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       Chernevog, p.25

           C. J. Cherryh

  drunk on that damn roof—he had done it on three memorable occasions since, for sizable bets—and watching the blurry roof ridge ahead of him swaying back and forth, in his numbness that said there was only that narrow a track to walk, and if he fell the whole world would watch and cheer him down—Walk it with me, Kavi Chernevog? Think you're brave? Think you're good?...

  He stood in winter woods, called to Owl, and Owl came out of the snowy sky, white against white, Owl settled on his arm and took the mouse he had for him.

  He could not love Owl now, he could not love anything, he only understood what life and death were. He could know fear, he could know hate, which was tangled with it—he could know his own advantage when he saw it, so it really was not so very different, being without a heart. It was still comfortable to be with Owl. Owl's needs were simple, a mouse or two—no trouble to catch them, wish them still, wish them dead.

  Owl when he killed was quick. Owl never thought about killing. Owl just did.

  He could wish Owl were free—but he was not: Owl was bound to him and he was bound to Draga. He could escape for an hour or so, he could go out hi the white and the cold and call Owl to him and for a while he could forget... No good to run, her voice said. You can try. No good to wish, she said. You can try that, too. And one night by the hearth she said, this woman standing in front of the fire, Do you want me to call Owl here? No, he said, and insofar as he was still Pyetr, he saw her pale hair and thought, as one would in a dream, Chernevog's being a fool, it's Eveshka—not Draga. He doesn't know what he's dealing with.

  But things seemed to blur then, and he thought, panicked, No, it isn't 'Veshka, it isn't her—before the woman turned her head and looked him in the eyes.

  He wanted out of this dream. He wanted out of it, because he knew where it was going. He heard Owl battering at the windows, he felt his heart beating in panic-Not Eveshka, he kept saying to himself. There was no likeness, none but the hair, none but the shape of the face, he did not know how he could mistake that even from the back. The chin was cleft, the eyes were not Eveshka's eyes—they were ice, they were winter.

  She came close and touched him under the chin—she was so much taller than he; and lifted his face and kissed him on the mouth while Owl battered himself frantically against the shutters and his heart beat in fear. He had no idea now what right was, or where he could go if he ran. She kissed him twice more and said he had never had a secret she did not know, and never would have a purpose but what she set him.

  He wanted not to go into that room with her... and Chernevog gave him back the daylight and the forest, abhorring his own recollections. Chernevog did not want to be a servant again, he would never be in that position again...

  He walked up the path to the ferryman's cottage, passed a gate Pyetr knew, in front of trees long dead—he came up the familiar walk-up and onto the porch and knocked fearfully, guarding his thoughts—or Uulamets might know instantly why he was there, and kill him.

  But it was a girl in blond braids that answered the door—the hair was so like Draga's it made his heart jump with fright; but it could only be Draga's daughter—a girl no more than thirteen.

  He took off his cap. He knew who she was and dimly knew he was dealing with someone very dangerous to him. He said, in a boy's young voice, “I'm Kavi Chernevog. I've come to see master Uulamets. Is he at home?”

  Eveshka let him in.

  No! Pyetr thought, wanting desperately not to see this; and Chernevog said, silently, at his shoulder, She's very clever, if she used her good sense—but you can reason with her, can't you? Persuade her to join us: then there's nothing can threaten us, nothing will ever threaten us again.

  “No,” he muttered. It was hard to think at all. Chernevog's thoughts kept coming at him, clinging like spiderweb. He heard Missy behind them, and wanted help, desperately wanted it. He wanted to rein back, and his hands would not move.

  Of a sudden there was a quick thump of hooves, Volkhi spun, all but unseating him and Chernevog, then stopped—as Pyetr saw a flash of Missy's retreating rump, green birches, Sasha's white shirt in the sunlight—

  He kicked Volkhi hard then: Volkhi jumped and Chernevog slid, dragging him off, while his fistful of mane kept him and Chernevog upright against Volkhi's side. He let that go and bashed his elbow into Chernevog's ribs, spun around and hit him in the jaw—after which he could not hit him again—could not: his arm would not answer and the will to act just would not form itself.

  Volkhi had stopped and side-stepped, trod on one of their fallen packs. Pottery crunched like old bone. Pyetr gazed helplessly out over the sea of young birches, saw nothing but sunlight glancing off the leaves. The boy and the horse were well out of sight in the taller growth now—going somewhere with something in mind, he told himself. Sasha had not just run out on him: the boy had suddenly thought of an answer and he would do something clever and get him out of this.

  Even if the feeling at the pit of his stomach recalled with disquieting immediacy how other friends had run out on him... like 'Mitri Venedikov backing away from him, refusing to help him, while he was bleeding his life out...

  His own father saying, when he was in trouble for stealing, Boy, you're not my responsibility...

  Chernevog laid a hand on his shoulder, pulled him around face to face with him. Chernevog's lip was cut, blood was smeared on his chin, and Pyetr could no more lift a hand than he could a moment ago. He had a long, long moment to realize Chernevog was very put out with him.

  Chernevog said, “Is that all it's worth? He's left you.”

  He said, “He's not left. You’d better worry, Snake.”

  Chernevog looked at him as if he had lost his mind. He expected Chernevog would do something very painful, and on that account it was stupid to have said anything, but it was like kicking the horse—it kept Chernevog busy and let Sasha get that much further.

  Chernevog walked off from him, stood with his back to him, looking off in the direction Sasha had taken, and when Pyetr thought of going for Chernevog again his thoughts slid away from him like water off a roof. He tried to speak, but he could not do that either; and that small dark spot in his mind slithered around stirring up that bitter, pain-ridden memory of 'Mitri walking away from him in a dark tavern-yard, starting to run, he was so anxious to avoid a friend in trouble—

  Sasha would not desert him. Sasha would be back—in time, he did most earnestly hope. He stood there—he could do little else—until Chernevog turned a cold face toward him and said, “Get up on the horse.”

  Then he wondered—he could not help it—whether Chernevog had reached Sasha with some spell... whether Sasha was even alive.

  Chernevog said, “Move, dammit,” and had him turning and catching up Volkhi's reins before he even thought about it. He looked back with the sudden remembrance that he was armed, that Chernevog had never taken the sword from him: that was how thoroughly Chernevog had him. He simply could not think of things when they mattered; and Chernevog wanted the sword now. Chernevog said very quietly, “Your friend is being a fool. Give me the sword. Take off the belt and give it to me.”

  He did that, moving as it seemed in a dream, watching his own actions from some remote place. It seemed to him that there was some reason Chernevog wanted the weapon now—that perhaps Chernevog thought Sasha might indeed reach him and, through him, use it.

  It left his fingers. Chernevog said, slinging the belt from his shoulder, “There are creatures that will offer him everything he needs. He has protection I can't break, and I'm not entirely sure he's acting on his own. Do you understand me, Pyetr Ilyitch?”

  He tried not to listen. He thought, doggedly, Sasha's not stupid, he wouldn't resort to magic, he swore he wouldn't, Chernevog's lying—but Chernevog said, catching his arm with a painful grip:

  “Pyetr Ilyitch, listen to me... ”

  They sat in the open doorway, facing each other on benches pulled into the sunlight. Draga's needle flew in and out the blue wool, making flower
s, stitching a chain of red. Draga said, “You shouldn't think about going home until the baby's born. Two young men—I'll warrant neither one's ever seen a baby born. Have they?”

  “I don't think so,” Eveshka said, hands on knees—in her own dress, with which her mother's pale blue ribbons clashed. She thought, I'm not sure this one's going to be born at all. But he kept that quiet: mama seemed definite and stubborn in her says: papa had certainly had that description right.

  “So you should stay here.”

  One could ask mama to come south and stay, but Eveshka did not find that an attractive thought—bringing mama near Pyetr.

  Not even near Sasha, who would be patient and try to get along with anyone, but mama seemed all too definite in her opinions even for Sasha's goodwill.

  Not to mention mama's companion, Brodyachi, who lay at the foot of the old oak, watching every move she made with yellow, suspicious eyes.

  The needle flickered, eclipsed by the wool, sparkling in the sun. “There is no chance that Sasha's the father?”


  A good many more stitches, before her mother said, without looking up, “Forgive me. But it's very important.”

  “Damned right it's important!”

  “I don't know if there's ever been any wizard with the gift on both sides. Carrying it to a second generation... ” Her mother promised to tie a knot and bite a thread. “You were difficult enough. A wizard-child of still another degree... the god only knows.”

  That thought led terrible places. Papa used to say...

  “...Things sometimes seem to want themselves to happen,’‘ her mother said, and sent a chill down her spine, because it was what papa used to say, that she had dismissed with other of her father's improvable ideas. “It's troublesome, it's certainly troublesome. Your father and I used to talk about it—when we were speaking to each other, when we actually thought—well, your father was very anxious about your birth, your father and I quarreled—I suppose he's told you this.”

  “I don't know, until I know what it is.”

  “Well—” Draga threaded her needle with white. “Your father was very upset when I conceived you. It wasn't supposed to happen. Retried to make me lose you; I fought him on it, that much I could do.” She made the center of a flower, a quick series of knots, and Eveshka waited, biting her lip, because papa had never said anything except that she was her mother's idea and had her mother's bad habits. “I'd have run off. But he was the stronger, in those days. He couldn't make me lose you, but he wouldn't let me leave, either, till you'd been born. Then—' Her mother looked up at her, a troubled, pained sort of look “The truth is, dear, your father tried to kill me the day you were born. He almost did, but I got away across the river. And I wanted you—oh, I wanted you so badly. But I never could cross the river again.”

  It filled in gaps, it made plausible sense. It might be at least one side of the truth, she thought—though papa had said her mother had tried to kill him, too—in more than one way.

  So she asked, hardening her heart, “And Kavi, mama?”

  “Kavi was a very gifted boy, a boatman's son, so the story goes, from a village downriver. The mother died—Kavi was quite precocious, very dangerous. The father left him with a wizard named Lenki—I heard all this from her—a nasty old creature, really, not particularly gifted, entirely unreasonable, the sort of person one hates to see a child with. But she wouldn't give him up: she treated him like a rag doll when he was little, doted on him, spoiled him; kicked him about and worked him like a dog once he'd gotten beyond a baby. One day evidently he'd had enough, and she died. I caught him—caught is the word—months later. He'd been living in the woods, alone, like a wild thing. Poor boy, I thought when I found him. I'd lost you... I was very foolish just then.” Another knot. Draga bit the thread and reknotted it. “Well, well, I knew what he'd done to Lenki, but of course I could civilize him. Pretty lad, such lovely, lovely eyes, and very well-spoken... but you know that.”

  “Thanks to you, mama!”

  “He has the morals of a stoat. I did very quickly know he was no child; and of course he swears now I bewitched him into my bed.” Another nip at the thread, another knot, a quick flash of the needle in the sun. ‘‘Kavi lies to himself on certain points: in fact he was terrified of me; I made him behave, you see, I could make him behave in those days, and anyone who could do that frightened him. So he became quite charming, quite persistent, quite—well, well, I was foolish, what can I say? And I certainly regretted it. —You see, what Kavi fears becomes evil to him. I became evil. He doesn't see it that way, of course, he denies there's any such thing as evil—but I'm certain your father became very evil to him; and possibly you did.”

  “And you sent him to us!”

  “My dear, I didn't know all this then. I certainly didn't know he'll come back and try to kill me. I once thought your father might have done something to him—that was my instant judgment. But over the years I've come to understand the way Kavi thinks—and everything is very reasonable, if you stand where he does. He's the only one right; anything that protects him is right; any position is right if it serves him at the moment. Do you want him to be moral? He will be, as quickly as he can understand what you want—he won't feel safe until he's modeled himself quite on your design. And he'll use it to destroy you. Do you know—” She tied off, replaced the needle in its cushion, looked up with a frown. “I never was disposed to believe a child could be born the way he is. I always thought Lenki mishandled him—and perhaps being pushed to the point he'd killed her—broke something in him; or maybe something essential to humanity fell away from him while he was living like an animal in the woods. But over the years I’ve come to believe something got to him while he was still a baby, something found him—I don't know how, I don't know what—”

  She truly did not like to hear this, but she was all but afraid to breathe, fearing her mother would stop talking down this track and close off what she knew: it was so hard, sometimes, to talk coherently about magic—perhaps that there were no words to compass it; or that certain things—believing her father for a moment—did not want to be talked about...

  ‘‘—but I've come to wonder if he was any boatman's son. I've come to wonder very seriously if he isn't... what we talked about, you know—doubly gifted...”

  She stopped talking then, gazing off into the woods. Eveshka felt her heart racing, thinking, Dammit, she wants to scare me.

  “... or maybe it was Malenkova. Malenkova was a terrible woman. She taught both your father and me. That's where we met, in her house.”

  ‘‘What happened to her?” Asking (hat was like lifting a heavy weight. It was a question that did not seem to want to be asked. “Is she still alive?”

  “I don't think so. But then—one never knows.” Her mother looked distracted, blinked, reached for the needle and a new thread. “I’ve asked myself... if there's any remote chance Kavi was hers.”

  “She was an old woman!”

  “You're very old, dear—in some people's reckoning. So am I. And I'd put nothing outside possibility with her. Even—though I much doubt it—that Kavi's your half-brother.”

  Oh, god! Eveshka thought, thought of Kavi in the cellar, Kavl stopping her at the shelves in the back—

  “I certainly didn't think that when I was sleeping with him,” Draga said.

  “You mean he might be yours?” Eveshka asked.

  “No, no, dear, your father's. Your father and Malenkova—”

  “My father was only a—”

  “Young boy? Not mat young. He ran away. Malenkova let him, I suspect. Sometimes she just grew careless. Sometimes she had reasons. Eventually I escaped, and we were lovers. But Malenkova poisoned everything we might have had. Your father had become very bitter. He'd become so afraid, so unreasonably afraid—of having a child... ”

  Eveshka felt her heart beating so mat she feared she would faint. What was inside her suddenly seemed real, and destructive of everything she mo
st wanted.

  “There was a year or so I didn't see Malenkova at all. She was like that—you lived in her house, the very house Kavi had, the one that burned... and you did what she wanted; then she would be off in the woods somewhere, I suppose, for months at a time. But the god help you if she came back and there was any least thing wrong. She was a terrible woman. I don't know how old she was. Your father—you understand, he looked his years, well, at least—he looked appropriate for them: But he was letting himself age when I joined him. He said—he said, I remember it very clearly—I don't plan to live forever. He wouldn't use magic on himself. He didn't. He'd cut his finger— he'd just let it bleed. I think Malenkova made him a little crazy. And I never, never thought he'd go so crazy when I had you. I tell you, dear, I was terrified—I was terrified he'd drown you when you were born. I thought he'd done that... I was lying in bed, he took you away—and I got up and I tried to get you back. But I couldn't. I was afraid he'd kill me in the state I was in. I wasn't thinking very clearly. I was afraid of him. I ran away. That's where all the grief started. Maybe I should have stayed and fought him for you. But maybe I would have died.”

  “He said you tried to kill him.”

  “I did try—I meant to, if it would have saved you. Sometimes a mother doesn't think very clearly. I was glad, at least, to know you were alive, I was able to spy a bit, you see. And your poor father—I can say that now—” A knot. A small laugh. “You did run him ragged. His idea of bringing up a child... was simply to prevent you doing magic.”

  Filings fell into place, then, papa always wishing at her...

  “And you being a wizard-child on both sides... of course what he was doing to protect nature from you was completely unnatural: he could only stop you with magic that scared him to work. I think he finally realized how crazy mat was. He didn't know really what to do. And for all the harm he did, now, I can lot give him a great deal. Malenkova did terrible things to him. She dealt with deep magic. With sorcery, if you want to call it that, though there's no real distinction except in degree. And if he truly was Kavi's father—”

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