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       Chernevog, p.24

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  “You needn't go to any trouble,” Eveshka said. “Why did you call me here?”

  “Because I wanted to see my daughter. Because you're in danger.”

  “From whom? From you?”

  Draga drew tea from the samovar, set silver cups on a silver plate and slipped a honey-cake onto a small dish to set beside it.

  Eveshka repeated, wanting a truthful answer: “From you, mother?”

  Draga brought the tray to die fireside, set it on the end of the bench.”Your father told you terrible things about me. I know.”

  “My father's been dead for three years,” she said shortly. 'Why now, mother? What do you want?”

  “To protect you. And my grandchild.”

  She wanted no wishes about the baby one way or the other until she was sure what she wanted, and she was surrounded by wishes, everyone's damned interference in something happening inside her.

  “Does everyone in the world know?” she asked sharply.

  “You didn't?”

  She wanted to know things; she desperately barred her mother's thoughts, that came at her this way and that, persistent as a snake after eggs.

  She said, carefully, aloud, “No, I didn't. It can't be far along.”

  “Mere days. Pyetr's the father?”

  “What do you know about him?”

  “That he's a common man. That he's very kind to you, and very wise, and very handsome.”

  That was not the response she had expected. Her father had never had a kind word for Pyetr, and that one of her parents finally agreed with her judgment tempted her to question all the things she had heard of Draga—but she must not be taken in that easily, dammit, no. Her mother had been spying on them, her mother had been sneaking about eavesdropping on their business.

  “You're afraid,” Draga said. “Here, don't let the tea cool—sit down, sit. God, you've grown so beautiful.”

  “I was murdered! I spent a hundred damned years as a ghost, mama, where in hell were you when I needed help?”

  “Dear, I've had troubles, too.”

  “You were sleeping with Kavi Chernevog. You sent him to our house, you sent him to rob papa, and to sleep with me, if he could—”

  “That was Kavi's idea.”

  “He was a boy, mama, you were years and years older than he was!”

  “A very charming, very dangerous boy. I wanted you, dear. I wanted you to come and live with me, and yes, I sent Kavi; your father would hardly have let me walk up to the door. Kavi wanted me to teach him certain things—I agreed if he'd go and get you away from your father, which of course took your cooperation. Yes, I thought he might try to win you for himself, you're of an age; but Kavi had no intention of keeping his promises. He stayed to learn what he could from your father, he got caught where he had no business to be, and he still had a chance to have kept his promise to me. But he murdered you instead. Do you understand? He killed you because he'd told too many lies, and he knew how strong you were, and he knew you'd tell me too much. He knew if you ever got to me, the two of us would grow closer and closer, until he had no chance against us. So he killed you to keep you from me. And then he had to kill me before I found out what he'd done,”

  “Did he?”

  “He came very close to it. I was very weak, all but helpless. I knew what he was doing—I 'd even have offered your rather my help, if I'd been able to, but I hadn't the strength. Then—I found out later it was Kavi's fall—something changed quite suddenly, and I could wish myself back, bit by bit.”

  It was plausible. It was entirely plausible. Draga offered the tea, stood patiently with the tray in her hands, wanting her to take it, and for courtesy's sake, and because her mother seemed disposed to stand there until she made up her mind, Eveshka took the cup from the tray, only to hold in her hands.

  “No cake?”

  “I'm not hungry.”

  “Well, well—” Her mother took the other cup, set the tray on the mantel and sat down, patting the bench. “Do sit. God, after all these years. What a lovely young woman you are!”

  Eveshka stayed on her feet. “Why didn't you just tell me you wanted to see me?”

  “Because I wasn't sure you'd come, I wasn't sure you'd want to see me—and because there's more going on than you know.”

  “Evidently everything's going on that I don't know! I'm having a baby and my dead mother's hiding in the woods—”

  “ Dear, dear, sit down. And drink the tea. It's not poisoned.”

  So finally her mother talked about things as they were. Eveshka sat down, coat and all, holding the teacup in her lap, and looked her mother in the eye, saying, “So what else don't I know, that you think I should?”

  “A great deal.”

  “I've an hour or so in mind.”

  “Aren't you warm in that coat?”

  “Let's get to the point, mama.”

  Draga sipped her tea. “Kavi Chernevog.”

  “What about him?”

  “He's awake, he's looking for you, and he has your husband and his friend prisoner.”

  “That's a lie!”

  “I’d be very careful trying to bespeak young Alexander at the moment. You're liable to get a very unpleasant answer. —Let me tell you, daughter, you're a lovely, intelligent young woman with your father's manners, my wits, and both our gifts in measure enough Kavi finds you very dangerous. I wanted you here. I would have wanted your husband and young Alexander with you, but that part of it your young friend prevented. At least Kavi doesn't know about me yet and Kavi doesn't believe you have any help now that the leshys have fallen asleep.”

  That, she had not known. The rest of it—She threw one small item onto the pile, hoping it was harmless. She said, “Hwiuur's loose. The vodyanoi.”

  “I know him. Where is he?”

  “In your woods, mama. Is he yours?”

  “No, he's not mine. Hwiuur belongs to whoever scares him. And since Kavi's waked—I've no doubt whose he is. You say he was in my woods. Where?”

  “You should know that, mama, you should know it, he was close enough. You knew I was there.”

  “I saw you. I didn't see him. I don't like this at all.” Draga shut her eyes a torment, and wanted something. Of a sudden something large stirred beyond the curtains, claws clicked across the boards and a huge bear thrust a nose into the room—came shambling in as if it owned the place.

  “His name is Brodyachi,” Draga said. “He is a bear.”

  Brodyachi rocked from side to side, swinging his head and managing to look at Eveshka sullenly, eye to eye. He had a terrible scar across his head and other scars that looked like burns, about his shoulders.

  ‘‘Trespassers, Brodyachi!” Draga went and opened the door.

  Brodyachi got up and slouched out of the house into the night.

  “I had him indoors tonight,” Draga said, “knowing you were very close. I'm afraid Brodyachi's rather a sullen fellow. Be on your guard against him. —Would you like some tea to drink this time, dear? That cup must be cold by now.”

  ‘‘This is fine.” She had an idea what Brodyachi was, and that it would be no easy thing to overcome the spells that protected him.

  So her mother had her heart well protected. But she had hers in her, and there was nothing but her wishes to defend it.

  Her mother said, “Won't you take off the coat?”

  They lay down to sleep, with the fire built up, their canvas tied between two rocks and the surviving wall of the bathhouse. It was dry, it was warm, it should have afforded them comfort. But the sight of Chernevog reading by firelight afforded none, and as for what had happened to him, Pyetr felt a decided queasiness about his stomach—not pain, not acute fear: he told himself that nothing substantial had happened, that he still had his own heart, whatever the substance of it was, and Chernevog's could not be that well-used, however old it was.

  Sasha touched his shoulder. He turned his head and saw the worry on Sasha's face.

  “This time it is my fault,
Sasha whispered, and wanted something, Pyetr had no idea what, except it upset his stomach further.

  Sasha gave up whatever he was doing and looked thoroughly upset.

  “Don't believe him,” Sasha said. “Whatever you do, don't start believing him.”

  “Hell,” he whispered, “I have trouble enough believing in Babi.” He elbowed Sasha in the ribs, ”Get some sleep. At least we don't have to keep one ear awake for Snake tonight. We know damn well where he is.”

  Bad joke. It was the best he could do. Sasha said, touching his brow— “Go to sleep, Pyetr.”

  Damned dirty trick the boy had, Pyetr thought, opening his eyes in the sunrise. But he was, all the same, grateful.

  21

  Eveshka waked facedown in a comfortable nest of pillows and blankets and felt a moment of cold fear, having no memory of railing asleep, or having lain down in this bed which was clearly in her mother's house. Somehow she was in a clean white gown, somehow she was washed and barefoot, and with her hair braided with pale blue ribbons. And someone was stirring about beyond the curtains, clattering pottery. The house smelled of breakfast.

  “Mother!” she cried, irate. She flung her feet out of bed, looked in vain for her pack, her boots and the clothes she had been wearing. There was only a light robe on a peg and she put it on and stormed out into the kitchen.

  Her mother looked at her, mixing bowl and spoon in hand, and said, ‘‘Set the table, dear.”

  “Mother, where's my bag?”

  “Breakfast first.”

  Eveshka walked about the room, peering under benches and behind curtains.

  “The dishes are in the cupboard,” Draga said.

  “Where are my clothes, dammit? Where are my belongings?”

  “You sound like your rather.” Draga nodded toward the other curtain. “Your baggage is there, your boots are clean, outside the door, your clothes are drying. You're quite the slugabed, my dear.”

  Eveshka went to the curtained closet, drew out her bag and her coat and laid them on the bench by the fire, where her mother was putting cakes on a griddle. She walked to the door, opened it and retrieved her boots, standing in the open door to pull them on.

  “Eveshka, dear, you're making a draft in the fireplace.”

  “I want my clothes,” she said, and closed the door and walked out across the clearing in a nightrobe and her boots to collect her clothes off the oak that stood at the edge of the woods.

  Thank the god, she thought, her book was on the boat. She could remember nothing of how she had gotten to bed—sleeping like the very dead last night, since she supposed it was her mother who had washed her and braided her hair and dressed her like a ribboned doll.

  She reached up to get her clothes from off the tree and heard a loud grunt, looked, still standing on tiptoe, and saw the bear get up from behind the oak and look at her.

  “Nice Brodyachi,” she said, wishing absolutely nothing at him, knowing how touchy a wizard's companion could be. “That's a good fellow.”

  She gathered the clothes, backed carefully away, one eye to the bear. It walked with a sullen swing of its head, faster and faster. Moaned in a bear's warning voice.

  “Mother!” she yelled.

  And dashed for the door and slammed it as Brodyachi charged. She braced her shoulder against it and dropped the latch as he flapped the wood.

  Her mother was taking up the cakes.

  “Brodyachi,” Draga said, rising to her feet, and Eveshka could hear the bear's harsh sigh, hear the boards of the door creak as it sat down against it. Her mother said, “After breakfast, you can feed him a cake or two. That may win him. —Do get the dishes, dear. I'm standing here with nowhere to put these.”

  They packed up, they picked up the bags and the bedrolls to take out to the horses. Chernevog took the bag with the books and the herb-pots, which answered the question whether Chernevog would turn a hand himself, and certainly what he wanted to keep out of Sasha's reach, Pyetr reckoned bitterly.

  He also reckoned very well which horse Chernevog would want for himself, and when Chernevog wanted to walk out to the horses, Pyetr kept his mouth shut and planned to keep it that way, wishing at the bottom of his heart that Volkhi would have the discrimination to give a sudden pitch and break Chernevog's neck—but the very thought that Chernevog might harm Volkhi or magic the spirit out of him made him sure he wanted to do nothing to provoke him. Volkhi came wandering up to them, and he attached the reins, trying to think nothing at all.

  ‘‘Pyetr,” Sasha said, and he thought, probably not on his own initiative, that Sasha wanted him to ride double with him on Missy; but, “No,” he said, shaking his head, and went on tying his knots. He knew bullies, he had met them aplenty in Vojvoda, and if he was the target Chernevog picked this morning, then so be it: better one of them than both and better to keep his head down and take it than challenge the scoundrel to find one and the next and the next soft spot until he felt out where all the telling ones were.

  So he finished his knot and lapped the rein-ends over Volkhi's neck, turned to offer Chernevog a lift up. But he thought men that he was supposed to get on and pull Chernevog up, and he found himself eye to eye with Chernevog, not sure what the man wanted.

  “Go on,” Chernevog said.

  He gave a doubtful shake of his head, turned and took a handful of Volkhi's mane.

  Fear stopped him men, a cold sudden thought of Chernevog at his back. And something very strong wanted him to go ahead, now, before Chernevog lost his patience.

  He turned against Volkhi's side and looked Chernevog in the face, sure that one of these conflicting impulses was Sasha's, one was Chernevog's, and all he could do was stand there with go and stay chasing around his own cold apprehension.

  “Can't you just say what you want?” he asked, the way he would ask Sasha, and feared he might be tilting some balance in this silent, rapid warfare... might just have done something very stupid, and dangerous to Sasha, and he wanted Chernevog to think about him, not Sasha. He gave Chernevog a sudden

  Chernevog turned and looked him in the face and he not draw the next breath, absolutely could not get rid of one he had.

  “Stop it!” Sasha cried.

  Breath went out of him. He gasped after the next. Chernevog said, “Don't do that again,” and Pyetr turned perforce and with his knees shaking under him, found enough strength to get up to Volkhi's back.

  Chernevog passed him the baggage Volkhi carried, the bag with the books, too, and wanted his hand then, to pull him up.

  Pyetr gave it, leaned, braced his leg, and let Chernevog climb on, with a grip on his arm and his shirt, Volkhi shifting weight from one hind foot to the other. Chernevog settled, and again he felt that queasiness in his stomach that meant two wizards wanted conflicting things of him.

  He bit his lip, he did not ask Sasha to stop, the boy knew what he was doing, if it killed him, the boy knew what he was doing...

  Chernevog's arms came around his waist, Volkhi turned his head and started moving in a direction he supposed Chernevog wanted, all of which passed in a kind of fog. He wanted Chernevog not to hold so closely, he wanted not to have Chernevog up against his back, he wanted not to feel the dark spot he had felt since last night waking up and slithering about in the middle of him.

  He thought, It's his heart, whatever that means. It's his damned, shriveled heart—

  “Let him go!” Sasha was saying, pulling Missy alongside, hut Missy suddenly pitched and shied off. “Pyetr!” Sasha cried and he saw Sasha hauling on the reins, trying to reason with the mare. “Dammit, don't do that to him!”

  —but that dark spot just wandered about where it wanted to, and finally found itself a place to rest, after which the acute fear passed, and the dizziness passed, and Pyetr only knew something was still there, so close to where he was that he could no longer see it.

  “He's perfectly safe,” Chernevog said, which echoed strangely in his hearing, and Volkhi, who had jolted them a bit when Missy shi
ed, walked steadily now. “No reason to worry,”

  Chernevog whispered behind his ear. “I won't hurt you, I've no intention at all of harming you... ”

  He felt a deep chill. He was no longer riding through young trees, he was seeing the fireside last night, he was remembering Sasha hitting the stone floor like a sack of flour and himself standing there wondering whether he should want to do something about that. That was how it had hit him: a small dead spot that could see his best friend lying on the ground and ask himself if he really wanted to do something that was going to get him hurt—

  Because for a moment it had seemed nobody ever looked out for anybody...

  As if the last several years had never happened, as if he was the same ragged boy who had had nobody—nobody but a father who sometimes fed him and sometimes got drunk or went off somewhere for days.

  Though he had cared, dammit: he remembered hunting for his father and wishing—god, wishing his father would die so he would never have to spend another night scared he was dead in some damned alley—

  His father had died, murdered one midsummer's eve. And he had had that same cold dark spot in the middle of him. He had gotten drunk for the first time in his young life, gotten drunk and walked The Doe's roof ridge with a vodka jug, while drunken grown-ups cheered and clapped below—but they cheered their loudest when he almost fell.

  They had given him drinks, perhaps out of kindness, until he fell on his face. He had missed the funeral, such as there was for Ilya Kochevikov: the town watch had dumped him in a shallow grave and nobody even marked it.

  Not even he had. He had come there the next afternoon to see where it was, and just walked off from it—because his father was through scaring him: that was all he had managed to feel while he was standing there: his father would never scare him anymore.

  He still dreamed about searching for his father. Then the terror would be real again, and he would think, god, he can't be dead, he can't be dead—for reasons he did not to this day understand.

  That was where he was this morning—remembering teetering

 
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