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       Chernevog, p.33

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  I shouldn't have gone after Sasha. I should have fought him on that point. Snake's using me, exactly the way he said he would. Sasha's over there in a damn dice game—and at any moment Snake's going to switch the dice, I know he is. I know that damned slithery heart of his. He's not done with us... he's not done with being what he is, he's only learned how to want us, and want company, and want us—

  God, he wants us with him, wants us to be his the way Sasha and I have been together, his to keep—to damn well own, down to the breaths we take. Only he's not Sasha. He's not any good-hearted stableboy.

  That cold touch brushed his face again. He saw it glide away this time, broad wings, broad, pale wings-Owl.

  And beyond the light, a shadow-shape with glowing eyes.

  Wolves and tearing jaws—

  Eveshka's face, cold and calm—

  He snatched up his sword and scrambled to his feet, while the horses snorted in alarm, pulling at their tethers.

  Draga's face...

  And a pull at his heart, so fierce it took his breath away.

  “Pyetr!” he heard Sasha cry, a thin and distant voice. He caught a breath, heard a maelstrom of voices, calling to him—

  'Veshka's voice among them, saying, Pyetr, Pyetr, I need you—oh god, I need you—

  The bannik pulled the other way. He felt the pain, felt Snake's heart stirring in wild panic. The bannik flew from where it was and turned up face-to-face with him, wild eyes glaring, hands reaching, nails like claws, teeth like a rat's—

  He struck at it, he tore himself away, with Eveshka shrieking at him, wishing it away from him.

  Thunder cracked. Lightning burst a tree in the woods beside him.

  He could not hear, then, he could not see—except Volkhi's rearing shape seared into his sight. He thought, My wife, dammit! 'Veshka's doing this! Damn her, she's our hope—she's the only hope-He ran, blind for that black shape his vision still held, he grabbed the tight-stretched tether Volkhi was fighting, slung the sheath off his sword and cut it.

  He dropped the sword. He needed both hands to get a hold on Volkhi. He wrapped his hand in the tether and hauled himself for Volkhi's neck, Volkhi's shoulder, grabbed a fistful of mane and flung himself in the direction Volkhi was bolting, landing astride.

  He had a little vision in his streaming eyes, he ducked low on Volkhi's back as branches raked over them and hoped to the god Volkhi was not as blind.

  He knew where she was. Volkhi was going that direction. He heard 'Veshka's voice, he knew she was in trouble and he wished to the god he had the sword—but he had enough on his hands, keeping Volkhi on his feet in the dark-hazed woods and telling his wife, the while he did it, Dammit, 'Veshka, stop it—listen to me, hear?

  28

  “Pyetr!” Sasha cried, “Pyetr!” Thunder cracked. Wind howled through the trees, pelting them with leaves, and Chernevog caught Sasha's arm, wanting him to stop, wait, use his head—

  “You've no choice!” Chernevog yelled at him, “you've no more time for dithering, boy! Make a choice—join me or join that! If he puts my heart in her hands we've neither of us got a choice at all! Help me!”

  Sasha spun on one foot and tore from his grip, raced through the lightning-seared dusk toward the remaining horse, and Chernevog wished not—

  Sasha stopped and swung about, in the gibbering chaos about them, the horse struggling and screaming in fright—Sasha wished, fighting his attempt to reason with him...

  Chaos and magic—wild wishes racketing about the walls in physical form-Wanting him—

  “God!” Chernevog cried, as a white shape flew in his face, buffeted him with icy wings. Sasha had caught up the fallen sword, beckoned him with it, shouting. “Come help me! Help me, for the god's sake!” “Nothing we can do!” Chernevog cried. “Dammit, he's giving Draga everything she wants—and a wizard's no help to me!

  Join me, boy, join me, or I'll be joining her, and then where will you be, where's hope for any of us?”

  Sasha squinted in the wind, shielding his eyes with his arm, and cried, “I'm going after him! You can do what you want, Chernevog!”

  Thunder cracked. A tree shattered, spun burning fragments along the wind. The horse reared, cracking the limb it was tied to. Sasha grabbed after it, hacked at the tether.

  Chernevog wanted the lightning elsewhere, he wanted Sasha to listen to him—he no longer knew anything for certain: no longer knew what had waked him or what had brought him here—Draga had shaped his magic, Draga had used it—

  “Come on!” Sasha shouted at him, wanting him.

  But a jagged shadow loomed between himself and Sasha, face-to-face with him—caging him with outstretched arms. He wanted help. It wanted—him. It was—him.

  The night he had tried magic on his own, to know enough to free himself—

  A wish unfinished, a desire Draga had ripped away and twisted—

  “Chernevog!”

  “All right!” he yelled at Sasha, waved his arm and swept up the fragment, crazed as it was—

  The shadow—the fragment—vanished; but Owl was still there, Owl flew ghostly white and unruffled by the gale as Chernevog ran toward him. Sasha grabbed Missy's mane, wanted her still just as long as it took: he heaved himself onto her back, pulled her about as Chernevog reached him—

  Wanting him to stop, wanting up with him—this... Thing along with him.

  It wanted to beat Draga—it saw lightnings and a rider on a black horse—

  It took his offered hand, clambered up over him and flung itself astride as Missy took out running, held on to him as Missy trampled a rotten branch to splinters and took the hill in a dozen long strides.

  He wanted to overtake Pyetr before it was too late. Chernevog offered help. And what he had taken up behind him and what was clinging to his back—he had no idea.

  ***

  Lightnings cracked, throwing the whole woods into white glare, a broken limb tumbled into their path, Volkhi sailed over it and kept going, along a hollow and up a bank, between two trees so close one braised Pyetr's leg.

  It was 'Veshka's wish guided him, Pyetr trusted that it was, it was her voice he heard wailing over the rest.

  Lightning showed an abrupt edge to the ground—it came up through the trees, under Volkhi's feet, and Volkhi plunged down a slope, took a shallow brook in stride and headed up again.

  A thunderbolt hit behind, showing brush between the trees. Volkhi crashed through it, under limbs, and Pyetr grasped mane along with the reins, tucked low and held on as branches stabbed his back.

  He heard wolves over the splintering of brush and Volkhi's pounding strides, he saw clear ground ahead, lightning lit—a hill beyond a thinning screen of trees.

  They came pounding into the clear, under open sky, where lightnings flickered—and Volkhi came to a sudden sliding halt, then laid back his ears and swung about as if something invisible held him.

  A bear's warning sounded over the wind. Pyetr saw the moving darkness at the edge of the trees as Volkhi turned. Thunder crashed and rumbled, and Volkhi kept turning, smelling the bear, it was damn sure. He gave Volkhi a gentle kick to make him move, and Volkhi only shivered, making nervous small steps, turning again.

  Eveshka stood in front of him—looking up at him.

  She said, “Pyetr?” But it seemed a dozen voices were speaking in his head.”Pyetr, get down, come here, do you understand me?”

  He wanted to get off the horse. He wanted to get down and go to her, but there was that small cold slither about his heart that said,

  Fool. Don't trust favors.

  Don't trust anything Draga's touched.

  He said, with the lightning flickering overhead, casting her alternately in light and dark, “ 'Veshka, if you're doing this— make it stop.”

  The dark spot grew colder, cold that went through all his bones. He did not trust that heart, he did not trust himself near 'Veshka of a sudden, did not like 'Veshka's coldness either, or the way she was looking at him.

  He
was afraid suddenly of what that heart in him might ask, or make him do—and he reined Volkhi further back.

  He heard the bear moaning a challenge at his back—heard a voice very like Eveshka's say, behind him, “Son-in-law, no one means you any harm. Get off the horse. Get off the horse.”

  Missy was not fast, double-burdened as she was, but she charged through brush and trampled over the debris the gale flung into their path. It was wishes kept her going, it was wishes kept them on her back, and Sasha wished everything she could do. It felt as if Pyetr had just vanished from the world—no sense of where he was, only where he had been going when he had just quit being there.

  Don't trust anything! Sasha wished him. Don't believe, don't trust 'Veshka—she's not safe.

  Chernevog tried to tell him, it's the wolves that have her heart, Draga's wolves. They've torn it in pieces, and it can't put itself together again—

  Missy shied and skidded, almost went down. Sasha caught her neck as she came up, wished her steady.

  Lightning showed something glistening in their path, something black and moving, that turned and rose up and up.

  “Well,” it said, higher and higher above their heads. Lightning flickered on a huge glistening head, gleaming teeth. “My old master and my young enemy. Where are we going, mmm?”

  “Run!” Chernevog yelled, and Missy bunched her hindquarters and bolted. Hwiuur's long body stretched across her path. She cleared it: Sasha caught himself on her neck and gasped for breath, Chernevog's hands clenched on his coat. Missy's next stride shook them both back, by luck or wishes, and Missy stopped for nothing.

  “Get down,” Draga said, and Chernevog's heart shrank at the sound of that voice, saying, No, don't, don't believe anything.

  Then Eveshka said, out of the chaos that surrounded her voice, “Pyetr, it's all right.”

  He looked in that direction—willing to listen—almost, for a moment, forgetting why he had come here, except whatever 'Veshka wanted.

  But wolves came from the shadows of the trees, wolves came like shadows and gathered about her skirts.

  “The hell it's all right,” he said, while Volkhi shivered and backed and fretted in the hold of wishes. “Have you noticed, wife, those aren't dogs? You go running off with never a word, I hear from your old enemy you're having a baby—”

  “Pyetr.” She held out her hands to him.

  He kicked Volkhi hard, but Volkhi could not move.

  ‘‘Pyetr.” Wolves milled about her as she came up to Volkhi's side, Volkhi protesting with a soft, unhappy sound. She looked up at him, and Chernevog's heart turned to ice. “I can free you,” she said, but it was the snarling of the wolves that wound around her voice, it was their eyes that looked up at him from the ground. “Pyetr.”

  Chernevog's heart flinched at her touching his knee. She said, “Pyetr, get down,” and it kept echoing.

  He shifted his weight, looked down at the wolves looking up at him, looked 'Veshka in the eyes, ignoring the voices that howled and wailed—it was her he wanted to find. He took her hand, said, while Chernevog's heart shivered, “ 'Veshka, why don't you climb up with me instead? Why don't we just go home? That's what you want, isn't it?”

  She hesitated, lips open, lightnings flickering on her eyes. She seemed incapable of speaking then.

  He said, “I'm awfully sorry about the garden. But the god knows, the weeds are knee-high by now anyway.”

  He saw the least flicker within her eyes. But she wanted him down. She wanted him down—

  “If I do, will you give me a wish, 'Veshka? One wish?”

  “What?”

  He took a deep breath and slid down among the wolves. ’‘You know what it is,” he said: it was her heart he wanted, he was sure she was listening to him thinking, and if she had no idea about that, she had no idea about anything.

  “Don't ask me that!” she cried. And: “Mama! No!”

  He looked around of a sudden as Volkhi shied. He still had the reins. He held on, with an arm around 'Veshka, the other jerked so hard it took his breath.

  He heard Sasha shouting something, aloud or in his head he had no idea. He held on, Volkhi swinging about to rear and fight, hauling him and 'Veshka up. Volkhi's knee hit him, knocked the wind half out of him, before Volkhi came down again and his feet hit the ground.

  Eveshka wished something then. Lightning cracked, blinding him. Volkhi shied, tore the reins from his hand, throwing him and her to the ground among the wolves.

  Missy charged into the clearing, right for the middle of things-run! Sasha wished her, Chernevog felt it in his bones, and the mare fairly flew, arrow-straight between the wolves and the oncoming bear.

  Draga knew he was there. Draga turned her attention his way, and Missy stalled and shied up. He felt lightnings gathering, yelled,”Do something!” at Sasha as he let go—slid off the mare and landed on his feet among the wolves, wanting Draga dead this time, seeing Brodyachi charging him...

  Sasha had reined back, wanted his attention, was trying to get back to him.

  So were the wolves.

  Stop Eveshka! he wished Sasha, and turned his wishes on Brodyachi, wished up Hwiuur's strength, and the river's dark cold, wished age, and smothering, and Brodyachi's other shape—the one Draga lent him at her pleasure.

  Pyetr tried to move—the ground had come up hard, and he felt Eveshka wanting him well, wanting other things, dark and violent as the wolves about them. He got as far as his knees and one hand, saw Missy's pale legs bearing down on them, and shoved himself for his feet as Sasha brought Missy to a stop and slid off. “Let him alone!” Sasha yelled at 'Veshka. “Stop them!” There was a terrible snarling and spitting, there was something in that knot of struggling beasts: Pyetr saw that, trying to stand up. Sasha shoved his sword into his hand and all he could do was lean on it, without an enemy to use it on. He felt the tingling of his skin, recoiled and saw the blade in his hand glow with unnatural fire-Heard Sasha say, shout, into the roaring wind, “Misighi!

  Misighi, wake up! For the god's sake, wake up! We need you now!”

  Pyetr felt terror slithering wildly inside him, felt doubt, felt hate, felt the claws and the cold. He yelled, “Dammit, Snake!” because he knew a fool was going to get killed where he was. He got a breath and ran, such as he could. Snake was carrying the whole damned fight by himself, up against the hill where Draga stood, a rolling dark tide of bodies sweeping over her—

  Of a sudden all his hair was crackling and standing away from him—he stopped and looked up at the roiling sky with the awful feeling the next bolt was his.

  But something went away from him then, so suddenly he felt a piece of him had gone—and the tingling stopped: the bolt hit, over on the hill, splitting the night and shattering the ground.

  He could not see, men, he could not see at all, except the shadow image seared into his eyes, a swarming mass of beasts and a man with arms uplifted, calling the lightnings. He could not hear, except that crash still ringing in his ears, and that image drifted over and over again through his sight. If there were wolves left he had no way to know, no way to hear them or know whether anyone was still alive but himself.

  “Sasha?” he called out, “'Veshka?” and started as someone touched him, as a hard hand closed on his arm and pulled him around, into a man's arms. Then a much softer touch folded itself about him.

  He hoped to the god he knew who had their arms about him. He put his hand on a woman's back, felt thick braids. Felt the man's hand, and it was smooth and strong. He said—he thought he said, he could not hear it himself: “I can't see.” But that was a lie—he thought he would see that sight for the rest of his life.

  Then the image began to fade. Sound came to him, the rush of wind, a horse whinnying, Eveshka sobbing, “God, god, Pyetr, —” He saw fire, the whole hill caved in and burning as if it had found a source of wood inside.

  Sasha said, “They're gone. Chernevog, Draga, both. They're all dead.”

  A thought leaped up at him, a
nonsense thought, terrible as it was: he had no wishes to use at all, he knew he was innocent—but he said, on a ragged breath, hugging 'Veshka tight, “I wish to the god I'd never thought about a bear.”

  He puzzled 'Veshka. He felt her wondering. But her wondering had only one voice now.

  Sasha said, “We're not finished yet,” and walked away from them, toward the fire, a figure like the one burned into his memory.

  He asked fearfully, ”What's he doing? What in hell's he doing? —'Veshka?”

  She kept her arm around him and guided him in the same direction, saying, “He's going to send them home.”

  He had apprehensions about that. He had no wish to come near that fire. But he walked with her. He stood shaking in the knees while 'Veshka and Sasha wished something together—

  And flinched at a cold spot going through him, shuddered at another. In a moment ghosts were whirling into the fire like leaves, white wisps shredding on the winds, rising in the smoke.

  He heard Uulamets' voice say, out of nowhere, Forgive my wife. She destroyed Malenkova. But Malenkova's beast was too much for her. She was all its purpose... ultimately, that's all she was...

  That shape followed the others into the fire. Eveshka's hand clenched on his.

  A white, filmy owl glided past, on broad wings—and a young ghost reached up and let it settle on his hand. That one turned and looked at them, quite solemnly, and whirled away into the smoke.

  A spot ached, next Pyetr's heart, the god knew why.

  'Veshka held his hand tight, 'Veshka held it till it hurt.

  29

  Volkhi and Missy had their misgivings about the place. It took, Sasha said, some considerable wishing and a good many bribes to get them back. But they wasted no time in that clearing, with its burned-out house beneath the hill—Sasha on Missy and Pyetr with Eveshka riding behind him on Volkhi, with her arms about him, her head against his shoulders.

 
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