Shadow and Bone - Lost Letter From Mal

Found near Ravka’s northern border.

            I’ve been staring at your name for almost an hour. I hate trying to chase my thoughts down this way, hunting for words. The pen feels wrong in my hand. Makes my fingers itch for a bowstring or a trigger.
            But I better get to it. It’s late now, long past curfew, no sounds but snoring, Dubrov muttering in his sleep, and the wind, wrapping itself around the thin walls of the tent, clawing to get in. Supplies are tight, and I’ve wasted most of the oil in the lamp sitting here, staring at your name.
            We’re two, maybe three miles south of the Fjerdan border, deep in the permafrost. I thought I knew winter, but the cold up here is something else entirely. It gets in your head.
            It doesn’t help that we’re tracking a creature no one is sure exists, that no one has ever managed to get a look at. You should have seen our captain when he told us we had new orders, that we were joining up with another unit to track Morozova’s stag. None of us could keep a straight face, and when we finally got back to the barracks, Mikhael laughed so hard I thought he might sprain something. “Are we tracking fairies next? Khitkii? Elves?” No one’s laughing now, not since winter set in.
            The first couple of months weren’t bad. We met up with the other trackers south of Ulensk and followed them east, then back south, skirting the Petrazoi. Some of them took the hunt seriously. Some didn’t. But we saw cropped grass in otherwise untouched fields, tracks that came from nowhere, even trace. (That’s right—we’ve seen magical deer scat. Mikhael thinks we should collect it and sell it as a cure-all. I’m not entirely sure it’s a bad idea. Or maybe the cold really is making me crazy.) But no one has actually seen the stag. Not yet. Apparently there have been units assigned to track the herd for years, depending on how cracked the current King or Darkling is. Now this Darkling wants the efforts stepped up. Rumors are he wants the stag for you. The orders came down and, mad as they seemed, we were happy to march, to get away from Kribirsk and put some distance between ourselves and the Fold.
            No one’s been the same since the attack on the sandskiff. The memory is too clear in my head, too sharp—lying on my back on the deck, my body going numb, realizing the dampness pooling beneath me was my own blood, then your face lit by those last gasps of Grisha fire before everything went white. We don’t talk about it much, but that’s why no one’s moaning at me to douse the lantern. Most of us can’t sleep without one burning. Even in the day, I see people walking around hunched up, cricking their necks like they’re afraid something’s going to come at them from above. Everyone thinks that’s why I keep to myself more, why I toss and turn, why my rations go uneaten. But it’s not volcra I see when I close my eyes.
            I need to sleep. I can’t afford not to be alert tomorrow. This isn’t a place that tolerates mistakes. Old Kovac used to say that you had to have a feel for tracking, that either the land spoke to you or it didn’t. Well, this land speaks—and when it does, it howls so loud I can’t hear myself think. It groans with the weight of snow, the rush of wind. That wind—the moment you step outside the tent, it grabs at you, hungry, snapping at any bit of exposed skin, gobbling up any little warmth and spitting it back out into the miserable gray sky.
            A few weeks ago we got caught in a blizzard. When a storm hits that way, hard and fast, tearing down from the north, the guides call it Gruzeburya, the Brute. We knew it would wipe out any sign of the herd, but there’s no way to travel in something like that, so we made camp and hunkered down to wait. Then Pilkin stepped outside to take a piss and didn’t come back. By then it was dark and the storm was on us. All you could see were sheets and whorls of snow. You’d take one step and suddenly it was like standing in the middle of nowhere, like the camp had just disappeared.
            We tied ropes to each other and waded out, looking for Pilkin, moving from tent to tent. We shouted until our throats were raw. Nothing. Finally we gave it up, pulled each other in, one after another, shaking from the cold, holding tight to that thin, frozen tether. We figured Pilkin had gotten turned around, headed in the wrong direction, away from camp. But the next morning we found him next to the mess tent. He was there all along, probably just a few feet from us, just steps from shelter. We must have walked right by him in the dark, our voices drowned by the shriek of the wind.
            That’s what this place is like. You can feel the cold waiting, patient, for you to put one foot wrong. It starts to wear on you. Each morning Mikhael makes the same stupid joke about which part of him froze off in the night. I can just see you rolling your eyes at that, see you scowl and say, “You’re the only one who would miss it, you miserable oaf.” This is going to sound ridiculous To hell with it—I miss your scowl.
            I need to sleep, but I know I won’t. I can’t stop seeing the look on your face that day in the Grisha tent, the fear and confusion, the blood dripping down your arm. He cut you, Alina. I saw the knife in his hand. How many times has he cut you since? How many times has he hurt you? How many times have I failed to stop him? I know if you were safe and whole you’d write.
            I felt sure there would be a letter waiting for me when we finally reached Chernast, felt it in my gut, but all I found were rumors, each one crazier than the last. People are calling you a Saint or a fraud. They say you’ve been assassinated, imprisoned, betrothed to a Lantsov prince. They say there are cells beneath the Little Palace crowded with dissidents, that the Darkling has a secret group of Corporalki trained in torture that he uses to keep the Second Army in line.
            We passed through a town before we entered Tsibeya. They’d built a little altar there, painted in blue and gold, piled high with gifts for the Sun Summoner, for you. I don’t know what to make of it all. I know what I saw on the Fold, in the Grisha tent, light pouring from your skin, so bright it was hard to look at, you shining like a star. You were one thing and then you were another. You were Alina and then I didn’t know you at all.
            Months gone, and still no word. I’ve made formal requests, informal requests. I tried talking to one of the Grisha in Chernast, a high-ranking Heartrender named Koh. I asked if she’d had any real news, if she could get word to you. She laughed in my face. “I don’t know the Darkling’s business,” she said. “And I don’t ask.” When I petitioned the captain to see if he would write to the capital on my behalf, all he said was, “Keep your head down and do your job, Oretsev.” No, that’s not quite true. Before he dismissed me, he asked, “What is she to you anyway?” I didn’t know what to say.
            I keep seeing that bloodletter dragging you through the crowd while I just stood there like a fool. What would they have done if I’d run after you? Shot me? Stopped my heart? Let me say some kind of goodbye? I’ll never know. Because when I finally got my head together, I didn’t start shouting or throwing punches. I turned to my superior officer and, while they hauled you away, I tried to explain. I made my case respectfully, reasonably, like the good soldier I am.
            That can’t be the last time I’ll see you. When that thought creeps in, when it’s late like this and the lamp burns low and the flame starts to sputter, I feel every empty hollow in myself and the wind just blows through. I feel how flimsy I am, how all the things I thought were strong and whole were just held together by you.
            What is she to you anyway? Here’s my answer, Captain. She’s the thing that made this all okay—the threadbare coats and the old boots and the guns that jam when you most need them to fire, the loneliness of knowing that you don’t matter, that you will never matter, the fact that you’re just another body, another uniform to be sent into the Fold or the frost, another good boy who knows his place, who does his job, who doesn’t ask questions, who will lie down and die and be forgotten. What is she? She’s everything, you dumb son of a bitch.
            Alina. I want to take off walking, to brave the snow and the permafrost and head south to you. Do you know why I don’t? I’m not afraid of the dark or the cold. I’m not even afraid of being called a deserter. I’m afraid of the moment when I stand at the gates of the Grand Palace, pleading to be let in. I know that I could beg and scream and wail all night until the guards dragged me away or put a bullet in my brain just to shut me up, and those gates still wouldn’t open. I could be that close and you’d never know. Like Pilkin, shouting in the dark.
            I did something stupid this morning. (I can almost hear your voice in my ear—“Why should this morning be any different?”) A few days back we got into a skirmish with a Fjerdan patrol. Out here, you can’t tell if you’re dealing with friend or foe until you’re right on top of each other. They had repeating rifles, and all we had were our old muskets. It was a miracle we came out of it with just one casualty, and that was only because we had better numbers. I killed three men—two with the rifle, one with the bow. The captain had us take their uniforms. We stripped their corpses right there in the snow. Even if we’d wanted to bury the bodies, the ground was too hard, so we left them for the wolves.
            It wasn’t hard to imagine what the captain had planned. The herd is moving north, past the Fjerdan border. He wants us to cross over, right into enemy territory, and bring back the stag. This morning he offered double pay to anyone who volunteered, but before he was even finished my hand was in the air. I don’t remember what I said, just the captain clapping me on the back. Then Mikhael was volunteering, and Dubrov. I don’t think they would have said a word if I hadn’t opened my big mouth, double pay or not. You always warned me they were idiots, but I’m glad I won’t be going alone.
            It’s a stupid plan. Just how far into Fjerda does he expect us to go? And even if we do locate the herd, our orders are to sight and capture the stag, not kill it. How are we supposed to get back over the border without being stopped? The captain isn’t thinking straight. He’s desperate to get south, to get back to Chernast and in front of a fire. I guess I’m desperate, too, because tomorrow I’ll put on a dead man’s clothes and make the crossing. The Darkling wants that stag. He wants it for you, so I’ll find it. It’s the one thing I can still give you. The only thing.
            Almost no oil left. The flame is guttering and I guess there’s not much left to say. I’m not sure why I bothered to write this letter. We’re far from any post and I may never have a chance to send it. I don’t know that I meant to. Maybe I’ll step outside and let the wind take it. This wind is strong enough to reach you, to travel south past Tsibeya, to scale the Petrazoi, and wend its way through the streets of Os Alta. This wind won’t stop for gates or guards. It will climb your tower and rattle the window of your room, or slip through a hidden doorway and twist past the bars of your cell. It will lift your hair and brush against your cheek, and maybe you’ll look up and you’ll hear me.
            Maybe that’s why I wrote this letter, Alina. Maybe it’s a promise—that I’ll survive tomorrow and the day after that, and somehow, no matter what it takes, I’ll see you safe again.