SHADOW & BONE
Standing on the edge of a crowded road, I looked down onto the rolling fields and abandoned farms of the Tula Valley and got my first glimpse of the Shadow Fold. My regiment was two weeks’ march from the military encampment at Poliznaya and the autumn sun was warm overhead, but I shivered in my coat as I eyed the haze that lay like a dirty smudge on the horizon. A heavy shoulder slammed into me from behind. I stumbled and nearly pitched face-first into the muddy road. “Hey!” shouted the soldier. “Watch yourself!” “Why don’t you watch your fat feet?” I snapped, and took some satisfaction from the surprise that came over his broad face. People, particularly big men carrying big rifles, don’t expect lip from a scrawny thing like me. They always look a bit dazed when they get it. The soldier got over the novelty quickly and gave me a dirty look as he adjusted the pack on his back, then disappeared into the caravan of horses, men, carts and wagons streaming over the crest of the hill and into the valley below. I quickened my steps, trying to peer through the crowd. I’d lost sight of the yellow flag of the surveyors’ cart hours ago, and I knew I was far behind. As I walked, I took in the green and gold smells of the autumn wood, the soft breeze at my back. We were on the Vy, the wide road that had once led all the way from Os Alta to the wealthy port cities on Ravka’s western coast. But that was before the Shadow Fold. Somewhere in the crowd, someone was singing. Singing? What idiot is singing on his way into the Fold? I glanced again at that smudge on the horizon and had to suppress a shudder. I’d seen the Shadow Fold on many maps, a black slash that had severed Ravka from its only coastline and left it landlocked. Sometimes it was shown as a stain, sometimes as a bleak and shapeless cloud. And then there were the maps that just showed the Shadow Fold as a long, narrow lake and labelled it by its other name, “the Unsea”, a name intended to put soldiers and merchants at their ease and encourage crossings. I snorted. That might fool some fat merchant, but it was little comfort to me. Ravka’s only link to the outside world - to weapons, to commerce, to the hope of survival - lay through the Fold. We would cross because we had to, because we’d been ordered to, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. I tore my attention from the sinister haze hovering in the distance and looked down onto the ruined farms of the Tula. The valley had once been home to some of Ravka’s richest estates. One day it was a place where farmers tended crops and sheep grazed in green fields. The next, a dark slash had appeared on the landscape, a swathe of nearly impenetrable darkness that grew with every passing year and crawled with horrors. Where the farmers had gone, their herds, their crops, their homes and families, no one knew. Stop it, I told myself firmly. You’re only making things worse. People have been crossing the Fold for years . . . usually with massive casualties, but all the same. I took a deep breath to steady myself. “No fainting in the middle of the road,” said a voice close to my ear as a heavy arm landed across my shoulders and gave me a squeeze. I looked up to see Mal’s familiar face, a smile in his bright blue eyes as he fell into step beside me. “C’mon,” he said. “One foot in front of the other. You know how it’s done.” “You’re interfering with my plan.” “Oh really?” “Yes. Faint, get trampled, grievous injuries all around.” “That sounds like a brilliant plan.” “Ah, but if I’m horribly maimed, I won’t be able to cross the Fold.” Mal nodded slowly. “I see. I can shove you under a cart if that would help.” “I’ll think about it,” I grumbled, but I felt my mood lifting all the same. Despite my best efforts, Mal still had that effect on me. And I wasn’t the only one. A pretty blonde girl strolled by and waved, throwing Mal a flirtatious glance over her shoulder. “Hey, Ruby,” he called. “See you later?” Ruby giggled and scampered off into the crowd. Mal grinned broadly until he caught my eye roll. “What? I thought you liked Ruby.” “As it happens, we don’t have much to talk about,” I said drily. I actually had liked Ruby - at first. When Mal and I had left the orphanage at Keramzin to train for our military service in Poliznaya, I’d been nervous about meeting new people. But lots of girls had been excited to befriend me, and Ruby had been among the most eager. Those friendships lasted as long as it took me to figure out that their only interest lay in my proximity to Mal. Now I watched him stretch his arms expansively and turn his face up to the autumn sky, looking perfectly content. There was even, I noted with some disgust, a little bounce in his step. “What is wrong with you?” I whispered furiously. “Nothing,” he said, surprised. “I feel great.” “But how can you be so . . . so jaunty?” “Jaunty? I’ve never been jaunty. I hope never to be jaunty.” “Well, then what’s all this?” I asked, waving a hand at him. “You look as if you’re on your way to a really good dinner instead of possible death and dismemberment.” Mal laughed. “You worry too much. The King’s sent a whole group of Grisha fire-summoners to cover the skiffs, and even a few of those creepy Heartrenders. We have our rifles,” he said, patting the one on his back. “We’ll be fine.” “A rifle won’t make much difference if there’s a bad attack.” Mal shot me a bemused glance. “What’s the matter with you lately? You’re even grumpier than usual. And you look terrible.” “Thanks,” I groused. “I haven’t been sleeping well.” “What else is new?” He was right, of course. I’d never slept well. But it had been even worse over the last few days. Saints knew I had plenty of good reasons to dread going into the Fold, reasons shared by every member of our regiment who had been unlucky enough to be chosen for the crossing. But there was something else, a deeper sense of unease that I couldn’t quite name. I glanced at Mal. There had been a time when I could have told him anything. “I just . . . have this feeling.” “Stop worrying so much. Maybe they’ll put Mikhael on the skiff. The volcra will take one look at that big juicy belly of his and leave us alone.” Unbidden, a memory came to me: Mal and I, sitting side by side in a chair in the Duke’s library, flipping through the pages of a large leather-bound book. We’d happened on an illustration of a volcra: long, filthy claws; leathery wings; and rows of razor-sharp teeth for feasting on human flesh. They were blind from generations spent living and hunting in the Fold, but legend had it they could smell human blood from miles away. I’d pointed to the page and asked, “What is it holding?” I could still hear Mal’s whisper in my ear. “I think - I think it’s a foot.” We’d slammed the book shut and run squealing out into the safety of the sunlight . . . Without realising it, I’d stopped walking, frozen in place, unable to shake the memory from my mind. The ports of West Ravka lay on the other side of the Fold - wealth, opportunity, the promised blue infinity of the True Sea. Some merchants crossed the Unsea several times each year to trade their goods and stock their shelves. Soldiers and sailors had made it through the Fold countless times before. I knew that. But I still couldn’t seem to breathe. When Mal saw I wasn’t with him, he gave a great beleaguered sigh and marched back to me. He rested his hands on my shoulders and gave me a little shake. “I was kidding. No one’s going to eat Mikhael.” “I know,” I said, staring down at my boots. “You’re hilarious.” “Alina, come on. We’ll be fine.” “You can’t know that.” “Look at me.” I willed myself to raise my eyes to his. “I know you’re scared. I am too. But we’re going to do this, and we’re going to be fine. We always are. Okay?” He smiled, and my heart gave a very loud thud in my chest. I rubbed my thumb over the scar that ran across the palm of my right hand and took a shaky breath. “Okay,” I said grudgingly, and I actually felt myself smiling back. “Madam’s spirits have been restored!” Mal shouted. “The sun can once more shine!” “Oh will you shut up?” I turned to give him a punch, but before I could, he’d grabbed hold of me and lifted me off my feet. A clatter of hooves and shouts split the air. Mal yanked me to the side of the road just as a huge black coach roared past, scattering people before it as they ran to avoid the pounding hooves of four black horses. Beside the whip wielding driver perched two soldiers in charcoal coats. The Darkling. There was no mistaking his black coach or the uniform of his personal guard. Another coach, this one lacquered red, rumbled past us at a more leisurely pace. I looked up at Mal, my heart racing from the close call. “Thanks,” I whispered. Mal suddenly seemed to realise that he had his arms around me. He let go and hastily stepped back. I brushed the dust from my coat, hoping he wouldn’t notice the flush on my cheeks. A third coach rolled by, lacquered in blue, and a girl leaned out of the window. She had curling black hair and wore a hat of silver fox. She scanned the watching crowd and, predictably, her eyes lingered on Mal. You were just mooning over him, I chided myself. Why shouldn’t some gorgeous Grisha do the same? Her lips curled into a small smile as she held Mal’s gaze, watching him over her shoulder until the coach was out of sight. Mal goggled dumbly after her, his mouth slightly open. “Close your mouth before something flies in,” I snapped. Mal blinked, still looking dazed. “Did you see that?” a voice bellowed. I turned to see Mikhael loping towards us, wearing an almost comical expression of awe. Mikhael was a huge redhead with a wide face and an even wider neck. Behind him, Dubrov, reedy and dark, hurried to catch up. They were both trackers in Mal’s unit and never far from his side. “Of course I saw it,” Mal said, his dopey expression evaporating into a cocky grin. I rolled my eyes. “She looked right at you!” shouted Mikhael, clapping Mal on the back. Mal gave a casual shrug, but his smile widened. “So she did,” he said smugly. Dubrov shifted nervously. “They say Grisha girls can put spells on you.” I snorted. Mikhael looked at me as if he hadn’t even known I was there. “Hey, Sticks,” he said, and gave me a little jab on the arm. I scowled at the nickname, but he had already turned back to Mal. “You know she’ll be staying at camp,” he said with a leer. “I hear the Grisha tent’s as big as a cathedral,” added Dubrov. “Lots of nice shadowy nooks,” said Mikhael, and actually waggled his brows. Mal whooped. Without sparing me another glance, the three of them strode off, shouting and shoving one another. “Great seeing you, guys,” I muttered under my breath. I readjusted the strap of the satchel slung across my shoulders and started back along the road, joining the last few stragglers down the hill and into Kribirsk. I didn’t bother to hurry. I’d probably get yelled at when I finally made it to the Documents Tent, but there was nothing I could do about it now.