When Aurelius pulled Ulrica’s hand away from his mouth, she whispered, “Stay quiet.”
“But I know her.” Tilting his head to one side, Aurelius muttered, “I found her earlier, buried under a mass of creepers. She’s a statue.”
Ulrica was ready with a snide retort, but when he turned, fear glazed his golden eyes.
“That thing is made of stone,” he managed weakly. “As in rock.”
“Aye, lackwit. I can see that.” She calmly asked, “You pulled away the vines that hid her from the sky?”
Aurelius’s gaze snapped back to the statue. “Aye, some of them.”
“Enough for starlight to reach her.” The battered statue must have been lovely once, but her body had been defaced by deep slashes and patches of lichen. Missing body parts affected her mobility, so she wobbled from tree to tree, pausing frequently as she searched the underbrush. Ulrica added, “You made it possible for her to wake.”
“Accidentally!” he protested, his voice squeaking.
“Maybe she wants to repay you.”
Aurelius’s head whipped around. “What? How?”
“How should I know?” With a wicked smile, Ulrica pointed to the statue below. “Ask her.”
Clearly, the statue had been searching for Aurelius. The alabaster woman’s upturned face bore a smile, and she waved at them.
He tensed. “Wh-what am I supposed to do?”
Ulrica shrugged. “Wave back?”
Aurelius lifted his hand in an uncertain greeting, and the statue’s smile widened. Then she touched her fingers to her lips and tossed the boy a kiss. To Ulrica’s amusement, Aurelius pushed backward as if dodging a dagger. Only the move left him plastered against her, and she didn’t like him taking such liberties. Although it took considerable restraint, she didn’t toss him to the forest floor. A knuckle to his spine was sufficient to communicate her displeasure.
Aurelius eased off as the statue turned a clumsy circle and hobbled back the way she’d come. Once she was out of sight, he asked, “How is that possible?”
“Magic.” Ulrica prodded him again, demanding more distance. “Have you soiled your breeches?”
“That’s a mercy. The gibbering’s bad enough; the stench would have exceeded all bounds of acceptability.”
His eyes narrowed accusingly. “That was not a ghost.”
“Nay. Stone guardians are like cradle guardians. Those that are master-marked take on a life of their own. They keep watch on starry nights.”
Aurelius stared off in the direction the pale statue had vanished. “Are you saying she was nothing more than an oversized toy?”
“Nay. I’m saying our toys are tiny guardians. Only instead of being bound to the children of privileged families, those that roam these woods are bound to Vanora. They are her protectors.”
Brow creased in thought, Aurelius asked, “What will these living statues do if they catch us?”
“I don’t know. And I’d rather not find out.”
“This is preposterous.” Indignation vibrated through his body. “How can such a threat exist within our boundaries?”
Ulrica sighed. “It’s a long story. One no one talks about. Ever.”
“But someone told you,” he reasoned.
“Aye. My brother.”
“And who told him?”
“His mentor,” she replied cagily.
Aurelius shot her a look of pure exasperation. “And he’s apprenticed to …?”
“That’s a secret.” Ulrica scowled. “I won’t betray Frey.”
With a muttered oath, Aurelius twisted around and grabbed her hand. Slamming her palm over his heart, he swore, “I won’t tell. Upon my life.”
She growled, but such promises were not made lightly. Under the circumstances, Ulrica decided it was safe to trust him. “My brother takes lessons on Vanora. He’s apprenticed to her Keeper because he’s like them.”
“Them,” Aurelius echoed. “The foreigners?”
“Aye,” she replied, shy pride seeping into her admission. “He’s the first Pred ever chosen.”
“Why would an uphill heir bend his back in a quarry?”
“My brother is no gravel-grubbing quarryman! Freydolf has an unusually strong affinity for stone.”
Aurelius’s face creased in confusion. “He … likes rocks?”
“He has magic. And heaps of talent.” Ulrica’s chin tilted haughtily, “Frey’s going to be a proper sculptor. One who can wake stone.”
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.