We walked in silence for a long time, moving up the mountain in slow switchbacks. In some spots, the trail was so narrow that I could do little more than cling to the mountainside, take tiny, shuffling steps, and hope the Saints were kind. Around noon, we descended the first slope and started up the second, which was, to my misery, even steeper and taller than the first.
I stared at the trail in front of me, putting one foot in front of the other, trying to shake my sense of hopelessness. The more I thought about it, the more I worried that Mal might be right. I couldn’t lose the feeling that I’d doomed both of us. The Darkling needed me alive, but what might he do to Mal? I’d been so focused on my own fear and my own future that I hadn’t given much thought to what Mal had done or what he’d chosen to give up. He could never go back to the army, to his friends, to being a decorated tracker. Worse, he was guilty of desertion, maybe of treason, and the penalty for that was death.
By dusk, we’d climbed high enough that the few scraggling trees had all but disappeared and winter frost still lay on the ground in places. We ate a meager dinner of hard cheese and stringy dried beef. Mal still didn’t think it was safe to build a fire, so we huddled beneath the blanket in silence, shivering against the howling wind, our shoulders barely touching.
I had almost dozed off when Mal suddenly said, “I’m taking us north tomorrow.”
My eyes flew open. “North?”
“You want to go after the stag?” I said in disbelief.
“I know I can find it.”
“If the Darkling hasn’t found it already!”
“No,” he said, and I felt him shake his head. “He’s still out there. I can feel it.”
His words reminded me eerily of what the Darkling had said on the path to Baghra’s cottage. The stag was meant for you, Alina. I can feel it.
“And what if the Darkling finds us first?” I asked.
“You can’t spend the rest of your life running, Alina. You said the stag could make you powerful. Powerful enough to fight him?”
“Then we have to do it.”
“If he catches us, he’ll kill you.”
“All Saints, Mal. Why did you come after me? What were you thinking?”
He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his short hair. “I didn’t think. We were halfway back to Tsibeya when we got orders to turn back around and hunt you. So that’s what I did. The hard part was leading the others away from you, especially after you basically announced yourself in Ryevost.”
“And now you’re a deserter.”
“Because of me.”
My throat ached with unshed tears, but I managed to keep my voice from shaking. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”
“I’m not afraid to die, Alina,” he said in that cold, steady voice that seemed so alien to me. “But I’d like to give us a fighting chance. We have to go after the stag.”
I thought about what he said for a long while. At last, I whispered, “Okay.”
All I got back was a snore. Mal was already asleep.
HE KEPT A BRUTAL PACE over the next few days but my pride, and maybe my fear, wouldn’t let me ask him to slow down. We saw an occasional goat skittering down the slopes above us and spent one night camped by a brilliant blue mountain lake, but those were rare breaks in the monotony of leaden rock and sullen sky.
Mal’s grim silences didn’t help. I wanted to know how he’d ended up tracking the stag for the Darkling and what his life had been like for the last five months, but my questions were met with terse one-word replies, and sometimes he just ignored me completely. When I was feeling particularly tired or hungry, I’d glare resentfully at his back and think about giving him a good whack over the head to get his attention. Most of the time, I just worried. I worried that Mal regretted his decision to come after me. I worried about the impossibility of finding the stag in the vastness of Tsibeya. But more than anything, I worried about what the Darkling might do to Mal if we were captured.
When we finally began the northwest descent out of the Petrazoi, I was thrilled to leave the barren mountains and their cold winds behind. My heart lifted as we descended below the tree line and into a welcoming wood. After days of scrabbling over hard ground, it was a pleasure to walk on soft beds of pine needles, to hear the rustle of animals in the underbrush and breathe air dense with the smell of sap.
We camped by a burbling creek, and when Mal began gathering twigs for a fire, I nearly broke out in song. I summoned a tiny, concentrated shaft of light to start the flames, but Mal didn’t seem particularly impressed. He disappeared into the woods and brought back a rabbit that we cleaned and roasted for dinner. With a bemused expression, he watched as I gobbled down my portion and then sighed, still hungry.
“You’d be a lot easier to feed if you hadn’t developed an appetite,” he groused, finishing his food and stretching out on his back, his head pillowed on his arm.
I ignored him. I was warm for the first time since I’d left the Little Palace, and nothing could spoil that bliss. Not even Mal’s snores.
WE NEEDED TO RESTOCK our supplies before we headed farther north into Tsibeya, but it took us another day and a half to find a hunting trail that led us to one of the villages that lay on the northwest side of the Petrazoi. The closer we got to civilization, the more nervous Mal got. He would disappear for long stretches, scouting ahead, keeping us moving parallel to the town’s main road. Early in the afternoon, he appeared wearing an ugly brown coat and a brown squirrel hat.
“Where did you find those?” I asked.
“I grabbed them from an unlocked house,” he said guiltily. “But I left a few coins. It’s eerie, though—the houses are all empty. I didn’t see anyone on the road either.”
“Maybe it’s Sunday,” I said. I had lost track of the days since I’d left the Little Palace. “They could all be at church.”
“Maybe,” he conceded. But he looked troubled as he buried his old army coat and hat beside a tree.
We were a half mile out from the village when we heard the drums. They got louder as we crept closer to the road, and soon we heard bells and fiddles, clapping and cheering. Mal climbed a tree to get a better view, and when he came down, some of the worry had gone from his face.
“There are people everywhere. There must be hundreds walking the road, and I can see the dom cart.”
“It’s butter week!” I exclaimed.
In the week before the spring fast, every nobleman was expected to ride out among his people in a dom cart, a cart laden with sweets and cheeses and baked breads. The parade would pass from the village church all the way back to the noble’s estate, where the public rooms would be thrown open to peasants and serfs, who were fed on tea and blini. The local girls wore red sarafan and flowers in their hair to celebrate the coming of spring.
Butter week had been the best time at the orphanage, when classes were cut short so that we could clean the house and help with the baking. Duke Keramsov had always timed his return from Os Alta to coincide with it. We would all ride out in the dom cart, and he would stop at every farm to drink kvas and pass out cakes and candies. Sitting beside the Duke, waving to the cheering villagers, we’d felt almost like nobility ourselves.
“Can we go look, Mal?” I asked eagerly.
He frowned, and I knew his caution was wrestling with some of our happiest memories from Keramzin. Then a little smile appeared on his lips. “All right. There are certainly enough people for us to blend in.”
We joined the crowds parading down the road, slipping in with the fiddlers and drummers, the little girls clutching branches tied with bright ribbons. As we passed through the village’s main street, shopkeepers stood in their doorways ringing bells and clapping their hands with the musicians. Mal stopped to buy furs and stock up on supplies, but when I saw him shove a wedge of hard cheese into his pack, I stuck out my tongue. If I never saw another piece of hard cheese again, it would be too soon.
Before Mal could tell me not to, I darted into the crowd, snaking between people trailing behind the dom cart where a red-cheeked man sat with a bottle of kvas in one chubby hand as he swayed from side to side, singing and tossing bread to the peasants crowding around the cart. I reached out and snatched a warm golden roll.
“For you, pretty girl!” the man shouted, practically toppling over.
The sweet roll smelled divine, and I thanked him, prancing my way back to Mal and feeling quite pleased with myself.
He grabbed my arm and pulled me down a muddy walkway between two houses. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Nobody saw me. He just thought I was another peasant girl.”
“We can’t take risks like that.”
“So you don’t want a bite?”
He hesitated. “I didn’t say that.”
“I was going to give you a bite, but since you don’t want one, I’ll just have to eat the whole thing myself.”
Mal grabbed for the roll, but I danced out of reach, dodging left and right, away from his hands. I could see his surprise, and I loved it. I wasn’t the same clumsy girl he remembered.
“You are a brat,” he growled and took another swipe.
“Ah, but I’m a brat with a sweet roll.”
I don’t know which of us heard it first, but we both stood up straight, suddenly aware that we had company. Two men had snuck up right behind us in the empty alleyway. Before Mal could even turn around, one of the men was holding a dirty-looking knife to his throat, and the other had clapped his filthy hand over my mouth.
“Quiet now,” rasped the man with the knife. “Or I’ll open both your throats.” He had greasy hair and a comically long face.
I eyed the blade at Mal’s neck and nodded slightly. The other man’s hand slid away from my mouth, but he kept a firm grip on my arm.
“Coin,” said Longface.
“You’re robbing us?” I burst out.
“That’s right,” hissed the man holding me, giving me a shake.
I couldn’t help it. I was so relieved and surprised that we weren’t being captured that a little giggle bubbled out of me.
The thieves and Mal both looked at me like I was crazy.
“A bit simple, is she?” asked the man holding me.
“Yeah,” Mal said, glaring at me with eyes that clearly said shut up. “A bit.”
“Money,” said Longface. “Now.”
Mal reached carefully into his coat and pulled out his money bag, handing it over to Longface, who grunted and frowned at its light weight.
“That it? What’s in the pack?”
“Not much, some furs and food,” Mal replied.
Slowly, Mal unshouldered his pack and opened the top, giving the thieves a view of the contents. His rifle, wrapped in a wool blanket, was clearly visible at the top.
“Ah,” said Longface. “Now, that’s a nice rifle. Isn’t it, Lev?”