Aurelius might have complained about Ulrica’s callous disregard for the inconveniences he’d endured for her sake, but he wasn’t a lackwit. Only a fool throws obstacles into his own path. Instead, he checked the sky as he calmly recoiled his rope. “Can you run?”
“Fast and far,” Ulrica snapped. “Try to keep up.”
Bark and bite, with bristles besides. Aurelius couldn’t wait to see if the girl’s confidence was justified. He accepted her answer with a nod, but made no move to put their temporary prison behind them. They had plans to make. “What kind of prey do you want me to track?”
Her brows lifted. “What if I chose a wild bull?”
“Easy to find. Difficult to kill. Impossible to carry home. Be reasonable, Ulrica.”
She retreated into sullen silence.
Aurelius weighed the possibilities. Maybe she was being childish. Maybe she was in more pain than she let on. Maybe the pressure was clawing at her gut as fiercely as it dug into his.
Father was always saying that in barter, you had to give a little to get a little. According to Aunt Lissie, a male should be prepared to give everything to get anywhere with a female. Aurelius had always wondered what she meant. Perhaps she was talking about situations like this? He sat directly in front of her and once more offered his palms. “My older brothers never brought anything more interesting that rabbits back. Do you have a predecessor to outdo?”
Her expression grew even more wary. “My mother also hunted rabbits, but my father gutted a boar during his rite.”
“Impressive,” Aurelius said. “Would he be pleased if you followed his example? Or will his pride be injured if you exceed him?”
Her expression clouded. “I hunt for more than myself. I must outshine everyone.”
Ulrica’s lip curled. “We cannot both claim the same prey.”
“Nay, it’s possible!” Aurelius leaned forward, talking fast. “If we bring down a large enough animal, no one will question our returning with naught but head, haunch, or heart as proof of victory.”
“Aye. Something large.” She drew her knees to her chest and rested her chin on them. “What would you choose?”
He stretched out his legs and contemplated his boots. “Grif hunters are praised if they can snare a bird with beautiful feathers.”
“What use are feathers to a Pred?”
Aurelius breezily replied, “You watch during this week’s festival. Feathers are the latest fashion in trimmings and for hair arrangements.”
She shook her head. “I cannot be satisfied with a bird for this rite.”
“Hoof or paw?” he asked, hoping to at least narrow the field.
Ulrica was quick to catch on. Aurelius could almost see her weigh and discard their options. Suddenly, her fangs flashed in a wide smile. “I want to bring home a predator.”
“Not a wolf,” he warned. “My family holds them in great honor.”
“Aye.” Her dark eyes raked over him, as if assessing his worth. “What if I chose a tree-cat?”
His stomach dropped, but he admitted, “No one could question the superiority of such prey.”
“They’re thick in Vanora’s foothills.”
Aurelius turned in the direction of the White Mountain, even though it couldn’t be seen through the trees. “There are strange rumors about that place. Few dare to hunt anywhere in her shadow.”
“All the better.”
Which was entirely true. But Aurelius balked. “My family has always steered clear of that rock. Father says the current Keeper’s an irascible bounder, and the whole place is overrun by foreigners.”
She was glaring.
He tried again. “And … there are the ghost stories.”
Ulrica stood. “I know enough about Vanora to keep us alive.”
“My brother taught me.” Without a trace of apprehension, she said, “As long as we don’t hunt while the stars pierce the sky, we’ll have no trouble.”
She smiled sweetly. “For good reason.”
Author’s Note: This story is a prequel to C. J. Milbrandt’s Galleries of Stone trilogy and updates each Friday. The first two books in the trilogy—Meadowsweet and Harrow—are currently available. The third and final volume is set to release in February 2015. Useful information about Pred culture can be found here.
Deuce © Copyright 2015, C. J. Milbrandt, all rights reserved. If you want to receive an email whenever this story updates, subscribe to the blog. You can also watch for notifications on Twitter and “like” the series on Facebook.