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       Chernevog, p.27

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  “Given time,” he said, tasting blood. He had this thing slithering about inside him, it was scared and angry, and in his own foolishness he thought about Eveshka's writing in that book, and Sasha telling him not even another wizard could change what was written there.

  I know you 'II follow me...

  It began to mean something more than ominous. She had written it in Sasha's book... not talking to him at all. To Sasha. I know you 'II follow me... Like the bannik's visions—that Sasha said were coming true.

  He bit his lip hard, looked at the trees, trying not to think about all the things that might mean. But he went on giving away what, except for him, Chernevog had had no time to find out—maybe no way to understand the way he understood it until he gave it to him...

  “Has she spoken to you at all?” Chernevog asked him. “She came north. Why? What do you suppose she was looking for, if not me? You expected her across the river. But I wasn't her purpose. What would it be?”

  “Wonder,” he said though he had no idea either. Chernevog said, distant voice against the sighing of the trees, the sound of Volkhi's moving:

  “Sasha's to follow her. To what?”

  “I don't know. I've no idea.”

  I know you'll follow me. I beg you don't...

  Something had separated them. She had packed quite purposefully, taken the boat—something, the god only knew what, had held her asleep on the river, unable to talk to them...

  “That much I’ve gathered,” Chernevog said.

  He wondered how much else Chernevog had gathered, how much he had told Chernevog in his lapses from reason. He bit his lip to distract himself, and thought, amazingly clear-headed for a moment, Sasha won't leave me. No matter where he is, no matter if he doesn't come back, he won't have left me.

  The woods went curiously blurred. There was a pain in his chest. He thought, That damned well made him mad. I wonder why...

  After which he knew nothing clearly. Chernevog held him on the horse, and the cold spot was wider and stronger. Chernevog said against his ear, “Pyetr Ilyitch, for entirely different reasons, I do hope you're right.”

  “You might eat something,” Chernevog said to him—and Pyetr found himself lying on his back on the ground, firelight on the young leaves overhead. He had come up abruptly, he fell back again, mumping his head on the ground, and by the feel of it he had done that before. He looked again and saw Chernevog calmly reading by firelight, Volkhi browsing on the undergrowth.

  He really should have done better than this, he thought. Sasha would expect him to have done better than this. His sword, the books, everything...

  “Supper,” Chernevog said, and waved a hand toward the baggage, lying the other side of the fire.

  He had no choice about that either. He got up, walked over where the baggage was lying, then bent and started to get the pack with their food in it.

  But something was sitting on the brush just beyond his shadow, something that stared at him with red-gold eyes.

  He froze in mid-reach.

  Chernevog moved suddenly, casting his standing shadow beside his.

  The bannik, the fragment, whatever it was—hissed; Pyetr scrambled backward, stood up, while the cold spot in the middle of him—grew colder and colder.

  It wanted him.

  He watched it slowly fade. He took another step back for good measure before he looked at Chernevog—found him nothing but a shadow against the fire; and himself trembling from head to foot, for no reason he could say, except it was him, dammit, it was what he was carrying that the creature wanted.

  Volkhi snorted, snuffed the wind, made a small uneasy sound.

  “A piece of you,” Pyetr said when he got a breath. “Piece, is it? Dammit, it wants what you gave me!”

  Chernevog said nothing, faceless shadow against the fire-but of a sudden Pyetr thought of the house that had burned the bathhouse outside.

  He hid there by night, he barred the door—he tried to summon up a magic against Draga—by whatever creature would answer him.

  God...

  “It didn't work,” Chernevog said.

  Pyetr looked back to where the baggage still lay, next the bushes. It was stupid to think whatever it was might still lurk there—it was their bannik, dammit, it was something Sasha had not trusted, but they had met it before. He walked over and snatched up the jug and the pack Chernevog had asked for, walked back to the fire and said, if shakily,

  “Supper, Snake.”

  Missy had her misgivings about this trek, in the dark, in a pathless, tangled forest. So did Babi, evidently, who preferred to sit on Missy's rump or occasionally to clamber around to Sasha's lap, and never to go on the ground at all.

  Sasha half expected ghosts. But none had troubled them; and beyond that he tried not to think at all beyond his narrow concern for Missy and Babi, and the single purpose of finding the boat. He kept to small, immediate thoughts, rode Missy's senses, and Missy's memories, which at the moment involved The Cockerel's nice warm stable at this hour, and apples—only fair for a hard day's work, Missy thought; but they were here, apples were not likely, and her favorite person thought it would be a good idea to keep walking and get out of this place where he feared bogles and grabby-things.

  Missy agreed with that, although she would gladly have had something to eat along the way and she wished she had company.

  Which Sasha did not want to think about, damn, he did not.

  Babi held to him quite forlornly, and might want him to know things, too, but he never had been able to fathom what Babi was thinking, and he feared to wonder at all deeply about Babi's thoughts, considering the temptations that posed: thank the god Babi had run away and not made himself available when he had been both desperate and foolish.

  About which he also did not want to think, so he thought instead about the vodka and how Babi did deserve it, and how Missy deserved all the apples she could eat, when next he could find some.

  Missy put a little enthusiasm into her gait, and wondered where these apples were.

  She did, on the sudden whim of a breeze, smell water. Sasha could, on his own, eventually, and Babi clambered down Missy's mane and Sasha's leg and dropped down to the leaves.

  He hoped Babi meant to stay close. He had a very anxious feeling of a sudden: that was, perhaps, Missy; but it seemed to him he had smelled better places—this one had the flavor of too little light and too much water.

  And Babi, wherever he had gotten to, was growling at something in the brush, while Missy slowed her pace, doubtful of this place they were going, which did not smell like what her person wanted and certainly did not smell like the promised apples. It smelled more like old wood and rotten ground, a stable, perhaps, but not a nice one; and Sasha could not tell, riding Missy's senses as he did, whether it was that bad or whether it was simply Missy's keen nose.

  Babi turned up, a much larger and more imposing Babi, walking along at Missy's feet, and something plunked into water close at hand—a startled frog, Sasha hoped, and bit his lip to keep from the idea of Pyetr's sword, which was dangerous to want and the god only knew what he would do with it that he could not do with a stout stick. He regretted the one that was standing in the corner at home, where it did him no good… a stick was a perfectly adequate weapon. A branch would do... except he had no desire to get down to find one.

  Another plunk. Another frog, one hoped. Missy felt squishy stuff slipping under her feet and snorted in disgust. She seriously questioned the collective judgment in going farther, nothing here smelled nice, and the dvorovoi thought so, too.

  But her person insisted there was a grabby-thing after them that was somehow—here her person grew very hazy—going to get them if they did not go through this place and find the big water.

  So she wrinkled up her nose and trod right through the squishy stuff, in water up to her knees—no running on this ground, even though her skin shivered at the smell and the sounds of this place

  Willows whispered here. Wate
r sighed. And something groaned and squealed repeatedly as if it were in pain. Missy did not like that sound.

  But her person thought of old boards and Missy decided it was. after all a stable, but not one where she wanted at all to stay.

  “Babi?” Sasha said, but Babi was off somewhere through the trees, and several things went plunk and splash, while the dreadful groaning went on and on with a curious regularity. He could not hear it with his own ears, but he began to find it familiar, began to hear in it the surge of the water, the groaning of wood against wood.

  “Babi?” he asked, wishing the dvorovoi would stay close and with a tiny, unwanted wisp of a wish, wondered if finding the boat meant finding Eveshka.

  Dangerous, he thought. Terribly dangerous. He got nothing and wanted nothing but to be Missy for a while, until he could be closer; he was Missy so thoroughly that riding made him very dizzy, and he shut his eyes and let hers do the work leaning on her shoulders and wanting her to keep walking toward the creaking sound, little as she liked it.

  Grabby-things, Missy was sure. They were going to leap out of where such things always came from, out of the spot between her eyes she could never see—

  She saw a white, huge thing coming out of that spot—a huge, flappy thing, and her heart went thump and her legs did a quick step without her thinking about it; but her person said it was safe, it was cloth on a big thing built of boards, and a nice person had brought it there from a place he knew.

  She was not sure about her person's judgment. It flapped and it groaned and she approached it very carefully—it smelled suspicious.

  The boat was snared fast in willows and the groaning was its hull rubbing against broken limbs—it did look spooky, even to his eyes, the sail still spread, veiled in shadowy willow-boughs, the shape of the bow thrusting out of the trees.

  It was only wizardry that could have brought it up this branch of the river, against the current, it was only wizardry that could leave lodged it here.

  “Babi,” he said softly, slid off and untied Missy's reins, in the case she had to run in this woods—lapped them about his waist, and wished her to stay here.

  She shivered, threw her head, clearly hoping her person did not intend to leave her here long.

  “I'll be right back,” he said, and patted her neck, wanting Babi to take care of Missy. He walked farther then, parting the willow curtains, in among the old trees—old trees, indeed, and alive: this shore was past the desolation Chernevog had worked.

  But one did not want to think about him.

  He heard Missy make a soft, worried sound. But the groaning of the boat against the willows and the flap of the imprisoned sail was enough to distress her. He wanted Babi to take care of her, and he heaved himself up on a willow limb and walked it to the rail of the old ferry, through black, trailing curtains of leaves.

  He dropped onto the deck with a thump very loud to his ears. He walked out near the mast and back to the little deckhouse, stopped and looked around him, listening to the flapping of the sail and the sighing and the groaning that gave the boat a voice.

  He wanted to know, then, whether Eveshka had left this boat of her own will—that seemed a safe wish. He hoped there might be resources left—they kept the boat stocked with all sorts of things, even apples, and Eveshka alone could not have used everything or carried everything away.

  The deckhouse was the first place to look—not the sort of a cubbyhole he was glad to open up and go poking into in the dark, but it seemed worse to him to wait for morning, while-things went further wrong elsewhere. “Babi?” he whispered, thinking if Missy could, please the god, take care of herself for a few moments, and Babi turned up on deck, then he would feel very much better opening this door.

  Babi did not immediately appear, but he had the feeling Babi was listening, at least; and he turned the wooden latch and pushed it open, hoping if something was lurking in there it would make a sound now.

  There was only the flap of the sail over him, and the hull groaning. He sank down on his heels so he could see into the dark by reflected starlight, and gingerly reached in to drag out the baskets they kept there.

  He heard Babi growl behind him. He hoped it was Babi. He turned on one knee, he heard a watery sound, he looked toward that and saw a great slick darkness rise up, up and up in the starlight, and grin down above the rail with sharp-toothed jaws.

  “Well, well,” the vodyanoi said, “young wizard. I was wondering about you.”

  Sasha felt into his pocket, after the packet of salt he kept there, and wished—

  No. He did not wish for the rest of it. He wished the vodyanoi to keep his distance. He said, slowly rising to his feet, ”Hwiuur, what do you think you're doing here?”

  “Waiting,” Hwiuur said. “Of course, waiting. Of course you'd come—but where's your friend, mmmm?”

  “Stay back!”

  “Mmmm. A horse. A nice fat horse. I might start with it.”

  “Stay where you are!”

  “Stay where I am... Where I am is in the river, in my river, young wizard, where you're trespassing, and all alone, aren't you, young wizard? The dvorovoi has no power on the water-but you could wish him to try.”

  That was a very bad thought. So was the fact that this creature was Chernevog's—and Chernevog might know exactly where he was.

  If it was still Chernevog's.

  23

  Hwiuur said softly, weaving to one side, “A bad position, young wizard, a very bad position you're in.”

  “Where's Eveshka?” Sasha asked it outright, and wanted it to tell him.

  Hwiuur leaned slowly to the other side and hissed. “Oh, we want pretty bones, do we? She went walking.”

  “Where?”

  Hwiuur swayed closer.

  “Get back!” Sasha cried, waving his hand at it; and Hwiuur drew back with a hiss.

  “Rude, rude young wizard. You want my help and you push me back. Is that at all reasonable?”

  ‘‘With you it is! Mind your manners. Tell me where she went walking. Tell me where she is!”

  “Safe,” Chernevog's voice said at his back.

  He did not stop to think—he dived for the deckhouse door and rolled inside, pulled the door to after him as the whole boat rocked and the rail splintered. He thrust his shoulders back against the baskets and the wall, braced the door with his feet, wishing it to stay shut and Missy to run, get away, fast-He heard someone walking on the deck outside. He heard someone say, definitely in Chernevog's voice, right next tin-deckhouse door, “It's quite useless.”

  He trembled, lying there in the pitch dark with a basket crunching between his back and the deckhouse wall, feeling the door shake against the soles of his boots as something kicked it. God, he had wished, he had thrown magic at it-He heard the slithering of a huge body, felt the boat tip, heard Hwiuur's whisper over the deckhouse ceiling, heard the slither of a huge body over the boards.

  “Well, now, young wizard. Perhaps now you'll be sorry you were rude.”

  And Pyetr's voice: “Sasha?”

  For a moment he believed it. Then he thought not, knowing where he had left Pyetr, knowing Chernevog would have wanted him out that door with more force than he felt out there, Chernevog could not so conveniently have found him. Chernevog would not have taken second place to the vodyanoi...

  “Sasha?” Pyetr's voice said. “Sasha, I'm in trouble. I'm In deep trouble. Can we have some help here?”

  He squeezed his eyes shut and braced the door. He thought, hearing the boards above him creak with Hwiuur's weight, Everything's a lie. Everything I hear from it's a lie. Pyetr couldn't possibly be here. That's the shapeshifter, that's all it is.

  It hasn't a mind of its own, only what it borrows, like the likeness, that's what Uulamets knew about it—

  “Sasha! For the god's sake, Sasha!”

  Nothing more than an echo. It doesn't know anything, it's no more malicious than its original so long as there's no one directing it...

  “
Sasha! God, Sashal”

  Pyetr wouldn't want me to open this door. Pyetr would never call me out into danger. It's a damned clumsy trick... But a shapeshifter had no sense to know that. In its own right it had neither shape, nor mind...

  “Sasha!” He heard steps running across the deck, heard Hwiuur's weight slide across the boards and the steps stop abruptly.

  Pyetr? he thought, wondering, he could not help it, what was going on out there: and something that felt like Pyetr was thinking. Oh, damn! Pyetr had expected help on the boat and ran straight into a trap-No. He wanted what Pyetr was thinking, and got nothing. Dark. Confusion. Pyetr was asleep somewhere, he tried to assure himself of that, the god grant it was only sleep. He heard Hwiuur move, heard Pyetr yelling, “Sasha, dammit, do something—help me!”

  He kept bracing the door, the whole deckhouse creaking around him as the vodyanoi moved—the baskets crackling against his shoulders as he shoved against them... Baskets. God.

  He reached back over his shoulder and rummaged in the dark, thinking, Fool, fool! Salt and sulfur—Nothing but clothes in the basket immediately behind him. He tried another, arching his back, straining with both his feet against the door, found clay pots, pulled them out and pulled stoppers one after the other. Marjoram. Parsley. Thyme... “Sasha! for the god's sake!” Rosemary... “Sasha!”

  The missing flour... Sasha dumped it, reached after the next, pulled the stopper— “Sasha!” Salt—He drew his feet up, rolled with the jar in his arms, eeled his way out the open door and scrambled upright on the deck under Hwiuur's shadowy jaws—slewed the pot wide and sprayed a wide white cloud of salt at Hwiuur's face and on around, where Pyetr stood with an expression of shock on his face.

  Hwiuur hissed and thrashed backward for the water, rocked the whole boat as he went over, dragging bits of the rail with him.

  What had been Pyetr melted and ran in little dark threads across the deck and off the edge, like spilled ink.

 
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