“I knew we were hunting the stag for the Darkling,” Mal continued. “I thought … I had this idea that if I found the herd, I could help you. I could help to make things right.” He glanced at me and the knowledge of how very wrong he had been passed between us. “Mikhael didn’t know any of that. But he was my friend, so like an ass, he volunteered, too. And then, of course, Dubrov had to sign on. I told them not to, but Mikhael just laughed and said he wasn’t going to let me get all the glory.”
“Nine of us crossed the border, six soldiers and three trackers. Two of us came back.”
His words hung in the air, cold and final. Seven men dead in pursuit of the stag. And how many others that I didn’t know about? But even as I thought it, a disturbing idea entered my mind: How many lives could the stag’s power save? Mal and I were refugees, born to the wars that had raged at Ravka’s borders for so long. What if the Darkling and the terrible power of the Shadow Fold could stop all that? Could silence Ravka’s enemies and make us safe forever?
Not just Ravka’s enemies, I reminded myself. Anyone who stands against the Darkling, anyone who dares oppose him. The Darkling would make the world a wasteland before he ceded one bit of power.
Mal rubbed a hand over his tired face. “It was all for nothing anyway. The herd crossed back into Ravka when the weather turned. We could have just waited for the stag to come to us.”
I looked at Mal, at his distant eyes and the hard set of his scarred jaw. He looked nothing like the boy I’d known. He’d been trying to help me when he went after the stag. That meant that I was partially responsible for the change in him, and it broke my heart to think of it.
“I’m sorry, Mal. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Alina. I made my own choices. But those choices got my friends killed.”
I wanted to throw my arms around him and hug him close. But I couldn’t, not with this new Mal. Maybe not with the old one either, I admitted to myself. We weren’t children anymore. The ease of our closeness was a thing of the past. I reached out and laid a hand on his arm.
“If it’s not my fault, then it’s not yours either, Mal. Mikhael and Dubrov made their own choices, too. Mikhael wanted to be a good friend to you. And for all you know, he had his own reasons for wanting to track the stag. He wasn’t a child, and he wouldn’t want to be remembered as one.”
Mal didn’t look at me, but after a moment he laid his hand over mine. We were still sitting that way when the first flakes of snow began to fall.
MY LIGHT KEPT US warm through the night in the lee of the rock. Sometimes I dozed off and Mal had to nudge me awake so that I could pull sun across the dark and starlit stretches of Tsibeya to warm us beneath the furs.
When we emerged the next morning, the sun shone brightly over a world blanketed in white. This far north, snow was common well into spring, but it was hard not to feel that the weather was just another part of our bad luck. Mal took one look at the pristine expanse of the meadow and gave a disgusted shake of his head. I didn’t have to ask what he was thinking. If the herd had been close by, any sign they had left would have been covered by the snow. But we would leave plenty of tracks for anyone else to follow.
Without a word, we shook out the furs and stowed them away. Mal tied his bow to his pack, and we began the trek across the plateau. It was slow going. Mal did what he could to disguise our tracks, but it was clear that we were in serious trouble.
I knew Mal blamed himself for not being able to find the stag, but I didn’t know how to fix that. Tsibeya felt somehow bigger than it had the previous day. Or maybe I just felt smaller.
Eventually, the meadow gave way to groves of thin silver birches and dense clusters of pines, their branches laden with snow. Mal’s pace slowed. He looked exhausted, dark shadows lingering beneath his blue eyes. On an impulse, I slid my gloved hand into his. I thought he might pull away, but instead, he squeezed my fingers. We walked on that way, hand in hand through the late afternoon, the pine boughs clustered in a canopy high above us as we moved deeper into the dark heart of the woods.
Around sunset, we emerged from the trees into a little glade where the snow lay in heavy, perfect drifts that glittered in the fading light. We slipped into the stillness, our footfalls muffled by the snow. It was late. I knew we should be making camp, finding shelter. Instead, we stood there in silence, hands clasped, watching the day disappear.
“Alina?” he said quietly. “I’m sorry. For what I said that night, at the Little Palace.”
I glanced at him, surprised. Somehow, that all felt like such a long time ago. “I’m sorry, too,” I said.
“And I’m sorry for everything else.”
I squeezed his hand. “I knew we didn’t have much chance of finding the stag.”
“No,” he said, looking away from me. “No, not for that. I … When I came after you, I thought I was doing it because you saved my life, because I owed you something.”
My heart gave a little twist. The idea that Mal had come after me to pay off some kind of imagined debt was more painful than I’d expected. “And now?”
“Now I don’t know what to think. I just know everything is different.”
My heart gave another miserable twist. “I know,” I whispered.
“Do you? That night at the palace when I saw you on that stage with him, you looked so happy. Like you belonged with him. I can’t get that picture out of my head.”
“I was happy,” I admitted. “In that moment, I was happy. I’m not like you, Mal. I never really fit in the way that you did. I never really belonged anywhere.”
“You belonged with me,” he said quietly.
“No, Mal. Not really. Not for a long time.”
He looked at me then, and his eyes were deep blue in the twilight. “Did you miss me, Alina? Did you miss me when you were gone?”
“Every day,” I said honestly.
“I missed you every hour. And you know what the worst part was? It caught me completely by surprise. I’d catch myself walking around to find you, not for any reason, just out of habit, because I’d seen something that I wanted to tell you about or because I wanted to hear your voice. And then I’d realize that you weren’t there anymore, and every time, every single time, it was like having the wind knocked out of me. I’ve risked my life for you. I’ve walked half the length of Ravka for you, and I’d do it again and again and again just to be with you, just to starve with you and freeze with you and hear you complain about hard cheese every day. So don’t tell me we don’t belong together,” he said fiercely. He was very close now, and my heart was suddenly hammering in my chest. “I’m sorry it took me so long to see you, Alina. But I see you now.”
He lowered his head, and I felt his lips on mine. The world seemed to go silent and all I knew was the feel of his hand in mine as he drew me closer, and the warm press of his mouth.
I thought that I’d given up on Mal. I thought the love I’d had for him belonged to the past, to the foolish, lonely girl I never wanted to be again. I’d tried to bury that girl and the love she’d felt, just as I’d tried to bury my power. But I wouldn’t make that mistake again. Whatever burned between us was just as bright, just as undeniable. The moment our lips met, I knew with pure and piercing certainty that I would have waited for him forever.
He pulled back from me, and my eyes fluttered open. He raised a gloved hand to cup my face, his gaze searching mine. Then, from the corner of my eye, I caught a flickering movement.
“Mal,” I breathed softly, gazing over his shoulder, “look.”
Several white bodies emerged from the trees, their graceful necks bent to nibble at the grasses on the edge of the snowy glade. In the middle of Morozova’s herd stood a massive white stag. He looked at us with great dark eyes, his silvery antlers gleaming in the half light.
In one swift movement, Mal drew his bow from the side of his pack. “I’ll bring it down, Alina. You have to make the kill,” he said.
“Wait,” I whispered, laying a hand on his arm.
The stag walked slowly forward and stopped just a few yards from us. I could see his sides rising and falling, the flare of his nostrils, the fog of his breath in the chill air.
He watched us with eyes dark and liquid. I walked toward him.
“Alina!” Mal whispered.
The stag didn’t move as I approached him, not even when I reached out my hand and laid it on his warm muzzle. His ears twitched slightly, his hide glowing milky white in the deepening gloom. I thought of everything Mal and I had given up, the risks we’d taken. I thought about the weeks we had spent tracking the herd, the cold nights, the miserable days of endless walking, and I was glad of it all. Glad to be here and alive on this chilly night. Glad that Mal was beside me. I looked into the stag’s dark eyes and knew the feel of the earth beneath his steady hooves, the smell of pine in his nostrils, the powerful beat of his heart. I knew I could not be the one to end his life.
“Alina,” Mal murmured urgently, “we don’t have much time. You know what you have to do.”
I shook my head. I could not break the stag’s dark gaze. “No, Mal. We’ll find another way.”
The sound was like a soft whistle on the air followed by a dull thunk as the arrow found its target. The stag bellowed and reared up, an arrow blooming from his chest, and then crumpled to his forelegs. I staggered backward as the rest of the herd took flight, scattering into the forest. Mal was beside me in an instant, his bow at the ready, as the clearing filled with charcoal-clad oprichniki and Grisha cloaked in blue and red.
“You should have listened to him, Alina.” The voice came clear and cold out of the shadows, and the Darkling stepped into the glade, a grim smile playing on his lips, his black kefta flowing behind him like an ebony stain.
The stag had fallen on his side and lay in the snow, breathing heavily, his black eyes wide and panicked.
I felt Mal move before I saw him. He turned his bow on the stag and let fly, but a blue-robed Squaller stepped forward, his hand arcing through the air. The arrow swerved left, falling harmlessly into the snow.
Mal reached for another arrow and at the same moment the Darkling threw his hand out, sending a black ribbon of darkness rippling toward us. I raised my hands and light shot from my fingers, shattering the darkness easily.
But it had only been a diversion. The Darkling turned on the stag, lifting his arm in a gesture I knew only too well. “No!” I screamed and, without thinking, I threw myself in front of the stag. I closed my eyes, ready to feel myself torn in half by the Cut, but the Darkling must have turned his body at the last moment. The tree behind me split open with a loud crack, tendrils of darkness spilling from the wound. He’d spared me, but he’d also spared the stag.
All humor was gone from the Darkling’s face as he slammed his hands together and a huge wall of rippling darkness surged forward, engulfing us and the stag. I didn’t have to think. Light bloomed in a pulsing, glowing sphere, surrounding me and Mal, keeping the darkness at bay and blinding our attackers. For a moment, we were at a stalemate. They couldn’t see us and we couldn’t see them. The darkness swirled around the bubble of light, pushing to get in.