Head high, Lyall Rakefang strutted through the gates and into the clan house and presented his daughter to a gathering of austere uncles, haughty aunts, and envious cousins. Ulrica’s trophy pelt and painted skin sent the whole lot into a stir. Comments and compliments. Gasps and glee. Her triumph was theirs to boast, and she felt their pride in her accomplishment.
“The hunt was good!” boomed her father.
The Rakefangs roared their agreement.
As Lyall went on to boast about his daughter’s skill, Ulrica surreptitiously scanned the room. There. Her older brother lurked in the far corner, half-hidden behind a dapple column. Dark eyes flickered briefly her way before skittering away. His back was turned, but he’d come. And that spoke volumes. She’d have liked to go to him, but drawing attention to him at this juncture would undo all her efforts.
Ulrica held her head high as her mother swept forward, blade ready for the ceremonial piercing. Ulrica spared the dapple column another glance, but Frey had vanished. I will run you to ground later, brother. Depend on it. Depend on me.
Late in the afternoon, Ulrica seized her first chance. She knew better than to go to Frey before ridding herself of the sight and scent of blood. Her skin still tingled from scrubbing she’d endured, and her hair hung loose and damp when she stole out of her rooms.
She found him way back in the green room, a little-used sitting room named for the color of its stone threshold. First making sure they were quite alone, Ulrica hurried over, bells twinkling at her ankles. Freydolf shut his small book and opened his arms, enfolding her in a gentle embrace. “Did you escape?” he asked.
At fifteen, Freydolf already had a man’s height, and working with stone was putting muscle on his rangy frame. Ulrica rested easily in his clutches. Frey might be the only person in the world with the gall to treat her as something fragile. Which was entirely foolish. And oddly endearing.
Leaning more fully into her brother’s solidity, Ulrica said, “Aye, but you did not. You are resplendent.”
“Mother brooked no refusal. But what’s this?” With a teasing light in his dark eyes, Frey said, “This isn’t your birth festival.”
Like every other Pred born closest to midsummer, Freydolf was clad all in white. Mother had already gilded his nails, drawing attention to claws that only looked deadly. Ulrica knew the terrible truth about the heir to the ancient and illustrious Rakefang clan, the “shame” her parents were keen to hide. You can’t tell with his hair pulled forward. No one would guess Frey isn’t pierced.
He asked, “Where’s the rest of your dress?”
“I don’t want to muss the fabric before going out later.” Ulrica’s white underdress fit snugly from her shoulders to hips, but flared out from there in filmy layers. She wouldn’t add the delicate over-dress until Mother finished her hair and makeup. Reaching up to touch the orange embroidery along Frey’s tunic’s collar, she said, “We’ll match!”
“Wasn’t that your devious plan from the start?”
“Aye. Dance partners should look well together!” Twirling out of his grasp, she stole his book and peeked at its pages. “This is written in Terse.”
Freydolf lowered his voice. “Can you read it?”
She flashed him a haughty look. “Aye, but who would want to read a book called Quarry Techniques and Tactics: Methods to Mollify the Magic of Mountains? It sounds dull.”
“It is. And you’ve improved!”
“Nay, you’ve underestimated my intelligence. Again.”
“Never.” Frey plucked the book from her hand, dropping it into the left pocket of his celebratory tunic. “I wish I had your knack for languages. But enough of dusty old topics. Congratulations on your hunt. Father hasn’t ceased to brag about the quality of your trophy.”
“A tree-cat pelt. Mother says she’ll have it made into a winter mantle.”
“An uncommon prize.”
Ulrica saucily said, “The Rakefang clan excels at producing unusual offspring.”
“You have every skill I lack.”
“Didn’t you tell me that no Pred has ever been called by a mountain?”
She lifted her chin. “Then you have skills every other member of our race lacks.”
Frey waved off her words. “Enough flattery. I’d rather hear more about your hunt.”
“You never want to hear details.” Ulrica’s eyes narrowed. “You cover your ears during the best parts!”
“This is a special case.” Fixing her with a steady gaze, he said, “I know I have more experience tracking tree-cat than you do. And a single hunter cannot corner such intelligent prey.”
Ulrica bit her lip.
“Did you have help?” he pressed.
“I need none!”
“Aye, but you found some,” Freydolf said confidently.
She inclined her head, then told the whole story. About the pitfall that nearly destroyed her chances. About the infuriating boy with beautiful eyes. About their night in the tree and the morning’s hunt.
Ulrica had just gotten to the part about feasting upon the heart of their prey when Freydolf lifted a shaking hand. Swallowing hard, he said, “Have some pity, Sister. I do not share your relish for such things. Did you tell Mother any of this?”
“Nay! She’d rip me to shreds. He’s so downhill.”
Freydolf frowned. “There’s nothing wrong with making a friend. You can learn from others even if there are little differences.”
“Like the scandal of being apprenticed to Pika and Keet and Clow?”
“Aye.” Concern flickered across her brother’s face. “This boy. You trusted him enough to run at his side …?”
She hastily said, “He’s downhill but not coarse.”
“He didn’t impose?”
Ulrica rolled her eyes. “If he had, I’d have brought back his pelt.”
Freydolf relented with a chuckle. Then his expression shifted to something shyer, and he said, “I made you something.”
From his right pocket, he withdrew carved bird no bigger than a peach stone.
“So tiny. And perfect!” she gasped. Accepting his gift, she traced its delicate pattern of feathers. Its green surface was soft as silk and glossy as still water. “Is this songstone?”
“Will you wake it?”
“I want to. Journeyman Fillia explained the basics, but I’ll need Master Cairn’s permission to try,” Freydolf said, waving a hand toward the White Mountain. “So far, I’ve only marked moonstone and alabaster, but I know this little one will answer if I call to her. She’s eager to meet you.”
“Aye. I told her all about the brave huntress whose skills earned her an early rite.”
Ulrica didn’t understand rocks or magic, but she understood feelings. Especially her brother’s. Frey is a fool not to guard his heart more closely. He had all the dignity of a milk-faced weanling with a new kitten. As a Pred, he was hopeless—a scribbler of sketches, a mutterer of foreign phrases, a collector of pebbles and shells. Mother sometimes called him a late-bloomer, but Frey wouldn’t change no matter how often he was beaten or belittled. He was simply blooming into something else. Something magical.
And with her help, he might survive the process.
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.