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       Chernevog, p.29

           C. J. Cherryh

  At the bottom of his heart he was mortally afraid for his sanity. Sasha was telling him to be wary, Chernevog's hand was holding the reins in his hand and he was leaning against Chernevog with a sense of warmth and ease he told himself was a lie.

  Chernevog said, aloud, “Your young friend doesn't want to be found. But he's afraid of your wife—he's afraid of her and he's afraid of the old man's ghost, which I think he's found. At least he's come to his senses. He's very much afraid your wife is gone, Pyetr Ilyitch—at least, that she's fallen into a trap he can't get her out of—and so am I. He's very much worried that you may be particularly vulnerable to her—and he wants me to keep you safe and away from her.”

  “You're lying, Snake.”

  “He's going to try to find out what he's dealing with. I hope he survives it, I truly do: I want to know what he finds out. Most of all we don't want to lend your wife any help—or any victims. Specially one carrying what you hold. Do we, Pyetr Ilyitch?”

  “Go to hell,” he said. He refused to believe Sasha had said any such thing, even if it had elements of reason in it, even if it was thoroughly like Sasha to go to help Eveshka and try to keep his tool of a friend ignorant of it—but trusting Chernevog enough to tell him anything about his intentions was not reasonable.

  Chernevog had used him to reach Sasha, that was what he had just done, Chernevog was lying to him and he hoped to the god he had not just put Sasha in more danger than he was already in.

  “Hardly possible,” Chernevog said. “But the danger's not from me. It's not even from your wife, if that gives you any ease of mind.”

  He felt too calm, too much at ease, considering what he was hearing. He hated it. He hated Chernevog for doing it to him, and he thought of breaking Chernevog's skull—if he could so much as lift a finger toward that purpose.

  Chernevog said, “Owl had no pity. He never understood my fondness for him. He did like the mice.”

  It had come on him suddenly while he read, without warning, . . this presence of Pyetr's-and he should have known then, Sasha thought, in one blink of an eye he should have realized that Pyetr could never have caught his attention without magic, and magic never could have gotten to him through his own precautions without Pyetr's need to drive it.

  Which meant—if he had had any forethought—Chernevog.

  He leaned his elbows against Eveshka's book, thinking—god, he had told Chernevog too much of that as it was, especially the part about the baby. He had thought of that news the instant he had felt he was truly dealing with Pyetr, it was part of his reasons and his heart had led him to admit that without so much as thinking. Now he asked himself what he had done and what he might have agreed to.

  II you want to bargain, Chernevog had said, first off—don't take anything the vodyanoi might offer: he's easily any shapeshifter's master, but there are things so far beyond the vodyanoi's reach.

  They'll waste no time, Chernevog had said, gobbling him down to get you. If you're going to want magic, young friend, don't be modest: deal only with real power... me, for a first instance.

  After which Chernevog had added, so slyly and smugly he could almost see the smile, After all, if you think I'm a bastard, what do you think my rivals are?

  Deal with me or deal with them—and remember we have at least one interest very much in common. Do you want him free of me? I'm certainly willing to talk about that.

  And he, perhaps foolishly: Help me at a distance. I'm not ready to bargain with anything. Keep Pyetr safe, hear me? Don't let him follow me.

  —Because he knew, he knew beyond a doubt Pyetr would bo off toward Eveshka if he had the chance; and he was, himself, so scared, so scared for 'Veshka and of Veshka—

  Don't deal with Hwiuur, Chernevog had said. Certainly he's not my master. He may act completely on his own—I involved him once and it's only natural he take an interest, but how fur that interest goes, or if it might involve someone else... take a lesson from me, young friend, never ask for help from subordinates. Some Things are hell to get rid of—…

  Something was leaning over his shoulder of a sudden. He turned and looked, heart thumping, virtually sure it was Uulamets, terrified that the ghost had been eavesdropping.

  God, the old man had hated Chernevog; and more—he had hated Pyetr... had feuded with him constantly—Uulamets was angry, he knew that he was.

  Cold blasted through him like a winter gale, bringing memories of the house, memories of the lightning, the fire, the vodyanoi, muddy bones, a puddle of weed—dark, deep dark, echoing with crazed voices. He felt his knee hit the deck, felt the deckhouse slide past his arm and snag his sleeve—he was on the boat and the boat went back and form across the river, travelers came in numbers, and he was running, hiding among them, while something across the river wanted him—

  There were too many memories. They tumbled one over the other, shrieking for his attention. He wanted his own, only his own, he tucked down with his arms over his ears and held on to what was Sasha Misurov with the barest awareness of where he was or when or why.

  He thought, when, after a long time, the flood had subsided... Chernevog is right: he's fragmented, he's not sane—god, he's remembering things all out of order—he can't make sense, he hates Pyetr, he'll never accept any compromise…

  Bargain with what has power, Chernevog had said. Bargain with me...

  He wanted sense out of it. He wanted the ghost to find the pieces in right order, the way he remembered them—Malenkova's house, Draga, the river house— It howled at him, it whirled about him and tumbled all the pieces out of order again in rage, frustration, fear— He cried aloud into that gale:

  “Master Uulamets, I've no choice—you can’t help me and I've no damn choice, have I?”

  He felt as if master Uulamets had gathered him up and hit him in the face—repeatedly. He felt cold, and weaker, and weaker.

  It was theft—he knew what Uulamets was doing, the same deadly robbery that he had done to the trees, the same that a rusalka did to her victims. He wished it to stop—but he felt the cold deepen, until his jaws locked and his teeth were chattering, the lamp flame making wild shadows about the deck as the wind swirled about him.

  “Don't,” he said, “master Uulamets, stop... stop it!”

  The book fell open in his lap, wind blew at its pages.

  It wanted him to look at it. He could hardly hold the book, he hugged it in his arms and braced it against his knee, cramped up to turn it to the light. A second time the wind whipped the pages, driving the lamp flame in giddy shadows.

  He read, I'm not sure this is the best thing to do—but something's terribly wrong. I've dreamed about water. I dream constantly about water and something wanting me. I know Pyetr's safe now, at least. This time it was so close to taking him, so close—I don't know where, I don't know for what purpose, I only know I can't stop it without going there myself...

  The cold grew worse. Pages escaped his hands, and the wind died. He could scarcely hold the book, his fingers were so cold. The first word his eye fell on now was—



  Volkhi should have been exhausted and footsore by now, carrying two men's weight through this damnable bog. Pyetr thought so—so far as he could think at all—but Volkhi showed no signs of tiring, and that unnatural endurance began to scare him, so for as he could stay awake to worry. He tried—damn it all, he tried to move, if only to inconvenience Chernevog, but every time he succeeded in moving he abruptly fell asleep again in Chernevog's arms—while Volkhi kept traveling and for all he knew, killing himself. Little Chernevog cared for that.

  But finally Chernevog said, “No. I'm doing no harm to him. None to us either: blackest sorcery as old Uulamets would have it. Or magic—it's all one. I haven't your young friend's limitations.”

  “A horse can't go on forever!” he cried.

  “While I wish it, he can. And be none the worse for it, I promise you.”

  He thought about that a moment, in the haze hi
s thoughts occupied, thought about it and began to worry about where they were going, and where Sasha was, and whether Sasha and Missy had a chance of staying ahead of them—

  “But I want them to,” Chernevog said. “Remember?”

  He did not remember. He thought, it's another damn trap. He's playing games again.

  “All he'd have to do,” Chernevog said, “is he reasonable and deal with me. Remember that, too.”

  He thought, muzzily, Have anything you want, as long as you want, any time you want? It's hell on Sasha—hell on 'Veshka— the god knows Volkhi and I aren't damn happy right now, either.

  He felt himself going out again, abruptly, dizzying as a fall. “No,” he said, fighting it. But it never did any good.

  Perhaps he did sleep. Perhaps it was immediately afterward that Volkhi stopped and Chernevog said, shoving him upright, “You can get down now.”

  Something vast and pale shone through the trees. His eyes could not make sense of it until he realized it for the flapping sail of the boat.

  Chernevog wanted him to find out what the situation was. He needed no order to do that. He flung a leg over Volkhi's neck and slid off to a landing steadier than it had any right to be and a well-being greater than it sanely ought to be. He let the reins tall: Chernevog could fish for them if he wanted to stay ahorse; himself, he was very willing to board the old ferry, hoping—

  —hoping for rescue if the boy was there and had his wits about him; and fearing the god knew what kind of terrible discovery aboard; but he tried not to think of that.

  Chernevog said, above him on Volkhi's back, “The boy's slippery, if nothing else. Damned difficult to track, but I don't think he's here. Catch!”

  Chernevog flung the sword at him. He snatched it by the hilt in surprise, and had instant and uncharitable thoughts of slinging the sheath off and running Chernevog through.

  His breath came suddenly short. Chernevog said, “Go on. You haven't all night.”

  “Damn you,” he muttered, clenched the sword in his hand and turned and went toward the boat, where Chernevog wanted him to go. Anger choked him, while that dark cold spot stirred in the middle of him and wanted his attention, now, sharply, to what regarded their mutual survival.

  There was ample evidence of a horse on the open ground near the water—Missy, he was well sure. Sasha had gotten this far, Chernevog thought so, too, but when he stood and called

  Sasha's name there was no answer from the boat. He saw a way to get to the deck, hauled himself up onto a low limb, grabbed a handful of willow-wands and jumped for the boards.

  The thump would have waked any sleeper. His shouting certainly should have. He saw the deckhouse door open, and the far rail splintered with a very large piece missing. That was not at all encouraging.

  “Sasha?” he called. And in remotest, most painful hope: “ 'Veshka?”

  The sail filled and flapped, boards creaked and the water lapped at the hull, but of a single sound of any living presence-there was none.

  He gave a perfunctory look into the deckhouse, he saw only the expected baskets, he walked around to the stern and saw the securing loop of rope over the tiller bar—that was better news, At least the hand that had last had the tiller had left it in good order, no matter that nothing short of cutting the forward stay might ever get that spar down and nothing but loosing the rest of the stays and unstepping the mast might make it possible to haul the boat free: it felt grounded, rocking on the water, but not quite floating free.

  One only hoped... god, one hoped that that splintered rail and the boat having come to such a predicament did not mean Eveshka had left the boat before it ever came to rest. That break in the rail was twice Volkhi's girth, at least.

  He dropped to his heels, wiped a finger across the boards underfoot—carried it to his tongue. He tasted salt and dust.

  There had been a defense.

  Chernevog wanted him back, Chernevog thought the questions answered, he had looked, there was no likelihood anyone had hidden and the fact that the horse was gone meant Sasha had left along the shore.

  He wished he were utterly as sure of that. He walked to the broken rail, looked over the side there—saw ripples and a sudden roiling of the water, a fish perhaps.

  Perhaps not. There was no scarring of the hull to evidence any impact with the other shore. He looked out as far as he could see, and felt Chernevog's insistence pulling at him—worried, not forcing him—but about to.

  Only good sense, he thought. Sasha had gone. If Sasha was riding into trouble, and trouble of the sort that had broken that rail, he was willing to follow. He crossed the deck, snatched a handful of willow-wands and vaulted off to a landing on the spongy ground where Chernevog stood with Volkhi.

  “Do you know where he's gone?” he asked Chernevog.

  “I know which direction he's gone. I'm relatively sure of that.”

  Perhaps he was losing his last sane thought, perhaps he was terribly misled even to think of finding Sasha when he had no wish to be found—perhaps the thought that the boy was into more than he could handle was entirely from Chernevog, deceiving him. But he offered the sword to Chernevog on what he reasonably believed was his own impulse, saying, “If you can use it, Snake. Or if you can't—”

  “Keep it, if you'll refrain from using it on me. Do we agree?”

  ‘‘I want to find him. I don't like the look of this.” He gathered up Volkhi's reins and looked around at Chernevog, wondering and trying not to wonder... what was going on with Eveshka and whether—

  Whether there was any hope for her—or ever had been—or whether he had loved her enough while there was a chance; or what he had done and not done to bring her and all of them to this.

  It was not a confidence he wanted to share with Chernevog. He would have balked at sharing it with Sasha; and now he was not even sure whether his doubts in that intimate matter came from his own heart or Chernevog's at work in him.

  She had a baby?

  All he could feel was fear.

  “You're right,” Chernevog said. “You're very right. I'd no notion why this might be happening. Now I do. —Are you absolutely certain that baby's not Sasha's?”

  That dark spot wrapped all about his heart. He actually considered that possibility, actually considered it, in one black moment—appalled to realize he would not be utterly surprised nor even irrevocably upset with either one of them— hurt, yes; but he would understand it—the boy becoming a painfully lonely young man, and Eveshka frustrated with a husband who was (the folk in Vojvoda had quite well agreed with Ilya Uulamets' opinion) no fit match for her.

  Chernevog said, “If it is his—”

  Chernevog tried to make him know something. All it made him was afraid.

  Chernevog said, quietly, “If it is his, Pyetr Ilyitch, there'd certainly be a reason he's avoiding us.”

  “Damn you, it isn't, and you don't know him!”

  “If it is—none of us will see it grow up. That's the truth Pyetr Ilyitch. I lie as a matter of course—but this is the plain truth. I killed Eveshka because I'd gotten myself in a trap because she'd have killed me if I hadn't.”

  “ 'Veshka never killed anything—” —in her life, he started to say, like a fool. But that was the 'Veshka who saved fieldmice. In death, she had killed, the god knew she had killed.

  “Her mother sent me,” Chernevog said. “A child like his. doubly born—that's power... until she grows up. Draga wanted her dead when she couldn't get her away from her father. Draga tried to kill her when she was born. I tried to find her father's hold over her. I got caught in his book; I had to get away and I had to kill her. I had her heart. I thought I might hold her—but I couldn't and you know what happened. Now we're here—and she's carrying a child that I hope to hell is yours.”

  “Why?” Pyetr cried. “What's the threat in a baby?”

  But he thought of Sasha saying, ‘Veshka's mother was a wizard, her father was, she got her gift from both sides...

Sasha saying, Chernevog himself was scared of her...

  Chernevog did not answer that. Chernevog wanted him on the horse, Chernevog wanted them on their way with no more questions. Pyetr threw the reins over Volkhi's neck and thought with anguish that if Chernevog was lying, he no longer knew his way out of the maze of Chernevog's reasons. If Chernevog was lying, he feared the last thing he would lose would be himself, Chernevog's, ultimately, like Owl, no damn bit more than that. The god only knew but what 'Veshka was going to fight Chernevog— and he was going to be with him, where Sasha had put him, the god help him.

  He helped Chernevog up behind him, he all but lost his stomach when Chernevog took his hand and his arm and used him for a ladder—himself leaning far over the other way and Volkhi shifting under him. He said, between his teeth, ”Do me a favor. Sit back, keep your hands off, and don't be wishing at me.”

  “All I want is your help.”

  “Stop it, dammit!” he cried, and, drawing a calmer breath, reminded himself how he had had to teach Sasha manners at the first.

  He hurt the way he had hurt when an old man's sword had gone through him—only shock at the first, seeing the blade shorter than it ought to be up against his side. He could not even say what had hit him tonight, but he was like that. When he had gotten the old boyar's sword through his side he had gotten quite a ways afterward before the pain had set in—being an ordinary man, and dull as dirt. He patted Volkhi's neck, said, as Volkhi started to move, “I'm sorry, lad.”

  Chernevog said, “I assure you, I can keep the horse safe. It's not harming him. Nothing I'm doing is harming him.”

  “What about my wife?” he asked between his teeth. “What about Sasha, dammit?”

  Chernevog said, equally short, “One thing at a time. One damn thing at a time!”

  So Volkhi and whatever else Chernevog was doing was all Chernevog could manage.

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