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       Chernevog, p.6

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  He said, “Will you help me find a bannik?”

  “I don't see why. I don't see why it matters, I don't see how it can stop you from anything you want to do. Certainly nothing else does.”

  “That's not fair,” he said.

  “What isn't fair?”

  “You're very strong.” He knew it would make her mad: every time he told her she was stronger than she knew it made her mad, but he intended she think about that. ’‘You can do anything you really want in this house, you know that.”

  She wanted him not to say that. Her mouth made a straight, unhappy line.

  “It's true,” he said. “You'd probably be stronger than I am if you really wanted something.”

  “That's papa's damned nonsense. I'll tell you what I have my mind made up to: I don't want to be stronger than you, I don't want to be stronger than anybody, and that's finished, then, isn't it? I have everything I've ever wanted to have, and there's nothing else I need or want, Sasha Vasilyevitch, which is more sense than Kavi had, and between you and me, more sense than my father had! If you want a bannik, fetch one. I'm sure I'm not standing in your way!”

  “Don’t you want to know where we're going? At least don't you want to know where our wishes are taking us?”

  Eveshka scowled at him. No, she did not. That was clear.

  Maybe he should go outside with Pyetr, find something hard to do, like splitting wood, something that gave him little time to think, but he was so damned scared of what was going on in the house—

  Lack of sleep, he thought.

  I want all I love to be safe?

  But that's not responsible, any more than Eveshka wishing peace. The dead can be at peace. The dead can be safe.

  She said, “It's nonsense, anyway, my wanting you to leave. I don't know why you'd think that—I certainly don't want it.”

  “I hope not,” he said, and dared not wish anything else, like being welcome in the house for his own sake and not only Pyetr's. He kept thinking about the shelf falling. He kept thinking about the fight they were having, that he had above all not meant to have. He thought of burned timbers, and stood there tongue-tied, not even able to agree with her enough to wish their safety or their peace in the house.

  So he went quietly to his books, and left Eveshka to her own, hoping desperately for banniks and foresight.

  5

  There was no mayhem in the garden, the rails had held, and Volkhi was in a frivolous mood this bright morning, trotting around his small pen and kicking up his heels.

  There was also, Pyetr had a very strong feeling by now, another, invisible, and, since yesterday, very put-upon observer.

  “Come on,” he said, setting the piece of cake down on a stray bit of shingle. “Honey-cake, Babi.”

  There was no answer. There was, however, when he looked around, at least the ghostly impression of two reproachful dark eyes in the air at his left.

  And, having had experience of, as his detractors would agree every tavern keeper's daughter in Vojvoda, he knew it was not a good idea to make any great amount of fuss over Volkhi while Babi was feeling slighted.

  So he stood up, unstopped the jug and poured a little into empty air.

  Not at all strange to say, the vodka never hit the ground.

  There were very definitely eyes.

  Then the honey-cake disappeared, and one could see the least suggestion of a black button nose and a mouth.

  So Babi got the vodka, Babi got fussed over, Babi got his invisible back scratched, and little by little Babi became a blacker and more substantial shadow in the air, a suspicious Babi, a most put-upon and grumpy Babi—

  A most canny and still dutiful Babi, one suspected, who had been watching the horse very carefully since yesterday. Being a Yard thing and a keeper of livestock at least by ancient habit, Babi had only to be coddled a little and coaxed a little, and convinced things were still in approvable order in his yard— adding, of course, reassurances of his great importance.

  And lo and not completely surprising, a mostly visible Babi wound up sitting by Pyetr's feet once he had given Volkhi his grain and sat down to watch him eat it.

  “You know,” Pyetr said, pouring another dash of vodka which Babi did not let reach the ground, “the yard's looking quite respectable these days, isn't it? It's got a garden, it's got a much larger, much finer house, and all, and now it's got a horse to look after, probably a stable this year—it's a very good job you're doing.”

  Much of this. Babi grew more visible and more cheerful, and eventually Babi, a quite tipsy and much happier Babi, trotted around the perimeters of their makeshift fence—a very good thing, Pyetr understood from Sasha, who knew all about such matters, to have Babi's approval of that fence, a Yard-thing having a certain magic of his own.

  And magic, he had found, could have its uses around the house. Else the corner-posts would be far worse than they were.

  So by midmorning, Babi was sitting sunning himself, if Yard-things indeed felt the sun, on the rail of the pen, content to watch him fuss with Volkhi. Not a sign from Eveshka or Sasha, to be sure: one supposed they were at the books again, most probably at the books again.

  Volkhi would get the boy, Pyetr was quite sure of that. Volkhi would get him sooner or later, and Pyetr intended just to let the matter go along as it would: the stableboy who had wished up the horse in the first place was certainly not going to resist temptation forever; and the sun and the wind would put a little color into the boy's face, absolutely it would.

  A tight straw-bound bundle of broom stalks made a fair currycomb, and Volkhi took the attention for his due, always quite the glutton for pleasure. Certainly someone had taken good care of him: there was no fault to find with his feet nor the condition of his coat, but the old lad had certainly not unlearned all his scoundrelly tricks—such as backing up on a man trying to comb his tail, then looking around with a soft, innocent eye to wonder whether that was indeed his master's foot he had almost trod on, Not the perfect horse, not at least where it regarded manners but he was certainly the handsomest thing Pyetr Kochevikov had ever owned in his life; and sure of foot and willing to go wherever a good rider took him.

  “No tack,” he chided Volkhi. ‘‘Lad, while you were making off with yourself, you might have been considerate enough have snitched a saddle, or at least a bridle.”

  Another look of wise innocence over Volkhi's shoulder, mostly obscured dark eye.

  “I suppose,’ Pyetr conceded, “you did the best you could. So he went and got a bit of rope in the storage-shed, and sat down in the sunlight beside the pen to braid a sort of bridle; which decidedly drew Babi's interest.

  And when he had his makeshift bridle and put it on Volkhi and when he swung up onto a horse's back for the first time in three years, Babi was perched up on a rail to watch, chin on manlike hands.

  But there was no point to riding circles around a pen on a day like this, so Pyetr leaned over, let the top bar drop, circled away and jumped Volkhi over the lower rail, not having forgotten his seat after all.

  He was quite pleased with himself. He rode Volkhi a wide circle in the back and side of the yard, then rode around to the front of the house and stopped in front of the porch, looking he was quite sure, a very fine figure on Volkhi's back.

  '‘‘Veshka, Sasha!” he called up to the house, “I 'm for a up and down the road!”

  The door opened. The shutters of the kitchen window moved Eveshka appeared in the doorway looking at him.

  “Go for a ride?” Pyetr said and, realizing it quite possible; Eveshka had never been on a horse, held out his hand for encouragement. “'Veshka, come on. I'll take you up. Nothing fast at all. It's absolutely safe.”

  She stepped back a pace, definite dislike. “I've work to do.” “Oh, 'Veshka, come on, just down the road and back.'.' Eveshka shook her head, frowning, and stepped back entirely within the doorway. “You,” she admonished him, “be careful.”

  “Sasha?” he said then, looking to the w
indow where Sasha was. “Want to see how he goes? Take a turn on him yourself?” Bribes again. It was the highest he had. He was sure it would win.

  But: “I've work,” Sasha said. “Or I would.”

  “Work can wait.”

  “Maybe tomorrow,” Sasha said.

  “Stick-in-the-muds,” Pyetr said. Sasha puzzled him. He turned Volkhi full about, giving them both a chance to change their minds.

  But Sasha did not. Certainly Eveshka would not. Both of them, he was sure, were using a great deal of ink this morning searching after answers that would make sense to wizards—all for a stray horse, for the god's sake, which only proved how far the boy had gone down the old man's track. And Eveshka—the god knew she was difficult to win.

  But give it time. Sooner or later, he thought, he would get them.

  For himself it was sedately out the front gate and sedately down the ghost of a road that ran into the dead woods, with Volkhi all to himself, and nobody calling after him Be careful, Pyetr, don't take chances, Pyetr,—

  He kept it quite tame until he was out of sight of the house.

  Eveshka was worried when she shut the door; and wished something quite strongly, Pyetr's safety, Sasha was sure, against the unknown dangers of horses.

  “Babi was with him,” Sasha said.

  Eveshka only shook her head.

  “Pyetr won't fall off,” he said. “Saddle or no saddle, I've seen him do really crazy things—”

  This seemed not to reassure Eveshka at all, so Sasha instantly changed his mind about telling Eveshka the story about Pyetr and aunt Ilenka's front porch, or how Volkhi had broken the butter churn. He amended it quickly: “But it only looks that way: he really does know what he's doing.”

  “I don't trust that creature,” Eveshka muttered, and went back into her own room, to her own studies.

  Sasha was not up to arguments at the moment, with a dozen things from his book and Uulamets' all floating about in his head. He went back to the kitchen table, sat down and turned the pages one after the other, looking—

  —looking for reconciliations.

  He wrote, Eveshka and I like each other as well as two wizards can. We want no harm to each other and certainly we want things for Pyetr's good: but that's very tangled, unless we want the same thing in exactly the same way. One never dares be too specific in that kind of wish.

  Could Eveshka's wish for Pyetr's welfare harm me ?

  Only if—

  He stopped writing, feeling a slight chill in the air, a stray wish, perhaps.

  He went on: —I threatened Pyetr, and if that were ever the case I'd certainly want her to—

  To do what?

  The answer seemed overwhelmingly dangerous. Everything did. Anything he could set down could have consequences.

  Rain on stone...

  Wind shaking branches...

  Eveshka dipped her pen and wrote: The dreams don't stop. Papa always said I was scatter-witted. But papa didn’t hear the river in his sleep—

  If wishing could make me someone else's daughter, then I would. If it were only me, alone, I'd wish I had no gift and maybe that would stop it: papa always said that was possible. Maybe if I believed that absolutely that we’d always be safe here, that would be the spell papa always said a wizard could cast once in his life, the spell that can't be broken—

  Her heart jumped, her hand moved the pen against the flow: ink flew across the page, a spatter like blood—

  He heard Eveshka push a bench back in the other room, heard her running across the floor. She flung the bedroom door open and stood looking at him, in a hush in which the whole woods seemed to participate.

  “Sasha?” she said.

  He pushed his bench back, rose with the feeling of a terrible presence- standing behind him—no, farther away, beyond the wall, from a very precise spot at the far side of the yard—a bed of stones—

  “The bathhouse!” Sasha exclaimed, “the bannik!” as he headed for the door. He banged it wide on his way out onto the wooden walk-up, with Eveshka crying: “Wait! Wait!” and racing behind him to the yard.

  But when they had gotten to the ground she rushed past him and ran, braids flying, out the front gate into the road, calling out, “Pyetr!” Terror was swirling about the yard behind them, Eveshka's wild apprehensions flying out into the woods far and wide, wanting Pyetr back here now, within her protection, immediately—

  “Eveshka!” Sasha shouted after her, and ran as far as the hedge himself. “Eveshka! Wait! We don't know what we're changing, you could make something happen, don't call him back!”

  She hesitated in the weeds of the lane, still gazing in the direction Pyetr must have gone; and all Sasha could think of was Eveshka's summons going out, out into uncertainties, agitating everything that was hitherto stable. She clenched her hands and culled again, with a silent, panicked force. “God, I can't find him! I can't find anything out there, it's all gone!”

  '‘‘Veshka! If you don't know, for the god's sake, don't wish! We don't know what we're calling him into! Come back here!”

  She stood with fists clenched, cast an anguished look down the way Pyetr had gone, then came running back through the gate, pale of face and breathless, falling in beside him as he turned and struck out for the bathhouse.

  “I can't find him,” Eveshka muttered as they went. “I want to know where he is, dammit, and I don't know. I don't know where Babi is, I don't know where the leshys are—”

  “That's not unusual,” he said. He could feel the malaise too, silence like a smothering snow settled over the house and yard, In which there was no sense of any presence but that cold feeling from the bathhouse. He was tempted to try a summoning himself, to see if it was his own apprehensions stopping her; but unease was growing in him with every stride he made, and he —- more and more convinced he did not want Pyetr near this kept feeling: danger both in doing and not doing, danger in every word they spoke and every question they asked at this point...

  “Sasha, this thing doesn't feel right, dammit, nothing feels right—”

  “Don't swear! And don't wish anything. We don't know there's any trouble at all where Pyetr is, it could all be here and we could wish him right back into it.”

  “It won't be to us, use your head, Sasha! It doesn't have to come at us, Pyetr's out there alone, he's always the one anything would go for.”

  “He's got Babi. He's got Misighi if he gets in any real trouble. You know they're the hardest thing to feel, even if they don't mind talking to us. Just calm down, let's see what we're dealing with.”

  She was frightening both of them, anxieties flying back and forth between them as they reached the bathhouse. She flinched from his hand on her arm, wanted him to stop interfering with her, in all respects—and she was so strong in her fright, so terribly, dangerously strong—

  “Calm down!” he begged her, catching her hand.

  Calm won suddenly, a quick clasp of fingers, a meeting of eyes at the bathhouse door. “I know my question,” she said on a breath, thinking determinedly of Pyetr, and pulled the door open.

  The presence inside retreated into shadows on a gust of wind, an oppressive dread slipping farther and farther from their hold, circling around the edges of their magic. It whispered, it muttered, it racketed suddenly about the walls and shrieked at them.

  “It's not ours!” Eveshka cried, collided with Sasha in the doorway and caught his arm. “It's not the one I know—look out!”

  Sasha pushed her behind him, demanding of it to know why it retreated from them, wanting to see with his own eyes the shadow that moved around the walls, a crooked shape that might have been a boy and might have been something far less savory, leaping with blinding quickness from bench to bench to firepit.

  It hissed at him. It lunged for him with long-nailed fingers and raked his arm: Sasha gasped and jumped back with the impression of wild eyes and spiky hair and a feeling of cold and damp—

  And the most terrible premonition about a place
of thorns and branches.

  6

  Very little was left of the old road: it was getting increasingly overgrown, most confused where the fall of old trees had let in the sun, stretches rife with new bracken, saplings as apt to grow in the roadway as in the woods about. There were the occasional deadfalls, there were washes and slips where the death of trees had let streams run unchecked—rough ground and unpredictable, and Pyetr had had every notion of taking it easy on himself and on Volkhi this first outing, simply seeing, sedately and sanely, how Volkhi had fared these last several years.

  But Volkhi's traveling stride, sure-footed and sensible, ate up the distances, made little of the obstacles, and in the shadowed places, the barren ground beneath the old trees, Volkhi threw his head and danced, never minding Babi turning up in his path—actually not odd at all, Pyetr thought, reckoning that a horse probably knew a dvorovoi when it smelled one. Babi skipped and trotted and panted along quite briskly, crossed right under Volkhi's feet, and Volkhi never made but a skip and a kick like a colt..

  Pyetr laughed aloud, dusted Volkhi's rump with his cap, jumped him over an old log and, Volkhi taking it into his head just then to race, ran Babi a wild course for a long stretch down j the old road—but Babi cheated: Babi kept popping up just ahead of them.

  * * *

  Sweet oils and pine, bay for foreseeing: it was not what one hurried so much as the thought one put into it, master Uulamets would say. They filled the bathhouse with aromatic smoke and steam: they flung herbs into the small stone furnace and wished for visions in the firelit dark.

  “Bannik,” Sasha asked it, most respectfully, “is there a danger to anyone of this household?”

  “Not is!” Eveshka said. “It only knows the future. Bannik, excuse us and show us the fireside this evening.”

  Hut they had nothing from the bannik beyond that first vision, only the creak and pop of settling timbers, ask though they would, however politely and respectfully.

 
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