Hunter grey, hunter grey, ‘neath night sky,
Listen in the forest for an echoing cry;
Follow back, run and track, looking for a trail;
Keep your wits about you when the night pack wails.
The sun was an overripe orange fruit dropped on the horizon when Sethral entered the main hall. She rubbed her eyes and shielded them from the glare. Silversand was running laps, bouncing off walls and occasionally the boulder. On purpose, of course. Taz was on the boulder and Fletch was watching Drakons.
“You were right,” he said when Sethral joined him. “I’d never noticed. Why do they do that?”
“Stop watching the ground? Because the shadows get too long, and the wind makes them jump all over the place. Drakons are sight hunters, so it confuses them. They leave off for the evening and pick up hunting again when it gets dark.”
Long enough for she, Whipper and Silversand to get in the forest and the twins to camouflage. Sethral smiled. What the twins’ colour would be under a layer of red-brown dust was something she was sad she wouldn’t see.
Silversand barreled into the window alcove. Sethral was about to growl when a shadow brushed against the Royal and deflected her as easily as a gnat in a breeze. She yowled into the wall, bounced off it and ran away giggling.
“Thank you,” said Sethral.
Whipper materialized from the shadows. “She’s not hard to redirect. Just turn her around and she’ll go another direction.”
“You’ve dealt with creatures like this before then.” Sethral flicked a wingtip out the window. “On a different topic, we should leave soon.”
“I’ll get Silversand.”
He was immediately lost from sight. He didn’t look like he was trying to hide, but somehow he always managed to move like he had turned the colour of whatever he was moving on.
Silversand was gotten, and before the sun had sunk another paw-length, the renegades had dispersed. Sethral fluffed her wings in the fast-darkening forest and tried not to look nervous. Both of her companions had night vision. She glanced back over her shoulder to find Whipper watching her. “Diurnal?” he said.
Whipper collared Silversand as the cat was about to blast away. “Go slowly. We don’t want to make more noise than we have to.”
“If you have energy, find us a sleeping spot,” said Sethral.
Whipper released Silversand again and she whizzed off into the forest. Not silently, but quietly enough.
Sethral found herself alone with the Forester. She averted her eyes. “Um… thanks for leaving me that trail the other day. You probably saved my butt from the Drakons.”
“I was returning the favour.”
He looked at her with eyes that seemed far too innocent to have witnessed the horror of the North Forest. Sethral wondered for a moment if they had.
“Are you from one of the clan groups?” said Whipper, looking away again.
The mention of her clan brought back a wash of reality. Sethral smiled. “Yeah. Nova. The one that everyone always talks about.”
“Do all Saggitayrii live in clan groups?”
She bit her tongue before making a remark about him not knowing that. Of course he wouldn’t know; he wasn’t from here. “Most of them don’t, actually; they live in family groups scattered around the forest. The clan groups are about a tenth of the species. Did you learn about them from the Coppertails you lived with?”
“I guess so, but they didn’t know much. Only one of them had been farther south than the Rock Flats. He knew there were clan groups, but he couldn’t remember what they were like.” Whipper glanced at her again. “What are they like? Are there lots of them?”
“Five. They all hold territories in the Far South Forest, though two of them are pretty migratory. Nova’s the biggest but not by much. Maybe two hundred creatures? The others are Phinx and Aldebaran, and the twin groups Arcturus and Orion. They’re the migratory ones. Their leaders are brothers.”
“Do they all have leaders?”
“Yeah. Did your clan?”
“No.” He shuffled his paws through the leaf litter. “It might have been better if they had.”
Sethral waited quietly.
Whipper continued after a few moments. “We had warriors. Just nest guards, but they liked to think they were warriors. Some of them pretended they had fought Fishers before, and they liked to show off. The biggest ones were really fast. And strong.”
“And big-headed?” said Sethral. That got a smile out of Whipper. Sethral tossed a leaf in the air and he caught it in his paws.
He turned it over. “Some of them were really mean. The elders could have kept them in check, but they usually just pretended they didn’t see it.” He put the leaf in her fur and kept walking.
“A leader’s only good if they can lead well,” said Sethral. “Creatures have to want to listen to them, and they need to have good things to say.”
“Does your clan group have a good leader?”
“The best. And some big-headed creatures, and some mean ones, and some that should be doing their jobs but don’t, but in general I think the good ones outnumber all of those.”
“It sounds like a nice place.”
“I ran away.”
He looked at her, waiting.
Sethral pulled a face. “When I was a winglet, my clan had a nasty winter. Drakons from the South Forest got driven south by the cold, and they got into the clan groups’ territories and clashed with the local Drakons. There wasn’t enough prey or space, so they both turned on us and attacked. Orion and Arcturus were lucky because they could move, but Nova and Phinx and Aldebaran had non-warriors and winglets and elders to protect. We lost almost every warrior that season. A bunch of elders and winglets too. I was lucky to survive. Anyways, both my parents were warriors. I ended up with my aunt and three spoiled brats that I got to call my cousins.”
She laughed. “Aunt Layra always told me I should be grateful that she had been so kind as to take me in at all, but then I found out that it hadn’t even been that… the clan has next-of-kin rules for looking after orphans, and she was my closest adult relative. And she could have argued it, but there’s nothing she hates more than looking like less than an upstanding clan member. I hung out with the new warriors, mostly, and learned flight and fighting skills I wasn’t supposed to. It was fantastic. I had to learn healing and history and stuff too, but my mentor Talin at least made the healing part fun. He was a battlefield healer. Also the only warrior in our clan besides our leader to survive the Drakon winter. He was my dad’s best friend. He’s more a parent to me than anything.”
Whipper was still watching her. “So why did you leave?”
“Wasn’t worth it. I really miss Talin and Kite—he’s our leader—and a few other creatures, but Layra had a fourth kid and expected me to babysit. Plus I had to start learning tail-talk in class. And I got my dagger feathers.” She fanned her wings, which were limbs of their own each decked with three blades like the feather-wings of Drakons. The third and smallest pair were tapered like knives. “Only about a quarter of Saggitayrii get them. It’s the mark of a warrior. Well, you don’t have to have them to be a warrior, but creatures who are cut out to be warriors always grow them. When I got mine, it meant I could fly well enough to deal with Drakons. As soon as I learned how to use them, I left.”
Whipper looked down again.
“How about you?” said Sethral. She knew she was walking a fine line between honest curiosity and unearthing something that the Forester didn’t want to talk about, but it felt right to ask.
Whipper scuffed his paws through the leaves again. “The Coppertails I stayed with were really nice. My real mom was a clan traitor. She made friends with a Fisher, and having anything to do with our counterpart was pretty much the worst thing you could do as far as my clan cared. They probably tracked her down and killed her. My dad was probably someone I knew. I don’t think I would have wanted to meet him. If I don’t know anything, I can at least pretend he died.” He poked the dirt. “If he was around, he never helped.”
“Traitors’ kids weren’t very well loved then?”
Whipper shook his head.
They walked for a while in silence. Whipper was catching bugs in the dark, then letting them go again.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” said Sethral, “but I always thought that having bad parents was worse than having no parents at all. The twin clan groups I told you about, Arcturus and Orion, they’re made up entirely of Saggitayrii from other clan groups, or from bands in the forest. They’ve all been abandoned by their families, or kicked out, or they ran away. Nobody really says who they’re related to, but I think I know some of the families. I prefer my own situation.”
Whipper hugged her. Sethral froze. She felt the Forester twitch—either a laugh or a small sob—then he let go again. He fell back into step beside her. “Did you ever think about joining one of those groups?”
“Yeah, but they’re all males so I wouldn’t have been allowed even if I’d wanted to. I didn’t, really. They were still too close to home. They’re all wonderful creatures though.” She looked around. “Not to change the topic, but have you seen Silversand? I’d have expected her to be back by now.”
“I’m right here.”
Sethral spun around. The Royal was walking behind them in complete silence.
“How long have you been there?!”
She looked aside. “I found a spot right away, so I came back. I heard you both talking and it sounded personal, so I didn’t want to interrupt. I just followed.”
Sethral looked at Whipper. “Did you know?”
Sethral ruffled her wings. “Well, you could have warned me, catface. Not all of us here can see in the dark. How much did you hear?”
“Everything. But if you didn’t want me to hear, I can forget about it if you want.”
She seemed perfectly serious. Sethral stared at her for a moment, then grumbled, “It’s fine. You just surprised me.”
Silversand trotted up and licked Whipper on the cheek. The Forester closed his eyes.
The spot Silversand had found was a pair of trees with branches that overlapped into a jumbled platform. Sethral fluttered up and cleared the bugs. Whipper snagged the last one and ate it.
“You climb fast,” pouted Silversand, scrambling up last. She turned circles among the branches until she found a cozy-looking hollow. She put Whipper in it and lay down nearby. Sethral found a spot on the other side of the branch pile.
The night was cold. Sethral woke at moonhigh, freezing, to find Whipper and Silversand curled together like a ball of moonlight and shadow. She looked at her own fur. She was branches then, she supposed. She joined them.
Around dawn, something twitched on the branches. There was a pause. It twitched again.
“Silver,” grumbled Sethral. Silversand was fast asleep. Her paws leaped again, catching imaginary prey.
“Whipper, you awake?” whispered Sethral.
He didn’t move. Sethral stifled a smile. She had a feeling he was, but the lure of snuggling up to fur right now was the stronger force. She extricated herself to stretch and immediately regretted it. The air was freezing. Sethral looked around at the monotonous forest and its lack of obvious abundant food to grab. She rejoined the fur pile.
It was halfway to sunhigh before the heap stirred again. Silversand startled awake, blinked several times and said, “I’m hungry.”
“So am I,” said Whipper. Both looked at Sethral.
“You expect me to be any different?” she said with a yawn.
Silversand reached out to pin a bug that was crawling towards her. It vanished in a flash of paw. Sethral flicked another beetle at Whipper. It took flight, and Silversand was abandoned as a black streak shot up a tree and flew across its path. The bug disappeared. Whipper landed, snatched another beetle and threw it at Silversand. Sethral snapped it from the air. The cat was so startled she hopped backwards off the platform and plunged yowling to the forest floor, where she landed perfectly unharmed on all four paws. Whipper flung himself after her. He bounced. Giggling, he stuck a worm in his mouth and bounded away.
It was Tracker’s Moon; the new moon had passed while they were cooped up in Rockhall. Greenery frosted patches of forest floor. Whipper beetled about until he found a grass-looking shoot, which he unearthed. There was a bulb at its end.
“Pass me one!” shouted Sethral. He tossed it to her already skinned and uprooted another. When that was gone, he left the patch and shot up a tree. Dead leaves showered down, then a hail of nuts. Silversand ran around yelping as they bounced off her head. Sethral caught one, cracked it in her teeth and shelled it. She threw the meat at the cat, who caught it automatically.
“I don’t wike dose,” she complained, and spat it back at the Saggitayria.
Sethral stuck out her tongue. “Hunter.” A nut bounced off her nose. “Hey!”
The rest of the morning passed in a whirlwind. Bushes were scoured, nests investigated, waterways combed, and delicacies pelted at friends in high-speed chases. Sethral tossed a mud clam to Silversand without telling her how to open it; it clamped shut on her paw fur and she hopped about like a frog trying to shake it off. Whipper showed his companions how to slit the bark of certain twigs to release the running sap. Silversand couldn’t taste the sweetness, but enjoyed the drink. Sethral discovered that another kind of sap was sticky and proceeded to glue twigs to the Royal’s tail until Silversand realized and chased her through the trees with a bird’s egg left through the winter in an abandoned nest. Sethral escaped.
They found a stream. These were rare in the South forest, for the South river had few tributaries west of the mountains. Silversand floundered after a fish and emerged dripping to find Whipper and Sethral dying of laughter on the bank. The Royal flounced off to take consolation in the fat fruit of her efforts. Whipper snuck up on her and stole the head. Sethral was watching for fish herself now; Whipper crept up and dropped the head on her, then fled as the Saggitayria flew at him with dire threats of decapitation and being thrown in the river. He would die of hypothermia if he got soaked, he protested. In heartbeats they were perched together on a branch, swapping facts about other species’ weaknesses. Silversand rolled her eyes and went back to the stream.
A Drakon flew by around sunhigh, making all three freeze. They exchanged guilty looks. They had made little progress towards their goal of Greenfalls, and the safe feeling in the forest had all but driven it from their minds. Sethral motioned for her companions to stay put, then took off after the Drakon.
Whipper poked the stream. He frowned. With a lunge, he dipped into deeper water and came up with a rock. Or at least, it looked like a rock. Disturbed by Sethral’s hunt for river clams, it had been inching across the river bottom with puffs of squirted water. It was nearly flat, three paw-lengths wide, and completely devoid of any kind of hinge. Holes ringed its outer edge. Whipper washed it off. It was a creamy brown colour.
“What is it?” said Silversand, leaning over his shoulder.
Whipper turned the thing over. Water squirted him from one of the holes. “It’s alive!”
“Can we eat it?”
“We have to open it first.”
The Forester turned it over again. Silversand sniffed it. It squirted her nose. She grabbed it and tried to drag it up the bank, but she couldn’t keep her grip.
“If we can get it up a tree, we could drop it on a rock,” said Whipper. He circled the thing, then tried to get his teeth in the holes. The creature’s water-squirting mechanism forced them out. Its shell was too slick to pick up. Whipper shoved it up the bank, grabbed a rock and climbed the tree with that instead. Rolling it out on a branch, he dropped it on the shell. The rock split in two with a bang. Whipper and Silversand dove for cover as the same Drakon stopped overhead, hovering in place with its head twitching in search of the noise. There was a whistle of diving wings. Sethral hit the Drakon like a sack of rocks, and it fled.
The Saggitayria landed beside her friends. “They’re still acting like Winter doesn’t exist. What was that noise?”
Whipper presented her with half of the split stone. Silversand pointed to the shell.
Sethral laughed. “That’s a stonecutter! They’re called that for a reason. Here, I’ll show you how to crack it.”
She hefted the shell with hawk-like foreclaws, then tipped it so its edge bulged up between her fingers. Her other claw held it from below. In one move, she lifted, flipped it and brought it down edge-first on the rock. Its two halves sprang apart, cracked along the holes. The flesh inside was creamy yellow and smelled like river bottom.
“It tastes better than it smells,” said Sethral, ripping off a piece and sticking it in her mouth.
They finished eating and resumed their trek through the forest. The trees’ buds were just beginning to burst, making the barren parts of the canopy look fuzzy. In a moon, little would be left growing below; the South Forest’s full-leaf shade excluded all but the occasional bush. The trio enjoyed the sun on their backs and kept an eye out for Drakons.
A messenger-Drakon cruised over the tops of the trees, reveling in the sun on her wings. She had nothing to do today, or the next day, or the next. She also had no flightmates to spend those days with, but right now that did not bother her. The birds were back after a long cool season. The Drakon chased one that had fluttered up to be showy for a partner, and caught it. She snipped the back of its neck to make it stop moving and plucked it slowly on the fly, letting her wings carry her north towards the water-snake winding through the trees. Directly ahead, it crumpled into a million sparkling chips where it parted around a dot of land. The Drakon swooped towards the dot. Small animals got stranded there during the rainy time, when the log nests they crossed the water on washed away.
As she came closer, the Drakon cocked her head. She had to focus hard on noises to pick one out from another, but there seemed to be an unusual one coming from the dot of land. It sounded very much not like a Drakon. Did she fear it? Or was it food? The Drakon chattered, frustrated by her inability to place the sound. It was not food and not danger. Things were always one or the other. She reached the land-dot and circled above it.
On the land-patch that had been a land-dot from a distance was a creature not like a Drakon, or a Saberel or Saggitayria or bird or small prey animal or Coppertail or anything else she knew. It was bigger than a prey animal but smaller than a Saberel. It moved very fast, sometimes. Most of the time it poked at the edge of the land-patch like it wanted to get off. It did not fly.
The creature’s baying rose to a maximum and the Drakon drifted away, annoyed. Something pulled her back. She returned and circled again, watching the creature with a curiosity she did not understand. She felt a need to guard it. To keep it safe and in one place until Winter could see it. Winter would want to see this creature.
Somehow she did not care how long that took.