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       Chernevog, p.9

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  Volkhi showed no inclination to go. Pyetr argued with him once, twice, before Volkhi started picking his way down the rough hillside, following the old man in the same direction that they had been moving. More bits and pieces started coming back to him—how Eveshka was waiting at home, how Uulamets was dead, upriver, how he had left the house riding and somehow lost himself in the woods... so far lost he had not even recognized his father-in-law for a moment.

  That Uulamets' ghost should come to his rescue did not seem entirely incredible: they had not liked each other, the god knew, but one could certainly believe Uulamets might stay around as a ghost, if anyone would—the old reprobate had never trusted anyone to do anything right, least of all his daughter: Eveshka had abundant reason for her secrecies and her touchiness.

  Still, it did seem to him that Uulamets, being dead, should be paler, glow in the dark like a proper ghost, not just show up in the lightning flashes with shadows and all...

  Follow me, Uulamets said.

  But what did a ghost mean by that, looking more and more solid?

  God, he did not like this. “Grandfather?” he said, respectfully.

  Uulamets might not have heard for all the sign he gave. Certainly that was no different than in life.

  He urged Volkhi to a faster pace at the bottom of the hill, fought Volkhi's misgivings until they were close at Uulamets' back.

  “Grandfather, do you know what's going on? Do you know what's going on back at the house?”

  No answer. One naturally expected a ghost to be peculiar-angry, perhaps, especially this one. But there were definitely shadows about this figure which one did not expect in a ghost, except a rusalka when she had stolen a bit of one's life... or unless, frightening thought, he had somehow strayed over to the ghostly side of things himself in the cold last night and never known it.

  He did still have a heartbeat. He felt his chest, to be sure. He felt Volkhi's warmth under him and he heard the crunch of last year's bracken under Volkhi's hooves: if he was slipping over some line, somehow, he damned well ought to have some sense of crossing a boundary. Even if he had frozen in the rain, certainly Volkhi ought to be alive.

  He missed ducking. A branch caught him across the face and he clapped a hand to what felt like a bleeding scratch across his cheek. He heard Uulamets' staff disturb the ground, heard Uulamets' body move the brush, the same as he and Volkhi did—but Eveshka in her ghostly form could never disturb a leaf. Neither sun nor moon could touch a rusalka—unless she had gotten strength from somewhere... and a rusalka only got it from living things.

  Rusalkas were drowned girls, that was what he had heard, drowned girls unhappy with their lovers. Surely crotchety old men only turned into ordinary ghosts, the sort with cold fingers and dead, awful eyes, the sort of ghosts that only wailed and blamed people—not half so dangerous.

  “Grandfather,” Pyetr said faintly, less and less sure he knew what he was dealing with.

  Uulamets just kept walking; and of a sudden Pyetr was sorry he had called out to what was moving in front of him. He hoped to the god it did not turn around. He pulled Volkhi quietly to a stop, turned his head-Something in the brush crashed toward him, growling, and he ducked flat and hung on as Volkhi shied and scrambled for footing, breaking them uphill through branches, through vines, up a slope too steep, too slick with recent rain—he felt Volkhi start to slide, stayed on somehow as Volkhi veered off on a downward slant. A limb hit his shoulder with numbing force as they passed under, all but took him off Volkhi's back. Branches whipped at his shoulders. He had no more wish to stop than the horse did, he only saw a way through and steered for that sole black gap in the brush.

  A pale shape loomed up in front of them. Volkhi reared, came down again, uncertain, bemazed and still in a way nothing natural could stop a panicked horse.

  The apparition held out its hands, saying, in Sasha's voice: “Pyetr, are you all right?”

  Pyetr held on to the reins, shivering as much as Volkhi was. Sasha walked a step closer, making a soft, very welcome sound on dead leaves. But Pyetr reined Volkhi back from him.

  “It's me,” Sasha said.

  “I sincerely hope so,” Pyetr said shakily, “because just now it was Uulamets, and I don't know what's going on.”

  ‘‘Babi's after it,” Sasha said, and shed a sack he was carrying from his shoulder to his hand, then started searching into it. “I brought your coat. Eveshka sent some bread and sausages... ”

  A shapeshifter could be that plausible, and a shapeshifter in Uulamets' likeness was surely what he had been dealing with: there had been flaws in Uulamets' appearance, there were always flaws with a shapeshifter, Eveshka had told him—and he saw none in Sasha.

  Sasha came closer, offering him up the coat with one hand, calming Volkhi with the other, and Volkhi stood still for it—that was what told Pyetr who he was really, truly dealing with. He hoped to the god it did.

  “Is everything all right at home?” he asked, taking the dry coat, deciding Volkhi would stand still a moment while he let go the reins and put it on.

  “Eveshka's terribly worried,” Sasha said, keeping his hand on Volkhi's neck. “A bannik came. And we couldn't find you anywhere.”

  Sometimes Sasha's accounts of events seemed to leave out essentials, especially when a man was having trouble following things in the first place. Pyetr said numbly, “I lost Babi. Then nothing looked right. I don't know where I've been.”

  “Are you all right?”

  “I'm fine. Let's get out of here.”

  “Fast as we can,” Sasha said, patted Volkhi's neck and started walking.

  So they were going home. That was quite all right. That was exactly what Sasha would do. That was entirely the way Sasha would talk.

  It was still a better sign that of a sudden there came a panting in the dark, a quick pad-pad-pad in the wet leaves beside Volkhi's feet and Sasha's—no visible sign of the dvorovoi, but that was Babi, Pyetr had no doubt of it.

  Then he began to believe he was safe.

  Go home, Sasha wished Babi silently, as they walked along, himself and Pyetr leading Volkhi on this level ground, where they had come on the road again. Go back to the house, let Eveshka know everything's all right-But, perverse as everything else magical, Babi obstinately stayed with them—for promise of more sausages, or because of some wish, his or Eveshka's—Sasha had no idea.

  “I don't know what's the matter with him,” Sasha said. “I don't know what's going on. Babi won't listen, or can't, I don't know. Nothing's worked right, except finding you.”

  “Thank the god you did,” Pyetr muttered, and asked, after a moment, “What in hell's this about a bannik?”

  Sasha shook his head. “I don't know. It showed up just after you left. I don't know why. I hoped it might help.” “Help what?”

  Sometimes Pyetr's questions seemed so clear and his own answers so abysmally stupid. “I don't know. It only showed up, and after that—or about the same time—everything stopped being there...”

  “What do you mean—stopped being there?”

  “Things. People. They're there.” He was not even sure how ordinary folk felt the world around them. He had thought he knew; he thought at least he had known once, before he had taken up with Uulamets and started listening to the wizard-gift he had been born with; but lately he doubted he knew anything about ordinary folk. Lately he doubted he understood himself. “Right now it's—like seeing the trees move and not hearing the leaves.”

  “That's stupid!” Pyetr said, but Pyetr looked worried. ’‘What do you do, eavesdrop all the time?”

  “It's not like hearing. It's...” Anything he could say sounded stupid. “Knowing they're there. The way you know (he forest is there with your eyes shut. It sounds like the wind stopping. Quiet. And it's not like that. Ever. It's not natural.”

  Pyetr gave him a look, Sasha saw it from the tail of his vision; Pyetr said, “So it's quiet. You couldn't hear me. I couldn't make Babi hear me either. Or the leshy
s. Why? What's going on?”

  “I don't know,” Sasha said, with his eyes set on the road ahead of them, the confused track through the regrown woods. “A lot of things that shouldn't. I don't know everything I should. Pyetr, I swear to you—'Veshka thinks her father left me a lot of things, but that's not so. She thinks I remember, but I don't, not—not as if I ever feel her father being there. He's gone. It's not like she thinks it is. I can't make her understand that.”

  “I've told her. I've told her, myself. It's not you. She's just worried, she worries about everything—I get myself lost, I start thinking about Vojvoda, the god knows I could have strayed into some damn trap the old man set, and it's not the first time you couldn't hear me...”

  “It's not just you. Something's wrong, I've felt it going ever since Volkhi came—”

  “Volkhi, Volkhi, what for the god's sake does Volkhi matter to anything? A horse strays. So what's going to happen? For a stray horse, the tsar's going to come?”

  “I'm not talking about the tsar. I'm talking about the bannik.”

  “I'm sure all of this is going to make sense.”

  “I can't hear the woods,” Sasha said. “I couldn't find Babi and I can't hear a thing except 'Veshka when she's close, I can’t even hear you when you're right next to me, and it has to do with the bannik, it all started with the bannik, the same as Volkhi coming here.”

  “You're not getting enough sleep,” Pyetr said. ’‘It's that damn book, you know, those little crooked marks you stay up all night staring at—”

  “Things are going wrong, Pyetr, they're just going wrong!”

  “Because you can't hear the trees.”

  “I don't mean hearing the trees. It's not like a sound, Pyetr—”

  “God. I don't care what it is. You say yourself once you start doubting you can do something it won't happen, so maybe you're tripping over your own feet, did you ever think about that?”

  “I think of it.”

  “So wish it right again.”

  “I do! But there's nothing I can reach, Pyetr, and the bannik just showed up and I'm not sure I even wanted it myself, I know Eveshka didn't, and nothing's right.”

  Pyetr put his hand on Sasha's shoulder, walked with him that way, Volkhi trailing them of his own volition. “Listen. Maybe 'Veshka's right. Forget Uulamets. Leave his damned book alone. Leave everything a while. Quit trying so hard to think of trouble before it happens. Aren't you likely to wish it up that way? Forget it. We'll take the boat out, maybe even sail down to Kiev, you, me, 'Veshka...”

  The very thought touched him with sudden panic—all those people, all those wishes and needs weighing on his heart, unstable as things were. Not now. God, not now, and Eveshka certainly could never bear it. Even dealing with two people she loved was hard.

  “There's girls there,” Pyetr said. “Girls who'd think you're a damn fine catch.”

  “No!”

  “Life doesn't go on in a damn book, boy!”

  Sasha caught a breath, stopped thinking for a moment, stopped even trying to listen with his ears or his wizardry, so that everything Pyetr said became only sound to him. He had used to do that when his uncle had upset him—go away until his heart was quiet.

  “Boy?” Pyetr said, shaking at his shoulder as they walked. “What's the matter?”

  “I just want the woods back, Pyetr, I just want things to go right.” He tried not even to think about Kiev, or the people and the girls and the idea of escape Pyetr was talking about. They frightened him, they brought him to the edge of wishes, and he could not let himself want the things ordinary folk might—Uulamets had made that mistake. And Pyetr would not understand that. Pyetr only let him go after a moment, unhappy and worried, he needed no eavesdropping to know that much.

  He said to Pyetr carefully, reasonably, “I want everything we've done to hold.”

  “It's going well enough. You found me, didn't you? I didn't break my neck. Whatever that was, it was scared of you. It ran. If the old snake's at his tricks again, we can deal with that, we always have.”

  “We got the bannik, and when Eveshka wondered where you were, all it said was thorns and branches.”

  “Well, that was the truth, wasn't it? But it didn't take any damn prophecy to know that...”

  Blood on thorns...

  “Did it?”

  He was afraid to answer. An answer meant nothing. An answer might change before he could so much as think of it. ’‘Will-be is always moving,” he said faintly. “Everything we do changes what's going to happen. That's why banniks don't like wizards.”

  “'Veshka says. At least the last one didn't like Uulamets— but I can understand that. So we've got a bannik. And the forest is quiet and you're seeing thorn-bushes and it scares you. —You don't make sense all the time, you know.”

  The quiet was absolute.

  Leaves on the current, the current stopped...

  Waiting...

  “Sasha?”

  “I want us home,“ Sasha said.

  “Why? What's wrong?”

  “I don't know.” He faced Pyetr about and pushed him Volkhi's side. ‘‘I'll just feel better when we get there.”

  Pyetr gave him an anxious look, then swung quickly up to Volkhi's back and offered him his hand.

  9

  They came in sight of the house at twilight, both of them staggering tired, in muddy, chafing clothes that had dried on their backs, and with Volkhi so weary they were both afoot and leading him again. But at last there was the gray roof in sight, the hedge, the garden, their own porch, all safe and waiting for them, and Pyetr had no inclination to upset Eveshka twice. He opened the gate, shoved Volkhi's reins at Sasha, calling out dutifully as he came running up onto the porch, “ 'Veshka, I'm home!”

  He opened the door into a dark, cold house.

  “'Veshka? Where are you?”

  Sasha came thumping up onto the porch and walked in behind him.

  “She's not here,” Pyetr said, thinking, Well, damn! Now she's gone out looking! Then he thought about the horse and the quarrel yesterday morning and had another opinion.

  “She just might be out at the bathhouse,” Sasha breathed, and ran back down into the yard. Sasha's voice drifted up distant and distressed: “Volkhi, get out of there!”

  Hell with the garden, Pyetr thought, looking around a shadowy, supperless kitchen. He threw wide the kitchen shutters for light, opened the door into their bedroom and bashed his shin on a bench, opening the bedroom shutters.

  Her book was gone from the desk.

  He looked in the domes press, found clothes missing, walking boots gone; and slammed the wardrobe door so hard the piece rocked against the wall. “Damn!” he said, hit it with his fist and sulked out into the kitchen to find out what else missing—and by that just how long she intended to be off on her little pique this time.

  He was finding blank spaces in the spice shelves when Sasha came running up onto the porch and inside to report breathlessly that she was not in the bathhouse, and he had found neither sight nor sense of the bannik, either.

  “No need of any bannik,” Pyetr said. “She's off again. She's just mad and she's left.” He pushed his cap back on his head, remembered Eveshka disapproved of caps in the house, and took it off, as if that could patch things. “She took her book with her this time. Damn her.” Then he added, with the least little remorse and no little worry in his heart: ’‘Though I honestly can’t say I blame her.”

  “I don't like this.”

  “Well, I don't like it either, but it's hardly the first time, is it?” He waved at the door, in the general direction of the woods “Trees make better sense to her than people do. They always have. Myself, I'm for supper and a bath. She'll be back. Not my fault I got lost, not her fault she does things like this, is it?”

  “I don't think she'd go off like this. Not—”

  “I do. I see absolutely no reason she wouldn't. She's done it too often. —Let's get a light in here, have supper, get a
bath. -Babi? Babi, where are you?”

  Babi turned up at his knee, tugging at his trouser leg, upset, one could reckon, at finding no supper waiting.

  “Go find her, Babi. Get her back here if you want your dinner. Or you'll have to put up with my cooking.”

  Babi dropped to all fours and walked the circuit of the room in a decided sulk, all shoulders.

  “I really don't like this,” Sasha repeated to himself, shed his cap and coat onto the kitchen bench and started sorting the books and clutter on the side of the kitchen table, the survivors of the broken shelf.

  “Well, hell, I don't like it either! But we haven't any choice, have we?” Pyetr went to the fireplace, poked up the ashes and thrust a little kindling into the banked coals. Flame shot up quite readily, yellow light. He lit a straw, stood up and lit the oil lamp, which threw giant shadows about the walls and made Sasha's worried frown disturbingly grim.

  “She didn't leave any note?” Sasha asked him. “Nothing on her desk, no paper or—”

  “No.” It frustrated him, this leaving of vitally important messages on arcane little bits of paper. He jammed his hands into his coat pockets and set his jaw, thinking about the silence in the woods, the shapeshifter that had taken Uulamets' likeness. “I don't know why she would bother. Does she ever leave one when it's important? —Damn it, Sasha, you know exactly what it is, she's mad and she's off to talk to the trees or whatever she does out there, I don't see we should worry.”

  Sasha ran a hand through his hair, left his books, went and pulled up the trap to the cellar.

  “She's not hiding down there, for the god's sake,” Pyetr said, at the end of his temper, embarrassed, even though Sasha was their closest and only friend, at having a constant witness to their private difficulties. He knew he would end up, he always did, defending Eveshka to a boy who had more sense man Eveshka in his little finger. Then Sasha would end up, inevitably, telling him the same old things, that he just had to understand Eveshka, Eveshka had to have time, Eveshka had to be alone with her thoughts—

 
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