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       Chernevog, p.31

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  She liked him. It was a good thing for him.

  There was nothing left in either of them but aches. He had fed Missy, gathered what he could, not forgetting the salt, which he had dumped in a bag to itself and kept slung from his shoulder. Damn, he wanted Babi back. He did not count the vodyanoi gone in any reckoning; bright sun drove it deep under water or earth, but there was none, and dry land inconvenienced it, but there was damned little dry this morning.

  Damn, damn! he did not like the feeling he was having, as if something was out there, pacing him—and ahead of him—

  Just ahead was a place that did not match the rest of the forest. He could not decide how it was different: it felt like forest, it felt almost like this one, but it—moved toward him—like a cloud boundary coming across the ground: but this was nothing visible: it was a sound, a feeling of coolth or earthiness. He had time to think: I don't like this, —and to take Missy's bridle and to wish them both well before it broke over them like a sudden dizziness, a sudden lack of breath—

  “Oh, god!” he cried, wishing not, but it widened, sweeping over them and rolling through the woods, well past them before it stopped and held. He wanted to keep breathing, he wanted himself and Missy safe from it, and when he wondered, he could not help it, who was doing this—

  Eveshka wanted him, right now, Eveshka was—

  It felt like echoes, as if Eveshka was talking to him from the bottom of a well and echoing so he could not make out what she was saying, the sense of her presence and her wanting him doing the same thing, wanting the way a horde of ghosts wanted—it felt like that; and Missy started to sink down, her legs buckling.

  “No,” he wished her, pulled on the bridle and drew up strength out of her body and his, pulled her around and kept pulling at her, step after faltering step. “Come on, girl, come on, keep going, 'Veshka's being a fool—we don't want to talk to her.”

  Anger echoed around him, a change in the sense of things, at least. His head spun, his heart skipped beats, he had no idea what Eveshka wanted.

  But there was the edge in the woods ahead. He pulled violently at Missy's halter, wanted her, dammit! to keep going, he was not going to leave her on this side of the trouble, not going to let her die here. He could feel the edge coming, the place where the magic stopped—but he was so tired, and what swirled around them offered all the answers and all the strength he needed, if he would take it—

  The strength it was taking it would give back—it promised.

  “Come on!” he wished Missy, pleaded with her, being only Missy then, only Missy, who, suddenly understanding a way out, called up something on her own, remembering town and the hill and her person shouting to her. She drew up her own strength and shoved with her legs, one heave and another, hauling against the heaviest load and the steepest hill she had ever known-She went down, not on stone, on soft dirt—threw her head up and tried to get up again.

  Sasha wished not, told her she had done it, she was safe-down on his knees himself, and lying on Missy's shoulder, with the whole world spinning and fading a moment.

  It did not want to kill him. It had let him know that. It wanted his silence and his compliance and his heart.

  No, he told it, and he was not sure what it would do, but it was not going to get any of that—no.

  The babble started again, near him, and he leaned against Missy's shoulder and tried just to hold on and not listen to it— while it told him he had to listen, it wanted Pyetr, it wanted him, it offered them a refuge where Chernevog could not reach them, and he had to see to that—do something—where his hands could reach and her magic could not.

  It said, out of the confusion—he thought it sounded like Eveshka, at least it had her voice: I can stop Kavi. But not while he can use Pyetr against me. Get him out of Kavi's hands. Get him away. Do just one thing right, damn your pigheaded arrogance, and I'll forgive you what you've done.

  It said, in a quiet tone: You're nothing but my father's wish, Sasha. You're his last damned wish in the world, and you've made all his mistakes. Don't kill Pyetr for him. Hear me? And don't come here until you have him. Rain spattered down, a patter through the leaves, cold huge drops, that hit like blows and left numbness where they struck. But not enough. He clung to Missy's shoulder and held on, eyes shut, with a knot of pain inside that he had to hold, had to go on thinking about—

  Most of all, not go crazy with—god, not let it loose-Aunt Ilenka saying, I know who's the bad luck in this house— A cracked teacup, that a wish still held— Missy grunted, moved one leg, another. Missy had a cramp.

  She was getting wet and the ground was cold. She did not know why she was sitting here, but she had caught her breath, and this was not comfortable.

  Sasha thought, himself, We can't go any farther. He thought Missy needs help.

  He got up, he got her reins untangled, he got the packs off her back and shoved hard at her rump, shoved hard a second time as she got her feet to bear. She stood, dropped her head and shook herself, a spatter of muddy water.

  He hugged her neck, he said, “Good girl,” and patted her shoulder, while the rain came down. The knot had gone from his chest to his throat, and stung his eyes—pain wanting his attention, which was not going to do a damned thing useful with the rain pouring down on them and whatever that had been telling him things that upended everything he had thought he knew. A heart could hurt. He could ignore it or he could let Missy carry it, but he thought, There's time for that: I don't have to listen to it. He gathered up the baggage, he got into the pack with the apples and gave Missy two. He wrapped up in the canvas with a fistful of dried berries and nibbled on them, in the notion that his body had spent too much and that borrowing was also a decision he did not want to make yet.

  He thought, testing his reasoning, I've never felt anything like what just happened.

  He thought, It's much stronger than I am.

  And, carefully: It was this way and that. It wasn't like a wizard, but it sounded like 'Veshka. It said what 'Veshka might say. She would be mad at me. I don't doubt that. But if it is 'Veshka she's not doing well, is she? That's what Pyetr would say. She's not doing well...

  She says I'm a wish. So's a rusalka. A rusalka's a terribly strong wish. She's her own wish. In some measure she's her father's. He wanted her alive. She says Uulamets didn't know what he was doing. But the leshys never said that. The leshys said, Take Chernevog to Uulamets...

  I didn't do that, did I? Things went wrong. Things are still going wrong. And of magical things I'd trust the leshys. I'd trust Babi. Babi just doesn't trust me right now. Why?

  He thought, We're on the forest's side. That's all. Maybe the leshys are gone, maybe there won't be any help, but that's still the side we are. It's not wise to forget that. If I'm anyone's, I'm Misighi's. If he's dead, if they're all dead, maybe I'm the wish they made.

  He felt the disturbance in the woods. He felt where the center was, he felt more than one presence there. He thought,

  Draga—

  Uulamets had said, Draga.

  Nothing made sense. One moment riding through the woods in a light drizzle, the next waking in a pouring rain on a horse standing very still, with Chernevog's arms locked about him, Chernevog saying, “Your friend's in trouble. Your friend's in deep trouble.”

  ‘‘Where?” he asked, never mind the rain, never mind his ribs ached where Chernevog had been holding him—he wanted to go there, and he gathered up Volkhi's reins.

  But Chernevog said, preventing him moving, “Listen to me. Don't argue. Listen. I want you to go to him. He's not far from us. I want him to come back here. I don't want to quarrel with him. You're my offer of good faith. Do you understand me?”

  “No.” He did not understand. He sat still, unable to move, unable to do anything but answer. “It's a damn trap!”

  “I want you to do this,” Chernevog said, “but I'm also explaining to you. If something goes wrong I want you to come back here, immediately.”

  He had no such
intention. If something went wrong he knew where he wanted to be, and he tried not to think that, because then Chernevog might never let him go. He would do as he was told. Absolutely he would.

  Chernevog said, tightening his arms, “My dear friend, you are so damned poor a liar. And I want you back. I want both of you, dear Owl.”

  “Damn you,” he said.

  “The best have tried,” Chernevog said, and let him go and slipped from Volkhi's back, taking the baggage with him. “I'm wishing you to find him. Follow your vaguest notions. They'll be mine.”

  He looked down at Chernevog, taking up the reins. Chernevog gave him nothing but that damnable cold smile, and the idea, he was sure it was Chernevog's, that he had finally to let that cold spot in his heart have its way completely—that being his only guide.

  He knew his directions, he turned Volkhi that way and went, and Volkhi picked up speed—whether Volkhi's inclination, free of half his burden, or whether moving at a wizard's wish, Pyetr did not know: god, he could not answer for himself any more why he was doing this or whose he was.

  The rain diminished again. The heavy drops that splashed in the puddles now were all from the trees. Sasha listened—touching Missy's senses as well as his own, a comforting presence, Missy stretching legs still a little uncertain, and enjoying here and now with a small measure of grain and a lump or two of honeyed cereal. Missy was not much on worry when the woods were quiet, and that was a very good way to think when a young wizard was occupying a very dangerous borderland. He had a little food to settle his own uneasy stomach, and sat wrapped in his canvas, warm against the rain-chill, simply resting and listening to the woods; and reading, to keep his thoughts from straying into noisy wishes, from the only book he had.

  When I was a very little girl I used to sit and watch the people going on their travels. I wasn't supposed to talk to them. I was supposed to stay hidden. But I didn't. They gave me trinkets. I wished them well. I wore flower-crowns and ribbons they gave me and I hid the trinkets from Papa—

  That made Papa mad when he found out and he said he'd wish the road less convenient...

  And, seeking cautiously to know more recent things: Pyetr really doesn't know a thing about gardens. He planted the beans so deep so I don't think wishes could grow them...

  Sasha made me so angry today. There are hardly any wishes in this book. Just things that happen, no matter what he says. I don't even wish our happiness. My father's heir—says not to, as if I'm afoot I wish he'd quit suspecting me, every time something goes right or wrong. That is a wish. It could even be dangerous. And I'm not sorry...

  He thought, carefully, It was dangerous. It is. To be blind to her—god, that's very dangerous... Why didn't she talk to me? Why didn't she tell me how she felt?

  Maybe she did. Maybe I didn't want to hear. I'm not beyond fault in this, god, I'm not. I should have seen, I should have tried, but she was so damned private about her magic—

  The dreams won't let me alone. I'm so scared... I can't want them to stop: that's so dangerous. I'd tell Sasha—but I've heard his advice: Papa would say, Find out what you're doing before you do anything. But I don't know the consequences, god, I can't know, because I don't know what I am. I doubt my own life, I doubt my own substance, I want to know what's still in that cave under the willow—and I'm afraid to know, I'm afraid to go there alone. I can't ask Sasha, he can't keep secrets from Pyetr, and most of all I don't want Pyetr to go in there and find out I'm still in that grave. I don't think he thinks about that now—but after that, how could he forget? When I came back from the dead, did the bones come out of that cave? Where did the flesh come from? Or what am I made of? My father's wishes? I wonder sometimes, what terrible thing Pyetr's sleeping with... and what I'm still borrowing from, to keep the life I have...

  We finished the bathhouse. I tried not to want anything about it. I've tried not to think about it. Nothing happened, thank the god...

  Missy lifted her head from her search for remaining grains. Her ears were up. Sasha wished her not to make a sound and she stood with a little shiver down her foreleg—listening and smelling.

  Volkhi. And the friendly person. Missy was glad.

  Sasha was not. He shut the book and got to his feet, thinking of shapeshifters and vodyaniye and wishing to the god Babi would show up now, please the god, he did not want this...

  It certainly looked like Pyetr coming through the trees. It looked like Volkhi. But eavesdropping could not always unmask a shapeshifter once the creature had gotten well into stolen shape and stolen thoughts.

  Pyetr rode up to Missy, slid off and started toward him, but Sasha wished not, and Pyetr stopped, made a small helpless gesture toward him. That hurt. ”He sent me,” Pyetr said. ’‘He's not far from here. He wants you to come there—”

  “What do you say?”

  “I don't know,” Pyetr said shakily. ‘‘I don't know. He's been tolerably reasonable—for a snake.” He touched his heart. “It's still with me, you know. He eavesdrops most of the time...”

  He did not want Pyetr in this pain, he did not want to go back to Chernevog, he wanted Pyetr free, dammit!

  “It's a short ride back,” Pyetr said, and gathered up Volkhi's trailing reins. “He wants me back. He says—tell you—don't argue, I don't know what's going on. He says—how do you want me to find it out?”

  “Don't do that to him, dammit! Don't treat him like that!”

  “He says—the question stands.” Pyetr gave a twitch of his shoulders, threw the reins over Volkhi's head, looked back. “Sasha, —it's all right. Don't do what's stupid. I thought—you should make up your own mind—I didn't argue. I should have made him work for this. God, don't be a fool—I should never have done this.”

  “Wait!” He snatched up the canvas and started rolling it, while Pyetr hesitated with his hand in Volkhi's mane.”Dammit, Missy can't carry me, she's had enough.”

  “He says—says she will.” He left Volkhi, came and picked up the heaviest of the sacks, stopped then, looking at him as if he wanted to argue, and was in so much doubt—of himself, of what they were doing and where they were going. Sasha did eavesdrop, he took those thoughts, he told Chernevog go to hell, said, to Pyetr, as bluntly and brutally as he could, “'Veshka's in trouble. Her mother's alive.”

  He felt Chernevog's panic; he felt Pyetr's, like a knife to the heart, and said, sharply, snatching up the rest of the baggage. “Don't. I'll talk to Chernevog. If she's wishing you in her direction, everything may be working that way, everything we've done—everything Chernevog's done.” He grabbed Pyetr's arm and made him look him in the face. “Pyetr. We're going to deal with this. He has to. You understand?”

  “Good,” Pyetr said in a shaken voice. “Good. I'm glad we're going to do something. I like that idea.”

  Sasha flung things onto Missy's back, took Pyetr's assistance up, took the reins, prey to shivers himself—the notion that at any moment they might be overheard here. Whatever-it-was might make another try—by whatever agency.

  He thought, as Pyetr led off, He's not gone, thank the god, he's not gone— But he tried desperately hard not to listen to his heart again, because there was no reason in it at all right now, only fear, and a willingness to give anything he had to give to get Pyetr free.

  Chernevog had stretched one of their two canvases between two birches, made a fire—it was a proper camp Sasha saw when he and Pyetr came riding in, Chernevog rising to meet them. Sasha had his apprehensions that it might indeed be a trap they were riding into—that Chernevog might have some way to use Pyetr and him to his own advantage that his own poor knowledge could not anticipate.

  But Chernevog offered no immediate treachery: in truth he looked disquieted and anxious. They dismounted—Sasha held Missy's mane, and slid off the careful way, face to the horse, not trusting his legs for Pyetr's leg-over slide, having nothing of Pyetr's balance or Pyetr's grace—he thought about that at such a moment, that he was not going to grow up like Pyetr, the chance for that
was past, growing up had happened and left him a little awkward, a great deal deliberate—

  He said to Chernevog, not aloud: What you didn't do— deserves something.

  Chernevog said, Everything you can give. And don't ask me to change our arrangement. It's worked so well.

  Snake, Pyetr called him. Sasha drew a deep breath, and said, If things were working well, you wouldn't risk him coming after me.

  27

  It was two wizards standing and thinking at each other in complete silence, that was what went on, for longer than would let anyone think they were sane: Sasha was not happy and Chernevog was not happy—that was what Pyetr saw, standing there with two horses in better condition than they possibly had a right to be.

  Two wizards discussing his wife, and him; and the god knew what else of the world's fate.

  “Uulamets knew it?” Chernevog had said early in this, and after that, nothing, while Sasha frowned. Something went on that made that cold spot next to Pyetr's heart very disturbed.

  He turned his back on it in despair, leaned on Volkhi's shoulder and tried not to think what they might be saying to each other. Wizards did these things, and wizards fought over things that sane people could not even see...

  And the god only knew, the god only knew whether Sasha was holding his own at all, or what Chernevog might ask or want of them, with him for a hostage and his wife being threatened.

  He had his sword. He had his hand on its hilt without thinking he even had it.

  But something stopped him—perhaps the thought that they needed Chernevog; and he no longer knew if it was his thought or Chernevog's cynical dismissal of him.

  Not a damned chance, that thought said. The dark spot stirred and sent a chill down his back.

  He recalled Chernevog mocking him, saying: I'll love what you love, hate what you hate, I've given you that power over me—

  Then adding: Of course it can also go the other way...

 
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