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Niki leaned into the wind. Still no sign of open water. The endless stretch of ice was studded with boulders--not of stone but of frozen seawater, buckled and broken into a forbidding landscape.
The bone-rattling cold and shuddering winds made this arctic region a perfect pickup spot. So why the delay?
Maybe the terns were wrong. But Brady said they were never wrong, and the shelter waiting for her would be proof of that. She had arrived four days ago, stopping here because the terns swooped down and roosted on what looked like an ice boulder. On the far side, she had found a wind-carved cave, a perfect refuge for dogs and men alike.
Now the terns moved overhead in lazy circles. The dogs were quiet, content to eat or sleep until she needed them.
Niki pulled up her hood, checked the lacings of her boots, and tightened her crampons. Back home, in the forests and plains upground of Horesh, trees already budded and seedlings pushed up through moist ground. Here the only sign of spring was a sun that circled the horizon, no more than a fleck of gold straining to climb into full day.
When she picked up the dogs back in Chiungos, the weather had still been mild enough to keep her hood down and let the crisp air rush through her hair. She had forgotten how cold it could get this far north. She walked hard, her crampons biting the ice with an irritating clip, clip, clip. She was sick of frozen land and parched air and shy sun.
She was sick to death of trying to figure out why Brady had sent her here.
It had all come about those weeks ago, in the smithy of Horesh. Niki closed her eyes and saw the sparks flying from the grindstone as she laid her sword against the wheel. Even on this unrelenting prairie of ice, she could feel the fire of the forge. The smithy was a simple place where they sharpened swords, waxed bowstrings, notched arrows, and beat iron to fit their purpose.
Brady had bent over the anvil, hammering a horseshoe. He'd worn a heavy leather apron and gloves but no shirt--it was blazing hot between the forge and the anvil. His back was broad; his arms were heavy with muscle; his dark hair was twisted into a heavy braid and tied back to reveal silver streaks at his temples. When had that happened? Like Niki, he was only twenty-two.
Niki cringed at the scars lacing his back. The one on his left shoulder blade was ugly and jagged, proof that he was a warrior and not a surgeon or seamstress.
Brady looked up at her, his smile sudden and sweet.
Her blade slipped, showering sparks. "Youch!"
"Careful there, gal," Brady said.
"Careful is my middle name."
"There's some strong-arms that might dispute that." He pounded the glowing shoe.
"The ones that might dispute it, can't."
The unsaid hung between them: They can't dispute it because they're dead.
Niki fumbled to say the first thing that came to her mind. "I saw the terns come down this morning."
Brady dipped the shoe into the bucket, steam hissing around his arm. "Can you stop the wheel for a minute?"
She took her foot off the pedal, intent on the whir of the wheel as it slowed. "When are you leaving?"
"I don't understand."
"I want you to take this transit, Nik."
"Me? But the transit is the leader's job."
"It's the leader's prerogative. His blessing. Which I am giving to you."
Niki shook her head. "I can't. I'm escorting Jayme's crew down to the Shoals. A monthlong mission, at least. Remember?"
"Bartoly will ride out with them. You will do this."
Her legs felt strange. Weak knees--something she had never experienced in battle. "Why would you send me away like this? I'm needed here to ride out with our people. I have a job to do."
Brady tossed his gloves aside so he could put his hand on her shoulder. "Nik, you are the bravest outrider in camp, probably the bravest in all the camps."
She lowered her gaze. "I do my duty."
"That you do. And you won't stop at anything to get it done."
He was close to her, so close she could smell his sweat and the mint leaves he loved to chew. His eyes were the color of a deep forest stream--sometimes green, sometimes brown. Always so clear, as if he had no secrets--but in this moment something secret had come between them. Though Brady's grip on her was firm, she felt him spin away.
"So why would you ask me to do something that isn't mine to do?" she said.
"Because you need time to think, Nik."
"About what?" She kept her voice light, the whirl of emotions buried deep.
A strange sorrow crept into his smile. "Let me ask you something, Nik. If you were asked, would you give up fighting?"
"I don't fight. I protect and defend. There's a difference." But he knew the difference. They had ridden out together for six years. So why did he search her face as if she were a stranger and not his second in command and comrade in arms?
"Let me ask you this," he said. "Would you give up being an outrider if God asked that of you?"
"Are you sure?"
"I don't understand. Why do you ask these questions? And why send me north on transit?" Her voice was a whisper, her hands tight on his.
"Because God speaks clearly over the ice. Listen, Niki." He touched her cheek, his eyes so clear she could not read them at all. "Listen well."
Since that night, she had ridden west to the Arojo range, then upriver to an outpost named Chiungos. From there she had taken the team of sled dogs further north over the snow--all the while trying to honor Brady's request that she listen.
As she paced, the vastness of the ice melded into the overcast sky--one hazy curtain, impenetrable and unforgiving. In four endless days of trying to listen, all she had heard were the dogs and her crampons biting into the ice.
A shiver seized Niki, shaking her from the inside out. The cold couldn't penetrate her garments, but the silence cut right through her.
All right, someone really messed up here.
Cooper was supposed to sleep through the transit. They all were.
Dr. Latham had given him, Kwesi, and Anastasia each a hefty shot of tranquilizer. He had felt drowsy and calm, barely noticing as his parents slobbered all over him and the husk molded around him. His last thought had been that he would wake up and, for the first time ever, see the sky. How jam-packin' that would be.
Sometimes it was hard to believe that a sky even existed. But Cooper knew this heaving darkness was not the sky. This was fright time, with one thought knocking at his ribs. Not good. Not good at all.
No one ever wakes in transit, they had told him. Ever. You go to sleep in the Ark and wake up in the world. That simple.
Leave it to Cooper to be the first. He knew he was special, but this wasn't exactly what he had programmed for himself. He'd been a little joe when the first birthrighters left the Ark, had just entered training when the first tales of valor came back. He had jammed with the other kids on stories of outriders fighting off evil stronghold princes and their frightening mogs. He had daydreamed for hours that he was a tracker, scaling cliffs, swimming rivers, crawling deep into the earth to find originals for Birthright.
Even with the old holovideos and the practice in simulated conditions, Cooper had trouble grasping what a river--water rushing hard and free--might feel like. One thing he did know was that he would grab the outside world by its transmogrified ears and shake it. Stories would come back to the Ark, and the name of Cooper would outshine Brady and Niki and the rest of them.
If he made it out of transit alive.
Why was he awake? Had the transit misfired? What if the three husks were to bounce and roll like this forever?
Cooper leaned left, feeling his husk pitch against what he hoped was another husk. "Stasia. Kwesi. You there?" The shroud material from which the husk was made swallowed his words just as it had swallowed him. No one would hear him. No one would know he was awake.
Another fear now--what if the husk broke open? Would he die immediately? Or would his skin be eaten through slowly while he gulped putrid air and prayed to somehow survive? They tranquilized rookies like him because transit was tough. To keep the Ark safe from discovery, they couldn't know the way back.
So why had his tranquilizer worn off? "Because you're so special, lump. Can't trank a good man to sleep when there's battles to be fought. So you woke up early. Just another notch in your reputation, Cooper."
He liked the feel of his voice coming out of his throat, even though he couldn't really hear himself. "Maybe this is just the beginning of your heroics. Staying awake in transit hasn't been done before, eya? They'll make up songs about you, the only birthrighter who had ever jammed through transit and lived to tell about it."
Assuming he did live to tell about it.
"So maybe this wasn't someone's mess-up--maybe it was meant to be. You know you're not just no one. You were born to be someone. You need to get into the world and show them what you're made of, what you think, what you can do, what you--"
He shut his mouth. What if there was only a limited amount of air? All his blabber could eat it up. He curled tight, trying to sleep. But sleep still wouldn't come. He counted seconds, then minutes.
Think jam-packin' : How long would it be before he burst out of the husk and saw the sky? But the jam-punchin' bit back: How long would it be before he split through his skin with fear?
He remembered Mum's words as they sealed his husk: The songs are given us for a reason, my son. When the time comes, sing through your fear.
He hummed with the memory of his mother's voice, the words coming now, the music rising in him to fill the darkness:
You're one who heals the wounded.
You can calm the storm at sea . . .
Glorious! You are glorious . . .
Cooper sang it over and over, letting the music wrap him tighter than the husk, holding his praise like a lifeline, deciding he would hold it until he finally saw the sky.
Through the haze of shroud, he suddenly saw light.
"Oh, yeah." He felt a hard bounce, saw a round shadow pass over him as the first husk catapulted out. There was a flash of darkness, another rumble of air, and a second husk ejected. Cooper wrapped his arms across his chest and drew his knees up, waiting to be born again, because this is what they said it was like. Though he was supposed to sleep through this part, too, because no one could tolerate being coughed from under the ice into the cold, wide world.
Darkness closed in once more.
"No!" Cooper curled into a tight ball, feeling his heart pound into his knees. "Whatever it takes--I swear, I will do it," he said as he closed his eyes against the darkness. "Just get me out of here, please. Get me out."
The ice sighed.
The dogs stirred, their leader growling. Niki signaled the dogs back down. "Relax. You've done this many more times than I have."
"Stay back and let it happen," Brady had said, but Niki's feet tap-danced, torn between running away from the rumbling ice or running right to it.
A white wall of ice crested upward, a mighty whack splitting the silence. The slab cracked and flipped onto itself, shattering in massive pieces. Just as it seemed the whole ice field would crack open, the slamming under the ice stopped. Dark, forbidding water lay beyond the newly formed devastation. The surface roiled, a huge bubble rising up, followed by a violent explosion of water that created an instant snow squall in the frigid air.
Niki knew what she would see next. She had made her own transit this way. Yet still she hardly dared believe it.
The back of the bowhead whale broke the surface, more massive and magnificent than anything she had collected or seen or even imagined. The creature's gray skin glistened and its tiny eye sought her out, making her want to cower. But she cowered before neither man nor creature.
The whale rolled, then arched its back. Niki's insides trembled with the ridiculous possibility that it would come right out of the water and crush her. But it held steady, riding on its tail flukes as it slowly opened its mouth. An irrational hope tugged at Niki's heart that maybe, somehow, they had gotten it wrong and this wasn't a transit off the Ark. Maybe this whale had come to take her back.
"Impossible," Niki muttered.
The bowhead rippled a fin as if to say, Of course this is impossible. Its jaw creaked, water and seaweed trickling out of its mouth. Its stomach erupted, shooting half-digested krill and one husk onto the ice. The bowhead gulped air and ejected the second husk. But then the creature slipped back into the water and circled, its fin sinking lower with each circle.
It was planning to dive.
"No, no, there's another one. Don't go! Stop! Don't go." Niki slipped in the freezing slime as she ran for the water. "There's supposed to be three! Don't you dare leave--not now!"
The bowhead slipped under the water, leaving silence in its wake.
Two rooks were safe in their husks, eyes closed, faces serene. Two rooks--but three terns had come to camp. Three terns had met Niki outside of Chiungos and brought her to this spot on the ice. One tern still circled, waiting for the third husk to be delivered. The whale had slipped under the water, hanging just below the surface as if to rest.
What should she make of all this? Maybe one of the rooks got too sick or scared to make the transit. Maybe the rook died in transit. But that never happened.
Should Niki unshroud the two she had and ask them if she should be looking for a third rook? She had to do something--the water was already freezing over. She rolled the husks out of the stomach slime and onto the sled, gagging as acidified protein froze to her mittens. Behind her, she heard a tiny crinkle as the new ice cracked. The bowhead was up again.
She ran to where the gleaming eye could focus on her. "One more, you sorry sack of blubber. Give it up!"
The whale took a long draught of air, arched its back, diving this time for the deep. Niki knew all the way into her bones that it wasn't coming back.
She pulled off her jacket, her mask, mittens, tunic; kicked off her boots, but left on her pants and long shirt. She sprinted to the hole then skidded to a stop. A thin skin of ice already glazed over the water. Survival in there was a matter of a minute or less. It was insane even to consider what she was planning to do.
Niki took a huge breath and dove in.
The stillness hit her first, immense and final. The cold came next, convulsing her chest. She kicked and pulled in the whale's wake, with only seconds before her limbs numbed; a few more seconds before she slipped into a dull sleep, choking on water but not caring, too cold to fight back. Mere minutes before she died under the ice, closer to her parents than she had been in six years--they under the arctic ice, warm in the Ark, while she pressed up against the ice and eventually became the ice.
Black now, no blood, no vision, no feeling except silence and Brady, why did you send me here? It's so silent . . .
Niki bumped against the end of the world. But no, not the world--the bowhead. She dug her fingers into its blowhole, feeling pain as her knuckles warmed against the whale's skin.
The bowhead bucked, but she held on. The silence yielded to an explosion of noise: juices bubbling, baleen clicking, blood pounding as the whale opened its mouth.
She could let go now, go up to the surface and perhaps survive. But what if the whale felt her surrender and dove back down? She held on, kicking the whale's back with her feet, the last of her air seeping into her frozen muscles, the last of her sense slipping into darkness.
Come on, gal--just this once you could let go.
No. Not until the third husk was safe.
Something splintered against her back--the ice slick as the whale broke the surface. It reared back and, with a loud creak of its jaw, catapulted the husk onto the ice. Niki took in deep gulps of air, intending to jump off, but her arms and legs seemed to belong to the ice now and not to her body. She couldn't let go even if she wanted to, and so the whale would take her down into the depths and the husks would freeze onto the ice, the rooks never to see this world.
The whale tipped sideways and, with a blast of hot air from its blowhole, sent her flying off. Niki hit the ice with a thump that she could hear but couldn't feel because she was numb through and through. She skidded all the way to the sled, coming to rest against one of the husks.
"Get up," she told herself, but her limbs would not obey.
"Get up!" she yelled, and now she felt the pain as life returned to her legs. She struggled up, wrapping her coat around wet clothes that already stiffened in the wind. She slipped back into her boots, then moved clumsily to the three husks. She strapped them to the sled as best she could, grabbed the rope, and lumbered for the shelter of the cave.
Before ducking under the arch, Niki glanced back one last time at the open water.
The bowhead rose up on its flukes, blinked its eye once, and disappeared under the ice.