My curiosity got the best of me, and I edged forward to get a better view. It looked like a cluster of sharp black claws.
“What are they?”
“My amplifier,” Ivan said with pride. “The claws from the forepaw of a Sherborn bear. I killed it myself when I left school and joined the Darkling’s service.” He leaned back in his seat and tucked the chain into his collar.
“An amplifier increases a Grisha’s power,” said Fedyor. “But the power must be there to begin with.”
“Do all Grisha have them?” I asked.
Fedyor stiffened. “No,” he said. “Amplifiers are rare and hard to obtain.”
“Only the Darkling’s most favored Grisha have them,” Ivan said smugly. I was sorry I’d asked.
“The Darkling is a living amplifier,” Fedyor said. “That’s what you felt.”
“Like the claws? That’s his power?”
“One of his powers,” corrected Ivan.
I pulled the kefta tighter around me, feeling suddenly cold. I remembered the surety that had flooded through me with the Darkling’s touch, and that strangely familiar sensation of a call echoing through me, a call that demanded an answer. It had been frightening, but exhilarating, too. In that moment, all my doubt and fear had been replaced by a kind of absolute certainty. I was no one, a refugee from an unnamed village, a scrawny, clumsy girl hurtling alone through the gathering dark. But when the Darkling had closed his fingers around my wrist, I’d felt different, like something more. I shut my eyes and tried to focus, tried to remember that feeling of certainty, to bring that sure and perfect power into blazing life. But nothing happened.
I sighed and opened my eyes. Ivan looked highly amused. The urge to kick him was almost overwhelming.
“You’re all in for a big disappointment,” I muttered.
“For your sake, I hope you’re wrong,” said Ivan.
“For all our sakes,” said Fedyor.
I LOST TRACK OF TIME. Night and day passed through the windows of the coach. I spent most of my time staring out at the landscape, searching for landmarks to give me some sense of the familiar. I’d expected that we would take side roads, but instead we stuck to the Vy, and Fedyor explained that the Darkling had opted for speed over stealth. He was hoping to get me safe behind Os Alta’s double walls before rumor of my power spread to the enemy spies and assassins who operated within Ravka’s borders.
We kept a brutal pace. Occasionally, we stopped to change horses and I was allowed to stretch my legs. When I was able to sleep, my dreams were plagued by monsters.
Once, I awoke with a start, my heart pounding, to find Fedyor watching me. Ivan was asleep beside him, snoring loudly.
“Who’s Mal?” he asked.
I realized I must have been talking in my sleep. Embarrassed, I glanced at the oprichniki guards flanking me. One stared impassively forward. The other was dozing. Outside, the afternoon sun shone through a grove of birchwood trees as we rumbled past.
“No one,” I said. “A friend.”
I nodded. “He was with me on the Shadow Fold. He saved my life.”
“And you saved his.”
I opened my mouth to disagree, but stopped. Had I saved Mal’s life? The thought brought me up short.
“It’s a great honor,” said Fedyor. “To save a life. You saved many.”
“Not enough,” I murmured, thinking of the terrified look on Alexei’s face as he was pulled into the darkness. If I had this power, why hadn’t I been able to save him? Or any of the others who had perished on the Fold? I looked at Fedyor. “If you really believe that saving a life is an honor, then why not become a Healer instead of a Heartrender?”
Fedyor considered the passing scenery. “Of all Grisha, Corporalki have the hardest road. We require the most training and the most study. At the end of it all, I felt I could save more lives as a Heartrender.”
“As a killer?” I asked in surprise.
“As a soldier,” Fedyor corrected. He shrugged. “To kill or to cure?” he said with a sad smile. “We each have our own gifts.” Abruptly, his expression changed. He sat up straight and jabbed Ivan in the side. “Wake up!”
The coach had stopped. I looked around in confusion. “Are we—,” I began, but the guard beside me clapped a hand over my mouth and put a finger to his lips.
The coach door flew open and a soldier ducked his head in.
“There’s a fallen tree across the road,” he said. “But it could be a trap. Be alert and—”
He never finished his sentence. A shot rang out and he fell forward, a bullet in his back. Suddenly, the air was full of panicked cries and the teeth-rattling sound of rifle fire as a volley of bullets struck the coach.
“Get down!” yelled the guard beside me, shielding my body with his own as Ivan kicked the dead soldier out of the way and pulled the door closed.
“Fjerdans,” said the guard, peering outside.
Ivan turned to Fedyor and the guard beside me. “Fedyor, go with him. You take this side. We’ll take the other. At all costs, defend the coach.”
Fedyor pulled a large knife from his belt and handed it to me. “Stay close to the floor and stay quiet.”
The Grisha waited with the guards, crouching by the windows, then at a signal from Ivan they leapt from either side of the coach, slamming the doors behind them. I huddled on the floor, clutching the knife’s heavy hilt, my knees to my chest, my back pressed against the base of the seat. Outside, I could hear the sounds of fighting, metal on metal, grunts and shouts, horses whinnying. The coach shook as a body slammed against the glass of the window. I saw with horror that it was one of my guards. His body left a red smear against the glass as he slid from view.
The coach door flew open and a man with a wild, yellow-bearded face appeared. I scrambled to the other side of the coach, the knife held out before me. He barked something to his compatriots in his strange Fjerdan tongue and reached for my leg. As I kicked out at him, the door behind me opened and I nearly tumbled into another bearded man. He grabbed me under the arms, pulling me roughly from the coach as I howled and slashed out with the knife.
I must have made contact, because he cursed and loosened his grip on me. I struggled to my feet and ran. We were in a wooded glen where the Vy narrowed to pass between two sloping hills. All around me, soldiers and Grisha were fighting with bearded men. Trees burst into flames, caught in the line of Grisha fire. I saw Fedyor throw his hand out, and the man before him crumpled to the ground, clutching his chest, blood trickling from his mouth.
I ran without direction, clambering up the nearest hill, my feet slipping on the fallen leaves that covered the forest floor, my breath coming in gasps. I made it halfway up the slope before I was tackled from behind. I fell forward, the knife flying from my hands as I put my arms out to break my fall.
I twisted and kicked as the yellow-bearded man grabbed hold of my legs. I looked desperately down to the glen, but the soldiers and Grisha below me were fighting for their lives, clearly outnumbered and unable to come to my aid. I struggled and thrashed, but the Fjerdan was too strong. He climbed on top of me, using his knees to pin my arms to my sides, and reached for his knife.
“I’ll gut you right here, witch,” he snarled in a heavy Fjerdan accent.
At that moment, I heard the pounding of hooves and my attacker turned his head to look down at the road.
A group of riders roared into the glen, their kefta streaming red and blue, their hands blazing fire and thunder. The lead rider was dressed in black.
The Darkling slid from his mount and threw his hands wide, then brought them together with a resounding boom. Skeins of darkness shot from his clasped hands, snaking through the glen, finding the Fjerdan assassins, then slithering up their bodies to swathe their faces in seething shadow. They screamed. Some dropped their swords; others waved them blindly.
I watched in mingled awe and horror as the Ravkan fighters seized the advantage, cutting down the blinded, helpless men with ease.
The bearded man on top of me muttered something I did not understand. I thought it might be a prayer. He was staring, frozen, at the Darkling, his terror palpable. I took my chance.
“I’m here!” I called down the hillside.
The Darkling’s head turned. He raised his hands.
“Nej!” bleated the Fjerdan, his knife held high. “I don’t need to see to put my knife through her heart!”
I held my breath. Silence fell in the glen, broken only by the moans of dying men. The Darkling dropped his hands.
“You must realize that you’re surrounded,” he said calmly, his voice carrying through the trees.
The assassin’s gaze darted right and left, then up to the crest of the hill where Ravkan soldiers were emerging, rifles at the ready. As the Fjerdan looked around frantically, the Darkling edged a few steps up the slope.
“No closer!” the man shrieked.
The Darkling stopped. “Give her to me,” he said, “and I’ll let you scurry back to your king.”
The assassin gave a crazed little giggle. “Oh no, oh no. I don’t think so,” he said, shaking his head, his knife held high above my pounding heart, its cruel point gleaming in the sun. “The Darkling doesn’t spare lives.” He looked down at me. His lashes were light blond, almost invisible. “He will not have you,” he crooned softly. “He will not have the witch. He will not have this power, too.” He raised the knife higher and yowled, “Skirden Fjerda!”
The knife plunged down in a shining arc. I turned my head, squeezing my eyes shut in terror, and as I did, I glimpsed the Darkling, his arm slashing through the air in front of him. I heard another crack like thunder and then … nothing.
Slowly, I opened my eyes and took in the horror before me. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound would come. The man on top of me had been cut in two. His head, his right shoulder, and his arm lay on the forest floor, his white hand still clasping the knife. The rest of him swayed for a moment above me, a dark wisp of smoke fading in the air beside the wound that ran the length of his severed torso. Then what remained of him fell forward.
I found my voice and screamed. I crawled backward, scrambling away from the mutilated body, unable to get to my feet, unable to look away from the awful sight, my body shaking uncontrollably.
The Darkling hurried up the hill and knelt beside me, blocking my view of the corpse. “Look at me,” he instructed.
I tried to focus on his face, but all I could see was the assassin’s severed body, his blood pooling in the damp leaves. “What … what did you do to him?” I asked, my voice quavering.
“What I had to do. Can you stand?”
I nodded shakily. He took my hands and helped me to my feet. When my gaze slid back to the corpse, he took hold of my chin and drew my eyes back to his. “At me,” he commanded.
I nodded and tried to keep my eyes trained on the Darkling as he led me down the hill and called out orders to his men.
“Clear the road. I need twenty riders.”