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 three, 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.”