Aurelius wasn’t often allowed the lead, so he wasn’t wasting this chance. Driving a fist into the ground between them, he said, “We’ll approach Vanora from the east—downwind, in shadow, to water. From there, I’ll track your pretty kitties.”
Ulrica signaled her acceptance by pressing her own knuckles to the earth.
Which surprised him no end, but Aurelius wasn’t letting on. Leaders expect to be followed. So he sprang away and waited several ticks before stealing a backward glance. Ulrica matched his speed in a basic flank position. Alert. Confident. Flawless.
Even though Ulrica wasn’t favoring her ankle, Aurelius set a slow pace. We need water. And a wash. Creeks, springs, and pools were plentiful in open territory, so hunters seldom carried canteens. As they went, he also searched for signs of prey, but the collapse had scattered anything of value. It rankled that their misfortune may well have driven more prey into the paths of other hunters. Let them preen. A stag certainly trumps a rabbit, but bringing in a tree-cat will turn heads.
Aurelius soon located the head of a narrow stream under the trailing branches of a willow thicket and signaled a halt. “We have time. Rest.”
Once more, Ulrica yielded without any signs or sounds of annoyance. She slid her feet into the rippling water, then scooped several mouthfuls.
Aurelius rid himself of his boots and waded in, sucking in his breath at the sudden chill. He splashed water on his face and over his arms, ridding himself of dust and grime. After drinking deeply, he asked, “Your ankle?”
“Aye, and your bells silent.”
She flushed at the compliment, then hid behind a scowl.
Aurelius mirrored her expression, grumbling, “These woods are so empty, they echo, but from here on, we should see signs of life.”
“See them, track them, and wrest them from snarling throats with our bare hands.”
Aurelius blinked, then grinned. “Aye. Since this is uncharted territory to me, be patient while I test the trails.”
Ulrica slowly swished her feet in the water. “You admit to ignorance about Vanora and these woods. Have you never hunted tree-cats?”
“I have. Just not here. They were our prey on First Continent.”
Skepticism flashed across her face. “You’ve been overseas.”
“Many times.” Waving in the direction of the white mountain, he said, “Tree-cats are not native to our continent. They’re from Clow territory, where men hunt for animals whose coloring complements their own. Our guide was delighted when we ran across one with golden fur because it’s rarer than deep browns and russets.”
Ulrica’s brows drew together. “Why would you hunt with the Clow?”
Aurelius sat on the opposite bank, which was so close, their knees nearly touched. “Because my family has a mutually beneficial alliance with their tribe.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we trade with them.” Aurelius searched her face, curious if his family’s line of business would improve or destroy her opinion of him. “My family owns a merchant fleet.”
After several moments, Ulrica leaned forward to ask, “Is it true that the Clow are properly endowed with fangs and claws?”
He felt the tension trickle out of his body. Curiosity was something he could trade on. And trade well, since he knew how to spin a tale to best advantage. “Aye, they’re a formidable race. Powerfully built. Not as bulky as the Ursa, but more heavily muscled than Grif and Pred.” Aurelius dropped into gossipy tones. “Some of First Continent’s lesser races rely on the Clow for protection against us!”
“You’ve encountered the Ursa?”
Aurelius preened. “Oh, aye, I’ve been to Last Continent twice.”
“Does that mean you’ve been to the Dazzle and Dapple Mountains?”
“To the surrounding towns,” he clarified. “Our family doesn’t deal in stone, but every summer, we carry Drom oil and spices into their ports. Some of it must end up in the Keepers’ holds.”
Ulrica made a soft noise that sounded like disappointment. Or perhaps disgust.
Anxious to hold her interest, he changed tactics. “Do you like Drom melons?”
“Aye,” she admitted warily.
“My brothers are newly returned from the east with a whole wagon filled with them. They have a stall in our square.” Aurelius said. “Come find me during the dancing, and I’ll treat you.”
She stared determinedly at her toes. “The hunt comes before the dance. Tell me how the Clow bring down tree-cats.”
“Track from water to den, with half an eye trained into the treetops. They use arrows to drop their prey.” He gestured toward her arsenal. “Your daggers won’t cut deep enough to finish an adult. A wounded cat will either turn on us or retreat to lick its wounds.”
Ulrica tapped the hilts of the daggers lining her right thigh. “What then?”
“I’ll find our prey. You’ll strike first. Land your daggers. Slow the cat enough for me to reach it, and I’ll end its resistance before it can turn on you.”
She touched the dagger hilts on her left side, silently completing what he suspected was still a partial inventory. “You want me to draw the cat into the open.”
“Aye.” Aurelius drew his feet out of the water and used the trailing end of his sash to pat them dry. “Especially if it’s treed. Lure it to the ground, and we’ll have it.”
“In other words, I am bait.”
“That’s how the Clow snare their prize.” His brows arched. “Don’t you trust me?”
Ulrica scooted backward and stood, peering down her nose at him. “Are you fast?”
“Are you brave?”
“Are you good?”
Aurelius smirked. “Better.”
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. Rakefang is set to release on February 24, 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.