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       Chernevog, p.7

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  Not their bannik, Eveshka had said: and Sasha was sure it was not, not the Old Man of the Bath of Eveshka's childhood, not even the angry creature that had fled from Uulamets, but something much darker—something which, so far as Sasha had seen it, resembled nothing so much as a ragged, feral child—

  With claws that had left bleeding scratches on his arm.

  “Ours never had eyes like that,” Eveshka said, hugging her arms about her as she paced the circuit of the bathhouse. “Ours never attacked anyone, it never made sounds at all, it was just this little old man who sometimes left footprints in the snow— especially when we left him vodka, and he'd get drunk, and you'd go into the bathhouse and he'd sit in the corner and give you visions—but they never made sense. They never were about anything important. This thing—”

  “I'll get the vodka jug,” Sasha said, willing to try anything, and opened the door and hesitated in sudden doubt of Eveshka's safety.

  “I'll be all right!” Eveshka said, and waved him out. “Go! Let's just for the god's sake do something, shall we?”

  He wished he knew why Pyetr was not back. He wished—

  He ran out into the daylight and got the vodka jug from where he was sure Pyetr had left it, beside Volkhi's pen, and raced, breathless, back to the bathhouse and inside.

  Eveshka stood waiting, arms folded. “Nothing,” she whispered to his anxious look, as he shut the door again. “God, just let's get it to show us whatever it wants to show us... ”

  He unstopped the jug, splashed a generous dash into the furnace along with the bay and the pine baric and the moss. Fire roared back into his face, dazzled him with light—

  Drops falling from thorns, splashing into water...

  Droplets red and spreading in puddles on the stones...

  ‘‘Where's Pyetr?” Eveshka cried, wishing truth from the bannik, feeling the silence on the woods like suffocation, like drowning...

  The River-thing sleeping deep in his burrow, old Hwiuur, coiled like the snake he seemed...

  She caught at Sasha's sleeve as he staggered upright. She stood there trembling, teeth chattering, saying, though she could hardly hear herself speaking in that silence, “I can't make sense of it. Blood and water—blood and water's all I can see of it— Sasha, I don't like this.”

  And Sasha, between breaths, holding her sleeve: “I don't see anything at all. It's not speaking to me.”

  Pyetr reined back at a brushy deadfall across the road, walked Volkhi around its end to the other side, then slid off for a rest—god, a little ride and already he felt the first hint of soreness that might, by tomorrow, have him walking very carefully.

  More than that, Sasha was going to laugh—wish him well and cure the ache Sasha might, but he was certainly going to have his amusement beforehand.

  So if one was going to suffer for it, Pyetr thought, rubbing Volkhi down with old leaves, and if one was bound to be sore before the day was done, there was no degree to that kind of ache: as well enjoy the day. Sasha would understand, Sasha would tell Eveshka there was no reason to worry about the horse—

  But it was probably not wise to press the point too far, Pyetr told himself on a second thought: just a little way down the road. Eveshka was already upset, and if he was determined to cure her, of her fear of horses, he could hardly afford to have her worrying. So he swung up again to Volkhi's back, wincing a bit as he landed, and started off at an easy pace, Babi trotting along at one side and the other by entirely unpredictable turns.

  It was too good to give up quite this early: aches to come and all, there was not a tsar in all the world he envied at the moment, not for his wife, not for his court, not for any horse a tsar could own.

  He'll surely come to some bad end, they had said of him In Vojvoda. Pyetr Ilyitch, the gambler's son, was bound, they said, to be hanged—to which he had come quite frighteningly close, as happened, but for Sasha. And here he was, Pyetr Kochevikov, who never had believed in magic, living with wizards, married to a rusalka who really, truly, was alive again; and riding in a woods with a dvorovoi for company.

  Sometimes it all did take a little getting used to. Sometimes he did think of Vojvoda, where there was doubtless a price on his head, and where none of his old friends would ever believe the sight of him hale and well.

  And he most particularly hoped his old friend Dmitri Venedikov had bought Volkhi back from the innkeeper to satisfy his debts—because if it so happened that Sasha's innocent wish had Indeed committed horse theft, he sincerely hoped it was from 'Mitri, and by the dumping of 'Mitri in some muddy street— not that he was bitter, god, no, he was too well-content for bitterness toward his old friends, else he would wish (being no wizard and free to do such things) for 'Mitri to break a leg or two, for all the help 'Mitri had not been to him.

  In truth, outside of Volkhi's original owner, who had been no good master in the first place, he could think of no one else more likely to have bought Volkhi from his creditors—'Mitri having said, loudly, in his cups, that he had thought his friend should give him a horse like that, his friend having been lucky enough to win him with borrowed money—

  'Mitri being a boyar's son, after all, and entitled to all that was fine, and Pyetr Kochevikov having inherited nothing from his father except a bad reputation and a close acquaintance with the dice.

  Pyetr found himself thinking for the first time in years how the road that had led him to this woods equally well led back again, and how quickly Volkhi could carry him—just far enough for a sight of Vojvoda’s brown, shingled roofs above its wooden walls, just for a satisfyingly remote thought of those same muddy streets where he had grown up and almost died, and particularly for the imagination of his old friends' faces.

  God.

  He reined Volkhi in, suddenly aware that his thoughts had turned in very foolish directions, that he had been riding for some little time oblivious to the road, and most alarming, that somewhere along the way Babi had stopped running ahead of him. He looked back to find the dvorovoi, reckoning Babi had reached the end of his patience or his boundaries, and saw that the old road, clear enough ahead, was a maze of gray, peeling trunks and leafy saplings behind him.

  “Babi?” he called, but the forest was so quiet except for Volkhi's snorting and breathing that it seemed hard to speak at all. “Babi, dammit, where are you?”

  “Down the road and back,” Eveshka muttered, pacing up and down, wiping the sweat from her face. Her hand was shaking, Sasha could see it. Eveshka paced another course, said, looking toward the north wall of the bathhouse, “He should at least be turning around now, don't you think?”

  ‘‘Probably.” He knelt, adding wood to the fire. His nose was running from the herbs, his eyes stung. “But he's on a horse for the first time in years. Don't worry. He's probably just taking a turn or two—”

  “Oh, god, Sasha!”

  “Don't worry about him. Babi's with him.”

  “We don't know he is,” Eveshka said shortly. “We don't know anything.” She paced half the circuit of the bathhouse, stopped, hand over her eyes, wanting simply to know what was going on in the woods, Sasha could feel it up and down his spine, wanting till it echoed around the walls— But there was no answer at all.

  “Don't,” he said, “don't doubt, 'Veshka, just think about the bannik.”

  “Banniks don't know what's going on now, it's tomorrow they live in, and wizards keep changing that—it's likely we've changed it even walking in here. We ought to be down that road, Sasha, that's where we ought to be! We ought to be seeing where he is and what's going on out there, because we're not going to get anything here!”

  Sasha wiped his nose again, and passed his arm across his forehead. “We could equally well bring trouble right to him. We don't know what we're doing.” Eveshka shook her head violently, fireglow making her pale hair and her underlit face all one color in his swimming vision. “He's not going to give us anything: if it was going to, it would have by now!”

  “Maybe we have
n't asked a right question, yet,” Sasha said, and shut his eyes and tried to find that question, but all he kept getting for vision was Uulamets' memories turning over and over in his head, images of the river shore, a foggy morning, Eveshka walking into that mist, ghost among ghostly trees-Memory or prophecy? God, did Uulamets foresee 'Veshka's drowning—and not even know he'd seen it? Or is it some morning still to come?

  “It's a trap,” Eveshka said, “papa always said, prophecy's a trap.”

  “Don't offend it, 'Veshka!”

  She hugged her arms about her ribs, looked up at the rafters with a shake of her head. “I've bad feelings. I don't trust this place. I don't like what I'm feeling—I don't like what I'm feeling from the woods—”

  Wind skirled through the open door, hit the fire, flung ash and embers, whipped at them.

  The door banged shut and open again, once, twice.

  Sasha stood up, looking about him. His shadow and Eveshka's trembled in the rafters and against the wooden walls.

  “Bannik!” he shouted. “Answer us!”

  Everything seemed fraught with possibilities, yea and nay equally balanced. He felt a sudden sense of suffocation, all the wishes successive wizards had ever made in this place hovering and circling—other, older wishes, mostly impotent, unless they should brush up against a strong new one, and that touch should set some old wish spinning, bring it into new motions, bring it into the current of things—

  Leaves in the current, leaf brushing leaf-Motions more and more violent—the whole pattern swirling and changing as the current changed—the leaves madly whirling among the bubbles, a small whirlpool and a greater and greater one—

  “Bannik!” he whispered, wishing with all his might for true answers this time, feeling the currents move around him till they bid fair to disturb everything in the world that was fixed.

  “Bannik, answer me! You've come here for a reason. What question are you waiting for me to ask, bannik?”

  A shadow jumped from one bench to the other, and to the rim of the firepit. A stone rattled.

  The ferry on the river, by daylight, headed north under all its sail.

  “Is this the future?” he asked. “Bannik? Is this what will be or is this what we ought to do?”

  Pyetr's face, ghostly pale, lit by lightning...

  “Is this now? Is this someday? —What are you telling bannik?”

  A stone rattled. Of a sudden it sprang at him, grabbed his arm with long-nailed fingers, drew him close to its face, growing more and more visible.

  Thorn-branches. An overwhelming sense of danger... Eveshka gazing at him out of shadows, with a face cold and unforgiving as death. ‘‘Bannik! Will Pyetr need our help?” Spray flying under the bow, canvas cracking— A young man walking toward him, out of shadow. It might be the bannik itself, it had that feeling of danger and omen, light touched dark hair, white shirt—

  The bannik hissed into his face, and sprang back into shadows, a figure all elbows and angles as it scuttled under a bench. “Bannik!” Sasha shouted at it.

  Again that sense of smothering in this dark, of a presence surrounded by chaos, might-be, could-be, must-be constantly changing position with every wish that brushed it.

  He wanted its name. He wanted power over it. He wanted to stop this future from being. He stood still and shivering tried to stop wanting anything in its presence.

  Leaves moved more and more slowly in the current, bubbles on dark water, that seemed now to stand still, everything seen to stand still, waiting for a single wish to steer it— The door banged open again, admitting stark, gray daylight. Raindrops pocked the dust outside.

  Pyetr looked about him, reining Volkhi around. It was as if some veil had come down between himself and the road home again—the way magical things could look quite otherwise than the truth, tricking an ordinary man's eyes and lying to his senses.

  “Babi?” he shouted to the woods around him, and it seemed to him that the very daylight was grayer and colder, that the trees were shifting at every glance away and back again to look less familiar. Volkhi moved under him, tossed his head and snorted like he did not like the breeze that was blowing to him, rustling the young leaves and rattling dry, old branches.

  “Babi?”

  A prickling touched between his shoulders, a sensation of something watching him from behind. He looked back, looked up into the branches, hoping still for Babi. Nothing was there.

  He was increasingly tempted to call out Misighi's name. If one was in trouble in the woods, leshys were a very good idea; but they were odd creatures too, especially Misighi, who was very old, impatient with fools, and apt to ask embarrassing questions, such as precisely what had he seen to be afraid of?

  Nothing, precisely. He had, like a fool, ridden without watch-Ing the shapes of the trees, and just as soon as he did see some familiar shape, some oddity he had observed riding past it on the way out, then he would know precisely where the road was.

  In the meanwhile the sun gave him a general direction toward home, the lay of the land gave him an indication where the road ought to be—so he started riding again, paying close attention to the trees this time, looking deep into the woods on either hand for the sight of the peeled limb or odd trunk that might give him a clue: he was sure he could not be far off the track.

  But when he looked behind him, where the road toward Vojvoda had once looked quite recognizable, what he had just come from seemed as much a maze as the way home did.

  “Babi!” he called. But the silence when the sound died was stifling.

  He could not believe Babi would have left him intentionally. He told himself that Babi was quite probably still there, and that it was only his nonmagical perception of things that was making it difficult to see him. For some reason magical things had started hiding themselves from him, the way leshys could look like leshys one moment and like trees the next. He had been thinking very hard of Vojvoda and his old life, and he felt a guilty apprehension that he should not have done that: that being so stupid

  as to want Vojvoda again, he might have—the god only knew broken some spell or something, separated himself off from whatever let him see magical things, because there had been time he had not been able to, there had been a time he could look straight at Babi and not see him at all for what he was.

  Sasha would not have set such a trap without telling him, but Volkhi's arrival was proof enough that Sasha could make mistakes, and there was absolutely no knowing what kind of visitor-confusing spells that old curmudgeon Uulamets might have set and forgotten.

  God, he had not been afraid in the woods for years: he had been up and down the river, past the place where he knew quite well a vodyanoi might still lair; and poked into all sorts of place:. no sensible man would go without protection. But he had been able then to see where he was going, and he had had his sword with him, and, not inconsiderable, he had always had Babi to guard his back.

  Now Volkhi walked as if he suspected devils under every bush. His ears flicked this way and that, his nostrils tested the wind, he seemed to float more than to walk—

  Volkhi shied off from something, a quick sidestep and another before he came back under his hand, trembling, snuffing the air and snorting at what he was smelling.

  “Good horse,” Pyetr muttered, patting Volkhi's sweating neck, himself sweating and his heart thumping while he tried to decide whether Volkhi could perceive something his senses could not. A fool was out in the woods on a skittish horse with no saddle, with the day well along already and the road, if it was the road, going into deeper and deeper shadow under a clouding sky.

  He sincerely hoped Eveshka was worried by now. He sincerely hoped his wife and his friend were wondering where he was by now, and were wishing him home before dark. He certainly wished so; but if his wishes worked in the least he would not be out here wondering where the road had gone.

  Volkhi shied up and aside: he recovered his seat, kept Volkhi under the rein and got his heart back from his throat
, patting Volkhi's neck, telling him lies, how it was all very fine, they were going home, wherever that was.

  7

  Rain spattered the boards of the porch outside, a cold rain with a cold wind driving it. “He didn't take his coat,” Eveshka said, at Sasha's back, inside the cottage. “He didn't even take a coat—”

  Sasha lapped his belt about him, took his cap from under his arm and pulled it on. “He can take care of himself. He'll either find cover till the worst of it's past or he'll be coming as fast as he can—I'll probably meet him out there, probably slow him down, truth be told. I'm not sure—”

  “The woods is wrong! Everything is wrong—”

  He looked at her. He said, “I agree with you. But that's no assurance he knows anything about it, and if he doesn't know, he's safer than we are. 'Veshka, please let's not argue, please don't be wishing him anywhere on his own. He won't melt in the rain; he can build a shelter.”

  “Build a shelter! He'll be soaked to the skin—don't tell me lie's out there now because he doesn't know there's anything wrong!” She was wrapping dry clothes into Pyetr's coat, making a compact bundle of it. “We shouldn't have waited, dammit, we shouldn't have let him stay out there.”

  “There's every chance he's with the leshys.”

  “There aren't any leshys, I'm telling you!” She was near to tears. She tied the cords tight. “I tried!”

  “Maybe they've heard you. Maybe they've answered and gone straight to find him. They don't need to tell us. It may not occur to them to tell us.”

  “Use the sense my father left you! There's nothing out there, there's simply nothing out there, it's as if the world ends at the hedge. We can't even make the rain stop!”

  “It's a big rain, it's had a long time to get going, for the god's sake, rains do have natural causes.”

  “Don't talk to me as if I was a fool! Something's in our way out there!”

  Doubt upset Sasha's stomach, made Eveshka's hastiness seem a threat more than the forest was. “'Veshka, I'll find him, just for the god's sake stop wishing anything. As long as we don't know what's out there—”

 
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