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  Sale of this book without a front cover may be unauthorized. If this book is coverless, it may have been reported to the publisher as “unsold or destroyed” and neither the author nor the publisher may have received payment for it.

  A Del Key Hook

  Published by Ballantine Books

  Copyright © 1990 by C.J. Cherryh

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States of America by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 90-559

  ISBN 0-345-37351-0

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  First Hardcover Edition: October 1990 First Mass Market Edition: October 1991 Cover Art by Keith Parkinson


  Snow fell in the woods, drifted deep, a pristine, starlit world in which a single winter hare made significance—slow advance from a wandering, footprinted time past into a white, unwritten time to come. One wondered where it had come from. One wondered where it was going.

  Wings snapped. A white owl stooped and rose, flapping heavily with its burden. The track stopped in a circle of wing-flailed snow, a dark splash of blood—

  Sasha lay with eyes open, heart thumping, unable to move, unsure where he was or what bed he was in. He did not know what should be so ominous in such a dream, or why a spatter of blood should seem so terrifying. He lay listening to the house timbers creak above and below him, gained courage to put a chilled arm beneath the covers, and knew he was in his bed at his uncle's place, in Vojvoda.

  It was forest snow, river snow piled up and making the roof creak. He was safe in his own bed in his friends' house, where nothing evil could come.

  Nor would come, so long as the forest grew.

  Springtime, and a whisper went through the old woods, a rustling of dry, dead limbs, a rattling and cracking of branches aloft that came on like a rising gale and made Sasha look up from the seedling he was planting. The commotion stopped virtually over him, a last snapping of small branches, a hail of twigs and bits of bark on Sasha's head.

  He stood up, brushed the detritus from cap and coat, shaded his eyes from further such falls and peered up into the sunlight. A huge, particularly brushy limb seemed to detach itself from among the branches and fall—not a plummeting fall, to be sure, but a rapid floating downward that broke more twigs and showered more bark. A massive, brushy creature settled like living growth onto the bole of a long-dead tree.

  “Misighi?” Sasha asked. It certainly looked like Misighi, lichenous and bristly and very, very old even as leshys reckoned years.

  “Yes, Misighi.” Its voice was the deep whisper of the woods. With another rustling it stretched out its multitudinous twiggy fingers; and ran their quivering touch over Sasha's shoulders. They gently closed on his arms to draw him to the scrutiny of a vast, slightly mad eye, “Health,” it rumbled, “health. Young wizard, you smell of birch trees.”

  “You look younger every spring,” Sasha said, patting Misighi's rough trunk. It was true, Misighi flourished like an old tree with a heart suddenly greening, a wild old tree that took unexpectedly well to a little help now and again from the garden next to the woods.

  “Birches,” Misighi said. “This is a place for birches.” “All down this streamside.” Sasha pointed, thinking of the stream the way it would be, when he was many more years than sixteen. It was all dead trees now, a stream flowing through roots that no longer had a hold on the soil. But hard work reclaimed the woods, grove by grove from the heart outward; and last fall, tall saplings had arrived, rescued from deep shade upriver.

  “Roots to hold,” Misighi rumbled. “Birch and pine. Root and branch, yes, young wizard.” “Is everything all right, Misighi?” “Root and branch. Promises kept. All kept.” One wondered, sometimes. Sometimes, at night when doubts grew most naturally, one thought about a grove and a stone in a ring of thorns, and on that stone a young man sleeping…

  Sometimes, when leshys came visiting so suddenly and by daylight, one felt a certain anxiousness about that place, and about the safety of them all.

  But Misighi came calling for no reason, it seemed, beyond friendship and curiosity. Misighi briskly detached himself from the tree, moving at one instant so rapidly the eye could scarcely see him striding and at another so slowly he seemed no more than to drift above the seedlings he leaned close to examine.

  It was true, a leshy's feet were backwards.

  “Well set, well set,” Misighi said of the young birches. And: “Him, yes. He sleeps. Sleeps.”

  Sasha brushed dirt from his hands, hooked his thumbs in his belt with an uncomfortable twitch of his shoulders and a guilty, long-held question he had never asked Misighi. But he whispered now, thinking of the rain, the winter snow, the passage of time, “Is he suffering? Does he feel the cold at all?”

  Misighi rattled his many fingers, a sound like the shiver of wind through brush, and Sasha immediately had a waking dream of a young man's sleeping face, snowflakes touching and melting on dark lashes, settling delicately on colorless cheeks and nose and lips. The sleeper showed no sign of change or wasting.

  One might have wished for change, one might have wished to see only the white of rain-washed bone, and to know by that, that all danger was gone. He felt guilt for that hope; but that there should be suffering, he could not wish, and he was unreasonably relieved to be sure that there was none.

  But both pity and curiosity were so terribly dangerous.

  “Disturbance,” Misighi said. “Why?”

  “Seeing him,” Sasha said. “Thinking about him. —Misighi, why did you come?”

  “The smell of birch trees,” Misighi said, which most likely was true: Misighi had evidently had the notion, no more, no less, to see what his neighbors were up to since the snows had melted. Misighi came and Misighi went in this forest, and spring and a streamside with new birches was a momentous thing to the old creature, whose woods so nearly had faded altogether. Misighi cared for every leaf.

  And quite as suddenly, “Goodbye,” Misighi said, having seen what he had come to see. He climbed blindingly quickly up and up the dead trunk and left with as great a commotion as he had made in coming.

  Misighi was still a little mad, one had to remember.

  “Goodbye,” Sasha called after him, waving his cap, and perhaps Misighi heard.

  After which Sasha gathered up his basket and his digging stick and moved on down the stream, to plant more seedlings.

  “I saw Misighi,” he told his friends that evening, when he came home to the river house. He told them how well Misighi had looked.

  But the vision Misighi had given him he kept to himself.

  Snowfall. There were hares in the woods, the first since the forest had died. Pyetr spied a fox hunting, and Eveshka nursed a half-frozen field mouse in a nest of rags beside the hearth.

  Quite marvelously, kindling and firewood piled up near the old ferryman's house, as whole logs had done so long as they were useful. Leshys brought what they culled from the dead forest: one could see them some nights, tall as trees themselves in the moonlight, tricking the eye quite easily if one had not been accustomed to Forest-things and their tricks.

  “We could build a bathhouse,” Pyetr said, stamping in from the porch, his face stung with cold, his fair hair an ice-rimed hinge below his cap. “We certainly could use a bathhouse. There's plenty of wood for shingles...”

  Mist hung over the river, and over the path past the old ferry, where the trees stood like ghosts.

  Come back, she heard her father call to her, and she knew that if she ignored his warning she would
die. But in this dream she kept walking, toward the cloaked man on the riverside.

  Why have you followed me? he always asked her.

  And she said, always knew she was going to say:

  To ask you to come back...

  Eveshka waked with a start and settled again, lay shivering against Pyetr's side, under piles of quilts. “Are you all right?” he asked, stroking her shoulder.

  “Only a dream,” she said. And shivered until he took her in his arms.

  There was a book in the other room. Sasha kept it. Sasha read it, and she wished he would not.

  She wished it burned. But that would not undo a single wish in it.

  We'd better know what he did wish, hadn't we? Sasha reasoned against her fears. In her better sense Eveshka knew that he was right.

  But tonight she kept thinking about the man in the mist, the young man sleeping on cold stone, ice on branches, and white flakes sifting down through a ring of thorns...

  Snow-melt and greening then, the field mouse went free and birch seedlings leafed, saplings of three years rising tall and substantial across the disused road, above banks of bracken fern and moss. The dead trees that once had completely shadowed the forest floor were fewer than the year before... falling to the wind, but never crushing a sapling; to lightning, but never spreading fire; and never lying long, except as a shelter for hares or young foxes.

  It was, said the grandmothers in Vojvoda, a magical woods where backwards-footed Forest-things lured the unwary to disasters and untimely death—a terrible woods, grandmothers in Kiev might well say, where wizards lived, and against them not even the Great Tsar and all his army would venture.

  A girl—a wizard-daughter—had drowned in the river that ran through that woods, and in the way of such unhappy dead, dwelt in a willow, a heartless rusalka who drank up whatever life came near her. She haunted the shore of that woods, a girl with long, pale hair—Quite likely now the rumor had gotten south (since even near such worldly places as Kiev there were surely grandmothers with their sources) that the old forest had been growing livelier of late, that a new wizard had taken old Uulamets' place on the riverside and broken the dreadful rusalka's spell.

  But whether this was a good wizard or bad, the rumors failed to say.

  In fact Sasha himself sometimes wondered what he was, being now eighteen and inclined, his good friend Pyetr insisted, to think far too much about responsibilities... His friend Pyetr being of course a worldly and married man of all of twenty-and-six—married to the rusalka of the rumors, as happened: there was a great deal truly odd about their household that even the rumors of banniks and House-things and grandmothers surely must fall short of.

  That Eveshka Uulametsova was no longer a rusalka, for one thing, nor even dead these days—and that the fey and mysterious boatman who traded with freeholders in the new wizard's name was that very scoundrel Pyetr the whole town of Vojvoda most gladly would have hanged.

  Most of all Vojvoda would be amazed at the changes in The Cockerel's former stableboy: at least a handspan of height and a good breadth of shoulder— Sasha having done his share of wood-splitting and shingle-making in the remaking of his house, right along with Pyetr—

  Whose hands, the god knew, were to this day more adept with the dice than with hammer and saw.

  Notwithstanding which, over the last several years the old ferryman's cottage had quite well doubled its size, was comfortably (if eccentrically) shingled, with a fine (though slightly tilting) shed built onto the back, a bathhouse at the side, (it did perhaps spiral a little out of true) and, in the front and on the left, a garden springing up in green shoots, without a single weed. The last was Eveshka's doing, the carpentry was Pyetr's and Sasha's, and only proved, as Pyetr said, that not even wizardry could make a corner-post stand true.

  Still, all they built held strong and snug through the winters and the summers, a house weathered and patched with lichen, added on to with gray, weathered logs, rustic outside— Ah, but in...

  Inside were clean wooden floors, rugs from the Indee, cupboards and beds and tables and chairs likewise polished. There were golden cups and pewter plates. There were silk curtains and brass lamps and a wonderful samovar, besides a well-ordered cellar full of apples and nuts and dried mushrooms, bunches of herbs and pots of honey and sacks of good downriver grain—not mentioning, besides, the domovoi who was well-content there, and the shelves at the newly excavated end of the cellar, which held hundreds of well-dusted, well-marked little pots of herbs, simples, powders, and earths that a wizard or even a good householder might find useful.

  Not a single mouse. The domovoi got those.

  In truth, Sasha found himself so happy in this cozy house it frightened him, because nothing of the gold and the silk and the jewels had ever really seemed to belong to him: it was only a cup to drink from, was only a curtain to keep the draft away; these things had come to him in a night and they could go the same way, for all he cared. It was his welcome with Pyetr and Eveshka that mattered to him, and Pyetr's happiness with Eveshka, and their willingness to put up with him, who was no longer the fifteen-year-old boy they had started with.

  This spring in particular it had begun to seem to him that he was a great deal underfoot for a married couple, though Pyetr and Eveshka had willingly set a room apart for him: Pyetr had in fact built the house twice as large for his sake, so that he could have his bedroom and his own clothes press at one end of what had once been the whole house and now was only the end of the kitchen. Pyetr and Eveshka had the big new room at the back, on the other side of the opened hearth, and Eveshka's cupboards. It was after all Eveshka's house: of all else her father had passed on to him, Sasha had never claimed the house Eveshka had grown up in, nor ever doubted it was hers. Yet here he was, always at their breakfast table, always in the middle of their evenings when work was done.

  Most of all in those late hours when a not too naive boy was very acutely aware that man and his wife would want a little privacy, they often as not put that off for his sake, so as not, Pyetr had said more than once, to leave him alone by the fireside—all of which said to Sasha that he was a nuisance to them, even if he was company for Pyetr, and even if a wizard had no choice but the solitude of this woods. The house rightfully was Eveshka's, Pyetr certainly was; and that left Sasha Misurov lately feeling all his own happiness so fragile a misaimed wish could shatter it.

  It was so hard, for instance, not to wish them happy together. But a wizard generally got his wishes, in one shape or another: that was exactly the problem. He dared not wish a thing like that for Eveshka, who being a wizard herself could perfectly well feel it happening and angrily bid him mind his own business; and he dared not wish it for Pyetr, either, who would not feel it, but who certainly trusted his best friend not to meddle.

  It was hard, too, not to want to be loved and wanted, despite one's inconvenience: and the knotty question of whether not-wishing could possibly be a wish in itself kept turning over and over in Sasha's mind, waking him at night and setting him for long hours to writing in his book, to which he added page after page as the months passed; it set him to reading master Uulamets' battered, rain-stained record, too—which warned him plainly that a wizard who loved anyone was in danger, and a wizard who wanted love from any creature was a thief at best.

  That caution applied to Eveshka and him equally, of course; and however they tried, he was sure they were both guilty in their own ways and for their own reasons.

  But Pyetr only laughed and said, when once Sasha confided to him his inmost, most terrible misgivings in his case,

  “I'm not worried. “

  Wherewith Pyetr poured another cup of water over his head— they were sitting in the newly finished bathhouse at the time, sweating in the heat of the stones.

  “I worry,” Sasha said, and looked about him in the dim light and the steam—one would be cautious in a bathhouse at any time one was saying something serious, because of banniks. “Pyetr, if you ever think I'm wish
ing something—”

  “What I wish,” Pyetr said, “is a cup of water down my back.”

  Sasha poured it.

  “Still,” Sasha began again.

  “You worry too much,” Pyetr said, resuming the careful scraping of his chin.

  “You look at a clear sky, you worry it'll rain; you wish for clear weather, you worry it'll be drought across all the tsar's lands—and he'll come and burn your house down—”

  “It might happen.”

  “Might happen. It won't if you wish not.”

  “If I wish not—”

  “The tsar could fall dead. A fine reasoning. Why should you care? The damn tsar's going to burn your house down!”

  “I never wished it to rain in the first place!”

  “Oh, pish, you wish me up winds on the river, you wish me safe in the woods, god, some poor bear might starve to death for your sake. —Aren't you worried?”

  Sasha scowled at Pyetr. Pyetr winked at him.

  “Hush with your jokes,” Sasha said. “How will we get a bannik if you don't take it seriously?”

  “I'll say if there's a bannik he should have a sense of humor.”

  “Hope he doesn't!” Sasha said, and wished if one was listening he would be patient. “Bannik, excuse him. He really means well.”

  “Probably,” Pyetr said, “he's still looking at the roof, thinking he could get a better job in Kiev.”


  “I know, I know.” Pyetr gave careful attention to the spot under his lip, shaving by touch. “But if there's an ill-tempered bannik about we don't need him and if he's a decent fellow he won't mind a joke.”

  “They're not a joking sort.”

  “That's a grim idea.”


  “Seeing the future and finding nothing to laugh about.” Pyetr dipped a cloth in the bucket and wiped his face. “A body's always got that, wherever he is. Here in the woods, for instance—one needs that, in the long winters...”

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