Aurelius glanced between Ulrica’s face and the place she’d reserved for him. Surely not. From an early age, Pred were taught to stay on guard, and the list of people Aurelius wanted at his back was short. Only a fool gives away his trust, and it’s twicewise foolhardy to accept trust without an equal measure of suspicion. Yet this girl offered her arms.
“Will I be safe in my partner’s clutches?” he asked, only half joking.
“Safer than you would be on the ground.”
“According to you.”
“Aye,” Ulrica retorted. “According to me, my brother, yon mountain, and every star that shines upon your idiocy. Now sit.”
“Since you asked nicely.” Aurelius sulkily passed her his foraged foodstuffs and removed his boots. Hooking them together, he hung them within easy reach, then unbuckled his sheath. Stashing his weapon in one of the boots, he turned his back on Ulrica and lowered himself into her grasp.
He was met by neither blade nor blow. Glancing over his shoulder, he was mildly perturbed that Ulrica wasn’t paying any attention to his emotional disarray. Vastly more interested in the peaches he’d gathered, she took a large bite of fruit. Arching a brow, Aurelius said, “Help yourself.”
Ulrica glared, but her ferocity was diminished by the dribble of juice on her chin.
Holding up a hand, he silently demanded his share.
She passed him a peach, then rummaged through the rest of his forage—greens, roots, and clusters of berries. Aurelius waited to see if she’d offer complaints or compliments, but Ulrica ate in silence.
Aurelius pitched aside the stone from his first peach and accepted a second. “The cradle guardian I grew up with didn’t move,” he said, picking up the thread of conversation that had been nagging at him. “My older brother said it used to, but I never believed him.”
“He’s a wretched tease.” Aurelius shrugged. “Besides, I’ve seen plenty of fine carvings in the windows of upscale shops. Even the master-marked ones never budged.”
Ulrica sniffed. “They don’t move by day, lackwit. Alabaster needs starlight to stir.”
“Because they’re magic,” he drawled sarcastically.
“Aye,” she snapped. “I thought you’d know better. You’ve traveled and heard about the other mountains and their Keepers.”
“Mountain lore is interesting, but you can’t expect me to believe every tale spun the seafaring wags that man our fleet.” Aurelius grudgingly admitted, “My family doesn’t have the connections to haggle with Keepers.”
“What does your family sell?”
“We mostly deal in fine cloth, jewelry, spices, and exotic fruit.” He licked his fingers. “Luxuries to entice uphill folk into parting with coin.”
Ulrica sniffed. “There’s more money in stone.”
“According to you.”
“Aye, according to me, my brother, elite collectors, and the sculptors who cater to their whims.” She huffily added, “Since you favor tacky baubles and withered produce, your deplorable ignorance is understandable.”
“Ignorance?” Aurelius scowled. “Let’s discuss your inexplicable expertise. What makes you think the White Mountain poses a threat?”
“What makes you think we’re safe?”
Aurelius lapsed into silence at Ulrica’s challenge. What indeed? Tension mounted, and not simply between them. The forest was still—too still—so when Aurelius spoke next, it was in an undertone. “Something must be prowling.”
“We have been noticed.” Her words were beside his ear, mockingly sweet. “By the ghosts.”
“Oh, aye.” He forced a laugh, but his bravado was as weak as his knees. “Summer nights and ghost stories belong together. What new tale will you spin for me?”
“Can’t you sleep without a bedtime story? I outgrew them ages ago.”
“Do not trouble yourself,” he muttered. “Will you take the first watch?”
“How should I …?”
“Lean back,” she ordered, guiding him until his head rested on her shoulder.
Aurelius forced himself to relax. Disarmed and disarming, he smiled up at her. “I am at your mercy.”
“You trust too easily.”
Aurelius was prone to agree. “I’d rather suffer evisceration at your hands than return tomorrow with naught but rabbits.”
He could feel her nod.
Closing his eyes, he asked, “Will you murder me in my sleep, Ulrica?”
He squirmed, trying to make himself more comfortable.
She pinched his arm.
Eyes heavy, limbs leaden, Aurelius pushed his luck. “I’d feel more secure if you held on.”
With a soft hiss, Ulrica wrapped her arms around his chest.
Loosely hooking his fingers around her wrists, he said, “Much better. Isn’t this coz– ?”
She rudely interrupted him by shaking free and clamping a hand over his mouth.
Aurelius’s eyes snapped open, only to find Ulrica pointing at the forest floor. Something was moving along the ground, partially obscured by leaf and shadow. A tree-cat? But then the lurker stepped into the open, and a jolt of recognition shot through his hammering heart.
“Told you so, lackwit,” Ulrica whispered against his ear. “Vanora’s ghosts are real.”
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.