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       Chernevog, p.30

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  Chernevog had said himself... that magic was resisting him.

  25

  Don't wish, dear, Draga said, don't wish yet...

  Whatever you do, dear, don't do anything short-sighted, make any decision until you know the height and the width of it.

  Chase away the straying thoughts, chase everything away. This is the simplest wish you'll ever make. It must be the simplest.

  “There's not forever, dear. Not if you sit too long.”

  Eveshka sat with her chin on her knees, staring desperately into the hearthfire Draga tended through the night.

  Wish nothing until you're sure.

  But Papa said—kept running through her mind. Papa had said, It's a damned fool who wishes more magic than he's born with...

  Papa had been with her on the boat, she truly believed that had been no shapeshifter—she had thought about it and thought about it and she had resolved that doubt in her mind. Papa had not been able to stop her from coming here, papa was dead and his presence in the world had grown very faint, but papa had stayed with her and, changed by his death and being again the kind man of her earliest childhood, had feared for her, had watched over her on the river, had wished—

  Wished her asleep, most of the time.

  Why?

  To wish things for her and her baby she would not remember?

  To wish things against her mother?

  “Your father's dead,” Draga said, feeding more twigs into the fire, a fistful of herbs, that flew up on the draft, all sparks, into the red-smoked dark. ‘‘The dead don't always tell the truth. Your father didn't want you out of his hands either. Don't deal with him. You might be his bridge back to the world. Your child might be. Don't think about him. Forget him. The dead have to be forgotten. Think of what truly matters.”

  She thought about Pyetr, but that led at once to thoughts of Kavi holding him prisoner, doing hateful things, spiteful, terrible things to him. Her mother said, quickly,

  Don't! Think of flowers. Blue flowers, dear, blue and white—

  ... Spells stitched in hems, spells against too much memory, spells to keep the ghosts at bay.

  Spells for forgetting the dark, one stitch and the next, blue thread, green thread, colors the dead could recall but never, ever see.

  That was what it was to be dead, and she never wanted to die again, she never wanted anything she loved to die...

  “Flowers!” her mother said. “Be careful, daughter!”

  She thought of the garden at home, careful rows, thought of her own front porch and the fireside in the evenings, the three of them happy and snug in that house…

  “Sasha's coming here,” her mother murmured, stirring the embers. The smoke smelled of papaver, and hemp, and strong and dangerous herbs, making her nose sting and her chest burn and her eyes swim. “I know that he is. He's running here for help. But he's dealt with Kavi. He's compromised himself already. I know that, too.”

  “I don't!” Eveshka protested, and for a moment thoughts went scattering and wild. “He'd deal with him only as he had to.”

  “Kavi asks a great deal. Your young friend has afforded Kavi a foothold. That's all Kavi asks. You know that, dear. That's all Kavi's ever needed. I don't know this young man—you do. But older and wiser wizards than he have made that mistake, haven't they? Deal with Kavi—when your husband's life is in the balance? Kavi seems so reasonable when he wants you to do him favors. He wouldn't hurt your husband, no, the whole world treats Kavi ill, he's only seemed to be a villain—forget he murdered you: he was young, then; he'd not really harm Pyetr. No matter that he's bestowed his heart on him—”

  “Oh, god!”

  “It's true,” Draga said. “It is true, dear. I'm sorry to tell you so. Owl is dead. He flew at Pyetr's sword.” Draga wished her calm, wished her to listen and be very calm.”Kavi tricked your young friend, got your husband alone for only a moment within a magical boundary—that was all it needed.”

  “How do you know these things?” Eveshka cried.

  “Hush, be calm, dear, be calm. I know, that's all. That's what magic does for you. I know—and so far my magic is keeping my workings secret, but your young friend is about to brail through that veil, soon, now, very soon. He's coming here because he believes he's no match for Kavi and he hopes for your help. What will you be able to give him?”

  “Why didn't you tell me, dammit? What other secrets are you keeping?”

  “Dear, you weren't so sure of me—”

  “I'm still not!”

  “—and I wanted no wishes that might make things worse Now at least you have your wits about you. Use them! Your friend is making mistakes. He's unable to rescue your husband getting himself away was not a coward's choice: you know how Kavi loves an audience.”

  She was shaking. She remembered the house... Pyetr in Kavi's hands...

  “But it wasn't the only choice young Sasha might have made He might have fought Kavi. Instead he's running for your help, he's thinking of wishing magic for himself to get here—and that's nothing to do alone, god, no, it isn't. Your young friend is making dangerous mistakes, one after the other. He's young. he's inexperienced even in using what he has, he's trusting your father's advice, and he's already put your husband in terrible danger—”

  “Stop it, mama!”

  “He's coming here, I'm telling you, and he might do anything. Kavi's right on his heels—Kavi has your husband with him, do you understand me, 'Veshka? You know Kavi's going to use him to get your attention.”

  She looked into her mother's eyes—blue, lucent as glass by firelight,

  “'Believe me,” Draga said.

  “Don't do that, mother!”

  ‘‘You'd better believe something, daughter. Doubt is your enemy. Fear is your enemy. Love can destroy you and your husband... most terribly. All your life's been if-I-dared and someday. Someday's come, 'Veshka. The sun's rising on it. What will you do, 'Veshka—and when will you know your own mind, 'Veshka? Only for regrets?”

  ‘‘Quit pushing me, mama! I can't think when you push me!”

  “I'll forgive you, dear, —but time won't. It goes on just the same. Make up your mind. Do you want me to guide your wish? I will.”

  Her mother hardly blinked. There was certainty in her. I will, her mother said, strong as a wish. Her mother wanted to guide her, her mother wanted her not to make the mistakes Sasha was making.

  “Eveshka, do you hear me? Kavi's using that boy. He's sending him here, to open the door. He'll follow. And you know how your husband will fare then. What are you going to do, 'Veshka?”

  “I can't think, mama, just shut up!”

  “You can't stop doubting, can you? Doubt's the enemy of magic... and its friend. Doubt keeps our magic from running wild, keeps idle wishes from leaping the barriers of our thought, gives us that little space, that very little breathing space... for thinking things through. But you can't let doubt rule your life. Follow me now. Follow, me. It's not so far a step.”

  She wished not. Her head was spinning. Sight and sound came and went, near and far by turns.

  “It's not so far,” Draga said. “All you have to do is want the strength, really want to have it.”

  “I can't!”

  “'Veshka. Just follow me. One perfect wish. One wish for everything you want. Is that so hard? Your husband—your home—your young friend—isn't that really what you'd choose, over everything in the world?”

  “No!” she cried, and pressed her hands to her mouth, appalled at what leapt out of her—but when she tried to want only Pyetr, doubt came flooding over her, doubt made her wonder if she loved him or if she loved herself more—until her heart ached and she felt herself about to faint.

  Her mother said, looking her in the eyes, “You love your husband, don't you?”

  “Yes!”

  “More than anything else? What's important, 'Veshka? Do you know at all? What are you going to do with it if you get it?”

  Everything in the world was in dou
bt. Eveshka clenched her hands between her knees, and tried to know that answer. Save Pyetr, she thought. But her father would say, Fool!

  ‘‘When you wish for magic,” her mother said, scarcely louder than the crackle of the fire, “be very sure you demand enough— because this is a bargaining. Forever and ever, you'll exist in the magical realm to whatever degree you decide now. And you'll decide now how much of nature you'll keep—you'll have no more than that.”

  “You're frightening me.”

  “I mean to, dear. This is deadly serious. Know what you want. Decide how much you need. And for what. Do you want love? Or do you want magic?”

  ‘‘I want to be strong enough!”

  “Are you?”

  “I don't know!”

  “God, girl! Perish your ambivalence! What do you want? What, exactly, do you want?”

  “I don't know, mama, I don't know!”

  “Do you want your husband? Or do you want your freedom?”

  Free? she thought. There's this damn baby—

  God, what does it mean to it? Or to Pyetr?

  ‘‘It means whatever you want for the baby,” her mother said. ‘‘Kavi certainly doesn't want it born—unless he can get his hands on it. Do you want a baby? That's the question. Do you really want a husband? Was it a husband you wanted in the first place, or was it freedom from your father? You have that now. What will you settle for?”

  “Let me think!” she cried, raking a hand through her hair that trailed loose about her face. She could not dismiss her unease, nor her misgivings, and the doubt was the same doubt, always the same doubt, that she simply could not make up her mind, ever.

  God, I don't know if I want a baby.

  “Defend it,” Draga said. “Or be rid of it—if it's not more important already than you've wished yourself to be.”

  “It's my husband's, too—”

  “Then defend him,” Draga said, “—if you want either. I've kept us hidden. That's ending. All this time, all these years, I've been waiting for you. The two of us can beat him, dear. Two of us with the same mind can raise help enough to beat him.”

  “What, mama?” she cried. “Shapeshifters and the like?”

  “They're quite harmless—if you command them.”

  “They're vile!”

  “Nothing is vile, dear, except helplessness. You've kept your heart—you did decide that, I hope. I hope it wasn't simply lack of decision. Do you want me to carry it for you? I can.”

  “No!”

  “Or Brodyachi could carry two—if that would clear your thinking. Dear, we can't wait here for the world to be better. Take it as it is.”

  “No!” she said.

  “Then what will you have it be?”

  “Mother, just let me think, let me think!” She rested her head on her hands, she tried to shape her wish, but even thinking of Pyetr she could conjure no certainty, and her eyes burned and her nose ran disgustingly. She wiped at it, and wiped at her eyes, and wanted—

  Something shapeless and far-reaching and angry—in a moment at the edge of thought, the edge of exhaustion and smoke-bred dreams.

  Wanted—

  God!

  Her heart jumped, her head came up, she found herself looking into yellow eyes, brown face.

  Terror struck her like winter wind. She was eye to eye with Brodyachi, thinking, Where was he? Where did he come from?

  “He's been here,” her mother said, touching her arm, compelling her attention. “He's been here all along. Don't be afraid. Kavi wants that. But you don't have to be.”

  There was something outside the door. She knew that there was something outside the door—and there could not be. Brodyachi was here, quite calm. Brodyachi certainly would permit nothing foreign near her mother.

  “You're safe,” her mother said. “You're all right, dear.”

  She looked askance at the door, she listened to her mother speaking to her, telling her not to be afraid—and something was there. She knew that it was, a sense of presence absolute and dreadful.

  Out there was what she had called, and it was all Draga had said and all the belief she could muster—

  “Daughter?” Draga said.

  She had to get up, she had to go to that door, no matter how dreadful the answer, it was an answer, it was her answer, once for all. She put her hand on the latch, she pulled it up and pulled the door back-Wolves met her. The pack surged at her.

  Not attacking, no, not snapping at her... accepting her, swirling about her, tugging at her skirts, her hands, with gentle jaws. Their thoughts were like their movements: everywhere, constantly changing, as Draga stepped back against the fireside, as Brodyachi drew back and bristled up, threatening with a massive paw—

  She was not afraid any longer. The wolves were everywhere about her, they occupied the door, they pressed against her legs, they saw everything, wolves, and not wolves—chaotic as leaven in a gale. Nothing could catch them. No single wish could hold them—no single wish could find them all at once, or compass all their darting thoughts.

  She looked at Draga—knew, suddenly, there was no question of her mother's ultimate, ineluctable treachery. But her mother said, “Malenkova,” and her thoughts whirled and spun, recognizing that name from the inside.

  Draga wanted—things that did not interest her. Her own way interested her. What fled her interested her. Mostly she wanted what belonged to her. She recollected—indeed, she had never forgotten—she wanted Sasha. Sasha had to do what he was told, join her, stop thinking he knew everything.

  There was thunder in the distance. The wolves heard it, and pricked up their ears, though her own ears could not hear it. She tought, That's Kavi's working. Kavi wants Sasha to come here and confuse us. Kavi's calling on whatever will listen to him.

  She wanted what was hers, that was all, she wanted everything that was hers to be where she could see it and watch it— everything she loved, in one place, in her keeping, never scaring her again. That was what she wanted.

  No more foolishness. None from Sasha, and none from Pyetr. They would do what she told them, she would take care of them and they would be happy.

  And for Kavi, who threatened what was hers—

  The anger turned over and over in her, paced on multiple paws, looked through multiple eyes, anger with no limits and no conscience at all. Draga looked at her with a satisfying tear, wanted things of her, wanted certain things of no interest to her, but that was very well, she sensed a clear direction in Draga, interests which made one thing more important than other things. Draga wanted her to listen and understand, but Draga was only one more voice clamoring for her attention, and her consent, and her intent, which had many feet and many directions.

  She wanted things of Draga, all in her own interest, and Draga would do them: Draga had tried to escape many times, but Draga was a fragment not much more than the wolves, more determined than the rest, perhaps—able to compel a direction. Otherwise the pieces came together by chance, or when a few purposes coincided. In Draga's presence things did come together. She said, “Go on,” because Draga knew what to do, Draga and she quite well agreed on certain things and the rest absolutely did not interest her.

  26

  Rain drizzled down through the canopy, glistened in gray daylight on forest mold and living leaves, a grim, soggy kind of morning that sneaked through the trees without the cheer of sunlight. Sasha walked, Missy being by now very sore and very tired: Babi rested among the packs she carried, a small black ball with unhappy, wary eyes. Babi weighed very little in that form; and Missy liked his presence there: Yard-things she had known would stay close by stables, and horses outside their yards were outside their watching—but this one stayed right with her, and combed her mane and tail and warmed her back.

  Sasha knew this, riding Missy's thoughts, clinging to a lock of Missy's mane for balance, his two feet and Missy's four being damnably difficult to manage at once, not mentioning that Missy thought a great deal about what she was seeing on th
e ground and around and behind her, and about how her legs ached and her stomach was truly, awfully empty, even considering there had indeed been apples and grain a while ago. Missy was unhappy and worried in this deep tangle of woods, in which anything might hide. She could hear the rain sneaking up on them.

  Sasha worried for other reasons, and dared not stay overlong listening to Missy, because there were things he feared Missy's nose might not smell nor her ears and eyes detect.

  Babi would be aware of them. And when Babi suddenly growled and lifted his head from his paws Sasha wished Missy to stop and to stand still for a moment.

  He put out his hand to comfort Babi, to reassure him.

  Babi hissed, scrambled up and bristled, and before Sasha could draw his hand back, Babi snapped at him and vanished into thin air.

  Not that Babi had not hissed at him before—Babi hissed and growled at all his friends—but never with such anger.

  And never offered to bite. God!

  “Babi?” he said, more shaken now he thought of it than in the instant he was saving his hand. “Babi, what's wrong?”

  As if—he thought—it might have been him Babi was growling at, as if Babi had suddenly failed to recognize him, or to recognize him as a friend.

  He could not recall now what he had just been thinking, or whether he had done anything that might have offended Babi; or whether—

  Whether something had just gone wrong in a way Babi could not accept, something to do with things he had done—like leaving Pyetr.

  God, no, he must not think of that, he dared not think about that, dared not, for Pyetr's own sake, and his, and 'Veshka's. “Come on,” he said, “Missy, there's a girl, let's just keep going.”

  Missy was so tired, so very tired and making her go on was Not Fair. The bang-thumps were coming, and the wind, and she was wet and shivery and too tired to run when they got here. It was Not Fair. She had rather stand here and rest till they did. She saw no grabby-things. Was there an apple?

  Later, he promised her. “There's no time,” he said, and pulled on her reins and led her, promising her apples, promising her a currying if she would only keep going and watch her feet, god... “Please, Missy.”

 
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