13 Pred, Prey
Aurelius was re-knotting his hair when the soft jingle of bells announced Ulrica’s approach. There was no doubt she was doing it on purpose. She’d run for leagues and scaled trees without so much as a ping. Given the needs of the day, Aurelius was relieved by the tiny peals. They were proof of peace, and that was progress. “Over here,” he called, voluntarily betraying his position. “I’m decent.” She stepped into the open. “What’s taking so long?” He indicated the brook at lay between them. “A bath.” Disbelief flickered across her face. “Why?” “Why did you redo your hair?” Ulrica lightly touched the neat coil atop her head. “It was a mess.” Aurelius shrugged. “And now it isn’t.” With a small nod, she dropped to one knee and scooped water. Between handfuls, she asked, “Do you have a plan, or are large words and empty boasts the only weapons in your arsenal?” He smirked. “Don’t forget good fortune and fine eyes!” “Hardly likely,” Ulrica said acidly. “Since you repeatedly bring them to the attention of those around you.” Aurelius quenched his own thirst, then used the back of his hand to wipe the grin off his face. Cutting to the bone of the matter, he pressed his fist to the ground. “At least two hunters are required to hunt tree-cat.” Ulrica’s thrust her knuckles into the moss on her side of the brook. “We are two.” “Aye. The Clow strategy is straightforward and should serve even in this terrain.” Aurelius kept his instructions short, not wishing to patronize his partner. “Once we single out your cat, press it into retreat. Give chase. The longer the better, since we are only two. Weary and worry it. Waste its stamina with our own.” “I can run.” Aurelius nodded. “I will direct our course with signals. Once we corner the creature, it’s sure to climb. At that point, it will be necessary to lure our prey out of the trees.” “With what?” He straightened and stepped across the stream, then crouched at Ulrica’s side. “Will you trust me?” Aurelius scrambled into the lowslung branches of an oldtree, intent on retrieving Ulrica’s dagger. He found it buried nearly to its hilt in the trunk. A testament to her power. Taking a steadying breath, he wrested the blade free and dropped to the ground. Sweeping an arm across his forehead, he brought the flat of her dagger blade down in two sharp beats. Steel on stone, Her answer echoed through the trees, and he sprinted after her. This is what he’d been looking forward to. Seeing Ulrica in action. And in his current role, the view was sublime. Aye, she was twelve. But she was also relentless, resourceful, and ridiculously eager. The chase was hers. He’d taken the humble role of weapons retrieval. Every time she hurled a dagger at their quarry, he noted its flash and ran it to ground. Twice now, he’d caught up to her in order to refill her emptying sheathes. That’s how he knew that her weapons-count exceeded her number of visible sheathes. Where does she keep the extras? In her hair? At this point, nothing would surprise him. Catching sight of his partner, Aurelius paused long enough to add her dagger to the growing collection in his belt, then signaled. Two upraised fingers and a quick thrust to the northwest. Ulrica repeated the sign, then rolled her wrist. They’d been wearing down the tree-cat for long enough. With every near miss of her daggers, she herded it toward the sheer wall of Vanora’s western face. Victory was nearly theirs, and Aurelius wasn’t the only one who could feel it. Hair wild, eyes bright, Ulrica flashed him a smile, then sprang away. Aurelius gave chase. Trees thinned, and the hunters vaulted across increasingly rocky ground. Their prey shot into the open, then clawed its way into the branches of the lone tree that stood between the forest and a barrier of white stone. According to plan. Resisting the urge to preen, Aurelius worked his way past low shrubbery on the downwind side of the cat’s last refuge. Ulrica tracked his movements, then slipped out of hiding. With each step of bare feet on stone, her bells rang a death knell. Their prey answered with a yowl that faded to a warning growl. Easing closer, Aurelius could see the harried tree-cat, its claws locked into the bark of its branch. Fur standing on end. Snub tail puffed. Green eyes wide. They’d cornered a beautiful specimen. Dark spots mottled the young male’s red-gold fur. All its attention was fixed on Ulrica, who glided to a stop at a safe distance. Sweat created a sheen on bronze skin, and her chest rose as she worked to catch her breath. Her eyes rolled to the side, and Aurelius made a slashing motion with his hand. Now! Showing the hissing cat her empty hands, Ulrica stepped into danger. Voice husky, she said, “Shall we test his skill together, cat? Who will be quicker to the kill?” Screaming its fury, the feline sprang.
Author’s Note: This story is a prequel to C. J. Milbrandt’s Galleries of Stone trilogy and updates each Friday. The trilogy is now complete! Read all three books—Meadowsweet, Harrow, and Rakefang. 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.