They were foolish thoughts. Tsibeya was an inhospitable place, a wild and empty world of bitter winters and grueling summers. And we weren’t strange and ancient creatures who roamed the earth at twilight. We were just Mal and Alina, and we could not stay ahead of our pursuers forever. A dark thought that had flitted through my head for days now finally settled. I sighed, knowing that I had put off talking to Mal about this problem for too long. It was irresponsible, and given how much we’d both risked, I couldn’t let it continue.
That night, Mal was almost asleep, his breathing deep and even, before I worked up the courage to speak.
“Mal,” I began. Instantly, he came awake, tension flooding through his body, as he sat up and reached for his knife. “No,” I said, laying a hand on his arm. “Everything’s all right. But I need to talk to you.”
“Now?” he grumbled, flopping down and throwing his arm back around me.
I sighed. I wanted to just lie there in the dark, listening to the rustle of the wind in the grass, warm in this feeling of safety, however illusory. But I knew I couldn’t. “I need you to do something for me.”
He snorted. “You mean other than deserting the army, scaling mountains, and freezing my ass off on the cold ground every night?”
“Hmmph,” he grumbled noncommittally, his breath already returning to the deep, even rhythm of sleep.
“Mal,” I said clearly, “if we don’t make it … if they catch up to us before we find the stag, you can’t let him take me.”
He went perfectly still. I could actually feel his heart beating. He was quiet for so long that I began to think he’d fallen back asleep.
Then he said, “You can’t ask that of me.”
“I have to.”
He sat up, pushing away from me, rubbing a hand over his face. I sat up too, drawing the furs tighter around my shoulders, watching him in the moonlight.
“You can’t just say no, Mal.”
“You asked, I answered. No.”
He stood up and walked a few steps away.
“If he puts that collar on me, you know what it will mean, how many people will die because of me. I can’t let that happen. I can’t be responsible for that.”
“You had to know this was a possibility when we headed north, Mal.”
He turned and strode back, dropping into a crouch in front of me so that he could look into my eyes.
“I won’t kill you, Alina.”
“You may have to.”
“No,” he repeated, shaking his head, looking away from me. “No, no, no.”
I took his face in my cold hands, turning his head until he had to meet my gaze.
“I can’t, Alina. I can’t.”
“Mal, that night at the Little Palace, you said the Darkling owned me.”
He winced slightly. “I was angry. I didn’t mean—”
“If he gets that collar, he really will own me. Completely. And he’ll turn me into a monster. Please, Mal. I need to know you won’t let that happen to me.”
“How can you ask me to do this?”
“Who else could I ask?”
He looked at me, his face full of desperation and anger and something else I couldn’t read. Finally, he nodded once.
“Promise me, Mal.” His mouth set in a grim line, and a muscle twitched in his jaw. I hated doing this to him, but I had to be sure. “Promise me.”
“I promise,” he said hoarsely.
I breathed a long sigh, feeling relief flood through me. I leaned forward, resting my forehead against his, closing my eyes. “Thank you.”
We stayed like that for a long moment, then he leaned back. When I opened my eyes, he was looking at me. His face was inches from mine, near enough that I could feel his warm breath. I dropped my hands from his stubbled cheeks, suddenly aware of just how close we were. He stared at me for a moment and then stood abruptly and walked into the dark.
I stayed awake for a long time, cold and miserable, gazing into the night. I knew he was out there, moving silently through the new grass, carrying the weight of the burden I had placed on him. I was sorry for it, but I was glad that it was done. I waited for him to return, but finally I fell asleep, alone beneath the stars.
WE SPENT THE NEXT few days in the areas surrounding Chernast, scouring miles of terrain for signs of Morozova’s herd, drawing as close to the outpost as we dared. With every passing day, Mal’s mood darkened. He tossed in his sleep and barely ate. Sometimes I woke to him thrashing about under the furs mumbling, “Where are you? Where are you?”
He saw signs of other people—broken branches, displaced rocks, patterns that were invisible to me until he pointed them out—but no signs of the stag.
Then one morning, he shook me awake before dawn.
“Get up,” he said. “They’re close, I can feel it.” He was already pulling the furs off me and shoving them back into his pack.
“Hey!” I complained, barely awake, trying to yank back the covers to no avail. “What about breakfast?”
He tossed me a piece of hardtack. “Eat and walk. I want to try the western trails today. I have a feeling.”
“But yesterday you thought we should head east.”
“That was yesterday,” he said, already shouldering his pack and striding into the tall grass. “Get moving. We need to find that stag so I don’t have to chop your head off.”
“I never said you had to chop my head off,” I grumbled, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and stumbling after him.
“Run you through with a sword, then? Firing squad?”
“I was thinking something quieter, like maybe a nice poison.”
“All you said was that I had to kill you. You didn’t say how.”
I stuck my tongue out at his back, but I was glad to see him so energized, and I supposed it was a good thing that he could joke about it all. At least, I hoped he was joking.
The western trails took us through groves of squat larches and past meadows clustered with fireweed and red lichen. Mal moved with purpose, his step light as always.
The air felt cool and damp, and a few times I caught him glancing nervously up at the overcast sky, but he drove onward. Late in the afternoon, we reached a low hill that sloped gently down into a broad plateau covered in pale grass. Mal paced along the top of the slope, ranging west and then east. He walked down the hill and up the hill, and down it again, until I thought I would scream. At last, he led us to the leeward side of a large cluster of boulders, slid his pack off his shoulders, and said, “Here.”
I shook a fur out on the cold ground and sat down to wait, watching Mal pace uneasily back and forth. Finally, he sat down beside me, eyes trained on the plateau, one hand resting lightly on his bow. I knew that he was imagining them there, picturing the herd emerging from the horizon, white bodies glowing in the gathering dusk, breath pluming in the cold. Maybe he was willing them to appear. This seemed like the right place for the stag—fresh with new grass and spotted with tiny blue lakes that shone like coins in the setting sun.
The sun melted away and we watched the plateau turn blue in the twilight. We waited, listening to the sound of our own breath and the wind moaning over the vastness of Tsibeya. But as the light faded, the plateau stayed empty.
The moon rose, obscured by clouds. Mal didn’t move. He sat still as stone, staring out into the reaches of the plateau, his blue eyes distant. I pulled the other fur from the pack and wrapped it around his shoulders and mine. Here, in the lee of the rock, we were protected from the worst of the wind, but it wasn’t much for shelter.
Then he sighed deeply and squinted up at the night sky. “It’s going to snow. I should have taken us into the woods, but I thought …” He shook his head. “I was so sure.”
“It’s okay,” I said, leaning my head against his shoulder. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“Our supplies won’t last forever, and every day we’re out here is another chance for us to get caught.”
“Tomorrow,” I said again.
“For all we know, he’s found the herd already. He’s killed the stag and now they’re just hunting us.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Mal said nothing. I pulled the fur up higher and I let the tiniest bit of light blossom from my hand.
“What are you doing?”
“It isn’t safe,” he said, yanking the fur up to hide the light that shone warm and golden on his face.
“We haven’t seen another living soul for over a week. And staying hidden won’t do us much good if we freeze to death.”
He frowned but then he reached out, letting his fingers play in the light, and said, “That’s really something.”
“Thanks,” I said, smiling.
“Mikhael is dead.”
The light sputtered in my hand. “What?”
“He’s dead. He was killed in Fjerda. Dubrov, too.”
I sat frozen in shock. I’d never liked Mikhael or Dubrov, but none of that mattered now. “I didn’t realize …” I hesitated. “How did it happen?”
For a moment, I didn’t know if he would answer or even if I should have asked. He stared at the light that still glimmered from my hand, his thoughts far away.
“We were way up north near the permafrost, way past the outpost at Chernast,” he said quietly. “We had hunted the stag almost all the way into Fjerda. The captain came up with this idea that a few of us should cross the border disguised as Fjerdans and keep tracking the herd. It was stupid, ridiculous really. Even if we managed to get through the border country undiscovered, what were we supposed to do if we caught up with the herd? We had orders not to kill the stag, so we’d have to capture it and then somehow get it back over the border into Ravka. It was insane.”
I nodded. It did sound crazy.
“So that night, Mikhael and Dubrov and I laughed about it, talked about how it was a suicide mission and how the captain was a complete idiot, and we toasted the poor bastards who got stuck with the job. And the next morning I volunteered.”
“Why?” I said, startled.
Mal was silent again. At last, he said, “You saved my life on the Shadow Fold, Alina.”
“And you saved mine,” I countered, unsure of what any of that had to do with a suicide mission into Fjerda. But Mal didn’t seem to hear me.
“You saved my life and then in the Grisha tent, when they led you away, I didn’t do anything. I stood there and let him take you.”
“What were you supposed to do, Mal?”
He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “I know it doesn’t make sense. But it’s how I felt. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing you walk away, seeing you disappear.”
I thought of all the nights I had lain awake in the Little Palace, remembering my last glimpse of Mal’s face vanishing into the crowd as the Darkling’s guards led me away, wondering if I would ever see him again. I had missed him so terribly, but I had never really believed that Mal might be missing me just as much.