When Elias wakes me the morning after leaving the Roost, my hands are wet. Even in the pre-dawn gloom, I see the Tribesman’s blood running down my arms.
“Elias.” I frantically wipe my palms on my cloak. “The blood, it won’t come off.” It’s all over him too. “You’re covered—”
“Laia.” He is by my side in an instant. “It’s just the mist.”
“No. It’s—it’s everywhere.” Death, everywhere.
Elias takes my hands in his own, holding them up to the dim starlight. “Look. The mist beads on the skin.”
Reality finally takes hold as he pulls me slowly to my feet. Just a nightmare.
“We need to move.” He nods to the rock field, barely visible through the trees a hundred yards away. “There’s someone out there.”
I don’t see anything out in the Jutts, nor do I hear anything beyond the creaking of branches in the wind and the chirping of early-rising birds. Still, my body aches with tension.
“Soldiers?” I whisper to Elias.
He shakes his head. “Not sure. I saw a flash of metal—armor, or perhaps a weapon. It’s definitely someone following us.” At my unease, he offers a quick smile. “Don’t look so worried. Most successful missions are just a series of barely averted disasters.”
If I thought Elias’s pace out of the Roost was intense, I was mistaken. The Tellis has nearly restored him to his former strength. In minutes, we have left the rock field behind and are making our way through the mountains as if the Nightbringer himself is on our heels.
The terrain is treacherous, pocked with overflowing gulches and streams. Soon enough, I find that it takes all of my concentration just to keep up with Elias. Which isn’t a bad thing. After what happened with Shikaat, after learning what the Commandant did to Elias, I want nothing more than to push my memories into a dark closet in my mind.
Over and over again, Elias eyes the trail at our backs.
“Either we lost them,” he says, “or they’re being very clever about keeping themselves hidden. I’m thinking the latter.”
Elias says little else. His attempt, I assume, to keep his distance. To protect me. Part of me understands his reasoning—respects it, even. But at the same time, I feel the loss of his company keenly. We escaped Serra together. We fought the wraiths together. I cared for him when he was poisoned.
Pop used to say that standing by someone during their darkest times creates a bond. A sense of obligation that is less a weight and more a gift. I feel tied to Elias now. I do not want him to shut me out.
Midway through the second day, the skies open up and we are deluged. The mountain air turns cold, and our pace slows until I want to scream. Every second seems like an eternity I must spend with thoughts I want desperately to suppress. The Commandant poisoning Elias. Shikaat dying. Darin in Kauf, suffering at the hands of the prison’s infamous Warden.
A forced march in bone-numbing sleet simplifies life. After three weeks, my world has narrowed to sucking in the next breath, forcing myself to take the next step, finding the will to do it again. At nightfall, Elias and I collapse in exhaustion, soaked and shivering. In the morning, we shake the frost off our cloaks and begin again. We push harder now, trying to make up time.
When we finally wind down from the higher elevations, the rain lets up. A chilly mist descends over the trees, sticky as cobwebbing. My pants are torn at the knees, my tunic shredded.
“Strange,” Elias mutters. “Never seen weather like this so close to the Tribal lands.”
Our pace eases to a crawl, and when sunset is still an hour away, he slows.
“There’s no use going on in this muck,” he says. “We should reach Nur tomorrow. Let’s find a place to camp.”
No! Stopping will give me time to think—to remember.
“It’s not even dark yet,” I say. “What about whoever is following us? Surely we can—”
Elias gives me a level look. “We’re stopping,” he says. “I haven’t seen any sign of our tail in days. The rain’s finally gone. We need rest and a hot meal.”
Minutes later, he spots a rise. I can just make out a cluster of monolithic boulders atop it. At Elias’s request, I start a fire while he disappears behind one of the boulders. He is gone for a long time, and when he returns, he’s clean-shaven. He’s scrubbed off the dirt of the mountains and changed into clean clothes.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I’ve nursed the fire to a respectable little flame, but I peer into the woods nervously. If our tail is still out there—if they see the smoke—
“The fog masks the smoke.” He nods to one of the boulders and gives me a quick once-over. “There’s a spring there. You should clean up. I’ll find dinner.”
My face heats—I know how I must look. Ripped fatigues, covered in mud up to my knees, scratches on my face, and wild, uncouth hair. Everything I own smells of sodden leaves and dirt.
At the spring I strip away my shredded, disgusting tunic, using the one clean corner to scrub myself off. I find a patch of dried blood. Shikaat’s. Swiftly, I cast the tunic away.
Don’t think about it, Laia.
I peer behind me, but Elias is gone. The part of me that can’t forget the strength of his arms and the heat of his eyes during the dance at the Moon Festival wishes he had stayed. Looked. Offered the comfort of his touch. It would be a welcome distraction to feel the warmth of his hands on my skin, in my hair. It would be a gift.