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       Chernevog, p.23

           C. J. Cherryh

  What harmed it, harmed them; when it was well, they were: that was the bargain they had made—using nature kindly, working with what magic agreed with it—like the Forest-things themselves.

  That was where he had to stand. That was the safe magic.

  “Watch him,” he told Pyetr, and got down his pack from Missy's back, knelt down and bent back a couple of seedlings to give himself room, searching after rosemary and the herbs he recollected Uulamets using in his spells.

  Chernevog wanted him to stop—a weak, a desperately frightened wish for his attention and his patience to hear him. “For the god's sake,” Chernevog said, and Pyetr grabbed him by the shoulder, “—it may not be only Uulamets that answers.”

  Doubt, Sasha thought, and stood up and looked Chernevog on the face with an angry suspicion what Chernevog was trying to do to them.

  “Sasha,” Chernevog said, “Sasha, —oh, god—”

  Dark and fire...

  Hoof beats in the dark... inexorable as a heartbeat...

  Eveshka, sitting at a hearth, drinking a cup of tea.

  Sasha felt that sense of presence that had haunted him from home. He turned his head toward it and saw, like a bad dream, the bannik squatting in the charred skeleton of the bathhouse doorway, a dusky, spiky-haired shadow, like a sullen, bored child, staring at the steps beside his feet.

  One did not want it to look up. One did not want to look it in the eyes.

  Sasha thought with a chill. —It lied... it was always his...

  But Chernevog tried to retreat behind them, fighting Pyetr's help on his arm.

  “No!” Chernevog cried.

  The bannik stood up, frowning at them with eyes like dying ambers. Then it looked skyward, lifted its hand as something filmy white swept down on broad wings to settle on its wrist. The creature folded its wings and stared at them in its own moment of sharp attention. Then ghostly owl and ragged shadow of a boy faded together into the dark.


  “What in hell was that?” Pyetr asked of Sasha. “That was the bannik! Wasn't that the bannik?”

  “It's what showed up at the house,” Sasha said.

  “It's him,” Pyetr said. “Is it my eyes, or what's it doing with the owl?”

  “I don't know,” Sasha said.

  “He damned well does,” Pyetr said, and took a new grip on Chernevog's shirt, wanting answers. “What kind of tricks are you up to, Snake?”

  Chernevog said on a ragged breath, “I told you, I told you, and you won't listen—”

  Pyetr shook him. “Told us, damn right you've told us—one damned lie after another! Sound asleep, were you? Innocent as morning snow, are you?”

  “I'm not lying!” Chernevog cried, and it sounded both desperate and fully in earnest.

  Which meant nothing, with wizards. Pyetr shook him a second time, saying, “Bannik, hell! Call it back!”

  “I can't!” Chernevog said.

  “Can't, hell! That's you. That spook's you, Snake, don't tell me it's not.”

  “It's a shadow,” Chernevog said faintly. “A piece. A part.

  A fragment...” Chernevog shivered, put a hand on his arm, eye to eye with him in a twilight so deep that his eyes had no center, only dark. “The dead can fragment... That's what ghosts are: pieces, fragments, sometimes a single notion—”

  “You're not dead!”

  “I don't know what made it, I don't know why it happened, I didn't know it could happen and I don't know where I lost it—”

  “Damned careless of you!'‘‘It's the truth, Pyetr Ilyitch!”

  He worried every time he believed Chernevog. He had memories aplenty to remind himself what Chernevog was, and had done, and still might do; and certainly enough to remind him why he wanted to kill this man; but he could not find the man he wanted to kill, that was the trouble: this one held to him, teeth chattering, and said things like,

  “For the god's sake don't go on with this tonight. Don't invite any damned thing that might be listening. Build a fire. Lay down lines. It's not nature you're dealing with: put some limits to this, don't leave it to whatever comes.”

  Sasha said, “He's right.”

  “Build a fire.” They were knee-deep in seedlings leshys had put there. “I don't think we ought to be tearing up any trees, under the circumstances.”

  “There's the bathhouse,” Sasha said. “The furnace will be stone. There's wood left—at least of the walls.”

  “Cinders,” Pyetr muttered, but he was glad enough to hear words like fire and limits. The horses had wandered off from all this shouting, browsing among the seedlings. They both put their heads up and Sasha called to them, “Come on.”

  No one, in this place, in this night, had any particular choice about it.

  Wizardry helped make damp wood catch, in a furnace mostly intact. Its effect against the smoke was minimal so far as Pyetr could see, but a circle of sulfur and salt around the old walls would stay put against any chance or wizard-raised wind—and such of the walls as still stood, helped against the rainy chill.

  Pyetr fed the fire and kept an eye on Chernevog while Sasha was outside the walls including the horses in the circle—bending birch seedlings, tying them with mending-cord, and wishing them well: on the whole, Pyetr approved of birch trees, and leshys, and whatever was alive, as opposed to dead; and particularly whatever opposed the sort of magic Chernevog dealt with.

  Chernevog was sitting opposite him, against the fire-scorched wall, knees tucked up. His eyes were open, but he had not moved since he had sat down.

  “There's the canvas,” Pyetr said. “You could wrap in that, you know.”

  Chernevog gave no sign he had heard. His thin shirt seemed scant protection against the chill in the mist.

  Pyetr chucked a stick in Chernevog's direction. If Chernevog was thinking of some mischief he had no inclination to let him do it in peace. “The canvas,” he said, “beside you. Or freeze. I'm sure I don't care.”

  He thought about the bannik, or whatever it was, and tried to wonder about Eveshka and what else it had shown them. He listened to Sasha moving around out beyond the walls, in the dark, and thought, Get back here, boy. I really don't like this.

  Chernevog said, suddenly, “I did love Owl.”

  It sounded like an accusation. A just complaint, what was worse, but he did not want to argue grievances with the man, not here, where memory was so vivid. He kept his mouth shut.

  Chernevog said, ”I wanted Eveshka. I 'd have given her everything she could have asked.”

  “Shut up, Snake. You'll make me mad if you go on.”

  “She wanted you. I couldn't understand that.”

  “I can.”

  Chernevog said, “I wish I'd done differently by you.”

  “But you didn't, Snake, you really made me mad. And you're doing it again.”

  “You want so very little.”


  He could not get his breath for a moment. Then breath came, and Sasha came running.


  “Snake, here, tried something.” He was still short-winded. “I don't know what.”

  “I'm very sorry,” Chernevog said. “You frightened me.”

  “I frightened you.” Pyetr put another stick into the furnace, wanting nothing to have happened, nothing magical to have insinuated itself into him that Sasha might not detect. “Don't put any damn wishes on me. —Sasha, I don't know what he was up to, but he did something.”

  Sasha squatted and put his hand on his shoulder, but the queasiness in his stomach did not go away. Wishes, he thought, did not necessarily lie in someone, they were not there to be bound like a splinter or a bruise. They just waited down the road and pounced when the time came.

  “It's all right,” Sasha said.

  “I damn sure hope it is.” He shrugged off Sasha's hand, not wanting to worry about it. “Did you finish out there?”

  “Almost—I didn't feel him do anything, Pyetr.”

  So he was being
foolish—if Sasha knew everything that was going on, which he hoped, but he was not sure of: nothing seemed sure, dealing with Kavi Chernevog.

  “I'm all right, then,” he said. “Go on, get back to it. We've got one Snake in here, we don't need another.”

  Sasha pressed his shoulder, stood up and did something, Pyetr had no idea what: Chernevog put up a hand as if he were about to be hit, and said, “I didn't touch him.”

  “He evidently didn't,” Pyetr said, reluctantly.

  Sasha stood there a moment. Chernevog stared up at him with a hard, defiant expression.

  That was a fight going on, Pyetr decided. He got up with his sword in hand and said, “Snake, behave or I'll cut your head off. Hear me?”

  Chernevog did not look at him immediately. Then his eyes shifted slowly to fix on him, and Pyetr felt a sudden light-headedness, a chill against his heart.

  The stone floor came up under his knee—the sword clattered onto the stones as he saw Chernevog stand up, and Sasha facing him.

  “Chernevog!” he yelled.

  “Don't fight me,” Chernevog said, and even thinking about it was an uphill struggle.

  “Damn you,” he said, and did struggle—to reach the sword and pick it up, but it was hard to believe Chernevog meant any harm, to him or to Sasha: Chernevog needed them, and what Chernevog needed was very, very safe.

  “Protection enough, your circle,” Chernevog said. “Thank you.”

  Papa had not brought up a fool, to go straight up to any strange door and knock. Eveshka sat at the edge of the woods and listened to the silence. Hwiuur had gone somewhere or Hwiuur was lying as still as he could. Of the shapeshifter there was no sign, either—whether her father had ever been with her, or whether it had been that creature all along. Their absence now meant only that they were up to no good; and if the vodyanoi had told her the truth about Pyetr and Sasha being in Chernevog’s company, she had no doubt where that trouble had gone.

  She would wish not—excepting it was not a place to be flinging wishes about recklessly or loudly.

  Damn, she did not like this strange house under the hill, and she did not like Hwiuur disappearing and she did not like the idea that whoever lived here was—she felt it—aware of her being here.

  How not? she thought. Hwiuur would certainly have seen to that.

  She locked her hands in front of her mouth, she wanted, as quietly and as carefully as she could, to know what was in that house without having it catch her at it—a small burglary, Pyetr would call it, without touching the door at all.

  Ah, someone said to her, there you are.

  She drew back, quickly, felt a magic more powerful than anything Kavi had ever used.

  It said, Oh, don't be a fool. There's no use sitting there in the dark. Come inside. I don't bite.

  She said, Who are you?

  But that was a mistake. Curiosity opened a way for it. It said, softly, Your mother, dear. Of course.


  “Sasha?” Pyetr was saying, “Sasha?” and patting his face, saying, “Damn you, let him go,” —to someone else, Sasha decided. Then he realized that Pyetr was holding his head off the ground and the person Pyetr was talking to was Chernevog, who sat comfortably at their fireside.

  Pyetr rested a hand on Sasha's shoulder, said, in a low voice: “ I don't know what he's up to. He's got his book, he's got yours and Uulamets', and I couldn't stop him. I'm sorry.” Pyetr sounded terribly distraught, as if it were his fault—and that was in no wise just.

  Sasha asked, “Are you all right?”

  “So far.”

  He made the effort to sit up, winced as the ache in his head became stabbing pain and found himself leaning on Pyetr's arm, everything gone dim again.

  “You hit the ground hard.” Pyetr said, continuing to support him, which, the way everything was spinning, was more than welcome. But the ache eased when he wished it: it should not have, Chernevog being free—and free of what... his addled wits suddenly realized. He looked into Pyetr's anxious face, saw lines of pain unlike him.

  God, no! he thought, and he wished Chernevog's heart back where it belonged.

  But he felt no change at all; and Chernevog said, with a stinging rebuke, I haven't hurt him, I've no wish to, without taking back what I don't want, personally, to carry. You won't do my heart any harm—not where it sits. So just do what I tell you-no different than with Uulamets, is it?

  Damn you, Sasha thought, and quickly restrained his anger, seeing Chernevog smile at him—affording him a moment to think what he might do to Pyetr to teach him a lesson.

  Chernevog said, I have no need to. Do I?

  No, he agreed, earnestly trying to turn his thoughts to cooperation, at least for the while.

  Chernevog said aloud, to Pyetr: “Let's dispense with grudges. Shall we? They do so little good. I won't blame you, you won't blame me, we won't quarrel: that's best, isn't it, Pyetr Ilyitch?”

  Careful, Sasha wished Pyetr.

  “Isn't it?” Chernevog asked.

  “Yes,” Pyetr said faintly.

  “That's your friend bespelling you, not me. He's very much afraid for you, Pyetr Ilyitch. But we have an agreement, and I 'm not sorry for it, I'm truly not. Be agreeable, is that so much to ask?”

  “No,” Pyetr answered, a mere movement of the lips: Say anything he wants, Sasha wished him, never mind the truth.

  Chernevog said, “I really, really have come to envy you two. I don't know I've ever seen two people trust each other.”

  “You wouldn't,” Pyetr said, before Sasha could stop him.

  “No,” Chernevog said, “I wouldn't. I really wouldn't. But it's comfortable just being with people like you—even if I am a snake.” He smiled at them, and shrugged. “This snake can do very well for you, you understand, if you'll only let him.”

  “He's lost his damn mind,” Pyetr muttered under his breath.

  “No, no, no,” Chernevog said. “I'm very serious. The leshys did teach me something—patience, for one thing. Waiting for things instead of forcing them. They do come. This one did.”

  “I think I'll have a nap,” Pyetr said. “It's late. We're in the hands of a crazy man.”

  Sasha's heart turned over. He wished Chernevog not to do anything about that; and Chernevog only said, gently, “I wouldn't change him. —We'll talk about 'Veshka tomorrow.”

  II was a trap, of course. Sasha bit his lip and knew Pyetr knew it, and knew Pyetr had not the constitution to ignore a challenge.

  Pyetr just sat there and stared at Chernevog, that was as far as he went; and Chernevog sat there a moment before saying, with no trace of mockery, “Something's seriously wrong. I've as much magic as I need—but I feel limits I didn't have before. I don't know whether it's something the leshys did to me or whether it's something altogether different. I do know that Veshka’s north of us, I know she's left the boat, I know old Hwiuur's about...”

  “Let's get to the point,” Pyetr said.

  “That is the point. Hwiuur's being—pardon me—a snake. Very difficult to catch. Possibly it's a little last rebellion: he's like that. But it's not the only uneasy feeling I have, and it doesn't, as you say, answer the question what's happened to the leshys, a very major question, in my position. So I do think it's just as well we go north, and find 'Veshka, and explain to her you're with me—because if we don't, she's very likely to fall Into the hands of some other crazy person, do you see, and none of us wants that.”

  Pyetr said nothing. Sasha thought of flowers, thought of bread baking, thought of the garden at home and wondered if it needed weeding. He wished the weeds at least not to prosper.

  Chernevog said, “Prudent, but let's all admit she might try to free you, and I've no doubt there are things that will fly straight to her to help her. That's why I want to find her first. That's why I'm sure you do.”

  Flowers, Sasha thought. Birches and a fieldmouse by the hearth.

  Pyetr, don't listen to him.

  Chernevog said, “Your fri
end is speaking to you again. He's trying to advise you be careful. So would I. I'd give him the same advice, of course, but he's trying not to listen to me. — I'll warrant his head's not hurting now.”

  The pain had gone; .Sasha had no recollection when.

  “See?” Chernevog said softly. “A safe camp, a safe rest. I can be very easy to get along with, if people are agreeable. — Put some wood on the fire, will you?”

  * * *

  The house seemed larger inside than out—the log walls were trimmed and polished and other rooms were curtained with fine needlework at which one had no wish to gaze overlong, the patterns so caught the eye. Fire blazed up in a hearth of river stone, an oak mantel held silver plates, and herbs hung in chains and bunches beside it.

  This was Draga's house.

  And the mother Eveshka had not seen from her birth a hundred years ago was young and beautiful, her mother's hair was long and pale, freshly brushed and tied up with ribbons, her nightgown embroidered with blue flowers very like those Eveshka had thought she had made up, to sew about her hems.

  It was her nose, her mouth, her chin, except a little cleft. The resemblances both fascinated and terrified her.

  Her mother said, “Do come in, Eveshka,” and, “Let me take your coat, dear, do sit down, god, your hair's all over leaves...”

  Eveshka set her pack down by the hearthside bench her mother offered her, and kept her coat on, and stayed standing.

  But her mother slipped on a robe, drawing her braids over one shoulder, said, looking at her, “Would you like some water to wash?” —implying, Eveshka supposed, that her face must be dirty. Her hands certainly were. Her boots were muddy from the rain. She would never have let anyone so disreputable besmirch her own well-swept floors, she would scold Pyetr or Sasha or her father right out the door to shed the boots, but she suddenly found herself defending her dirt as her right to be out that door again tonight, very soon, and sooner, if she found reason.

  “No, thank you,” she said.

  “Well, do sit,” her mother said, beginning to fuss about the kitchen. “Do.”

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