Aurelius stared hard at Ulrica, whose rebellious glare dared him to disbelieve her. Magic. Ghosts. Vanora. He wanted her to make some sense of her insinuations, but that would have to wait. As leader, he needed to prioritize, and legendary mountains weren’t at the top of their list. Aurelius asked, “Do you have experience sleeping in trees?”
She nodded stiffly. “Rope for harnessing. Close quarters. Sleeping by turns.”
Unknotting his sash, Aurelius unwound the rope he’d used earlier. “What kind of tree?”
“The taller the better. Wide limbs. Smooth bark.” Her lips quirked, and she suggested, “To save trouble, we should look for one that harbors a tree-cat.”
“And ….” The girl grudgingly admitted, “I need food.”
“Aye, I thought I’d be relishing my kill by now,” he said, turning over the rope. “So we’ll share out the duties. Find a tree to suit our needs, and I’ll forage.”
Ulrica hesitated, once more checking the sky. “We don’t have very long.”
“Aye. When I signal, meet me back here.”
“Have you ever participated in a dual hunt?” he asked.
“With my mother.”
“What signs do you prefer?”
She swiftly ran through standard hand signals.
“And when out of sight?”
Ulrica’s mouth thinned. “Mother’s are a secret.”
Hardly surprising. During hunting competitions, the patter of a dozen Pred rang through the woods. Shared codes kept partners linked, so a team’s signals were a closely guarded secret. Aurelius asked, “Do you have your own?”
She shook her head.
He crouched and set his fist on the ground. “As my hunting partner, will you accept one of mine?”
“What is it?”
His gaze didn’t waver as he withdrew his dagger and struck a metal stud driven into the heel of his boot. Two beats. Swift and simple.
Ulrica drew two of her jeweled weapons and answered by hitting the flat of one blade against the other. Two beats. Sharp and sure.
Aurelius rose smoothly. “We are agreed.”
When he turned to go, her voice followed him, yielding the traditional response. “Good hunting.”
Nearly an hour later, Aurelius was losing the light. With any luck, his partner wouldn’t lambast him for ignoring her warning. But sweet smells hung thick in the abandoned grove, making his mouth water. As he stacked more ripe fruit onto the unfolded fabric of his sash, he hoped for the best. Maybe she likes peaches. Folding and knotting the corners of his makeshift pack, he settled its weight across his shoulders and started back.
Aurelius had participated in enough night hunts to feel a difference in these woods. The unnatural hush had a watchful quality. He found himself looking back, checking for followers.
A sudden movement in Aurelius’s periphery sent him into a crouch, blade at the ready. Something was hiding in a shadowy tumble of creepers. He held his breath, waiting for another glimpse. Hunter or hunted? Evening breezes sent a faint rustle through the empty trees and stirred the clump of vines. Ice trickled down Aurelius’s spine as the swaying leaves parted enough to reveal a pale face.
Setting aside his bundle, he prowled closer, trying not to think about how many of his brothers’ ghost stories involved running into a scarred woman in the woods. White as bone. Silent as stars. Cold as death.
Nothing moved beneath the curtain of creepers, and Aurelius gathered enough courage to push them aside. With a soft noise of disgust, he hacked away enough greenery to expose a battered figure. She gazed down at him from her pedestal, a gentle smile on her chipped face.
“Just a statue,” he muttered, backing away. Aurelius sheathed his dagger, retrieved his pack, and checked the eastern sky. As two more stars appeared on the horizon, he picked up his pace.
He was still some distance from their meeting point when a double-beat sounded off to one side. Aurelius answered, and Ulrica repeated the call. She’s not where I left her. Changing tack, he lengthened his stride, aiming for the girl’s intermittent signals.
She waited at the base of a tree that towered over a small meadow. “You’re late,” she growled.
“But not empty-handed.”
Ulrica sniffed. “We need to climb.”
He gestured in the direction from which he’d come. “The forest turned eerie. Have you ever seen anyth–” Aurelius cut off when he realized she was already halfway up the tree.
Not to be outdone, he clambered after her, claws biting deep into smooth bark.
The broad limb she’d chosen offered a clear view of the meadow below. A strategic choice for either hunter or hunted. If the mountain was magical enough to lend credence to legends, they’d have a good vantage point for ghost-spotting.
His rope was already knotted in place, with loops for strapping. “Am I to be lashed to the proverbial mast?” he asked lightly.
“Nay.” Ulrica sat, straddling the limb with her back to the trunk. Crisscrossing the makeshift harnesses across her chest, she made herself comfortable.
“Where’s my harness?”
“Your rope was too short.” Ulrica’s tone was all accusation.
“A serious oversight on my part,” Aurelius said, lapsing into sarcasm. At least he’d thought to bring a rope. He eyed the drop, which was considerable. “Are you suggesting we take turns?”
“You won’t fall.”
“Unless I fall asleep.” Aurelius rubbed circles against his temple. “Which I will. Ulrica, I didn’t sleep a wink last night.”
She rolled her eyes and pointed to the space in front of her. “Sit here. Sleep if you want. I won’t let you fall.”
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.