The forest was dark and dense, shadows gathering near snow drifts and around the bases of icicle-bearded fir trees. Felmine took the first step into the Blackwood, knife in her hand. The knife dripped blood onto the snow, and as the wind whirled around her, she bent and shook ice over the crimson.
She turned and followed the tracks in the snow. Two white-eyed snow hares, she thought. She stood at the hooting of an eagle owl. At her waist, fastened with silvery black leather, was another jagged black-bladed knife, glimmering in the starlit shadows, wicked magic thrown into silhouette by the star light between the treetops. Sister to the bleeding one in her hand, sister to the knife that had taken the life of the Nash Mir not half an hour ago.
Half a mile away, half a mile behind her, a young man in heavy dark furs sprinted through the snow. She heard him. She knew that he could find no tracks, no broken branches, nothing that might indicate where the assassin of the Nash Mir might have gone.
She could hear him from far away, even through the blanket of the wind and the river. He stopped, breathing heavily, gasping, groaning, and started running again. She heard each step taking him deeper into the snow, louder and more careless, and she guessed each step must be bringing him closer to exhaustion. She, however, had been trained to swallow exhaustion, to make it disappear or even spur her on to greater speed. She would not fail.
Felmine discarded her bloody knife at the edge of the river and buried it under a snowdrift with a prayer. She rubbed off the bloodstains from her fingers with hard-packed snow. From there she walked, half bent over in the shadows, on her black-booted feet and gloved fingers, toward the center of the wood. Through the snow, under the delicate icy arms of larch branches, past arm-thick icicles and rock-solid snow drifts, against hard ice-speckled wind that bit at her, sliced at her, drove shards of knifelike sleet through her clothing and into her skin.
Darkness crept up around her by the time she reached the far bend in the river. The water began to slow, ice thickening, as both Felmine and the river traveled north. It was the Ob River, or part of it, and she and the river were heading farther north than she’d dreamed was ever possible.
She heard the man crashing behind her and smiled. The fool.
“Fool,” she breathed. “To think he could track me.”
She was the best tracker and huntress ever trained by the RAVEN program. No mere security guard or bodyguard could dream of tracking Felmine when she didn’t want to be found. She rubbed her black gloved palms together and breathed into them. Thin black branches whipped in the Siberian wind, past her masked face. She had wrapped a thin black shawl around her mouth, nose, and up to her forehead, leaving her eyes free, and over the shawl, up her scalp, she wore a tight black hood. It was designed to hold the scarves in place and to allow her to melt into the darkening shadows. On her back was a flattened pack, black and as weightless as a palmful of starlight. Her hands were gloved in thin black cloth. Unsubstantial in this cold, but she rubbed them again and thought, I can manage.
She had always managed.
She could hear him again. He had stopped. The man knelt at the river’s edge. She could not know what he was thinking, but she knew she had pressed him hard; surely a soft city-dweller was tiring already. She was banking on this. Felmine herself was trembling, breath coming shakily as she bent and sprinted, slowed and jogged, through the icy tundra with a backpack. He could not even see her, he was running blind.
For now, fatigue might force away the hard-tongued grief that threatened to overcome him. She had killed his master, his leader, the Nash Mir. For mindless men like him, she had just destroyed his sense of purpose. Only the black sense of justice and of vengeance pulled him forward now, into the depths of the Blackwood.
Felmine smiled. She was nearly there. Behind her the wind rushed across her tracks, like the ocean on the sand, and the snow was as clean and bare as if she had never been there. She had chosen this night for its wind and growing storm, and she knew she had chosen correctly.
“A clear night might’ve been easier to travel in,” she mumbled, and then fell silent. Perhaps the man was near enough to hear her, though she doubted it. He could barely go five steps without crushing a twig or crumpling through snow, making enough racket to scare a lustful moose.
Nearly there, nearly to the safe house.
For a split second she wondered why RAVEN leaders—the orchestrators of the assassination—had chosen a safe house in the heart of the Blackwood, the most dangerous forest in all of the mother country. But then her training kicked in and her mind clamored answers.
You alone can get there safely.
And: who are you to question what the leaders say?
RAVEN’s leaders were god to the rest of the program. What they said went. Throughout training, one learned to obey as well as fight. To doggedly finish a mission, as well as how to plunge a knife into the right artery.
Once, her tutor had let go of the safety rope when she was climbing the outside of a city building in the dead of night. She had shrieked, hanging ten stories above the rushing lighted streets with one hand, and then grit her teeth and swung her legs up again, pulled herself to the top. Her tutor did not smile, but instead clapped her on her aching shoulders and said Job well done. Now, go back down.
And she had done it.
Felmine stopped at the base of a thick black tree. She pulled her hand from her pocket. In her hand she clasped a small whirring metal circle. On the back it bore a canvas handle, under which she slid her hand, twisting her wrist so she gripped the handle with the back of her hand rubbing against the metal circle. She guided the metal to the tree trunk, and it attached with a shink sound.—Proof that the tree was metal, as she had suspected. Only if she looked closely was she able to tell that the carefully detailed bark was really melded iron. Well hidden, indeed. The safe house, or at least its base, looked exactly the same as every other tree in the Blackwood.
With the other hand she took a cloth bag out of her other pocket. Inside was resin. She rubbed it to the bottoms of her boots and returned the bag to her pocket.
Felmine pulled the connector circle as high as she could reach, then leaped upward, other hand braced against the trunk for support, legs scrabbling for a minute before connecting, sticking from the resin, and holding tight to the tree trunk.
She began to climb. Her knees bent and toes contracted, finding little blemishes in the sounding of the metal, around the bark, gripping them, pulling herself upward. She grunted with each pull, and gasped when a brown-backed hawk flew past, just underneath her. Shaking her head and smiling slightly, Felmine pulled upward.
Again the crashing started up behind her. She knew the man was exhausted. His face would already be numb and his fingers would turn a gentle purplish blue. From the glimpse she had caught of him as she fled the city, she knew he was not dressed for the tundra. His were city clothes, superficially thick and not long-lasting.
Suddenly the noise of the man halted. She stopped as well, hanging with burning fingers and cold toes. She listened. The wind whipped eerily around her and distorted her hearing. Silence. The cracking of the brush. He had fallen.
He had crumpled to his knees, knowing he could not succeed. Russian man destroyed again by Russian weather.
Felmine kicked her feet up and crawled upside down along a branch. Her boots began to slip; the resin must be wearing away.
That was quick, she thought, and crawled faster.
Then there was open air and her hand waved. She shook. Fire snaked up her forearm and past her elbow.
“Ah,” she breathed between her teeth, and broke off a strangely curved branch that was close to her face. Instantly a sleek panel emerged from the hole where the branch had been, and Felmine cocked her head at it. She gritted her teeth, and with her hand trembling down by her side, holding herself upside down, holding the metal connector, she tapped in the password.
Nash Mir dead.
A small, deep whirring.
“Enter,” said a plastic voice.
Felmine closed her eyes and released a sigh. She hoisted herself upward and over the branch, and shook hair and sleet from her eyes. She balanced on one knee and one foot, hand still gripping the canvas handle underneath the branch, and crawled forward. Cut into the metal trunk was a circular door, compact and perfect.
It slid open as she approached.
“You will stay there for a day and a half,” the tobaccoey voice of the RAVEN operative had said. “You will be provided with one meal. You will not exit the safe house until the full thirty-six hours have passed. We will contact you and extract you when the hours have passed.”
She had nodded.
“If we do not contact you,” he had said listlessly, “You will remain in the safe house, entering and exiting for hunting and whatnot, with the tools we leave you, for as long as you can. You may choose to finish your life there.”
Felmine lifted herself inside, and fell into a warm orange room full of clicking machinery, an open message-scroll, and a table set for one. On the tiny metal table in the middle of the room, there was a bowl of soup, no longer steaming, half a loaf of salted black bread, and a silver communicating device, the size of her palm.
Felmine grinned. RAVEN had been right. No one would find her here.