creature—standing here only to lure him in. There was the smell of baking honeycakes on the breeze, but lies came with utter plausibility, if wizardry was in question, and traps came baited with things one most dearly wanted, whoever was doing the trapping.

  “Babi,” Pyetr said, quietly, “don't bother the horse, if it is a horse. Go to 'Veshka, there's a good Babi, go into the house and see if it's all right. “

  Babi went, growling, ducked through the hedge and shambled in plain sight and with a good many looks askance at the horse, up the slanting wooden walk-up to the porch of the cottage.

  So it was safe. Babi knew.

  And if the black horse did look like Volkhi—and since Babi had not startled it off outright as an imposter—

  Pyetr picked up the basket Babi had left, squeezed through the same gap in the hedge and walked up to the horse, which stood watching this noisy traffic with ears pricked and nostrils working.

  God, absolutely, it was Volkhi. He knew every line of this horse.

  Babi popped into the house without using the door, a very put-upon and disturbed Babi, meaning, Sasha was sure, first, that Pyetr was back, second, that Pyetr had found the surprise, and third, that the surprise had found Pyetr—and indeed by the time Sasha had walked outside there was loving tryst in progress.

  Sasha put his hands into his pockets a
nd stood on the porch watching, earnestly hoping (but hoping was perilously close to wishing) that he had not done something wrong or dangerous.

  Eveshka walked out and stood beside him at the porch rail, dusting flour from her hands onto her apron. He felt a very powerful wish from her side of a sudden: and Pyetr looked up, startled, as the horse shied off.

  Sasha knew, perhaps because Eveshka did not truly exclude him from her wish, that Eveshka wanted attention from a husband coming home, wanted it, quite conscious of her selfishness and quite justifiably angry at a boy's thoughtless interference in their lives.

  “Don't,” Sasha whispered, not looking at her. “Eveshka, you promised. Don't wish at him like that.”

  “Everything was perfect,” Eveshka said to him in a small, hurt voice; she wanted him to know she did entirely understand her own shortcomings; and his.

  With which she turned and went inside, violently wishing him and Pyetr to leave her alone for a little while.

  People in neighboring Vojvoda and maybe Kiev would have felt that one.

  A disappearing flurry of skirts and hip-length blond braids, definitive slam of the door; and Pyetr stopped with his hand on the rail of the walk-up.

  “What in hell's going on?” Pyetr asked, he thought quite reasonably, with his wife in tears, his long-lost horse in the garden, and his best friend looking as if he would gladly be elsewhere.

  Sasha walked slowly down to him, and Volkhi tossed his head up and shied out of the cabbages: this assuredly meant (Pyetr understood these things by long experience) that someone's attention had slipped and come back again.

  And a man used to wizards could equally well reckon that the slammed door, Volkhi's arrival, and the rueful look on Sasha's face were not entirely coincidental.

  “I'm terribly sorry,” Sasha said, looking more boy than young man at the moment. ”I brought him. I wished him here. Eveshka's mad at me: she really didn't mean to wish you just then. “

  Pyetr looked up at the door, where, despite the upset of his stomach, he could reckon that Eveshka must be getting a stern hold on her temper.

  But a man hated to feel obliged only because his wizard-wife had not wished him in the river; and hated to be angry at Sasha for probably meaning the best and kindest things for him in all the world.

  Give or take horse theft... because Volkhi, sleek and well-fed, had surely acquired another owner in three years and more.

  “I was thinking how to make you happy,” Sasha said in a small voice, “I truly was. I thought you probably missed having a horse, and I must have been thinking of this one. “

  “Who said I wasn't happy?” Pyetr muttered, wondering if he dared go into the house just now. “—'Veshka! Come out here! What have I done, for the god's sake?”

  On second thought he did not want to go up to the porch right now. He did not want to open that door and talk to his wife, because she was not being sensible at the moment: she was mad at herself for being selfish enough to be mad in the first place. In rusalka-form, she had done terrible things. Nowadays she had a body as well as a heart to trouble her, and sometimes she did not deal well with surprises and things that went against her wishes. Most of all she did not deal well with an eighteen-year-old boy who confused himself with her father—all of which came at Pyetr in half a blink and with a force that left him short of breath. His wife was decidedly upset.

  “God.” Pyetr rested his head on the rail of the walk-up while Sasha blithered on about how he had no idea why the part about the horse had worked and the part about him being happy had gone so terribly, awfully askew.

  “It's not your fault,” Pyetr said, looking at the twilight above the woods, the hedge, and black Volkhi snuffling wistfully in the direction of the garden. “It's none of it anyone's fault— unless some boyar comes looking for him with his guard. Who knows who bought him, after me? I left a lot of creditors.”

  “I'm sorry!”

  “Sasha, I swear, I'm glad about the horse, I don't know why anybody's upset, I don't know why I can't go inside and have supper, and I don't know why my wife isn't speaking to me, except the cabbages.”

  “I don't know,” Sasha said miserably. “Pyetr, I'm—”

  “—sorry, I know. —For what? What for the god's sake is anybody upset about? I've got my horse back. What's she mad about?”

  “Because you don't know what could happen!”

  “Because you didn't mean to want something.” Sometimes a rational man felt his sanity in question. “And it trampled Eveshka's garden.” He shouted up at the house: “Eveshka, for the god's sake, everybody's sorry about the garden! I don't mind you wanted me to look at you first, it's not a crime, Eveshka, I'm not mad, I swear I'm not, I'm sorry I didn't notice you! I would have, except I didn't expect the horse!”

  Silence.

  “'Veshka, it's getting dark and I want my supper, dammit! Open the door!”

  There was no answer of any sort. His wife was jealous of a horse. And in the gathering dark, Pyetr sighed heavily, let the basket and the sack of mushrooms to the ground and sat down on the rim of the walk-up, under the rail, that seeming to be where they might both spend the night.

  “It's me she's upset with,” Sasha said, settling on the split logs beside him, while Volkhi came up to investigate the contents of the basket at Pyetr's feet. “She just wants to think. To figure things out. A wizard has to—”

  Pyetr looked darkly at Sasha, not particularly wanting a boy's advice at the moment.

  “God,” Sasha said, and dropped his head into his hands. “I truly am sorry.”

  “Don't tell me that. Everybody's sorry. I want my supper.” Pyetr rubbed Volkhi's persistently intrusive nose; the horse jumped, threw his head and calmed again quickly under Sasha's offered hand.

  Which for some strange reason gave Pyetr a most uneasy image.

  A man married to Uulamets' once-dead and wizardry daughter, a man who daily dealt with wizards and leshys and the like got used to small, cold thoughts, some of which were not even his own to start with—and suddenly Pyetr had the wildest, most unreasoning impulse to stand up, wave Volkhi off to run back to whatever honest, safe stable he had escaped—

  Even if Sasha loved horses and his touch was as true as his heart was.

  But it was only one small cold thought. It was foolish to coddle his wife's skittish temper, still more foolish to leave her alone with her hurt feelings and odd imaginings: the wizard breed was only scarcely sane, Sasha and Eveshka both confessed that quite freely—scarcely sane especially when they kept their hearts, which all the rest of their kind seemed to think impossible to do; and particularly when they tried to use those hearts and live like ordinary folk. Both the wizards he loved had warned him outright that loving him, that loving anything at all was very dangerous to them and to everything around them.

  The dead trees were witness enough to that.

  “'Veshka,” Pyetr called out, grabbing the rail and hauling himself up under it onto the walk. “'Veshka, dammit, it's getting dark, it's getting cold out here, and I want my supper, do you hear?”

  There was quiet, serene simple quiet from the house.

  He walked up to the porch and knocked on his own door.

  “'Veshka? Let's have some sense, shall we?”

  Silence.

  “'Veshka, I love you. Am I going to stand out here all night?”

  The door opened. Without her touching it.

  Pyetr looked back, then, earnestly hoping for Sasha behind him, looking for a way to make light of things, make a joke, and lift Eveshka out of her perilous despond. But Sasha, the coward, was still sitting down at the bottom of the walk-up, with traitorous Volkhi nosing his hand.

  So he went inside, to the hearth where Eveshka was stirring up their supper cakes, squatted on his heels beside her and rested his arms on his knees.

  “Smells good,” he said, and had only her profile, downcast eyes, pursed lips. Her pretty blond braids.

  “Your father wanted me to
be a toad,” he said, touching one of those braids, moving it for a better view. “It didn't work.”

  She did not find that amusing. Her mouth set quite firmly, she flinched aside, and she flung a dollop of batter hissing onto the griddle.

  “I think you've frightened Babi away,” he said, “or he'd be here begging.” He stole a swipe off the side of the bowl, and put the finger in his mouth, getting this time a threat from the spoon and a thunderous blue-eyed scowl. “Mmmn. You don't want a toad for a husband, do you?”

  “It's not funny, Pyetr!”

  “So what's the matter? You're not jealous of a horse, are you? That's silly.”

  “I'm just—” The spoon went back into the batter, and Eveshka wiped her eyes. “Sorry. I'm selfish, I can't help being selfish, I wish—”

  “For the god's sake, don't!”

  She rested her mouth against her hand. Shook her head, not looking at him.

  “I want too much,” she said. “And it's not fair to you. It's not fair. It's never been fair!”

  Time was, he had been going cheerfully from trouble to trouble in Vojvoda, where ordinary folk lived and where wizards were, if gifted at all, hardly fit to cure warts. Now here he was, the god have mercy, with a wizard-wife who could have her way with passing thunderstorms.

  He tipped her chin up, gently, tried with a quirk of his mouth to coax a smile from her. “Now in Vojvoda mere was this girl who wanted too much—”

  Her lips trembled while she looked at him, scowling. There was the distinct smell of cakes well-done.

  “But her papa wasn't a wizard,” he said, tracing a line down her cheek. “He was a tavern keeper. And she wanted to live like a boyarina. She never wanted to work. She wanted the clothes, the jewels—any fellow who'd have her, she wanted to order around. So she settled on this handsome rich lad named Ivan—”

  “Are you sure his name wasn't Pyetr?” “I wasn't rich. Besides, I was too smart for her. And we figured out, some other lads and I, what she was up to. She'd gotten this potion from this wizard to slip into his drink—which had this dreadful effect. It didn't make him fall in love at all. But then, we'd switched drinks. She was dreadfully sick for a week.”

 
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