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       Chernevog, p.21

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  “Sounds like headache,” Pyetr said brightly, and suddenly cherished the thought of slinging Chernevog head downward on a horse. He fished a sausage out of the pan, said: “Breakfast, snake.”

  “Damn you.”

  He said to Sasha, “I think he's sincere.”

  They could joke about pain—when his simplest wish for relief trod that boundary where wizardry stopped and magic answered. It had been so very long since it had mattered at all which did—and to cure a damned, piddling headache he had to remember past the pain what unassisted wishes were, had to retrace the earliest and most simple wish he had made, back even before Owl, long before Owl.

  Some petty wizard—perhaps his grandmother, who knew? Or not. He had lived with her. She had hated him, he hated her, he had grown cannier and she had wished him lost forever. He had wished her dead; and he had run and run-That was what wishes felt like—before Owl, before Draga: one simply trusted things to arrive in their own time, in then-own way, no second-guessing, no calling it back—that was what it felt like: fear and anger and damnably unpredictable consequences.

  His magic had drawn down lightnings, made the ground shake: and to cure his various pains he was reduced to a child's feeble effort—simply trying to believe in certainties, while magic denied they existed and a damned, ignorant boy did it effortlessly.

  By their laughter, they realized how helpless he had become, and Sasha surely knew what coin he had in hand. Pyetr was still his hope, but even Pyetr confounded him. One could take the man for a fool, but that was subterfuge; he could take him now for hot-tempered and precipitate, but after everything was packed, Pyetr came to him and said he should ride a while, upright on the horse, though he did not, Pyetr added acidly, deserve any favors.

  It might be his wishes working; it might be some reason of Sasha's; it might even be an ordinary man with notions of his own, more subtle than he could discover: Pyetr was not, one had always to remind oneself, a fool; and it did no good to work on one of them and not the other.

  So he said, when he was riding alongside Sasha's mare, with Pyetr leading his horse, “I suppose you've both been thinking how to be rid of me.”

  Sasha gave him a suspicious look.

  “I don't know what you want,” Chernevog said. “But I'll agree to anything.” He added, not without a certain queasiness in his stomach: “There's no trick in it, not at all.”

  “And a pig has wings,” Pyetr said shortly. Chernevog ignored him, asking Sasha quietly:

  “What will you do? Everything Uulamets wants? Forever? You could free yourselves from him. You could have anything you want.”

  “Like you?” Pyetr jibed. But he was patient and prepared (his time, to deal with Pyetr: he said, directing himself to Sasha,

  “You probably realize you have me to trade—but that's the worst thing you can do. You've won: you've put me in a terrible position, and you've won everything you could possibly want, if you'll only listen.”

  “Are we down to serious bribes now?” Sasha asked.

  “Listen to me! Magic doesn't know anything, it isn't alive, it Isn't dead, it just is, and the things that can give you magic don't know what they want in this world without us to show them. If you've any sense at all you won't give me up to them—”

  “I'd trade you,” Pyetr said darkly, “for a mouldy turnip.”

  “You're not understanding me! They can use us the way we use them. I'm telling you the leshys couldn't hold out any longer and you're being fools if you think you can. Things like that go straight for weakness—mine; and ignorance—yours; and the god knows who else.”

  “I don't use your kind of magic,” Sasha said. “I don't want it. It can't touch me.”

  “It can touch Uulamets. It can touch Eveshka. A rusalka's whole existence is magical. It was sorcery brought her back. And it's one magic. It's all the same. Will you say you've nothing to lose?”

  “We don't need you,” Pyetr said.

  “You'll lose her. You'll lose her first—Pyetr next; and yourself, inevitably...”

  Pyetr turned and stopped the horse.”You murdered my wife, you damned dog, you're responsible for this desolation, you tried to kill me—and you want us to listen?”

  “Pyetr,” Sasha cautioned him.

  “He's right,” Chernevog said. “Indeed, he's right. All those things I did—and some you don't know. But now I need you. That makes a difference.”

  Pyetr's jaw dropped. Then he said, backing up a step: “I don't think I ever heard anyone put it quite that plainly before. —God, Sasha, we're dealing with an honest man!”

  “Sasha,” Chernevog said, “Alexander Vasilyevitch,... you know what I'm saying. Nothing's an accident. The leshys' fading wasn't an accident. I know what we're dealing with. It cheats, and it lies, and it doesn't give a damn for your wishes. But it does regard force. You have that. All you have to do is use it.”

  Sasha said nothing for a moment. The horses shifted restlessly.

  Pyetr said, “It's a snake, Sasha. It always was, it always will be.”

  But Sasha was listening, Sasha was thinking. Chernevog said, so, so carefully, shivering between self-restraint and fear of denial, “Ask anything you want of me, Pyetr Ilyitch. There's nothing I'll refuse you.”

  “Get off my horse!”

  He slid down, stood eye to eye with Pyetr, felt Sasha's fear wish him not—

  Maybe Pyetr realized a danger, too. Pyetr's jaw set and he ducked past him, flung the reins over and swung up with an enviable skill.

  From that vantage Pyetr looked angrily down at him.

  Chernevog said, with all sincerity, “You could save your own life, Pyetr Ilyitch—you could stop all of this; you could stop it in a moment—but he won't trust you.”

  ***

  Chernevog of course wanted him to ask Sasha how, and why he could rescue them, which was, Pyetr decided, good enough reason not to do it—for one thing because Chernevog was wishing at him and he thought it was time to worry about those wishes If he did one single thing Chernevog wanted; and for another because Chernevog plainly wanted to cause trouble between them, and he was not going to give Chernevog the satisfaction of seeing him worry.

  So he ordered Chernevog to walk, he and Sasha followed on horseback keeping an eye on him, and he thought again that, whatever ties wizards might have on each other, a good bit of rope would make sense.

  He said as much to Sasha. But Sasha said no, Chernevog did not want to escape them.

  All of which sat in the back of his mind and rattled from time to time. It was the hardest thing in the world for him to have a question and not ask it, and it did occur to him to wonder why If there was no truth at all to what Chernevog had said to him, Sasha had not bothered right then to dismiss it as a lie. He knew Sasha's bad habits very well, one of which was taking all the blame for troubles, and another of which was a tendency—he had surely caught it from Uulamets—to keep his worry to himself, whether to save his friends anxiety or whether because he simply forgot he had not spoken out loud.

  So he rode beside Sasha with never a word, but, damn, it bothered him.

  “You can't hear anything,” Pyetr asked Sasha, in the brief privacy they had as they stopped for water. Sasha splashed water into his face and down his neck, put his hands over his face and made one brief, futile try.

  It was worse, that cold feeling, the further they rode into this young forest, and worst of all when he listened for some answer from Eveshka. He was a fool not to tell Pyetr outright what he was feeling: he knew he was; but the look on Pyetr's face, that both hoped and forgave him his failure—how could one say to that, I'm sorry, I'm scared, Pyetr, she's lost, she's gone and I don't want to go on rattling that door, Pyetr?

  Pyetr would take that risk. He had no doubt of it.

  —Head over heart, young fool...

  What if it is Uulamets, god, what if it is Uulamets that's after us? Eveshka said I think his thoughts, I do the things he'd choose—

  What if, the way
Pyetr thinks, he wants us all—back? Is that what we're following?

  “I can't hear anything,” he said, and saw Pyetr sigh and shake his head. “Possibly,” he started to say, and Pyetr looked up and he had to go on, fool that he was, temporizing. “Possibly it's her choice. She could have decided—” The idea struck him as he was talking, and he blundered into it without time to think it through: “—She could just have decided the leshys had a reason for not talking, so she isn't going to, either. She might not trust what she hears from us. I'm not honestly sure—” He started to say—That I'd trust what I hear from her. It was true. But he swallowed it unsaid. And, oh, god, but Pyetr listened to what he surmised; he fervently wished he had kept his mouth shut.

  Meanwhile Chernevog was washing his face a little upstream from them, dipping up water with torn and surely painful hands. Perhaps he was listening, one way or another, to everything they said and half they thought. One could think very easily of pouring another cup of tea down him, the way Pyetr said, just sling him over a horse and silence him and his offers and his arguments—at least until they found Uulamets.

  “Time we got moving,” Pyetr said, dusted off his hands on his knees and got up, looking at Chernevog.

  But Pyetr stopped then, gave a deep breath, still staring ahead of him, and put his hands in his belt. “The snake wants me to ask you,” he said, “what he was talking about. I don't want to, if you don't want to say. But if it's 'Veshka's safety—and there is something I can do, you understand, Sasha, it's something I'd really like to know, myself.”

  Pyetr had never asked anything of him that way. Sasha did not want to talk about it, he did not want to discuss the matter with Pyetr and if Eveshka was in danger, he certainly did not want to let Pyetr make choices he did not understand.

  But it would not really matter to Pyetr. Not where Eveshka was concerned. And not, he was sure, if he were the one in trouble.

  “He's saying,” Sasha replied in an almost whisper, “that whatever’s caused this is magical; and it's not friendly to him. Whether that's true I don't know. He says if he uses his magic something can find him by it—that's something I don't know and his book doesn't tell me. But he's arguing that it might be using Uulamets and it might be after 'Veshka—”

  “God.” Pyetr's lips hardly moved.

  “Pyetr, I don't know. What he's saying—is if magic gets a wizard in its hands, instead of the other way around, then it can do things in the natural world it can't do otherwise. He says that's what it's after, that if it gets him—it's got a way to get at the rest of us.”

  “ Where do I come in?”

  “He wants to put his heart in your keeping. He wants to work magic again.”

  “He's crazed!”

  “I don't think he's crazy, but I certainly don't think he's our friend. I can't tell how much truth he's telling. His book doesn't give me any help. I don't know magic, not—not the way he does. Even Uulamets didn't.”

  Pyetr bit his lip. “Your magic, his magic—it doesn't make a lot of sense, you know.”

  “ Every wizard works a certain sort of magic. A wizard's born with it. But whatever you were born with, you just—don't use us well when you grow up. Or you do it knowing more, and then it's harder to know exactly what you want.”

  “And he does? —He's not that smart, Sasha, heart or no heart, he's not that damn smart. Look at the mess he's in.”

  “That vodka jug... Uulamets said you only work a spell like the jug just once or twice in your whole life—and it is real magic, what I did. It's not natural and maybe in most points it's the same as sorcery. But I can't do it twice. Uulamets is right— you grow up and you see how complicated things are and you're not sure what's right... ”

  “Wizards have a bad habit of that.”

  “I'm sorry.”

  “Sasha, —just give me one plain answer. What's this hearts business, what does he want to do?”

  “What he did with Owl. I don't know what that would do to you.”

  “Or what he'd try to do. If he thought I could hold on to him he damn sure wouldn't be offering.”

  “I don't know. I'm not sure—” He caught himself doing it j again and ran a hand through his hair. “I'm sorry, Pyetr. — God!”

  “I don't understand this, I don't damn well understand this. Magic that isn't magic—”

  “I do use magic, Pyetr, it's just not—magic, the way he does.”

  Pyetr gave him a straight, bewildered stare.

  Sasha said, helplessly, “We know what we mean.”

  “Good.”

  “I use what I was born with. I move pebbles—just the tiniest bit of magic. It's mine. He wishes for more than he was born with, that's what the difference is. He doesn't bother with pebbles, he just wants a whole hillside to come down—and it will. He doesn't care about consequences, either—because magic can keep them away from him, never mind the rest of the world.”

  “Ham-handed, you mean.”

  “It is, essentially. It certainly could be that—if he was stupid. But he grew up as a wizard. He can do the little things and the big ones. Like me stealing from the trees—only he can steal it from that place Babi comes from.”

  “Is that why Babi's staying clear of him?”

  “Maybe. I don't know what he can do, I don't know what the rules are in that place. Uulamets said it was the worst mistake a wizard could make, to wish for more magic than he has. I think he was right, but—” There was a place in his reasoning that gaped dark and deep, that said—maybe. And he looked Pyetr in the eye, thinking that, in case things went very wrong, Pyetr should not be unwarned. “I don't know. I don't know that Uulamets knew. I've been thinking maybe I could do it better-maybe I could do the same thing, and do it the right way. Maybe I'm making a terrible mistake not to do it and just—take care of things...”

  Pyetr said, with a deep frown, “Sasha, —”

  “I'm scared to do it. And you're right, Babi's hiding. I don't know whether he's hiding from him—or from me.”

  “Sasha, —maybe this one time you'd better listen to Uulamets.”

  “Uulamets could have been wrong, you know. He could just have been scared—the way I'm scared.”

  “He could have been right. I never thought I'd argue his side, but for the god's sake, Sasha, —”

  “I'm scared of it. That doesn't make it wrong.”

  “Then any wizard could do it. Any wizard could—and Chernevog's the only one that did. Which is no damn good recommendation, is it?”

  “Uulamets did say one thing about magic. He said that motives somehow do make a difference.”

  “Uulamets is dead. That's not a recommendation either.”

  “Maybe he wasn't as strong as Chernevog. Maybe Chernevog isn't as strong as he was, either. I'm not saying I'm thinking of doing it. I'm saying—whatever it costs—if he starts to get away from me, if we've no other choice, it could be the only thing I can do to hold him. If it happens—if he does something and that's all I can do—I want you to understand what's happening. I want you to get clear of it, find Babi—I think Babi would come to you. Not to me right now. Just for the god's sake don't hang around.”

  Pyetr drew a breath. A second one. He was disturbed, Sasha knew that. Finally Pyetr said, ”Maybe this time we'd better wait to ask Uulamets. That was what the leshys said. They didn't say make yourself another Chernevog. Did they? That's not what you're supposed to do, is it?”

  Pyetr had a knack for cutting through confusion. Pyetr was not always right, but Pyetr had a way of getting back to solid ground.

  “No,” he was relieved to say. “No, they didn't say that.”

  “He wants us to do something stupid. You know that. It's him, dammit, it's him.” Pyetr pressed his shoulder, a hard, bruising grip. “Just don't listen. And be careful with the old man too! I don't trust either one of them.”

  “I'm trying not to. I wish I knew what's right. I wish to the god I knew. I keep thinking we shouldn't listen to him—but then he
says things that make sense.”

  “Good liars are like that. You should have known Dmitri.”

  “Things ought to be clearer, Pyetr.”

  Pyetr said, ‘‘Not when he doesn't want that.”

  “I'm scared! I don't know about my choices. I don't know I'm right!”

  “Hell. So we could lose. Make a choice. Any choice. Better your dice than his. Just watch for switches.”

  He drew a breath, let it go again. “We can't be that much further from the house. I think I know where the bridge brought us. I think this is the same stream.”

  “I've had that idea.”

  “—But I don't know that Uulamets knew any answers. Pyetr, he left me everything he could, and I don't know that he was right about magic, I don't know that this is the answer. The leshys don't understand wizards...”

  “Listen.” Pyetr's fingers bit into his shoulder. “He may not have been right about anything, but let's not believe this fellow, either, not more than once a day and then only if he agrees with us. Just don't think about doubts, you know where they're coming from.”

  “I'm not sure they are, Pyetr. I think they're mine.”

  “Then let me do the worrying. And the doubting. I'm better at it. You wish up a bear or something.”

  “Don't-”

  “—joke about it? Better than listening to him.”

  “It might be.”

  “Might. May. If. Make up your mind, friend! That jug never has broken. Or emptied. You're a hell of a wizard when you know what you want. Why don't you just wish Chernevog to love us dearly?”

  “Jugs don't argue,” Sasha said glumly.

  “They don't put nasty thoughts in your head, either. Put a few in his. Can't you?”

  “I don't—” He thought with embarrassment of his only enemy, of poor cousin Mischa, and a mud puddle, and one unbridled, purely malicious wish—and that, only after years of abuse. Pyetr's misdeeds had always seemed, to a young wizard trying desperately to grow up without killing anyone, gloriously, recklessly imaginative. “I don't want a fight with him—I can't—”

  “God, what do you think we've got? What do you think's going on, boy? Wake up!”

 
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