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       Chernevog, p.26

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  Her mother stopped talking. New flowers chained across the wool, one after the other.

  “Mother? —If he was Kavi's father?”

  Half a flower more. “Well, the time doesn't work. Although—” The needle stopped. “I don't put anything beyond Malenkova. Her magic had no rules.”

  “Why? Why would she want a child?”

  “Dear, I don't know she did—for any reason anyone would like to talk about. She'd—”

  “Mama?”

  Her mother's lips went to a thin line. She crushed a petal. ’‘If that was so,” her mother said, slowly, “then he'd be exactly what you are—wizard-born on both sides. More than that: your father discouraged you from magic; but Kavi—”

  There was silence. Eveshka waited, watched her mother think and almost eavesdropped, she wanted so badly to know.

  “If Kavi was hers,” her mother said, “he was conceived for a reason: she was careless—but never in something that inconvenienced her. She was terribly powerful. I can't even explain to you what she did—but she wanted to get into the magical, she wanted to go into that realm herself—and I'm far from sure all her absences were into the woods, if you want the truth.”

  “What would she do with a child?”

  “As I said, the time doesn't work. By years. But that's not saying time is the same there. As a matter of fact, I've very strong suspicions it isn't. And I'm not sure where Malenkov is.”

  “God, mother.”

  “One has time for very strange thoughts in a hundred years I've turned it over and over and over—what happened, why happened—where Malenkova is. And how Kavi was so—damnnably precocious. That's why I want you here. That's why you mustn't leave and go running off to fight him on your own. You'll lose. And I'm very much afraid—very much afraid that there’s something in the magical realm with an interest in this world. You have to understand—that's never been true. But it may be, now. To tell the truth, I don't know why you were born. I don't know if you're what magic's arranged to counter Kavi Chernevog—or whether you're something magic's made to be his match—to bear a child we don't want to think about.”

  Eveshka stood up abruptly, cold to the marrow. Her mother looked up at her, the sewing crumpled in her lap.”Don't panic You mustn't panic, 'Veshka. Do you understand me? I want you to listen to me. Don't make any wishes right now, not about you, not about me, not about your husband, certainly not about that baby—think about flowers, 'Veshka, think about flowers... ”

  Flowers with thorns. Flowers red as blood...

  “'Veshka!”

  She caught her breath. Her mother stood up and took her by the arms, looked her in the eyes. “'Veshka, dear, you and I, understand me? You and I... against Kavi. Your father made you afraid of magic. You mustn't be—or neither of us has a chance.”

  22

  Volkhi picked a crooked, trailless course through the young trees, knee-deep in seedlings while the taller, three-year growth was constantly enough to screen anything beyond a stone's throw from their track.

  Find Sasha, Chernevog said. So, perforce, they tried. They tried past noon, and into afternoon, taking a general course westward—Sasha had not been at the burned house, had not, which Chernevog had thought might be the case, gone back to Uulamets' grave. After that-After that they turned north and west, in the not unlikely case Sasha had gone toward the river, Chernevog said. Chernevog searched with his magic and Pyetr scanned the sunlit, fluttering greenwood with ordinary eyes, looking for a white and brown horse, hoping with half his heart they would find no trace at all, hoping that Sasha was clear away and safe—and fearing he was not. He imagined terrible things—things like Missy felling; or vodyaniye and such lurking in ambush to drag horse and rider down into the brook; or Sasha's heart just stopping, on a stronger wizard's wish.

  ‘‘That's for easier than will happen to him,” Chernevog muttered at his back, “believe me.”

  “Believe you? God... let me go and I'll find him. Just go back to the house and wait, why don't you? Snake, I swear to you, if you want him found, if you really, truly do want him found—”

  Chernevog said, “If he doesn't have a chance out there, you have less. Or I would do that.”

  “The hell you would.”

  “Believe me.”

  That was a wish. It smothered thinking for a moment. It suffocated reason.

  “You don't understand,” Chernevog said. “He's not going to die. That's not the worst that can happen to him.”

  He felt cold through and through, despite the sunlight. He fought believing anything Chernevog said—but sometimes it was so close to his own apprehensions...

  “There's no particular good, no particular evil in magic, Pyetr Ilyitch: one either rules it—or one is ruled; and he's quite vulnerable. He won't die, but you'll wish he had. He won't be able to. Then you'll wish you'd helped me with more enthusiasm.”

  “Shut up!”

  “My friend, be reasonable.”

  “I'm not your friend.”

  “You're not my enemy. I assure you, you're not my enemy.”

  “I killed your damn owl,” Pyetr muttered, and pulled Chernevog's hands loose from his middle. ‘‘Keep your hands off me.”

  “I've no grudges. Owl was very old.”

  That callousness turned him sick at his stomach. “Don't you love anything, Snake? Didn't you, once? —What do you want, that matters to anybody?”

  “Just Owl.” They rode up a slope, Volkhi's hindquarters bunching in a quick few efforts. Chernevog held to him again— with cause. “Just Owl. And he's gone. Now you're in his place. He was fond of mice. What do you want from me?”

  “I want you to keep your damned hands to yourself!”

  “I'll love what you love; hate what you hate—I've given you that power over me. What more can I do for you?”

  That's a lie, he thought as they rode along the ridge. —Sasha might have done something with his heart, if he could only have gotten it away from me—

  “He can't. It's much too strong a bond: it's magical; and I'm far stronger. But it's true you can command my friendship. Bestow it where you like: that takes no wizardry at all. It's simply the nature of hearts, when they're together long enough. You see how much I trust you.”

  He wanted Chernevog away from him, he wanted help; he was drowning in Chernevog's thoughts. He thought distractedly, looking at the trees, Very soon there's not going to be anything left of me. Sasha won't trust me if we find him. He shouldn't. God help me, I'm losing my mind.

  “Of course,” Chernevog said, resting his hand on his shoulder “as you probably do suspect by now—it can equally well go the other way.”

  Sasha sat tucked up in green shade, beside Missy's feet, Missy looking quite content to stand with a patch of sun on her back—

  Sasha felt it, too, the way he had slowly felt aches in her legs leave and the pain in her gut ebb. It had been hard going for an old horse not used to running and not used to forests.

  Eventually the upset in her stomach eased and Missy began to nose the herbage in front of her in some interest; mostly she wanted water, and her chest still burned, and it was not fair she had not been let drink her fill when there was water at hand... but now when she thought of it there was nothing stopping her, so she walked over to the little spring that welled up out of the rocks and drank as much as she wanted. There had been bogles and grabby-things; her ears still slanted to listen for them and her still watched all around at once, from the spring under her nose to, still visible behind her own feet, her favorite person sitting under the tree. Sasha saw himself from that unusual, top-blind point of view, and rode Missy's thoughts, not remembering where he had come from or where he was going, just watching the thicket around them and tasting the good, cold water.

  The whole wood was still. Very carefully he let go that wide vision and that keen hearing, and saw, from the rear perspective, Missy drinking. Then he could move without fearing he was going to run blindly into something ahead, al
though down and up still felt confused, and sitting upright made him dizzy for a moment.

  He had been with Missy for some little time, to judge by the sinking of the sun—the shade was deeper, no direct light at all now in this little water-cut nook where bracken competed with young trees. He had been safe, this while: Missy was not a noisy creature. Missy wanted very little that made a difference in the world.

  Missy lifted her head suddenly, pricked up her ears, and he instantly wanted to know what she was thinking—but Missy decided it was only a fox she smelted. Foxes were familiar. Foxes skulked about and were no bother to horses.

  Sasha paid attention for a while, and worried Missy: Sasha thought a fox could hide a grabby-thing. Missy found this a disturbing idea, and decided never to trust foxes after this.

  But it went away; and Sasha decided not, after all.

  There was a danger in sitting like this too long. One could forget what one was doing, either harm Missy with ideas that were frightening gibberish to her; or go a little crazy himself and sit here, the two of them locked together until the next rain waked him or until he wished something truly dangerous for Missy or for himself.

  There was danger in wishes of any kind so long as Chernevog might be paying attention in his direction. Chernevog had him far outmatched and Chernevog had Pyetr, and if he thought about what might be happening to Pyetr he could not trust himself to be sane right now, or to do anything reasonable or useful. He had worked very hard to be quiet and to go completely inside himself and Missy, until there was only his own life to worry over: he had drawn that selfishness tighter and tighter and tighter, not watching what Chernevog did, not trying to do anything about it, not wanting to be there—until his not being there suddenly became thoroughly, magically imperative-It freed him—but not Pyetr.

  He pulled at his knee, straightened his leg, rubbed feeling back into his numb foot. Wish nothing unnecessary.

  Think nothing unnecessary. Do the natural thing. Learn from Missy. Get up, get the baggage, see about something to eat. There were dangers but they were not here, and as long as he wanted only little things Missy would want they might not impinge on Chernevog's specific wishes; so long as he wanted specific, natural things they might happen, and Chernevog’s widest, magic-driven designs might go skewed around them-that was always the hazard in generalities, master Uulamets had argued in his book: that in natural things nature tended to reassert itself, given any reasonable loophole.

  So one moved a pebble. One wished, as simply as Missy, for well-being and supper, things that were, after all, fair—Missy was very much on things being fair, expecting things that ought to follow, one from another; and things that ought to happen in certain ways, on time, and in due amounts.

  One wished, among first things, to make amends for keeping bad and scary company and to share this nice sausage he had with someone who had a perfect right to it. He broke off half— he was very sorry about the vodka; that was at the moment in a place he did not want to think about—but there was this sausage, this very nice sausage, because it was only fair.

  An alarming row of teeth snatched the bit from his hand. And vanished, together with the sausage.

  ‘‘That's a good Babi.” He offered the other half.

  It whisked into nowhere, too.

  Eyes stared at him, faint, gold, vertically slitted, against green forest shade.

  ‘‘Good Babi. Wonderful Babi. Brave Babi. Babi, do you want vodka? I think it's fair we get it back. That's my jug, and my spell on it, after all, and I think I should have it, don't you?”

  Babi waddled up on his hind legs and crawled up into Sasha's lap to cling to his coat.

  “We can't just go and look for it,” Sasha said, stroking Babi's fur. “We need help. I think we'd better get Missy and find the limit and see if we can figure anything out, don't you?”

  Chernevog was not pleased: Pyetr had no doubt at all of that while Chernevog was riding behind him, holding to him, wish-ing at him until he felt his hold on his own thoughts precarious. His own anger and his own grudge against Chernevog had occupied all his attention at the start, but Chernevog kept finding ways past that—little doubts niggling their way into his mind, Chernevog saying, “If we don't find him, he may not see the morning,” and: “You can't understand these things, dammit, you don't understand the trouble he's in,” and finally, to the point: “Pyetr Ilyitch, you know how he thinks, you know what he'd most likely do. If you don't find him, dying's not the worst licit can happen to him, don't you care? It's your fault, isn't it, what becomes of him? He doesn't understand what he's taken on. Don't be a bloody-minded fool!” “I don't know anything,” he told Chernevog. “It's a wide woods—how in hell can I guess where he'd go? You're the wizard.”

  “He's wishing me confused, damn you!”

  “Then how can I resist?”

  “Would he wish you in wrong directions?”

  He said: “In your company, yes.” And Chernevog: “No, he wouldn't. He's a clever lad. It was no little trick to get away in the first place—but that has a certain cost. —I know how he did it. Don't you wonder? Don't you wonder how he could leave you and not let me hear him thinking?”

  One tried desperately not to wonder. One could think earnestly about breaking Chernevog's neck, which was hard to think about: one's thoughts kept getting away; and one could be angry about Chernevog's nattering at him, but that always led to the same place; and when one came back from half losing one's mind, exhausted and desperate and still beset, and wrapped about by Chernevog's arms, one concentrated on the trees or looked at bark and such and memorized shapes in the case that Sasha might rescue him and they might have to backtrack.

  But that was useless, too—wizards could find their own way wherever they wanted; an ordinary man was no damn help to anyone... and he kept losing little bits of their trail anyway, moments that he was thinking of Vojvoda, of being hungry and desperate, of things he was not particularly proud of... like what he had done once to pay an innkeeper…

  “We all have our faults,” Chernevog said to him. “And the limits of our pride. Some are less fastidious than others.”

  He gave a backward jab of his elbow. “Leave me alone!”

  It did Chernevog no damage. He was dizzy for a time after that and thought he might fall off the horse, but his body went on balancing the way it knew how to do. He was quite awake: he simply did not remember for the moment how to make his arms move, he scarcely knew how to breathe—

  “Let me go,” he said finally, discovering he could speak.

  And was back in Chernevog's house, with Eveshka sitting in front of the fire with her back to him—and he thought, again, No, it isn't, it isn't her—I know this dream... oh, god, I want out of this—

  He was standing on the river shore, tall trees grayed with morning mist. He saw a far, dim figure coming down the grassy bank, cloaked against the chill.

  Eveshka had answered him, Eveshka came walking down from the house to meet him there. Come back at dawn, she had said. I'll talk to my father.

  But there was no hope of reasoning with Uulamets. He knew that. He knew mere was none of reasoning with Draga. If he did what Draga had said and brought her Eveshka, then there was no hope for him, either, mere was no hope in the world for a young wizard who had (Eveshka knew the truth, but not the significance of what she knew) already betrayed her.

  She came walking up to him, she put back her hood. She was sixteen, she would die in that blue dress—Chernevog had already made up his mind that he would have to kill her—

  “God, no!” he cried, and kicked Volkhi and tried to carry Chernevog off with him, but Volkhi no more than jumped, and he could not even as lift his arm.

  ‘‘You don't appreciate your wife's abilities,” Chernevog said, holding him on the horse. “I did. I asked for her heart and she gave it to me—to give to Owl. To free her, I said—to put it with mine, where it would be safe. And it was. Do you know how I could lie to her?”

  He
did not. He did not want to know.

  “The same way your friend could lie to us. By caring for nothing else in the world.”

  Sasha wouldn't, he thought. He couldn't.

  Dmitri walking away from him in the yard—

  Sasha's not like that, dammit!

  He remembered Sasha riding away. He thought how terribly frightened he was in Chernevog's hands, and how desperate, and how if Sasha could not hold off Chernevog, and Sasha had surely known he could not...

  Dammit, Sasha's doing something, he thought; and wondered, while he tried not to wonder: What can he do that won't involve magic?

  Uulamets—giving Sasha his knowledge at his death, leaving too damned much to Sasha...

  God, no! He tore his ragged thoughts toward pain, remembered old Yurishev, who had run a sword through him one night.

  That for Chernevog's eavesdropping. He realized in vivid detail how much it had hurt, falling in the stable—

  (Sasha had gotten him to safety, Sasha was resourceful, Sasha would go—where?)

  He kicked poor confused Volkhi again and made him ran a few paces, but that lasted no more than the other times; Volkhi settled back to a walk, snorting and switching his tail, and Chernevog said against Pyetr's ear:

  “You're not my match, Pyetr Ilyitch. Got the old man's dying bequest, has he?”

  He owed Sasha his life, Sasha had risked his neck for him... he said, aloud, biting his lip till it bled, because thoughts kept getting away from him: “Nobody's ever cared much about you, Snake. I can't say as I blame them.”

  ‘‘So where are these friends of yours now?“ Chernevog asked. “They ran. He ran. He left you. He's quite desperate. Where would he go next? Deal with Uulamets' ghost—alone, with what he already carries? That's not damned smart of him!”

  Eveshka, he thought without wanting to think: he was not even sure it was his thought. He thought, trying to back out of it: But he wouldn't trust her by herself. He'd—

  He tried to move. Chernevog wished him utterly helpless. “I have the books, Pyetr Ilyitch. You know there's little I can't find out from them. I'll find the answers.”

 
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