Aurelius waited for the tree-cat to commit to a leap before betraying his presence. As soon as the feline was airborne, the boy was in motion. Trajectory. Timing. Impeccable. But he hadn’t accounted for Ulrica’s speed. Hands that had been barren an instant before flashed, and her blades hit their mark in quick succession.
The tree-cat screamed, twisting in midair. Aurelius cursed in three languages as he was forced to adjust. Any second now, one of Ulrica’s jeweled daggers could stray close enough to cut, but what else could he do? She’d trusted his strategy. He would trust her aim.
Aurelius’s hunting knife wasn’t anything special. Like most everything else he owned, it had been handed down several times within the Harrow family. His boots and breeches first belonged to one or more of his brothers. His sash was a remnant of past glories. Aunt Lissie had even lent him her hairpins for luck. But the edge on Aurelius’s blade was his own.
Honed to perfection.
Fine as silks.
Keen as wanting them.
Ready as he to prove worthy.
Swerving under the spitting, slashing fury, Aurelius buried the claws of one hand in thick fur and threw his weight. Shifting momentum. Twisting bodies. Raking claws. Pred were feared as beasts by smaller, weaker races. The wolves of the world. Eternal predators. But claws and fangs didn’t make Aurelius an animal; on this day, they’d make him a man. Wrapping lean arms around his prey, he drove home the point of his knife, ending the tree-cat’s struggle.
Aurelius’s shoulder hit dirt, and the tree-cat’s limbs flopped as they rolled to a stop at Ulrica’s feet.
After a breathless pause, she whispered, “We did it.”
“Naturally.” Uncurling from around the feline, Aurelius tutted and brushed dirt and twigs from its fur.
Ulrica crouched and stroked their prey’s sleek coat, then lifted its chin, peering into half-lidded eyes. “He was fierce.”
Taking up the rote, Aurelius answered, “We were fiercer.”
“He fought well.”
“This is victory,” Ulrica finished in awed tones.
Aurelius smirked. “We shall taste it.”
With a fierce smile, she said, “It will make a fine meal.”
By the way Ulrica was petting the tree-cat, Aurelius could guess. Still, he asked, “Have you decided on your trophy?”
“Aye. I want the pelt.”
He blinked. “Not the head?”
“Disappointed?” she asked loftily. “Are tribal kilts coming into fashion along with feathers?”
“Perish the thought!”
“Take your trophy, Aurelius Harrow. Put your rabbit-chasing brethren to shame with the head of a nobler beast. And I will carry home a pelt pierced by my own blades.”
He rolled the tree-cat over, exposing the soft, pale fur on its underbelly. Nine daggers. With a sidelong look, Aurelius said, “Impressive.”
Aurelius’s eyebrows shot up. A shared compliment was better than none.
She lowered her gaze and reached for her daggers.
Catching her wrist, he said, “Wait. Blood is deucedly hard to get out of white fur. Let me?”
Ulrica jerked her hand away and stood. “Aye, don’t dirty my prize.”
They worked in tandem, each efficient in their tasks. Aurelius removed the tree-cat’s pelt while Ulrica gathered wood and kindled a fire. He caught a whiff of green wood and glanced up to see a neat pile of peeled sticks for spitting meat. But no sign of his partner.
Suddenly, a cold cloth pressed his shoulder, and he flinched in surprise. He turned to glare at Ulrica, whose dark eyes held laughter. Grumbling, Aurelius tried to duck out from under her hand.
“You’re bleeding.” She shifted her foot enough to ring the bells on one ankle.
“We’re meant to trek home covered in blood.”
“Not our own.”
Aurelius let her have her way. Mostly because she was right, but also because he preferred to be clean. Pausing to consider his next cut, he asked, “Which part do you want to eat?”
Ulrica’s hands stilled.
He glanced back and was caught by his partner’s surly glare. Now what?
“The heart,” she bit out, her cheeks flushing. “If you will share it with me.”
First peace, now a pact?
Ulrica’s expression darkened.
“Aye,” he said quickly, barely covering his surprise. Drawing on common courtesies, he offered a more formal response. “I could not barter for better.”
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.