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       Chernevog, p.4

           C. J. Cherryh

  I don't know yet what I should do to help the situation. I don't know how much is my fault, or how much I dare try to help, or even how much I'm imagining because I'm upset. Master Uulamets taught me all he could in the little time he had, but thank the god, Eveshka had more than that, and maybe I ought to listen to her. I understand how to do things, but I don't always know whether I ought to do them, or why. She does. I need her to tell me where I'm wrong, I need her to keep me from her father's mistakes, most of all, because master Uulamets did make them, he made terrible mistakes... and I don't want to be him. Father Sky witness I don't want to turn into him...

  He had taken to the rebuilding of the house with more enthusiasm than Pyetr could possibly understand, clearing out Uulamets' cobwebby past, changing the very outlines of the house Uulamets would recall, pushing master Uulamets and his wishes and his memories further and further into the past. The old man, dying, had wanted a boy wizard to know all he knew; and have all he had, and a boy who desperately needed that knowledge-fought back as much as he could, knowing his master's mistakes as well as his virtues.

  Old memories still attached to this place... chaotic, fragmentary recollections, the river when the ferry had been running, travelers on the road; the forest before the great trees had died: mere curiosities, those—

  Excepting memories of a woman in this house, one on whom Uulamets had sired a daughter he did not, could not trust.

  Excepting his student, Chernevog—also in this house, who had wanted that gift he had gotten, and tried to steal it.

  I wish for bodily comfort, Chernevog had written in his own hook: I wish for gold—why not?

  Old Uulamets sitting in his shabby little house, old Uulamets teaching foolishness, mistaking cowardice for virtue—

  Uulamets talks about restraint—restraint in a world of cattle, who know nothing, have no power over their own wishes, understand nothing that they want—while we live apart, all for fear of damaging these peasants. Foolishness.

  That was Kavi Chernevog, whose reasoning twisted back on itself like a snake—whose reasoning was founded on assumptions totally selfish and shortsighted.

  Sasha dipped his quill and wrote, mindfully pushing Chernevog out of his thoughts: The things master Uulamets wanted me to know, like writing, I have to use, and I don't forget. But what I didn't use right off just faded, and the things that just come up less and less, I forget. And don't entirely forget, of course, because there's his book to remind me, but there are things that used to be very strong; and now they're just less and less likely to occur to me—I think as much as anything because it's not the house he knew anymore and we're not the way he expected us to turn out.

  Mostly he'd be surprised, I'm sure he would be. He'd be mad about Eveshka marrying Pyetr, I have no trouble thinking what he'd say about that.

  Maybe that's why I keep worrying about them. Myself, Sasha Misurov, I certainly don't want to have bad thoughts about my best friends in the whole world. I think I have to watch that, and stop being upset with Eveshka, because Uulamets really didn't like people much—not since he married his wife, anyway, and after he found out she was after his book: Draga made him distrust people and then Chernevog came along—

  Chernevog was his really big mistake.

  But what might mine be? Letting myself remember too much? Letting what happened to him make me suspicious?

  And selfish. What about the horse? What about me wanting Pyetr to myself again? I'm feeling lonely, and I've got to stop that. There's no good in it. There's not even any sense in it. Uncle's house was awful and nobody ever liked me till Pyetr did. So what do I want to change? Eveshka's mad at me, and she's right: nothing's good that upsets us this much, nothing's, good when a wizard starts wanting love from people, it's not fair to them.

  I knew that once, when I lived in Vojvoda, I was so good about not wishing things, till I came here and master Uulamets took me up.

  But he didn’t want my welfare, or even Eveshka's; he wanted his daughter back before she could join Chernevog: he died with this wish I still can feel—

  His heart was beating so he could almost hear it. He could imagine the old man wanting to go on living—wanting his way with them and with his daughter, because Uulamets had held this woods more than a hundred years, and Uulamets was not the kind to give up on anything, least of all his life or his purposes.

  Maybe that wish is still going, god, maybe I'm still part of it, and it's still going, because I can't not wonder. I wonder what will become of us, and whether we're right to hold on to our hearts and whether we'll be good wizards or bad—and what if I didn't like the answer? There's so much that could go wrong. Or even what if it was good? How can you enjoy what you've got if you can see everything that ever will happen to it?

  But Uulamets wanted to know what would come after him. And I'm scared to know even where I'm going. Maybe that's why a bannik’s never come. He used to say, Don’t-know and afraid-to-know always wins a tug of war—

  The pen dried while he was thinking. He dipped it again in the inkpot and made his crabbed, unskillful letters, writing so no wish could make him forget what he had thought tonight, hoping to the god that Eveshka was not awake and eavesdropping.

  So in one sense the horse might not have been a mistake. I need something to get my mind off all the might-be's I've been worrying about since we built the bathhouse. When you start worrying about might-be's, that worry is wishing about things that aren't even so yet, and then it wishes on what you've changed, and the god only knows what kind of damage you could do. I'm afraid master Uulamets did a little of that. So maybe wizards have to be very careful with banniks. But wizards wish on their guesses, too, and their guesses might be a lot less reliable than that.

  It does disturb me that I forgot wishing for Volkhi—but then, if I had remembered, I'd certainly have done something to stop it; so maybe after all even forgetting was part of the wish. Maybe I had to forget so it had a chance to come true, and it's good after all.

  Things change that can change and wishes only take the shape they can take. Never wish things against nature or against time...

  Wish a stone to fly, master Uulamets had said—then beware of the whirlwind.

  Wish a horse from Vojvoda... god, one could imagine dreadful things that could have brought the horse to them: a rider lulling and breaking his neck, a stable burning—the whole town of Vojvoda going up in smoke or being put to the sword...

  A whole host of might-be's like that—while a draft twisted the lamp-flung shadows at the end of the kitchen; and he thought with a sudden shudder of the worst thing in the world to disturb, that forbidden, thorn-hedged place where leshys watched, patient as the trees themselves...

  Something cracked, the whole shelf above him tipped on one end, books and pottery came crashing down onto the table and off it in a thunderous tumble. He scrambled back, the bench scraping as he caught his balance against the table edge and overset the oil-lamp. He grabbed for something to smother the spreading fire, feverishly wished it out and flung a towel over it, trembling in fright as the last bits of pottery rocked and rattled to a stop.

  The threatened House-thing, roused from sleep, shifted among the cellar supports and made the whole house creak. He heard Pyetr and Eveshka getting out of bed, Pyetr calling out, asking him what was the matter; and he felt Eveshka's frightened wish that the house be safe even before they could cross the room.

  He had seen his own house burn. He had been all of five, but he remembered the neighbor saying, The boy's a witch—

  The door opened. “What happened?” Pyetr asked, arriving in the kitchen. “Sasha?”

  “The shelf fell.” Still shaking, he found wit enough to pick up Uulamets' book and Chernevog's, both of which had fallen' to the floor

  “The peg must have snapped,” Pyetr said, examining the place on the wall where the shelf had been... while Eveshka was mopping up the spillage from the lamp and picking up the pieces of pottery. Pyetr said, then, and it
rang in Sasha's hearing as if it had come from the bottom of a well: “Just split, that's all. I'll fix it.”

  Sasha remembered the books in his arms and laid them on the table atop his own, with the most terrible apprehension in his heart. It might be—surely it was what Pyetr had said, old wood, a shelf already old when Uulamets had held the house. There was a perfectly natural explanation, the making of the new wall, the opening of the archway, the weighting of the shelf with three books instead of the one which had stood there so many years; even and especially—the several jars he had added some days ago. The shelves and the counters in the kitchen were virtually the only things left the way they had been—

  But everything assumed an unnatural importance tonight. A sense of panic came over him. His impulse was to ask Eveshka whether she felt any disquiet—and he shut that thought down quickly—

  Because what he feared was so foolish and so deadly dangerous, even doubting in the least the power of the forest to hold the sorcerer who had killed her.

  Doubt had always been Chernevog's weapon.

  And Chernevog's book was here, on his desk, where he himself had never wanted it. It had sat here among spice cannisters and bits of old fishing tackle, sprigs of drying herbs and a curious bird's-nest... this dreadful, dangerous thing, fraught with memories of its own, a hazard that made his heart jump when old wood broke and an overloaded shelf fell.

  “It's nothing,” he said to Pyetr and Eveshka. “Go back to bed.”

  He wished them pleasant dreams. He wished—

  But Eveshka stopped abruptly in the doorway and looked merrily back at him, with anger, he thought. Certainly disapproval.

  What are you thinking? he asked her in that way that wizards might, wanting that thought to come into her mind. She scowled at him.

  He saw himself, then, constantly reading, a boy hunched gracelessly over her father's book. Uulamets had not meant good at all to Pyetr, no more than he had meant good to Eveshka, nor trusted her—

  Nor any woman, nor any daughter, nor any man nor creature that might possibly make alliances against him. It was having his own way that had mattered to Uulamets, it was all that had ever mattered, and he deceived himself if he thought Uulamets meant any of them any good, if it crossed his purposes.

  He had that thought, after she had gone through the doorway after Pyetr, and the bedroom door slammed definitely shut. He shivered when she had gone.

  She was not all sixteen in her heart. In some things, she was very, very old, and he was not. In some things she had experience and he did not; and he ought to listen to her advice for reasons not least of which was the fact that Eveshka remembered only what Eveshka had seen, and was sure of what she remembered... which was more than he could say.

  He was not entirely sure that that was his own thought. But he might have thought that.

  What's happened to me? he asked himself in cold fright. What's going on in me, if what she sees is Uulamets?


  Rain dripped from the brush, drops formed on thorns and hung and fell, splashing onto puddles that reflected other branches.

  Water pooling on stone...

  “He was white as a sheet,” Pyetr said, touching Eveshka's shoulder as she lay abed. “ 'Veshka, is there anything going on?”

  She shut her eyes, said, trying to think of nothing and not to wish at all, even for peace in the house: “No. He's still upset about the horse, that's all.”

  Gray sky and branches. Iron-gray stone, iron-gray trees, and rain...

  Rain running down the stone, to the earth, down to a shallow stream, and the stream flowing into the river, dark water, deep and cold... wolves drank from that spring, and looked at her with yellow eyes...

  “I'm worried about him, 'Veshka.”

  “It's his problem. He can handle it. Just go to sleep.”

  He rubbed her shoulder, pulled the quilts up higher. She stared into the dark, fists clenched, thinking about the books, the boy sitting and reading by the hour, believing all the same damned things her father had believed, when they were only guesses the same as Kavi Chernevog's. Guesses were all anyone had to go on because a wizard only touched the magical world, he did not live in it: he lived above the surface and tried to make rules for what went on in that place only creatures like Babi could get to.

  Things came out of that place, too. She had seen them. She had dealt with things whose thinking flailed this way and that of what a living soul called reason.

  River flowing southward, through a forest of gray branches, dripping rain.

  She did not want to dream of water, god, she did not want to dream tonight…

  Sasha lay watching the lamplight on his bedroom ceiling, afraid to blow the lamp out, afraid to sleep, for fear of what might come into his dreams, or, worse, go out of them—

  Damn, a shelf dropped, that was all. A fool loaded the shelf up with books, a peg had gotten brittle over the years, and quite naturally it just—broke.

  But two very considerable wizards had wished this house sound while they were sanding and polishing and waxing and building: they had as a matter of course wished things not to break or go wrong, and if anything did break, if something untoward happened to the household, from Volkhi to the broken peg—it seemed more than an omen, it seemed a symptom of things failing.

  How did one, even days ago, put a new load on a shelf and not quite naturally hope it to stay up? From him, in the absence of someone else's wish to the contrary, that should have been enough. And certainly he wished himself well, and not to be bashed on the shoulder by falling books, or to have his fingers burned with a lamp-spill, god, he hated fire!

  One thing and another since Volkhi had arrived had frightened him out of all proportion to the events, certainly making his behavior no wiser and his wishes no better aimed: he knew that, and he knew he might be contributing to the problem: he was sure at least he was not thinking clearly, and Uulamets' memories spilled up at random tonight, the river, the house, Eveshka in her childhood, the woods when the old trees on the river shore were alive, all mixed with memories of The Cockerel, aunt Ilenka, uncle Fedya, the old lady next door—the one who had called him a witch...

  That so-named wizard in Vojvoda, a smelly old man his uncle had taken him to, the way folk took children suspected of wizardry, to apprentice them to someone who might make them safe and useful: but that old man had refused to take him, saying he had no gift, he was only unlucky. Then the old fake had sold uncle Fedya an expensive spell for that unluckiness, to protect the roof that sheltered him.

  He tried not to be angry tonight with that old liar, or with uncle Fedya. Wish no harm, Uulamets had said, above all, wish no harm; but Uulamets' anger kept turning around his own, Uulamets' anger at his own teacher, Uulamets' anger at his wife, at his daughter, at his wife's lover, his student Kavi Chernevog—

  Like trying to rest in a bed full of snakes, Sasha thought distressedly, all the while guessing which one was dangerous.

  He might perhaps talk to Pyetr: they had been able to talk straightforwardly about the most difficult things, and Pyetr being wiser in the world at large sometimes, had very good instincts for right answers.

  But how could he ask Pyetr to keep confidences from Eveshka, if it was about magic, if Eveshka might well feel any upset in him and want to know why?

  He rolled onto his side and stared at the pattern in the boards of the wall, trying not to think things like that or entertain suspicions: a wizard was so liable to wish completely crazy things— as apt to self-delusion as not, even about what his interests really were, and having an old man's memories tumbling around in his head, mixing with his own...

  In Vojvoda, patrons in The Cockerel had looked askance at him: That's the witch listening, they would say, nudging each other with their elbows. Be careful what you say...

  Or the baker's daughters, whispering to each other in the corner, Don't look in his eyes, he can't bewitch you if you don't look in his eyes-Aunt Ilenka, when a dish broke: I
know who's the jinx around here...

  Maybe there was truth in that, after all.

  Certainly Eveshka wanted what she thought was right for Pyetr: that was one constancy he could believe in; that was, perhaps, part of the trouble with all of them. And perhaps, he reasoned, if he could only retrace not only the business with the horse, but a number of small quarrels, and recover the kind of (twice with Eveshka he had had at first, if he only could get her to trust him and if he could avoid making some other foolish, selfish mistake to make her angry with him, Eveshka knew him In ways even Pyetr did not—being a wizard and knowing in her very bones what he meant when he said certain things, which Pyetr might well hear completely differently.

  If, he thought, if he could get Eveshka to sit down and listen to him, really listen, just once, and listen—if that was truly what she was worried about—as if it was only himself who was talking to her, and nothing to do with her father and his advice... If, please the god, he could know that himself, and be sure his thoughts had no one else's wish behind them—including hers.

  He lay abed until the birds nesting in the eaves began to stir, then quietly got up, built up the fire from last night's coals and started breakfast with as little noise as possible, a special breakfast, as he intended, cakes of the sort aunt Ilenka had used to make, the best flour, sweet dried berries... Sun rising beyond the branches, dew gathering on thorns-Reddening with the dawn-He chased meandering, chaotic thoughts away with the soft rattle of the spoon against the bowl, one of Uulamets' wooden ones, pinch of spice, pinch of salt, a recipe against unwanted memories... spice and salt and grain they got from a freeholder downriver, an old man who had trouble, Pyetr said, in recalling it was no longer Chernevog or Uulamets living in the woods upriver—an old man who wanted mushrooms, simples, medicines for a cough and a good wish or two in the bargain, which Sasha gave whenever he thought of it.

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