Running allowed Ulrica to test her muscles, calm her jangled nerves, and reset her priorities. Her new hunting partner had no business grabbing up so much of her focus. When Aurelius had taken the lead with proper custom and confidence, she’d yielded. And Ulrica was convinced there was no shame in her response. We are hunters. This is our hunting ground. For the duration of the hunt, that’s all that matters. Willing her senses to take in the smells and sounds of the wood, she matched Aurelius’s easy gait. They had a lot of ground to cover.
By the time Vanora loomed large above them, Ulrica had taken the boy’s measure. He may have been downhill and dockside, but he moved well—swift, efficient, confident. It helped that Aurelius was well-spoken and generous with compliments. And the golden eyes didn’t hurt. I must ask Mother whether feathers are truly fashionable. If so, Ulrica wanted to hunt pheasants, whose bronze and black feathers would look a treat in her hair.
Aurelius drew up and backtracked to check along the banks of a small brook. When his expression soured, she couldn’t resist a taunt. “I thought you were going to impress me.”
Without looking up, he said, “Nothing would please me more, but there are no traces of your pretty kitties. Yet.”
He took off. She followed. What choice did she have? Her promise was made. And the boy’s ignoble lineage didn’t matter if they could bring down a tree-cat before tomorrow’s end. After that, Aurelius could go right back to being beneath her notice.
He took them on a course that swung further around the mountain, away from the sea and into the valley created by Vanora’s southeastern slopes. From this side, The Towers were hidden from view, but a road hugged the mountainside above them, winding toward its summit.
“No guards?” Aurelius asked in low tones.
Ulrica shrugged. “Father says no one would bother raiding the White Mountain. Brother says no one would dare.”
“Which of them is in a position to know?”
“Does it matter?” she asked cagily. “We aren’t raiding the mountain.”
“Aye, but will the Keeper’s employees object to our taking prey from such close quarters?”
“On all the maps this is open territory. We’re within our rights.”
Aurelius kept his eyes trained on the peak. “Then why does no one hunt here?”
“Was your family too poor for a proper cradle guardians?”
“Everyone has them.” He brushed aside her question with a flick of his wrist. “You’re more likely to find an unpierced adult than a milk-faced weanling without its guard.”
Ulrica snarled, “Aye, but did yours move?”
She rolled her eyes. “Downhill ignorance is so quaint. Are you also too old to believe in ghost stories?”
“Uphill arrogance is tiresome at best.” Aurelius pushed into her personal space. “Ulrica, there are strange tales on every continent about Keepers and their mountains. Are you saying there’s some truth to them?”
“Aye. So before the sun drops, we should look for a suitable tree.”
“Suitable,” he echoed, his gaze flicking to those nearby. “For …?”
“Shelter.” Ulrica checked the eastern sky. “Before the stars gain strength, we need to climb.”
“Why tree ourselves?”
“Because the mountain will know we’re here,” she snapped, knowing how crazy it sounded. “And Vanora’s infamous ghosts cannot find us as easily if our feet aren’t touching her stone.”
“How could a mountain know anything?”
Ulrica’s face burned. Father had strictly forbidden any in his household to speak of their connection to the renowned Starlit Mountain. But she could not bring herself to be ashamed of the secret Lyall Rakefang was so desperate to bury. “It’s magic,” she said. “Vanora is magical.”
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.