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       Chernevog, p.8

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  “Don't know, don't know, you don't know the sun's setting unless you look out the window! Use your head, Sasha! There's the vodyanoi, for one, there's ghosts!”

  “He went the other direction, and neither one travels far from the river.” He took Pyetr's sword from the peg where it hung and slung it from his shoulder. “I’ve wished him well, I've made wishes for him every day we've lived here, the same as you have, and if those wishes are working at all then they're still taking care of him, and if something's gotten around them, then it's better one of us go where he is so we know what we need, isn't it?”

  She said nothing. She took a small clay pot from the counter and tucked it into the bag he was taking. Then the coat. “Just be careful,” she said, giving him the bag. Her face was pale in the gray light from the doorway, pale and terribly afraid. “That's salt and sulfur. —You've got the fire-pot...”

  He reached out, pressed her small, cold hands tightly in his own. “Listen, I'm not that worried about him. It's probably the weather. He won't take chances with a storm. He can't wish the lightning.”

  “He can't wish anything else, either. Can he?”

  He felt afraid of a sudden, profoundly, unreasoningly afraid of his choices. Everything seemed to tilt one way and the other, changeable, perilous. “I'll find him,” he promised her on a breath; and ducked out into the storm, down the rain-washed boards of the walk-up. He splashed along the puddled path to the front gate—stopped there on impulse, feeling Eveshka's strong wish behind him, and saw her standing in the doorway, pale as the ghost she had been. Haste, that wish said; and he caught a breath, shoved the gate open and hit the lane at a run, through rain-laden weeds, where wind and water had swept away the trail Pyetr had left.

  Most likely, he reasoned, Pyetr had just taken out for the afternoon, had tossed that down-the-road-and-back promise completely out of his head the moment they had left him to his own devices, Pyetr having never a qualm about going off on his own, no more than he had worried seeing Pyetr ride off into a forest he knew.

  But Eveshka had worried from the start, Eveshka had told him he was a fool about the bannik, and he had still trusted it, sight unseen...

  Ordinary man Pyetr was, and blind and deaf to some influences. Illusions and compulsions had less power over him than over a wizard—until the source of them came close enough to lay material hands on him.

  He wished he had listened to Eveshka, he wished he had listened to her from the beginning. He had called the bannik, it had come at the same instant this silence had descended, and it was as twisted as the house they had built for it, changing with every wish they made and every action they took, flinging up bits and pieces of vision that might be imminent or might be years away—one looked, and guessed, and doubted, and had to look again: a wizard had to know—wanted to know, kept wanting to know until there was no doubt. By that very wanting there were changes; and by those changes there were always doubts-Beware my daughter, Uulamets' memories said: Uulamets kid continually mistrusted her; but he had looked for Eveshka's advice and not taken it when she had given it to him, not even heard it, he had been so set on being right...

  Think things through, Uulamets' teaching advised him. Do the least possible. Don't move till you're sure...

  Things were going wrong and it might only be a rainstorm and it might only be a stray horse and their own fear of what he had conjured up in the bathhouse, but there was a terrible feeling of wishes going askew, and along with them all their safety in this unsafe woods. No time, he kept telling himself now, no time for prophecies, no room for thinking things to the bottom and back again. He made only one clear, unequivocal wish—to get to Pyetr in person before something else did.

  Rain perfectly well capped the situation, in Pyetr's estimation. He rode along in a driving gale with his shirt and breeches soaked and no idea where he was going in this woods. “God,” he muttered, teeth chattering, and yelled, “Misighi!” as the rain became a gray, sheeting downpour. “Misighi!” —having lost all reservation about appealing for help the moment the rain started.

  But there was no sign of leshys. And no sign of friends either. The rain gusted at him, the only warmth he had was Volkhi's wet, moving body, not the surest seat one could wish; and Volkhi kept turning his head, laying his ears back to protect them from the water, shaking his neck and snorting protests at this lunacy.

  Another gust, cold-edged and water-laden, and Pyetr ducked from it, spitting water, wiping it from his nose and his eyes. It was not only rain pelting them, it was dead bits of leaves, bits of bark, dirt, the god knew what. He said, patting Volkhi's shoulder, “That's enough, that's quite enough, lad.”

  It was deep, aged forest about them now, nothing but dead trees about, hardly a sapling or a bit of brush big enough to strip for living branches to shelter them, but a rocky outcrop finally offered a windbreak; he slid down and led Volkhi close up against that shelter, such as it was, next a couple of dead, dry pines that afforded relief from the wind coming at them sideways.

  Volkhi snorted and protested, doubtless accustomed to a warm stable and a generous helping of good dry hay on a day like this, not to stand chilled and chilling after hard going, and Pyetr's own teeth were starting to chatter. So he took to rubbing Volkhi down with twists of fern, work to keep both of them warm so long as his strength held.

  Lightning flashed, turning the woods winter-white for a moment, making him and Volkhi both jump. “Easy,” he said, and shoved against Volkhi's shoulder to hold him, thinking that the last thing he needed was to lose Volkhi in the woods. “Just Father Sky in a bad mood tonight. I promise you he has nothing personal against horses.”

  Volkhi grunted, shifted, tried to nose his ribs, as if he did truly hope there was supper coming after all this work, from some magical bottom of his master's pockets. Pyetr scratched under a wet chin and said, “There's none for me, either, lad. I do promise to do better than this in future.”

  Another flash and clap of thunder. Rain poured down their necks. Somewhere nearby a dead tree gave up a branch that crushed down and took others with it.

  “Not a nice evening,” Pyetr muttered, pressing himself against Volkhi's shoulder. “I don't know what's going on, lad. I truly don't. —Sasha, dammit, have you noticed it's raining?”

  Granted neither of them liked to meddle with the weather more than the raising of a breeze, for fear of droughts and floods and other disasters wizards had to think about; and granted they might not go so far as to stop the rain for his sake—but they had surely noticed he had not come back.

  “For the god's own sake, Sasha, not wishing at me doesn't mean I want to spend the night out here!”

  Surely two wizards with their minds made up could manage to let him know where home was—unless—

  Something's wrong at home, he thought, clinging to Volkhi's warm shoulder, scared and suddenly chilled inside as well as out. They had enemies: there was always the River-thing. And the leshys were not answering, no matter he called Misighi's name till he was hoarse.

  Things seemed less and less clear to his mind... first Babi, then his memory of the woods—slipping away from him so persistently he had to think hard to keep his wits about him, so pervasively that from moment to moment he began to think there was no such place as the cottage by the river, or, completely crazy notion, he had somehow not come there yet but would; now and again he had escaped the tsar's justice on his own, riding Volkhi out of town. There was no such thing as magic—anyone who thought so was crazy, and everything he had remembered in these woods was yet to happen... or never would happen, and nothing good would ever be true for him for long: it never had been.

  “Misighi!” he shouted, desperately, making Volkhi fret—but if there was a thing altogether elusive in the woods it was the leshys themselves; and if there was a thing first to turn invisible to an ordinary man, it was not something so plain and substantial as an old ferryman's cottage on a riverbank, it was the Forest things that a man's eye had trouble en
ough seeing in the first place.

  “Misighi!” he called until his voice cracked, until he was half ashamed of himself, standing here shouting at nothing but his imagination. But if he was a fool he had no witnesses. “Babi,” he made himself say, confidently and loudly to empty air, “dammit, go home if you can't do anything else! Go home and bring Sasha here.”

  The wind gusted, shifting direction, slipping around the hill to find them. Under Volkhi's mane was the warmest place to keep his hands, and against Volkhi's side was the only warmth for a man in soaked clothing. He pressed himself there as closely as he could, and kept thinking about home, the very outlines of which were starting to shift and elude him, as if a veil were coming between him and that, too. He had to be crazy to keep thinking he had known such creatures as leshys or had a wife and a friend waiting for him.

  He was the gambler's son, the one the law wanted.

  He had gotten away through the streets.

  Gotten past the guards at the gate.

  Gotten lost on the road, somehow, and ended up alone and freezing in the rain—in a woods he did not understand, looking for an escape that had never existed—or did not yet exist.

  He squeezed his eyes shut until they ached, and until he stopped seeing the woods and the lightnings. Dammit, yes, there was a house, and there was a river, and he remembered someone saying—he had no idea who or when—that if ever he was lost there was always a way home: follow the river, no matter how far off true he had wandered, no matter how some subtle turning of the road and the obscuring trees had confused him, he had to believe the river lay east and the morning sun would show him the way. As long as he could remember that one thing and not lose it—

  “Something's very wrong,” he said to Volkhi. “Something's very wrong with us, lad.”

  He clung to that direction, held to the mere imagination a house that shifted outlines, friends waiting for him, a warm fire...

  An old man there had threatened him with knives when was sick. The river ran by the house. It might be all his imagining. But it was what he chose to go to, it was the only warm place in the world, and there were people there he could trust, he had no idea why—

  The vodyanoi was there, coiled in his cave on the riverside, one knew... one knew he was. Eveshka paced the floor, knotted her hands together till they ached; and it whispered while she paced, the old snake did, Eveshka, Eveshka, listen to me... It said, Fool, to trust a heart. They're so breakable. It said, You could do so much, you always could, and you fall so far short of that-Shut up, papa, she said, because that last was not the snake at all, that was her own memory: the room said it to her, the walls said it to her, the cellar echoed with it: Fool, fool, you won't take advice. Trust no one, least of all anyone who says he has your interest at heart...

  Want nothing. Need nothing. Wishes do come back on you, young fool, don't you understand that? And when the wizard wishes himself, then everyone's in danger.

  She wished for leshys. She wished for Pyetr. She wished to break through the silence. But something else whispered back: Listen, Eveshka.

  8

  Streams were over their banks: trees were down—reason enough to hope Pyetr had settled in to wait out the storm, Sasha told himself, with the dark coming and the rain still falling. His own coat was soaked, his boots were soaked, probably the fire-pot in his bag was drowned, and he had had to leave the road again, edging out onto a flooded log for a bridge to the other bank, holding to willow-wands overhead.

  He reached a point he had to jump for it—hit the slick far bank, grabbing for handholds among the new bracken and wishing the roots to hold in the sodden earth—no testing whether his magic was working any more, except the fact that the bracken-fronds held and he did not dump himself into the flood. Such small proofs gave him both hope and fear—hope that his gift still might find Pyetr; and fear that Pyetr's vanishing from his awareness might mean something unthinkable.

  But he was fast running from daylight to a starless, stormy dark, in which he had to trust his wizardry absolutely. He was north of the road, he was sure of that; he kept wanting to know where Pyetr was, and what Pyetr was thinking, and something kept convincing him of direction—but whether that was his wizardry working blind, he had no idea. He had no sense of Pyetr's existence.

  I'm here, he wanted Pyetr to know, I'm looking for you: if you're safe, don't leave where you are, just wait for me. He struggled calf-deep through rain-wet fern, brushed thickets that caught at the sword and the pack, in a twilight so deep the fern could mask an abrupt edge, anything. He caught a stitch in his side, kept going, shaking water from his eyes, in the erratic white flicker of lightning.

  And in that flickering the fern moved on the hill opposite, rippled in a swift line headed straight for him.

  He wished his welfare and drew Pyetr's sword, for what good it was to him: the disturbance streaked at him and flung itself with considerable weight onto his leg, scrambled with a frantic strength up his body despite his grabbing to stop it, reached his neck and clung there with all its might—a most familiar grip, perfectly reasonable that his wish had not fended it off.

  “Babi?” he said, still shaking. “Babi, thank the god, where's Pyetr?”

  It hugged him the harder, burrowed its head against his collar, a most desperate and rained-on Babi, in a dark nearly complete now, except for the lightning flashes.

  The rain settled into a drizzle, at what point m this interminable night Pyetr had no idea. He thought if he had the strength he would try to gather such weeds and fern as he could and make a pile of it to keep the chill off; but he kept putting that effort off, thinking how cold he already was, hoping for dawn to bring him warmth: very soon now the sun would come, he thought as he clung close to Volkhi's side, any moment now the sun would come up—it was only the storm clouds making the dawn late.

  But when the weather did settle, and the sun had not come, Volkhi shook himself and started to wander out into the open despite the cold sprinkling from the trees. “Whoa, lad,” Pyetr murmured, held him, and Volkhi stood for a while, but restlessly.

  So, he decided, he had kept Volkhi warm, and Volkhi could return the favor: he found purchase on the rock with his foot, got the reins and a handful of Volkhi's mane and shoved himself up to sprawl out flat on Volkhi's wet back, to travel again in the dark, wherever Volkhi took the notion to go.

  East, he reminded himself, trying to draw from his muzzy wits which way that was or what he was doing hi this place, or whether he had only been dreaming about going east and finding a river. He was stiff, he was sore, he could not remember where or why he was riding half-frozen in the woods with no sad nor proper bridle.

  But eastward he had a wife waiting for him. A warm fire. Sasha, The Cockerel's fey stableboy, the one nobody wanted— Sasha was there, too. He could not imagine what they all had to do with each other, but he had a conviction that they were friends—that they all lived together in a house—

  Which had a garden, a porch, a bathhouse he and Sasha had built—

  His wife had wonderful blond braids, hair like light when it flew free, so much of it she could wrap in it...

  She liked blue. She had a favorite gown with leaves embroidered down its sleeves, and petticoats with flowers on their hems. They were spells she stitched, she had told him so. She had a garden, and little plots she tended in the woods, where she grew trees and plants that would not grow in other ground.

  But he could not see her face now, except details that would not fit together—and he fought to keep them, even if they did not match what he thought was true any longer, everything he loved slipping away from him faster and faster-He was in a room with Sasha; Sasha was (but that was wrong Sasha could not read) writing something. Sasha had grown up. His face had lost its boyish look—become a young man's face—

  And the river would lead him—

  Home, somehow. He knew so little for certain. Things in woods, the old folk said on winter nights, wore their feet backwards and le
d travelers astray; Forest-things shifted shapes, and Things that looked like trees could move and change a man's path, leading him to disaster.

  How did I get here? he wondered, finding his lids heavier and heavier as he rode—until of a sudden Volkhi shied sideways, came full about under his hand, bringing an old man into his sight—a white-bearded, scowling old man in the lightnings and the crazed patterns of the brush, who looked, the moment Pyetr thought about it, like someone he had known very well, and, crazily, had trouble seeing quite right—

  Because he had never in this life looked to see that face again.

  “You're dead,” he said to his father-in-law, as all sorts of things came flooding back to him—the inside of the cottage, the cruel old man with his knives and his damnable singing... the old man whose daughter was a cold-fingered ghost...

  “You're lost,” Ilya Uulamets said, leaning on his staff. “Not that I'm surprised. And here you are. My daughter's choice. God save us.”

  Volkhi was still fretting and trying to turn. Pyetr kept a tight rein, jostled this way and that. His heart was thumping hard from the start the ghost had given him... but Eveshka had died und haunted the river shore, he remembered that: he had seen ghosts, and recalling that his wife should be a ghost ought to pain him, but it seemed only a fact to remember, nothing he should be entirely distressed about. The oddness was Uulamets, who had no business being dead yet... or was; god, he had no idea what had happened and what was going to happen, or what was happening to him now.

  “I need to get home,” he said to Uulamets, patting Volkhi's neck, himself trembling while he reassured the horse, and feeling as if he were doing all this in his sleep, completely numb. “I think something's wrong. I think something could be very wrong.”

  Uulamets leaned on his staff and glowered at him, no less pleasant than he ever had been. Then he said, “Follow me,” and walked away through the shadow.

 
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