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       Chernevog, p.22

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  He had no answer for that.

  “Sense of humor,” Pyetr said, and hit him on the arm. “I'll wager you anything you like—it'll confuse hell out of him.” With which Pyetr took up Volkhi's reins and swung up, then looked to Chernevog, saying, “Come on, snake, we're going.”

  I don't know, Eveshka wrote in her book, on the deck of the old ferry, what to wish about the baby. Papa would say—you can undo anything but the past.

  Pyetr, if this book comes to Sasha, and you hear this, believe that I love you—but I can't come home until I know what brought me here and why. A wizard-child's nothing you ever bargained for. I won't do that to you.

  I want you to know that. Maybe you hear me. But I can't hear you and I can't hear Sasha, no matter how I try. And I daren't come back till I know more than I do. So I've got to go and find out what I can.

  She put away the inkpot then, and closed the book.

  18

  There were cold spots in the woods. That was always how it started. Volkhi and Missy hated them and Pyetr swore and patted Volkhi's sweating neck, saying, “There's a lad, it's only a ghost.”

  At times he heard himself saying things like that and wondered about his sanity.

  Magic that wasn't magic and magic that was sorcery. Babi in hiding—and Babi, with Sasha and 'Veshka, was the only contact with magical things that this gambler's son wanted. Things were not going altogether well, in Pyetr's estimation, and while the ghosts were no surprise, they were nothing he wanted to deal with, and nothing Sasha needed, either—the boy was distracted enough; and there was a real danger in these flitting nuisances.

  Despair, a cold spot whispered, brushing his ear.

  “Shut up!” he said, swatting at it, small good that did.

  Hopeless, another wailed.

  “Go away!” Sasha wished it, and it wailed into silence. Another cried, Murderer! and flitted in front of Chernevog, who walked ahead of them. It gave Pyetr some satisfaction to see him flinch.

  Chernevog! more of them cried. And, Chernevog! Chernevog! went through the woods like a whisper.

  “Now we're in it,” Pyetr said with a shiver. “Damn, Snake, you do draw flies, don't you?”

  Chernevog turned a pale face toward him and Pyetr felt a moment's pain about the heart. Volkhi pitched of a sudden—

  And stopped, throwing his head and snorting: it might have been Sasha's doing that a ghost went right through Chernevog at that moment. Then a whole cloud of them surrounded him wailing and crying, and Chernevog, who had not been so mortal as to wave his arms and do natural things to ward them off, flinched and flailed out at them.

  “Damn you!” Chernevog cried, and one said,

  We are damned...

  As the whole horde of ghosts whirled around them like so many pale leaves.

  “Uulamets!” Pyetr yelled. “Uulamets, you old liar, if you're out there, you're the one we want!”

  There was sudden silence. Not a ghost to be found.

  Sasha said, “God, I don't like that... ”

  Eveshka, the ghosts mocked her, Eveshka, where are you going?

  She shuddered. They were her ghosts that walked with her, in the deep forest twilight. They were her victims, hundreds of them. They were wayfarers, rivermen, travelers on the road. They carried packs, some of them, and looked lost.

  Do you know the way—? they would begin, and then their faces, faint in the forest daylight, would grow horrified, as if they had suddenly recognized her, and they would flee shrieking Into the brush.

  Some leaped out to rob her—horrible men with shaggy hair, whose attacks ended in racketing shrieks of terror.

  Worst was one that trailed her, calling out, Have you seen my mama? Please wait!

  She would not look at that one. She felt it closer and closer, almost on her heels, felt it tug at her skirts.

  Please, it said.

  She wished it away, and it went, a child's voice wailing, Papa, where are you?

  She forgot her resolution then, she forgot everything but remorse, and the ghosts took it and grew stronger. It was harder and harder to resist them. She felt their hands pulling at her.

  Come away, they said, come away, you've no right to be breathing.

  You've no right to the sunlight. You're bones, you're only bones in a cave...

  “Pretty bones,” something said, different than the ghosts, and she stopped, stood looking about the dark brush, her heart fluttering in panic.

  “Oh, I'm here,” the voice said, deep in the shadows, and everything grew quiet, except that sibilant voice. Brash crackled with the gliding movement of a heavy body. “I'm here, pretty bones. Don't be afraid of me.”

  “Go away!” she cried.

  It hissed. She saw a rapid disturbance in the brash, the merest glimpse of its huge, slick body as it lashed through the bracken. It turned up to her left, and said, “That's not nice, Eveshka. We're old friends.”

  “Away!”

  It slithered a ways further. She heard it stop.

  “Go away!” she ordered it, but its persistence made her doubt it would go, and that was deadly.

  “See,” it hissed. “I don't have to do what you want. But if you're nice I will. I won't say pretty bones anymore.”

  “Leave me alone!”

  Another slithering movement, a voice further away this time: “He's followed you, pretty bones, the man's come upriver. But do you know who he's traveling with? You'll never believe it.”

  Curiosity was a trap. She tried to refuse it. But her thoughts went scattering after the lure, and it said, the old snake did,

  ‘‘Kavi Chernevog.”

  She went cold through and through.

  ‘‘Isn't that odd?” it said. ‘‘If you listened very hard just now you might hear him. Sasha's with him, of course, and I've no notion what they're going to do with Chernevog. Why don't you call them here? I'm sure they'd be glad to see you.”

  “Shut up!” she cried.

  “It's getting dark fast, pretty bones. And don't think of salt. Surely you don't want to drive me away. You know where If go, first thing.”

  She knew. She took a deep, shivering breath. One talked aloud to a vodyanoi, if one had the choice. She said in a trembling voice, “I know. But I'd be careful, Hwiuur. I'd not come too close, either.”

  “To a wizard as powerful as you? I'd be very foolish. Where were you going? Is it interesting?”

  The light was going. Night was the worst time for ghosts—when the eye had less detail to distract it: you don't see them with the eye , Uulamets had said, you see them with the mind.

  But there had not been a one since he had called after Uulamets, and Pyetr himself had a bad feeling about that, whether it came from Chernevog or Sasha or whether it was his own suspicion.

  “Nastier than the lot of them,” he muttered as he rode, in the cold misery of a light, misting rain. “Even in this neighborhood the old man's got his reputation.”

  It was all saplings now, young trees, some knee-high to the horses, others, fewer, rising slim and tall—leshys had brought hose from outside, to this region that had been barren, stream cut ground. There began to be up thrusts of rock, gray, rain-glistening in the twilight, rising out of a knee-high forest of birches and half obscured by taller growth—when he had last seen those stones standing in eroded, barren land.

  Pyetr remembered that landscape with a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach, a memory of pain.

  And Chernevog, panting after breath, hard-driven by their pace: “God, this place is changed! —We're near the house.”

  Chernevog's old holding. Damned right he knew where he was.

  “We shouldn't go any further tonight,” Chernevog protested.

  “Night's a fine time for our business,” Pyetr said. “You want a ghost, you might as well look after dark.”

  “No,” Chernevog said, and turned and took Volkhi's reins, at which Volkhi threw his head. “No, listen to me... ”

  “Let go my horse, Snake.”<
br />
  Missy had stopped. Chernevog kept his hold and looked up, his face waxen pale against the rain-shadowed dusk. He put a hand on Volkhi and Volkhi's shoulder twitched.”Make camp,” Chernevog said. “Now.”

  It seemed for a moment quite reasonable, even prudent.

  Sasha said, “Why?”

  ‘‘Because you're being fools. Because we're already too close. Listen to me—”

  Both horses started moving abruptly, shoving Chernevog off his balance, but Chernevog grabbed at Pyetr's leg, held on to the reins, stopped Volkhi a second time. Pyetr laid the other hand on his sword, but Chernevog's look stopped him—or something did. He hesitated, suddenly thinking Chernevog might know something worth hearing, while Chernevog said, “Pyetr, please Pyetr, for the god's sake, listen to me—”

  “Chernevog!” Sasha said, but that seemed far away, and Chernevog's hold unbreakable as the gaze of his eyes.

  “Be my friend,” Chernevog said. “Pyetr Ilyitch, believe me! I won't betray you.”

  Sasha hurtled down off Missy's back and seized Chernevog by the shoulder with a violence that spun Chernevog back against Volkhi's side. Pyetr caught up the reins and kept his seat, amazed to see Sasha with a fistful of Chernevog's shirt, saying very quietly, “Don't touch him. Don't you touch him,” in a way that Pyetr thought he would take very seriously if he were Kavi Chernevog.

  But in all truth—he had not felt Chernevog's appeal to him as an attack: he had felt Chernevog's distress, felt Chernevog had just tried to explain something direly important to him.

  Dangerous, probably, to feel that. He watched Sasha let Chernevog go, Chernevog standing with his back to Volkhi's side.

  “Move!” Sasha said.

  “I'm not sure—” Pyetr found himself saying Not sure and plunged ahead. “I don't know if we shouldn't listen this time. The way the ghosts took off—”

  “Pyetr, that's him wanting you to say that.”

  “I'm not sure it isn't my idea too. —If some Thing or other is really looking for him, isn't it going to start there?”

  “I thought time mattered.”

  Eveshka. God. He felt a sudden deep embarrassment, to be so foolish, and Sasha was unwontedly sharp with him. Deservedly. He said, “Come on, Snake,” and offered him help to climb up.

  Chernevog cast an anxious look at Sasha over his shoulder.

  “I'll take him,” Sasha said.

  Time was when he had felt obliged to stand between the boy and any sort of trouble. It was a strange feeling, to watch a sudden, stern-faced young man climb up (however ungracefully) onto his horse and offer his hand—and see it was Kavi Chernevog who looked afraid to take it.

  “Following a notion,” the voice said from the brush and the deepening twilight. There was an intermittent long slide of a massive body, a crackling of small branches. “And where will this notion take you, I wonder? Did you know your willow's greening up this spring? I wonder why.”

  Eveshka ignored the vodyanoi as much as possible. It was time to stop soon, and to make a fire, and to ring herself with protections the River-thing could not pass, but there was nothing savory about this thicket. The forest here might never have died, but it had not prospered either: there was no clear spot to build a fire, and no clear spot either to build her protections.

  “I smell smoke, pretty. Do you? I'll bet if you go much further you'll find what you're looking for.”

  She smelled nothing. But she felt a chill all the same. Old Hwiuur had his wicked ways, and he lied, but he loved tormenting someone in trouble, too, and one got to know when he was getting to the point of things.

  “ Never been this far up the river, pretty?”

  She clenched her jaw and kept walking, breathing at a measured pace, thinking if she could find a place to build a fire and boil water, she might give the damned creature a salt-water bath. That might send him elsewhere awhile.

  But-she dared not believe it, she dared not do anything that risked sending the vodyanoi south, not even that she believed Pyetr and Sasha might not deal with it—

  But if Kavi was with them, god, the leshys had surely failed, if that was the case, and Kavi might use the vodyanoi, might be using him now. Hwiuur would by no means tell her any straight truth. Kavi was with them—how?

  The scent of smoke reached her, very faint. She said, “Hwiuur, who lives hereabouts?”

  “Oh,” the vodyanoi said, “now are we polite, pretty bones?”

  She wanted to know, unequivocally. But Hwiuur was hard to catch with one intent, or two, or three. He said,

  “If we're not polite, I'll leave, pretty. I'll tell you. Better yet, I'll show you. Just a little gather.”

  He was moving away from her for a moment. Then she heard something at her left, looked and saw her father standing there.

  “Not so much farther,” he said, this gray, shadowed figure that was no ghost.

  Then it dissolved and flowed down onto the ground, rushing past her like a runaway spill of ink.

  A damned shapeshifter... in her father's likeness.

  Recent lie? she asked herself. Or a lie from the start?

  She stood very still for a moment. She heard Hwiuur's slithering progress in the brush, coming from the other side now. It passed behind her.

  “Stop playing games,” she cried. “Hwiuur, damn you!”

  Movement stopped. The whole woods was still.

  But the feeling—the assurance that had been with her from childhood, of something especially, uniquely waiting for her— was with her again in that quiet.

  Perhaps, she thought, Hwiuur had been trying, in his malicious way, to mislead her from what was essential for her to find.

  Or perhaps, in the presence of such malicious creatures, it might mean something utterly dreadful about her childhood longings—that mysterious assurance of special worth somewhere, most private and most central to her heart.

  She walked forward, down a slope and past an old, old tree, found herself facing a strange hill of sod and logs.

  Set in that hill, dim in the last of the light—was a door.

  It was a most uneasy feeling Sasha had as they rode into view of the ruin, and he wondered if Chernevog was somehow to blame for that uneasiness: Chernevog had scared him terribly, going at Pyetr as he had a while back, and he had no idea what was the matter with him since, that had his hands trembling with anger and his heart racing—whether it was Chernevog that disturbed him or whether it was some other abrading influence in this place.

  He was not one to let feelings get away from him, no matter Pyetr's advice to let his temper go—no matter Pyetr thought him weak and indecisive... he was not Pyetr, he had all but panicked with Chernevog, and he could not ride into this place as Pyetr did, looking as if trouble had better watch out for him and not the other way around. He was frightened, he was angry at Chernevog, and most of all-Most of all he did not really want the meeting they were here to get, which might well prevent it happening at all. He kept thinking, What do I do if the old man does want me?

  “Not much of the place left,” Pyetr said. It was true—ordinary luck might easily have missed the house entirely in the almost-dark, the planting of trees was so thorough. Only the burned beams above the trees showed them where the old building had stood, fire-charred timbers standing stark and washed with rain.

  I've seen this, too, Sasha thought, uncomfortably aware of Chernevog's presence brushing his back. Missy moved at her deliberate pace, constant movement of muscle and bone beneath him: Missy was smelling rain and young leaves and old fire— nothing in the way of dangers that horses understood.

  “Looks as if the leshys flattened what was standing,” Pyetr said. “The big tree in the yard is gone. Trees must be planted right over the grave.”

  “We'll find it,” Sasha murmured distractedly. He felt nothing precisely amiss about the place, but it seemed far more haunted than the woods, full of memories and old wishes. He said to Uulamets' ghost, if it chanced to be listening, Master Uulamets, i
t's me, Sasha. We've got Chernevog with us: don't be startled—

  “Sasha,” Chernevog said. Chernevog had not held to him in their riding together, had avoided him as much as two people could avoid each other on the same horse, but of a sudden Chernevog touched his arm. “For the god's sake we're close enough!”

  “Shut up!” he said.

  The ruin stood in seedlings that made a deep green deception In the twilight, level as if it were some knee-deep lake the horses waded. The dead tree that had stood in the yard was indeed gone, there were only scant traces of a wall and the tumbled foundations, except one wing. They passed the remains of a wall, a charred round ruin where the bathhouse had stood, all half-drowned in infant birch trees.

  He stopped Missy, bade Chernevog get down, and slid off as

  Pyetr did. They were virtually over the grave, as best he recalled it. The light was fast leaving them, the green birches faded to faint, moist gray, the edges of the forest lost in rain, the burned timbers black against the clouds. The only sound was their breathing.

  “Master Uulamets,” he said aloud, defying all that silence. “Master Uulamets?”

  He waited. He wished earnestly for the old man's good will, he tried earnestly to remember that Uulamets had also saved their lives, and not to hold Uulamets' motives against him.

  “Damn stubborn old man,” Pyetr muttered after a fruitless time of standing there, during which the horses stamped and shifted and idly pulled leaves off the young birches. “It's wet, it's nasty, and he doesn't like the company. —Come on, grandfather, dammit, 'Veshka's in trouble and there's something using your shape. I'd think you'd like to know that.”

  There was a sudden chill in the air. A wind sighed along the sea of leaves.

  That passed. Sasha let go the bream he had been holding, stood a moment in the quiet trying again to convince himself he truly wanted the old man to speak to him personally.

  He trusted Misighi. That was the only advice he was willing to take where it regarded the welfare of the woods—which was their welfare, too: he trusted that the way he trusted the ground they walked on and the food they ate and the water they drank.

 
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