The man holding me kept one thick hand tight around my wrist and fished out the rifle with the other. “Real nice,” he grunted. “And the pack looks like military issue.” My heart sank.
“So?” asked Longface.
“So Rikov says a soldier from the outpost at Chernast has gone missing. Word is he went south and never came back. Could be we caught ourselves a deserter.”
Longface studied Mal speculatively, and I knew he was already thinking of the reward that awaited him. He had no idea.
“What do you say, boy? You wouldn’t be on the run, would you?”
“The pack belongs to my brother,” Mal said easily.
“Maybe. And maybe we’ll let the captain at Chernast take a look at it and take a look at you.”
Mal shrugged. “Good. I’d be happy to let him know you tried to rob us.”
Lev didn’t seem to like that idea. “Let’s just take the money and go.”
“Naw,” said Longface, still squinting at Mal. “He’s gone deserter or he took that off some other grunt. Either way, the captain’ll pay good money to hear about it.”
“What about her?” Lev gave me another shake.
“She can’t be up to anything good if she’s traveling with this lot. Could be she’s done a runner, too. And if not, she’ll be good for a bit of fun. Won’t you, sweet?”
“Don’t touch her,” spat Mal, stepping forward.
With one swift movement, Longface brought the handle of his knife down hard on Mal’s head. Mal stumbled, one knee buckling, blood pouring from his temple.
“No!” I shouted. The man holding me clamped his hand back around my mouth, releasing my arm. That was all I needed. I flicked my wrist and the mirror slid between my fingers.
Longface loomed over Mal, the knife in his hand. “Could be the captain’ll pay whether he’s alive or dead.”
He lunged. I twisted the mirror, and bright light shot into Longface’s eyes. He hesitated, throwing his hand up to block the glare. Mal seized his chance. He leapt to his feet and grabbed hold of Longface, throwing him hard against the wall.
Lev loosened his grip on me to raise Mal’s rifle, but I whirled on him, bringing the mirror up, blinding him.
“What the—” he grunted, squinting. Before he could recover, I slammed a knee into his groin. As he bent double, I put my hands on the back of his head and brought my knee up hard. There was a disgusting crunch, and I stepped backward as he fell to the ground clutching his nose, blood spurting between his fingers.
“I did it!” I exclaimed. Oh, if only Botkin could see me now.
“Come on!” Mal said, distracting me from my jubilation. I turned and saw Longface lying unconscious in the dirt.
Mal snatched up his pack and ran toward the opposite end of the alley, away from the noise of the parade. Lev was moaning, but he still had a grip on the rifle. I gave him a good hard kick in the gut and sprinted after Mal.
We darted past empty shops and houses and back across the muddy main road, then plunged into the woods and the safety of the trees. Mal set a furious pace, leading us through a little creek and then over a ridge, on and on for what felt like miles. Personally, I didn’t think the thieves were in any condition to come chasing after us, but I was also too out of breath to argue the point. Finally, Mal slowed and stopped, bending double, hands on knees, his breath coming in gasps.
I collapsed to the ground, my heart thudding against my ribs, and flopped onto my back. I lay there with the blood rushing in my ears, drinking in the afternoon light that slanted through the tops of the trees and trying to catch my breath. When I felt like I could talk, I pushed myself up on my elbows and said, “Are you okay?”
Gingerly, Mal touched the wound on his head. It had stopped bleeding, but he winced. “Fine.”
“Do you think they’ll say anything?”
“Of course. They’ll see if they can get some coin for the information.”
“Saints,” I swore.
“There’s nothing we can do about it now.” Then, to my surprise, he cracked a smile. “Where did you learn to fight like that?”
“Grisha training,” I whispered dramatically. “Ancient secrets of the groin kick.”
I laughed. “That’s what Botkin always says. ‘Not showy, just to make pain,’” I said, imitating the mercenary’s heavy accent.
“The Darkling doesn’t think Grisha should rely on their powers for defense.” I was instantly sorry I’d said it. Mal’s smile disappeared.
“Another smart guy,” he said coldly, staring out into the wood. After a minute, he said, “He’ll know that you didn’t head straight to the Fold. He’ll know we’re hunting the stag.” He sat down heavily beside me, his face grim. We’d had very few advantages in this fight, and now we’d lost one of them.
“I shouldn’t have taken us into town,” he said bleakly.
I gave him a light punch on the arm. “We couldn’t know someone was going to try to rob us. I mean, whose luck is actually that bad?”
“It was a stupid risk. I should know better.” He picked up a twig from the forest floor and threw it away angrily.
“I still have the roll,” I offered lamely, pulling the squashed, lint-covered lump from my pocket. It had been baked into the shape of a bird to celebrate the spring flocks, but now it looked more like a rolled-up sock.
Mal dropped his head, covering it with his hands, his elbows resting on his knees. His shoulders began to shake, and for a horrible moment, I thought he might be crying, but then I realized he was laughing silently. His whole body rocked, his breath coming in hitches, tears starting to leak from his eyes. “That better be one hell of a roll,” he gasped.
I stared at him for a second, afraid he might have gone completely mad, and then I started laughing, too. I covered my mouth to stop the sound, which only made me laugh harder. It was as if all the tension and the fear of the last few days had just gotten to be too much.
Mal put a finger to his lips in an exaggerated “Shhhh!” and I collapsed in a fresh wave of giggles.
“I think you broke that guy’s nose,” he snorted.
“That’s not nice. I’m not nice.”
“No, you’re not,” he agreed, and then we were laughing again.
“Do you remember when that farmer’s son broke your nose at Keramzin?” I gasped between fits. “And you didn’t tell anyone, and you bled all over Ana Kuya’s favorite tablecloth?”
“You are making that up.”
“I am not!”
“Yes you are! You break noses, and you lie.”
We laughed until we couldn’t breathe, until our sides ached and our heads spun with it. I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed like that.
We did actually eat the roll. It was dusted with sugar and tasted just like the sweet rolls we’d eaten as children. When we finished, Mal said, “That was a really good roll,” and we burst into another fit of laughter.
Eventually, he sighed and stood, offering a hand to help me up.
We walked until dusk and then made camp by the ruins of a cottage. Given our close call, he didn’t think we should risk a fire that night, so we ate from the supplies we’d picked up in the village. As we chewed on dried beef and that miserable hard cheese, he asked about Botkin and the other teachers at the Little Palace. I didn’t realize how much I’d been longing to share my stories with him until I started talking. He didn’t laugh as easily as he once had. But when he did, some of that grim coolness lifted from him and he seemed a bit more like the Mal I used to know. It gave me hope that he might not be lost forever.
When it was time to turn in, Mal walked the perimeter of the camp, making sure we were safe, while I repacked the food. There was plenty of room in the pack now that we’d lost Mal’s rifle and wool blanket. I was just grateful that he still had his bow.
I bunched the squirrel-fur hat up under my head and left the pack for Mal to use as a pillow. Then I pulled my coat close around me and huddled beneath the new furs. I was nodding off when I heard Mal return and settle himself beside me, his back pressed comfortably against mine.
As I drifted into sleep, I felt like I could still taste the sugar from that sweet roll on my tongue, feel the pleasure of laughter gusting through me. We’d been robbed. We’d almost been killed. We were being hunted by the most powerful man in Ravka. But we were friends again, and sleep came more easily than it had in a long time.
At some point during the night, I woke to Mal’s snoring. I jabbed him in the back with my elbow. He rolled onto his side, muttered something in his sleep, and threw his arm over me. A minute later he started snoring again, but this time I didn’t wake him.
WE STILL SAW shoots of new grasses and even a few wildflowers, but there were fewer signs of spring as we headed north to Tsibeya and into the wild reaches where Mal believed we would find the stag. The dense pines gave way to sparse birchwood forests and then to long stretches of grazing land.
Though Mal regretted our trip into the village, he soon had to admit that it had been a necessity. The nights grew colder as we traveled north, and cookfires weren’t an option as we drew closer to the outpost at Chernast. We also didn’t want to waste time hunting or trapping food every day, so we relied on our supplies and nervously watched them dwindle.
Something between us seemed to have thawed, and instead of the stony silence of the Petrazoi, we talked as we walked. He seemed curious to hear about life in the Little Palace, the strange ways of the court, and even Grisha theory.
He wasn’t at all shocked to hear of the contempt with which most Grisha regarded the King. Apparently, the trackers had been grumbling more and more loudly amongst themselves about the King’s incompetence.
“The Fjerdans have a breech-loading rifle that can fire twenty-eight rounds per minute. Our soldiers should have them, too. If the King could be bothered to take an interest in the First Army, we wouldn’t be so dependent on the Grisha. But it’ll never happen,” he told me. Then he muttered, “We all know who’s running the country.”
I said nothing. I tried to avoid talking about the Darkling as much as possible.
When I asked about the time Mal had spent tracking the stag, he always seemed to find a way to bring the conversation back to me. I didn’t press him. I knew that Mal’s unit had crossed the border into Fjerda. I suspected that they’d had to fight their way out and that was where Mal had acquired the scar on his jaw, but he refused to say more.
As we were walking through a band of dessicated willows, the frost crunching beneath our boots, Mal pointed out a sparrowhawk nest, and I found myself wishing that we could just keep walking forever. As much as I longed for a hot meal and a warm bed, I was afraid of what the end of our journey might bring. What if we found the stag, and I claimed the antlers? How might an amplifier that powerful change me? Would it be enough to free us from the Darkling? If only we could stay this way, walking side by side, sleeping huddled beneath the stars. Maybe these empty plains and quiet groves could shelter us as they had sheltered Morozova’s herd and keep us safe from the men who sought us.