THE DEMON IN THE WOOD
How many were there, Eryk?
It was a stranger’s voice, speaking a stranger’s name. But through the haze of pain, he remembered. His mother had given him his new name on the way up the mountain, as the wind blew down from the pass, rustling the needles of the pines. The northerners will want to call you Eryk, she’d said. He’d pulled the furs up around his ears and thought, They won’t want to call me anything.
He managed to open one of his eyes. He could feel the crust of blood tugging on his lid. The other must be swollen shut. Had someone broken his nose? He couldn’t remember.
He was lying on a stretcher. Two men were leaning over him, and they wanted answers.
“How many?” asked the man with the red-gold beard, the Ulle.
“Six,” he managed. “Maybe seven.”
The other man leaned closer. Eryk had only seen Annika’s father from afar, but he recognized him well enough now—his hair nearly white like hers, his eyes the same bright blue. “Fjerdan or Ravkan?”
“They spoke Ravkan,” he croaked. His throat was raw. Because I was screaming when they pushed me under.
“Enough.” His mother’s voice, cool and hard as a diamond.
Madraya. He was embarrassed by the relief that rushed through him. You’re not a child, he told himself. But he felt like one, lying there in his wet clothes, cold and helpless.
Eryk forced himself to turn his head so he could see her. His skull beat with a red rhythm, each pulse driving the pain deeper in jagged shards. He tried to blink it away.
His mother’s face was creased with concern, but he recognized the watchful look in her eyes too. They were the newcomers—they were always the newcomers—and when things went bad, they were the easiest people to blame.
“We need to evacuate the camp,” said Annika’s father. “If they found the children last night—” His voice broke.
“We’re not going anywhere,” growled the Ulle. “We’re going to raze that village and take ten of their children for every one of ours they took.”
“We don’t have the soldiers for an attack. We must use caution—”
The Ulle’s voice rasped like a sword drawn from its sheath. “My son is dead. So is your daughter. My caution perished with them.”
“What were you even doing out here, Eryk?” Annika’s father asked miserably.
“Swimming.” He knew how foolish that sounded.
The Ulle pointed an angry finger at him. “You never should have left the camp after dark.”
“I know,” Eryk mumbled. “We were just … I only wanted…” He met his mother’s eyes and had to look away, the shame was so great.
“They were being children,” she said.
The Ulle turned to her. “If we’re to mount an attack, we need your strength.”
“First I see to my son.”
“His leg is nearly severed. We have Healers—”
His mother’s look was enough to silence the Ulle, even in his grief, even in his rage. Such was her power.
The Ulle gestured to his men and the stretcher was lifted. Eryk’s head spun. A wave of nausea gripped him. His mother took his hand and pressed his knuckles gently to her cheek. He had to tell her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
This time she was the one to look away.
* * *
“The northerners will want to call you Eryk,” his mother said over the howl of the wind. It sighed down through the passes, singing its old song, promising winter, troubled like a man tossing in his sleep.
They won’t want to call me anything, he thought, but all he said was, “Why? I was supposed to be Arkady.”
“If we’re to be from the south, you need a southern name like Arkady. But Eryk will fit better on their tongues. They’re Fjerdan here as much as Ravkan. You’ll see. Now, what’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
She didn’t ask the next question, the question strangers always asked: Where is your father? Of course, that one was easy because the answer never changed. He’s dead. He’d once asked his mother if that was the truth, if his father was really dead.
He will be, she’d said. Before you can blink your eye. You’ll outlive him by a hundred years, maybe a thousand, maybe more. He’s only dust to you.
Now she said, “Again. What’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
They went on like that as they made their way up the mountain. It was a foothill really, one of the cold and silent peaks that marked the very beginnings of the Elbjen range. She’d shown him the route on a map two days ago, before she’d gone ahead to make sure they’d be welcome at the Grisha camp. Grisha were cautious about outsiders, and he and his mother could never be sure of how they would be received.
She’d left him in a tent wedged into an old hunters’ blind with two days’ supply of millet cake and a ration of salt to make brine for soaking it. When she’d gone, she had taken their only lantern. He hadn’t had the courage to ask her to leave it with him. He was too old to be afraid of the dark. So he’d lain awake for two nights, curled beneath his furs, listening to the wolves howl, counting the minutes until morning.
When his mother had retrieved him, they’d headed up the mountain. Arkady. Eryk. Now he said his new name again and again, out loud, then inside his head, repeating it with every footfall until the name stopped being a second thought, until there was no echo and he was only Eryk. A boy from the south, a boy who would disappear in a week or a month, who would vanish beneath a new name and a new story. His mother would cut his hair or dye it or shave his head. That was how they lived, traveling from place to place. They learned what they could, then moved on and did their best to hide their tracks. The world wasn’t safe for Grisha, but it was particularly dangerous for the two of them.
He was thirteen, but he’d had a hundred names, a new one for every town, camp, and city—Iosef, Anton, Stasik, Kirill. He spoke fluent Shu and Kerch, and could pass as either. But his Fjerdan was still poor and the Grisha communities this far north knew each other well, so he’d be Arkady, and the northerners would call him Eryk.
“There,” his mother said.
The camp was tucked into a shallow valley between two peaks, a cluster of low huts covered in peat, their chimneys smoking, all bunched around a long, narrow lodge of thick timber.
“We could winter with them,” she said.
He stared at her, certain he had misunderstood. “For how long?” he said at last.
“Until the thaw. The Ulle is a powerful Squaller, and he’s seen combat with these new Fjerdan witchhunters. We could stand to learn whatever he has to teach.”
Until the thaw. That could be th
ree, maybe four months. All in one place. Eryk looked down at the little camp. Winter would be hard here—long nights, brutal cold—and the otkazat’sya village they’d skirted on the trek was uncomfortably close. But he knew the way his mother thought. Once the deep snows came, no one would venture into these mountain passes even to hunt. The camp would be secure.
Eryk didn’t much care. He would have lived next door to a garbage gully if it meant a roof over his head, hot meals, waking up in the same room every morning without his heart hammering as he tried to remember where he was.
“All right,” he said.
“All right?” She snorted. “I saw the way your face lit. Just remember, the longer we stay, the more careful you’ll have to be.” He nodded, and she glanced back at the camp. “Look, the Ulle himself has come out to greet us.”
A group of men had emerged from the long hall.
“Who are they?” Eryk asked as he trailed his mother down the path.
“They call themselves elders,” she said with a laugh. “Old men stroking their beards and congratulating one another on their wisdom.”
It was easy to recognize the Ulle among them. He was a giant of a man, his broad shoulders draped with black furs, his hair red-gold, worn plaited and past his shoulders in the way of the north. Ulle was Fjerdan for “chieftain.” They really weren’t quite Ravkan here.
“Welcome, Lena!” boomed the Ulle as he strode toward them. Eryk barely registered the name his mother had taken. To him, she was always Mama, Madraya. “How was your journey?”
“You shame me as a host. The elders would have gladly sent men and horses to fetch Eryk.”
“Neither my son nor I need coddling,” she replied. But Eryk knew there was more to it. He’d learned long ago that there was a second Ravka, a secret country of hidden caves and empty quarries, abandoned villages and forgotten freshwater springs. They were places where you could hide out from a storm or an attack, where you could enter as one person and emerge disguised as another. If the elders had sent men with his mother to retrieve him, she would have had to reveal the hunters’ blind. She never gave up a hiding place or possible escape route without good reason.
The Ulle led them to a hut and pulled back the stitched elk hides that covered the gap between the door and the crude wooden lintel. It was snug and warm inside, though it stank heavily of wet fur and something Eryk couldn’t identify.
“Please be at your ease here,” said the Ulle. “We want you to feel at home. Tonight we welcome you with a feast, but the elders are about to meet now and we would be honored if you joined us, Lena.”
The Ulle looked uncomfortable. “Some of them object to having a woman at a council meeting,” he admitted. “But they were outvoted.”
“Honesty is always best, Ulle. That way I know just how many fools I need to work to convince.”
“They are set in their ways, and you are not only a woman, but”—he cleared his throat—“they fear you are not entirely natural.”
Eryk wasn’t surprised. When other Grisha saw the power that he and his mother possessed, they had only one of two responses: fear or greed. Either they ran from it or they wanted it for themselves. It’s a balance, his mother always said. Fear is a powerful ally, but feed it too often, make it too strong, and it will turn on you. She had warned him to be cautious when displaying his power, to never show the full extent of what he could do. She certainly never did—she never used the Cut unless the situation was dire.
That wasn’t a problem for him, he thought bitterly. He still hadn’t mastered the Cut. His mother had managed it when she was half his age.
Now she lifted a brow and addressed the Ulle. “The first men to see bears thought they were monsters. My power is unfamiliar, not unnatural.”
“A bear is still dangerous,” noted the Ulle. “It still has claws and teeth to maul a man.”
“And men have spears and steel,” she said sharply. “Do not play the weak party with me, Ulle.”
Eryk saw the flash of anger that moved over the big man’s face at his mother’s disrespectful tone. Then the Ulle laughed. “I like your ferocity, Lena. But have a care with the old men.”
Eryk’s mother dipped her head in acknowledgment.
“Now, Eryk,” said the Ulle, “do you think you can be comfortable here?” His eyes were merry, and Eryk knew he was expected to smile, so he attempted it.
“Der git ver rastjel,” he said, giving the traditional greeting first in Fjerdan, then in Ravkan. “We are grateful guests.”
The Ulle looked slightly amused, but he replied in the prescribed fashion. “Fel holm ve koop djet. Our home is better for it.”
“Why is there no wall around the camp?” Eryk asked.
“Does that worry you? The villagers barely know we’re here—they certainly don’t know what we are.”
Someone must, thought Eryk. That’s how we found you. That was how they always found Grisha. He and his mother followed legends, whispers, tales of sorcerers and witches, of demons in the forests. Stories like that had led them to a tribe of Squallers camped along the western shore, to Baba Anezka and her cave of mirrors, to Petyr of Brevno and Magda of the black woods.
“My son asks a good question,” said his mother. “I saw no fortifications and only one man on watch.”
“Start building walls, and people begin to wonder what you’re hiding. We keep our buildings low. We don’t raid the villagers’ fields or farms, or empty their forests of game. Better they do not notice us than that they think we have something they want.”
Because you don’t. And you never will. It was like this wherever they went. Grisha living in camps and broken-down mines, hiding out in tunnels. Eryk had seen the island nation of Kerch, the library at Ketterdam, the grand roads and waterways. He’d seen the temples at Ahmrat Jen, and the great fort at Os Alta, protected by its famous double walls. They felt permanent, solid, a bulwark against the night. But places like this barely felt real, as if they might just slip away into nothing, vanishing without notice or regard.
“You’ll be safe here,” said the Ulle. “And if you stay until the spring, we may go to see the white tigers in the permafrost.”
“Maybe that will earn me a real smile,” the Ulle said with a wink. “My son will tell you all about them.”
Once the Ulle had said his goodbyes and departed, Eryk’s mother sat down on the edge of her sleeping pallet. It had been raised off the floor to keep out the cold, and was piled high with blankets and furs—another sign of respect.
“Well?” she asked. “What do you think?”
“Can we stay until spring?” He couldn’t hide his eagerness now. The prospect of tigers had defeated his caution.
“We’ll see. Tell me about the camp.”
Eryk heaved an irritated sigh. “Twelve huts. Eight have working chimneys—”
“Those are the huts for Grisha of greater status.”
“Good. What else?”
“The Ulle is rich, but his hands are callused. He does his own work. And he walks with a limp.”
“Old or new injury?”
“Are you guessing?”
Eryk crossed his arms. “The wear on the side of his boot shows he’s been favoring that leg a long while.”
“He lied about the elders.”
His mother cocked her head to one side, her black eyes glittering. “Did he?”
“None of them voted to have you at the meeting, but the Ulle demanded it.”
“How do you know?”
He hesitated, less sure now. “It was the sound of the Ulle’s voice, the way the elders stood apart from him as they watched us come down the hill.”
She rose and brushed the hair back from his face. “You read the flow of power the way others chart tides,” she marveled. “It will make you a great leader.?
? He rolled his eyes at that. “Anything else?” she asked.
“This hut smells terrible.”
She laughed. “It’s animal fat,” she said. “Probably reindeer. The northerners use it in their lamps. It could be worse. Remember the swamp near Koba?”
“I’m pretty sure that was just one smelly Heartrender.”
She gave an exaggerated shudder at the memory. “So do you think you can bear it?”
“Yes,” he said firmly. He could tolerate anything if only they could spend a whole season in one place.
“Good.” She adjusted her silver furs, then pulled a heavy garnet ring from her pack and placed it on her finger. “Wish me luck at the meeting. Will you go exploring?”
He nodded. He didn’t like the surge of nervousness that rose up in him, but there it was.
She gave his chin a quick pinch. “Be careful. Don’t let anyone—”
“I know.” The Cut wasn’t the only secret they kept.
“Just until you’re strong enough,” she cautioned. “Until you learn to defend yourself. And remember you’re—”
“Eryk,” he said. “I know. It’s my own name I’m afraid of forgetting.”
“Your true name is written here,” she said tapping his chest. “Tattooed on your heart. You don’t let just anyone read it.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “I know.”
“I know, I know,” she mimicked. “You sound like a crow cawing.” She gave him a little shove. “Be back before dark.”
* * *
The world outside seemed too bright after the dim clutch of the hut. Eryk squinted against the glare and watched his mother head toward the long hall, then made his way into the forest. These were the trees he liked best, the kind that never lost their green, that always smelled of sap. In woods like these, it felt like summer was still alive, as if a sun were buried in every rough trunk like a warm, dormant heart.
He walked north of the camp, following the slope of the hill, but as the trees began to thin, he hesitated. He could hear laughter and see a clearing a little farther on. He made himself plunge ahead.
Two girls were playing on the banks of a stream. They both had light hair and blue eyes, the Fjerdan coloring that was common close to the border.