Frost on the Grasslands | Shelha Series 1

Across the World

Present Day

Thank Shelha, the rain let up by morning. Kastar skidded in the wet grass as the Coppertails made their way to an icemelt pond. The sun had pushed above the horizon, but it failed to dispel the mist that clung to the hills. The sky’s blue was a chilly shade.

The linger at the pond was longer than usual.

“What are we waiting for?” said someone, drawing uneasy laughter.

“A miracle,” said another.

“Our scouts said Winter and her pack haven’t crossed the river yet,” said Kastar.

“Why can’t we wait?”

Kastar pointed to the northern horizon. Its clouds were smeared with a sickly colour.

“Snow,” was among the quiet murmurs.

Rose shook herself and stepped away from the water. “Has everyone eaten?”

Those who had been able to stomach food nodded. The herd started to run south.


“They’re there.”

Breaths caught as Ice dropped back into the hollow. Her younger sister crept to her side and pressed against it. Ahead was the only North River gorge crossing within a half moon’s distance.

“She knew we were coming,” said Comet, a fiery young female and one of the twins’ best friends.

“Ice, how many?” said Kastar.

“Only three. The rest are probably out hunting.”

“Because there’s no prey,” said Comet, rolling her eyes. “Meaning she’s there just to try and catch us. Like she’s been doing all damn year.”

“We ​all​ know that, Comet!” snapped Ice. “Have you noticed that nobody’s denied your stupid theory since last River Moon?”

“You just called it stupid! I like how you can say you believe me now that Winter’s acting weird, then diss me again in the same sentence!”

“Stop,” said Kastar. “Elm, how does it look?”

The tall female had taken Ice’s place on the rise. “Winter’s not there and one of the others just left. If we make a break for it ​now,​ most of us should be able to make it.”

Kastar exchanged a nod with Rose, and the herd broke cover. Kastar flashed a signal to fan out. It took heartbeats for the Mountainair pack—Coppertail-like but twice Rose’s size—to realize what was going on. Creatures yelled alarms. Rose and her partner reached the gorge at a dead sprint. Their long Highlanders’ kicks ripped through the Mountainairs’ defenses, and the path down to the crossing opened. Kastar bolted under a Mountainair’s nose. She took the bait and the rest of the herd converged. They came in from every direction. Coppertails ducked bites, kicks and tailswipes, and dashed between their enemies. At the path’s bottom, the gorge narrowed enough to leap.

Half the herd was across when the Mountainairs found their wits again. Kastar took a hit meant for Comet, and his vision blurred. Rose was swatted against the gorge wall, snarling. Elm plowed into a Mountainair and knocked him off course; his kick missed Ice by inches.

“Winter’s coming!” someone screamed.

Winter appeared over the gorge wall like a Mountain Cat. Ice tried to intercept her, but in a bound she had caught Carp by the neck and flung him off the ledge. Rose snatched Vixen’s scruff as he screamed his brother’s name. Winter’s teeth closed on nothing. Kastar gasped as he too was grabbed. It was only Elm. The last Coppertails vaulted the gorge and dove amongst the rises.

“Let me go!” screamed Vixen. “Let me go!

Rose snarled a response into his scruff and kept her grip.

“You good?” panted Elm.

Kastar nodded and she released him. His side throbbed where he had been kicked and the horizon was still shaky, but this was not the time to tend injuries. Even losses had to wait. As the beat of Mountainair pawsteps slowed to an unhurried but unremitting pursuit, now was the time to run.


Five Years Ago

The ground was hot, hard and cracking when Whipper opened his eyes. He lay still as a beak probed his fur. The bird might have kept pecking forever had Whipper not breathed in for the first time in what felt like days. Dust plastered his senses. He vomited water, and the coughs turned to dry, racking sobs. All around him was a white Mountainair and red fire flowers blooming on trees too big to contain them. Everything constricted until he lost his ability to breathe again and blacked out.

There was a terrifying red eye in the sky when the world reappeared. Whipper whimpered and crawled back against the branch pile behind him. This was not the same sun as the one that shone on the North Forest. He could feel this one. It glared. His thick black fur pressed its heat to his skin and trapped it there, and the ground seared the burns on his paws. Whipper stumbled up the side of the gully. A dusty wind hit him, as hot as the air. Flat, baked, brick-red earth rolled out to every horizon.

He knew this place. The Coppertails had had stories of it. Whipper rubbed his fur as panic seeped through it. The herd said the Rock Flats took days to cross. Whipper didn’t even come up to the bend in a Coppertail’s leg. He couldn’t run at anything close to a Coppertail’s speed. He searched the horizon around him. There was a line across it off in one direction. That was either the Grass Flats or the cliffs.

The line grew no closer. Whipper walked for sun’s paw-lengths, long enough for the sun to take an angle that told him he was walking south. He walked until the sky started to reel dangerously, and he spotted a sparkle in the dust ahead. He stopped walking and fell over. The ground burned. Somehow he got back on his paws and dragged himself towards the shimmer. One step more and the ground bounced. A net leaped from its trough and snared him like a spider’s web. Razor-sharp claws and teeth proved useless without strength to back them. Hoping that the trap’s owner returned before the heat killed him, Whipper closed his eyes.


Present Day

A life of acceptance of death’s probability put a strange fog over it when it occurred. The herd stayed silent for days. At once numb and shaken, Kastar counted pawsteps. Steps that took them all ever farther from the river, unable to turn around lest the Mountainairs catch up to them, or lest they get caught in a winter storm or the dense fogs of Mist Moon. Frost nipped at their heels as they ran south through the day and night. They would not be coming back.

Carp had not made a sound as he fell, merely tucked himself up to hit the water with hardly a splash.

By the tenth day of travelling, the landscape began to change. The Plains grass sprouted like a kit in a growth spurt. By the thirteenth day it was over Kastar’s head, and the herd had to slow their pace. Vixen’s tail trailed lower and lower. Behind the herd, the yellow haze of snow clouds hunkered low over the Plains. If Carp was alive, he would be running after them through the first snows of the season. A lone Flatlander on the Plains in winter was easy prey for Grass Cats or rogue Mountainairs.

Exhaustion eventually forced the herd to stop for a night. The next morning, the clouds had nearly caught up with them. Rose battered everyone awake and forged a path through the grass. Kastar flicked his tail above it. At his sign, each creature took hold of the tail of the herdmate in front of them. There were a few yips and hisses at first, before everyone adjusted to each other’s travel speeds. The grass was almost as dense as a snowdrift.

“At least this means we’re moving south,” said Elm when someone complained. The rest of Kastar’s former herd trudged in silence.

Someone tripped in a Snow Rat hole, sending hisses up and down the line as tails were pinched in teeth.

“Watch for their trails,” shouted Ice.

“I’m ​trying.​” One of Rose’s creatures hopped a few steps, then tentatively put weight on his ankle. He scurried to catch up before grass swallowed the trail. The Coppertail line curved around a slough, just as the birds’ twittering chorus fell silent. A Drakon circled away to the south, its wings and body a star-shaped silhouette.

“We’re getting close,” said Elm.


Five Years Ago

The air was cool. Cold, even. Whipper remained still as he came to. The ground was hard, cracked and dusty. Were the Rock Flats such a different place at night? Voices rumbled nearby, their tones like gentle thunder. Whipper tried to sit up. Cords cut his paws and almost made him gasp. He swallowed the sound. Something big and white lay a ways off, talking to another large thing. Her tail, longer than Whipper’s whole body, swished lazily. Curled up, he might be the size of her head.

His body was trembling without his consent. He had an image in his head of a white creature. He fought back tears and focused on breathing as the smell of smoke wafted around him. Laughter broke out across the camp. In a desperate attempt at distraction, Whipper bit the cords on his paws. He must have been given water, because his lips no longer stuck to his teeth as he severed their fibrous strands. Soon his front paws were free. He destroyed the cord on his muzzle with sharp claws and checked the camp again. Mountainairs must not have night vision. He started to curl up inch by inch. When he could reach his back paws, he destroyed the cords there, too.

“Hey,” said someone.

Whipper shot between a creature’s legs. White filled his view. He rolled to one side as Winter’s paws crashed down, but she lunged again. This time the blow struck home. Whipper twisted like an eel and slashed her the length of her foreleg. She screeched and let go. The whole pack on his tail, Whipper sprinted towards the wall that filled the night ahead.

The South Cliffs were taller than the lowest branches of a North Forest tree. Whipper hurled himself upwards. A Mountainair smacked him from the stone. He felt wind on his fur and rolled towards it as something snapped. Then he was up again, and somehow the giant creatures’ voices fell away beneath him, shouting in the darkness. They collided with each other and fought. The top of the cliffs thudded against Whipper’s side. He dragged himself to the nearest shelter and collapsed.


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