Sometime near dawn, I let myself summon a little sunlight to dry my boots and warm my clammy hands. I dozed and dreamed of Baghra holding my own knife to my throat, her laugh a dry rattle in my ear.
I awoke to the pounding of my heart and the sounds of movement in the woods around me. I had fallen asleep slumped against the base of a tree, hidden—I hoped—behind the copse of bushes. From where I sat, I could see no one, but I could hear voices in the distance. I hesitated, frozen in place, unsure of what to do. If I moved, I risked giving away my position, but if I stayed silent, it would only be a matter of time before they found me.
My heart began to race as the sounds grew closer. Through the leaves, I glimpsed a stocky, bearded soldier. He had a rifle in his hands, but I knew there was no chance that they would kill me. I was too valuable. It gave me an advantage, if I was willing to die.
They’re not going to take me. The thought came to me with sure and sudden clarity. I won’t go back.
I flicked my wrist and a mirror slid into my left hand. With my other hand I pulled out my knife, feeling the weight of Grisha steel in my palm. Silently, I drew myself into a crouch and waited, listening. I was frightened, but I was surprised to find that some part of me felt eager.
I watched the bearded soldier through the leaves, circling closer until he was just feet from me. I could see a bead of sweat trickling down his neck, the morning light gleaming off his rifle barrel, and for a moment, I thought he might be looking right at me. A call sounded from deep in the woods. The soldier shouted back to them. “Nichyevo!” Nothing.
And then, to my amazement, he turned and walked away from me.
I listened as the sounds faded, the voices growing more distant, the footfalls more faint. Could I possibly be so lucky? Had they somehow mistaken an animal’s trail or another traveler’s for mine? Or was it some kind of trick? I waited, my body trembling, until all I could hear was the relative quiet of the wood, the calls of insects and birds, the rustle of the wind in the trees.
At last, I slid the mirror back into my glove and took a deep, shuddering breath. I returned my knife to its sheath and slowly rose out of my crouch. I reached for my still-damp coat lying in a crumpled heap on the ground and froze at the unmistakable sound of a soft step behind me.
I spun on my heel, my heart in my throat, and saw a figure partially hidden by branches, only a few feet from me. I’d been so focused on the bearded soldier that I hadn’t realized there was someone behind me. In an instant, the knife was back in my hand, the mirror held high as the figure emerged silently from the trees. I stared, sure I must be hallucinating.
I opened my mouth to speak, but he put his finger to his lips in warning, his gaze locked on mine. He waited a moment, listening, then gestured to me to follow and melted back into the woods. I grabbed my coat and hurried after him, doing my best to keep up. It was no easy task. He moved silently, slipping like a shadow through the branches, as if he could see paths invisible to others’ eyes.
He led me back to the stream, to a shallow bend where we were able to slog across. I cringed as the icy water poured into my boots again. When we emerged on the other side, he circled back to cover our tracks.
I was bursting with questions, and my mind kept jumping from one thought to the next. How had Mal found me? Had he been tracking me with the other soldiers? What did it mean that he was helping me? I wanted to reach out and touch him to make sure he was real. I wanted to throw my arms around him in gratitude. I wanted to punch him in the eye for the things he’d said to me that night at the Little Palace.
We walked for hours in complete silence. Periodically, he would gesture for me to stop, and I would wait as he disappeared into the underbrush to hide our tracks. Sometime in the afternoon, we began climbing a rocky path. I wasn’t sure where the stream had spit me out, but I felt fairly certain that he must be leading me into the Petrazoi.
Each step was agony. My boots were still wet, and fresh blisters formed on my heels and toes. My miserable night in the woods had left me with a pounding headache, and I was dizzy from lack of food, but I wasn’t about to complain. I kept quiet as he led me up the mountain and then off the trail, scrabbling over rocks until my legs were shaking with fatigue and my throat burned with thirst. When Mal finally stopped, we were high up the mountain, hidden from view by an enormous outcropping of rock and a few scraggly pines.
“Here,” he said, dropping his pack. He slid sure-footed back down the mountain, and I knew he was going to try to cover the traces of my clumsy progress over the rocks.
Gratefully, I sank to the ground and closed my eyes. My feet were throbbing, but I was worried that if I took my boots off, I would never get them back on again. My head drooped, but I couldn’t let myself sleep. Not yet. I had a thousand questions, but only one couldn’t wait until morning.
Dusk was falling by the time Mal returned, moving silently over the terrain. He sat down across from me and pulled a canteen from his pack. After taking a swig, he swiped his hand over his mouth and passed the water to me. I drank deeply.
“Slow down,” he said. “That has to last us through tomorrow.”
“Sorry.” I handed the canteen back to him.
“We can’t risk a fire tonight,” he said, gazing out into the gathering dark. “Maybe tomorrow.”
I nodded. My coat had dried during our trek up the mountain, though the sleeves were still a little damp. I felt rumpled, dirty, and cold. Mostly, I was just reeling over the miracle that was sitting in front of me. That would have to wait. I was terrified of the answer, but I had to ask.
“Mal.” I waited for him to look at me. “Did you find the herd? Did you capture Morozova’s stag?”
He tapped his hand on his knee. “Why is it so important?”
“It’s a long story. I need to know, does he have the stag?”
“They’re close, though?”
He nodded. “But …”
Mal hesitated. In the remnants of the afternoon light, I saw a ghost of the cocky smile I knew so well playing on his lips. “I don’t think they’ll find it without me.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Because you’re just that good?”
“No,” he said, serious again. “Maybe. Don’t get me wrong. They’re good trackers, the best in the First Army, but … you have to have a feel for tracking the herd. They aren’t ordinary animals.”
And you’re no ordinary tracker, I thought but didn’t say. I watched him, thinking of what the Darkling had once said about not understanding our own gifts. Could there be more to Mal’s talent than just luck or practice? He’d certainly never suffered from a lack of confidence, but I didn’t think this was about conceit.
“I hope you’re right,” I murmured.
“Now you answer a question for me,” he said, and there was a harsh edge to his voice. “Why did you run?”
For the first time, I realized that Mal had no idea why I’d fled the Little Palace, why the Darkling was searching for me. The last time I’d seen him, I’d essentially ordered him out of my sight, but still he’d left everything behind and come for me. He deserved an explanation, but I had no idea where to begin. I sighed and rubbed a hand over my face. What had I gotten us into?
“If I told you that I’m trying to save the world, would you believe me?”
He stared at me, his eyes hard. “So this isn’t some kind of lovers’ quarrel where you turn around and go running back to him?”
“No!” I exclaimed in shock. “It’s not … we’re not …” I was at a loss for words and then I just had to laugh. “I wish it were something like that.”
Mal was quiet for a long time. Then, as if he’d reached some kind of decision, he said, “All right.” He stood up, stretched, and slung his rifle over his shoulder. Then he drew a thick wool blanket from his pack and tossed it to me.
“Get some rest,” he said. “I’ll take the first watch.” He turned his back on me, looking out at the moon rising high over the valley we had left behind.
I curled up on the hard ground, pulling the blanket tight around me for warmth. Despite my discomfort, my eyelids felt heavy and I could feel exhaustion dragging me under.
“Mal,” I whispered into the night.
“Thanks for finding me.”
I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming, but somewhere in the dark, I thought I heard him whisper, “Always.”
I let sleep take me.
MAL TOOK BOTH watches and let me sleep the night through. In the morning, he handed me a strip of dried meat and said simply, “Talk.”
I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I started with the worst of it. “The Darkling plans to use the Shadow Fold as a weapon.”
Mal didn’t even blink. “How?”
“He’ll expand it, spread it through Ravka and Fjerda and anywhere else he meets resistance. But he can’t do it without me to keep the volcra at bay. How much do you know about Morozova’s stag?”
“Not much. Just that it’s valuable.” He looked out over the valley. “And that it was intended for you. We were supposed to locate the herd and capture or corner the stag, but not harm it.”
I nodded and tried to explain the little bit I knew about the way amplifiers worked, how Ivan had to slay the Sherborn bear, and Marie had to kill the northern seal. “A Grisha has to earn an amplifier,” I finished. “The same thing is true for the stag, but it was never meant for me.”
“Let’s walk,” Mal said abruptly. “You can tell me the rest while we’re moving. I want to get us deeper into the mountains.”
He shoved the blanket into his pack and did his best to hide any signs that we’d ever made camp there. Then he led us up a steep and rocky trail. His bow was tied to his pack, but he kept his rifle at the ready.
My feet protested every step, but I followed and did my best to tell the rest of the story. I told him everything that Baghra had told me, about the origins of the Fold, about the collar that the Darkling intended to fashion so that he could use my power, and finally about the ship waiting in Os Kervo.
When I finished, Mal said, “You shouldn’t have listened to Baghra.”
“How can you say that?” I demanded.
He turned suddenly, and I almost ran right into him. “What do you think will happen if you make it to the Fold? If you make it onto that ship? Do you think his power stops at the shore of the True Sea?”
“It’s just a question of time before he finds you and slaps that collar around your neck.”
He turned on his heel and marched up the trail, leaving me standing, dazed, behind him. I made my legs move and hurried to catch up.
Maybe Baghra’s plan was a weak one, but what choice had either of us had? I remembered her fierce grip, the fear in her feverish eyes. She’d never expected the Darkling would really locate Morozova’s herd. The night of the winter fete, she’d been genuinely panicked, but she’d tried to help me. If she’d been as ruthless as her son, she might have dispensed with risk and slit my throat instead. And maybe we all would have been better off, I thought dismally.