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       Chernevog, p.32

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  —Damned if it can't, Snake. Listen to me!

  He thought of Sasha and thought of 'Veshka, not their worst and not their best either, only the way they were; he thought about that cold spot that slithered about in him and that boy that had long ago shed it into Owl, whatever its condition might be now: that boy had known smothering and spoiling and betraying in his life and Pyetr understood that very well—those guilt-driven, terrified searches after a drunken father, as if a grown man's troubles were at all a young boy's fault—

  The boy he had been could not have understood The Cockerel's mouse-quiet spook of a stableboy—and damned sure the young man could not have understood Eveshka. He would have walked away from Sasha, once, been a scoundrel with Eveshka... he had wasted a good deal of his life in that condition, seeing only the outside of people and missing the substance...

  You've made the same mistake, Snake. Damned if you haven't. You've missed everything so far.

  Snake turned and looked at him—looked straight into him, in a way he only let Sasha and 'Veshka do, in his whole life: but he thought with a shudder, Well, hello, Snake, come on ahead, Snake, I won't stop you.

  Snake was not sure what he was up to or what kind of trap it was, but Snake thought curiously— Will you not?

  Sasha wanted something then. Strongly. Snake did. Pyetr felt it going on, and said, out loud, the only way a plain man was sure things were heard: “Sasha, it's all right. Snake's all right. He's just—”

  He felt pain, sudden drowsiness. “—Scared,” he said, “aren't you, Snake?”—straight to Snake's pride.

  Snake felt Sasha behind him, saw him standing in front, Snake felt surrounded and vulnerable and Snake had made that arrogant, foolish bet with him, in giving him his heart, Snake had said himself—

  It can go the other way...

  Walk the roof, Snake? Walk it drunk and blind with me?

  Chernevog's face was ghost-white and grim. But he laughed, then—at least life touched that grimness, his eyes lightened, a dark amusement pulled one corner of his mouth. “I'm ever so much older, Owl. Ever so much older than that boy.”

  “So am I,” Pyetr said.

  There was, in truth, a smile—most appalling, a grin. Chernevog gave a twitch of his shoulders, laughed softly and still laughing, walked away from them toward the fire.

  “God, Pyetr,” Sasha said.

  Pyetr wondered that he was not more shaken than he was, and put a hand to his heart, asking himself if that cold spot did not feel a little less uncomfortable.

  Chernevog sat down at the fireside, poked up the embers, looked up and grimly beckoned Sasha, not him, Pyetr understood. To him, Chernevog said, a silent voice he could quite well hear.

  “Ever so much older, Owl. You can't imagine.”

  He watched Sasha walk away to that fireside. He stood there thinking there was nothing he could do, and sank down on his heels and watched them there, in that silent conversation—about Eveshka.

  He thought, What about her? What's she done? What's going on? He thought if there were any good news they would not be talking like that, without looking at him, and Sasha would reassure him.

  But Sasha was not inclined to lie to him, Sasha would not tell him a lie that important, that much he was sure of. That Sasha had said nothing at all about Eveshka, and evaded his thinking and wondering and worrying about her—meant it was not good news he had found.

  He thought, She doesn't like to do magic. What's this messing with sorcery? She wouldn't do that. Surely she wouldn't do that...

  He recalled how she had kept him about the house, how she had worried and fretted over him, near smothered him with her worrying—

  And loved him. He was sure she did. She loved him, as far as she was able—one got used to Snake, and one could understand a little more how very careful she had been.

  Ever so much older, she might say. Like Snake. Ever so much older, Pyetr. You can't imagine...

  I can't be rid of the dreams... Eveshka had written. And, with chilling accuracy, I dream about wolves... Wolves tearing me in pieces. I dream of water. And being wider it...

  Chernevog turned the page, thinking,

  Draga...

  He looked up into Sasha's face—a jarring thing still, to see this boy looking at him with such frankness, the way only 'Veshka had looked at him, and he never had trusted. He was afraid now, to take this boy on Pyetr's judgment, Pyetr knowing so little beyond the natural world, so damnably little, and trusting the world worked by what he saw. Pyetr he could believe in, the way he believed in trees and rain and sun. Pyetr was exactly what one saw, and exactly what one believed—and he had relied on that when he had had to rely on something.

  Pyetr had not failed him—he believed that at least from moment to moment, more than he had ever believed anything. He thought, How do I know anything? Draga deceived me from the beginning, down to this very day she could lie to me—I could see her die, and not know she was still alive.

  He had seen Eveshka die—in dark water, drowning, the way he had died in his own dreams, in Draga's house. He gave that thought to Sasha, the whole ugliness, to stop Sasha's intrusive staring at him.

  Sasha said, I know. And said further: Uulamets knew. He lived with her.

  He had not given those dreams to Pyetr, had not hurt him to that extent. Sasha knew that, too. Sasha said, the way Eveshka had said to him once—I owe you.

  Damn, he hated that. He hated it.

  He got up from the fireside, he walked away into the drizzle, saw Pyetr stand up from where he was sitting and look at him anxiously. Pyetr did not threaten him. He felt his fears absurd, looking Pyetr in the face; and absolutely justified, feeling Sasha's presence at his back.

  He heard Sasha warn him back from Pyetr, Sasha quite ready to fight him for Pyetr's safety.

  He turned around again, preferring Pyetr at his back, even with the sword. He said to Sasha, Don't crowd me, boy. I'm not your friend.

  Sasha said, Remember I've read your book. And Uulamets'. And 'Veshka's.

  I've seen yours, he said. It's astonishingly short.

  Mostly, Sasha said—I've studied. I did like your early ideas— some of them.

  He said, I was a fool in those days.

  Sasha said, You had Draga. I had Uulamets—and Draga wasn't herself when she came to live with Uulamets. She wasn't the young girl he remembered, wasn't at all the young girl he knew in Malenkova's house.

  Chernevog shied away from that thought. And came back to it. If Draga was alive, there was no turning his back on any bit of knowledge.

  Sasha said, She was much longer with Malenkova than he was. Years. —What became of her book?

  In my house, he said. You didn't find it?

  Sasha shook his head. No. No, we didn't. A great deal burned. The rest—the leshys gave us. Hers wasn't with it.

  He had a very cold thought, then—the leshys fading, their missing that book, while they turned all their watchfulness on him—

  Draga? Sasha asked.

  Chernevog looked Sasha in the face with less and less and less confidence in their lives and in what they knew. He said, Right now I'm not sure of anything.

  Sasha recalled what he had met in the woods ahead—that confusion, that violence—that spoke in Eveshka's voice—

  He thought of Eveshka's book, where she had written, asking, What am I made of? My father's wishes ?

  Chernevog said distractedly, Her life is her father's. Heart and soul are hers. The substance? The god only knows. Not mentioning the child…

  Wizard business went on and on with never a word aloud. Pyetr brushed down the horses, sat and sharpened his sword, for what good it might be, then gave the horses another currying, all the while trying not to think, trying not to wonder anything, while Sasha and Chernevog in unsettling cooperation looked through the several books, with a great many shakes of the head, a good many frowns, and an occasional stirring of Chernevog's misplaced heart—a slithery anxiousness Pyetr could not ignore.
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  Chernevog was increasingly disturbed. That was very personally clear.

  Pyetr thought, There's something going on. Something very bad happened this morning while I was asleep. Something changed, something both of them know and Sasha won't talk about.

  Sasha looked his way and said, “Pyetr, you won't bother us if you get something to eat.”

  “Do you want anything?” he asked, hoping this meant answers, and Sasha said distractedly: “That might be a good idea.”

  So he built the fire up again and got into the packs and made supper. Eveshka said he was hopeless at cooking; but a man could not go far wrong with sausages and hard-baked bread, which Sasha had gotten from the boat, evidently—along with Eveshka's book. He recognized it, with its familiar scars.

  And Sasha had said nothing to him about finding it, not a word. One might be tempted to believe that Sasha was wary of him in present company—but he bit his lip and distracted himself from that line of thinking: he wondered nothing about Sasha's reasons, no, he refused even to consider why Sasha had come here or what had made him accept Chernevog's offer: Snake was too clever. Snake might well be asking him questions he could not hear—he put nothing past Chernevog, and nothing beyond his reach.

  He did not know, for another thing, what whatever they were afraid of might be doing out there—Draga, Sasha had said, the only name he put to it. Sasha had always said that distance made a difference with wizardry, and Chernevog had talked about a little farther dh in this woods being more dangerous than where they were now—but it did seem to him that whatever-it-was could damn well get up and walk a bit and close that gap. Whatever-it-was... which involved Draga, and Eveshka's book, and her life, and whatever mess she was in—he was sure it did.

  He wanted answers, dammit. And none came. The west was rumbling with thunder again—he listened with a little rising hope, thinking that the storm coming might be their doing, that something might be in the making.

  But with dusk coming on, and the storm still delaying, he got up and got the vodka jug, and took it back to his place beyond the firelight, beside the horses. He sat down and had himself a drink—had another, and thought—

  Babi.

  He poured a drop on the ground. Nothing caught it. He tried another, wishing very hard, if that should make a difference. The thunder seemed closer of a sudden, and he wondered if the coming storm was on their side. He thought, Damned rotten night coming. He thought about the Things that disliked the light, and he thought about ghosts, and the one they had come here looking for.

  It was too much to ask, that the old man put in an appearance.

  But something cold did touch him. It brushed his face and whisked away.

  No, Chernevog insisted. He did not think it a good idea to attempt Uulamets at this point. No, no, and no, no matter the reason in Sasha's arguments. The old man had no liking for him, the old man would not tolerate his presence, they were likely to get a very unpleasant manifestation-Afraid, Sasha thought, and maybe Chernevog overheard that. Chernevog gave him an offended look. But it was true—it was fear that made Chernevog pull back and there were things he feared that Chernevog suggested:

  Be rid of your heart. Listen to me. You can take it back later. It's not irrevocable, for the god's sake... look at me. Magic and a heart don't go together. You can't do anything against her until you settle that question!

  Sasha thought, with the thunder rumbling frighteningly close, Master Uulamets said, Wish no harm...

  “God,” Chernevog exclaimed aloud, “you're not still listening to that old fool. Wizardry won't help us, boy, it's not going to help—it can't defend your friend and it damned sure—” Don't, Sasha wished him, for fear of Pyetr hearing: he already knew what else Chernevog thought of that wizardry could not do: it could not overcome what had happened to Eveshka.

  How much longer are you going to delay telling him? Chernevog asked, with a thought toward Pyetr. Boy, he has my heart, I know the truth. I don't know but what it spills over—I've never dealt with anyone but Owl, and Owl wasn't much on understanding.

  It offended him that Chernevog chided him about Pyetr's welfare. He said, It does him no good to lose myself, does it? You don't love anything, you never have. You don't understand how much it hurts.

  —Thank the god I don't, Chernevog replied. —And you don't have to. Listen to me, Alexander Vasilyevitch!

  No!

  For a moment breath came hard. Tempers rose, anger flared, palpable and threatening; but Sasha wished not, no quarreling, and Chernevog as strongly wished them both to be calm, saying,

  Damned stubborn boy! You'll get us all killed. Quiet!

  They had resolved, at least, what creature Eveshka had allied with: one could smell it a distance, one could recognize it, Chernevog said, in his memories of her presence—

  Wolves, twenty and more of them. Draga's wolves. Chernevog recalled them all too well, creatures each with names, and more mind each and alone than they had together—One's bad, Chernevog had said, with a shudder; but it thinks. The lot of them don't think—in any reasonable way. Put your heart in that lot—god knows, 'Veshka never could make up her mind. I'm afraid she's found the one creature that might suit her.

  That made Sasha mad, and defensive of Eveshka. But it was also, he feared, true.

  Chernevog kept after that thought. Chernevog said, now— Listen, boy, if Draga's alive in any physical way, the power she had is nothing to the power she can get through 'Veshka. I'm telling you Simple wizardry won't stop her, I swear to you, it will not stop her. You've met magic. You ran from it. Can wit overcome that? Can nature? Are you that damnably, stupidly blind, to go back at it again empty-handed?

  Sasha said, back to the point of their disagreement, Listen to me. Give me your help—

  Chernevog said, with stinging despite: Turn myself over to you? Bay, you're not listening! If you want your friend alive, if you want him free—there's a cost, and I'm not the one here begging help, I'm not the one desperate to get a fool girl out of her predicament!

  Sasha looked him in the face, jaw set, said: —No. You're the one desperate to have my help, Kavi Chernevog, because 'Veshka has every reason to want her hands on you, Draga had you once and she wants you back, and if I go, Kavi Chernevog, and if we go under, at least I'm not damning the people I care about to fight each other—

  —No, Chernevog retorted—of course not! You're damning your friend to be hers, as she is, for as long as she can keep him alive—or for as long as she can keep him out of Draga's hands, which, between you and me, isn't damned long, boy! If you think a loving, crazy wife is hell, god help you when you meet her mother. I'm not your worst choice—and believe me you've got only two.

  Pyetr took another drink, while Volkhi and Missy fretted quietly. The approaching storm had them disturbed. The god hope there was no other reason in the woods around them. He had them tied. He did not trust Sasha's attention to details at the moment. He very much wished for Babi, he even wished for Uulamets. But the cold touch that swept past him from time to time did not seem to have anything to do with the old man, unless it was that damned raven of his—because whatever was bothering him glided in and out again with that kind of feeling; and as the light faded from the sky, when less and less detail distracted a man's eye from what his mind saw—he imagined a wide, winged shape...

  Continually now, from the direction of the fire, he felt the disturbance of Chernevog's heart, he saw the frowns and felt there was a quarrel of some sort going on over there, a very dangerous quarrel.

  Sasha had said very little to him on the short ride to this place: he had talked about the vodyanoi, and how the rail had gotten broken on the boat. About having found Uulamets, and how Uulamets had moved the pages in the book, how he was certain that Uulamets had done the most he could do—

  He's not like ‘Veshka was, Sasha had said. I don't know if an old man could do what she did—I don't know if Uulamets would. He protected these woods. What she did to it upset him t
erribly. I don't know that he could have made himself do what she did, no matter how he needed it.

  Then Sasha had said, And I don't know if an old man could believe in his own life the way she did. It's not enough not to disbelieve your own death, I think—that only makes a ghost. What makes a rusalka is a kind of believing I'm not sure one can even do past fifteen or sixteen...

  Like the jug, he had said, inelegant comparison.

  Exactly like the jug, Sasha had said, and said nothing else for a few moments.

  Then: —I think, dead, Uulamets has found so many doubts, so much that wasn't the way he thought—

  Another silence. And:

  What I have to tell Chernevog isn't going to make him happy either. He's been tricked—unless he's lied to us all along.

  He had said, distressed at that thought: Lied to us—about Draga? He wouldn't have to. If he was hers, he could have turned us both over to her. He could have done it that night at the house—

  Sasha had said: Not necessarily. And gone on to say: I'm stronger than might seem. I know that I am.

  Somehow that had failed to comfort him. Are you as strong as he is? he had asked.

  And Sasha, a very soft voice, very faint, What's happened to Chernevog is doubt. What's happened to me is certainty. I know certain things, I know what I want. That's why I won't give up my heart. That's why I can't give it up. That's exactly what he'll want and I won't give it.

  He had asked, carefully, scared Chernevog was listening: Can you want me free?

  And Sasha, equally carefully: I don't dare. You have his protection. That's not inconsiderable.

  That had upset him. It still did. He thought, Dammit, don't I have a choice? He doesn't have to live with this. He doesn't have Snake putting him to sleep any time it suits him. I hate this! What's 'Veshka to think if she does reach me? All she'll touch is Kavi Chernevog...

  —Maybe she thinks that already—maybe she thinks we've just gone over to Chernevog, that we're his creatures...

  And aren't we? Aren't we now? We're fighting his damn fight, we're keeping him alive, we're going right down the track of his wishes, and “Veshka's his enemy the same as Draga is.

 
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