I watched a river cascade down,
Its banks a throne, its froth a crown,
Its voice a happy, joyful song;
I heard it laugh the whole night long.
I watched a river boiling brown,
Its banks a cage, its froth a frown,
Its voice a rumble, fearful strong;
I heard it sing a stormy song.
I watched a river, smooth and black,
No froth upon its glassy back,
Its voice a murmur, hardly there;
I felt it cool the summer air.
I watched a river, gathered wide,
And asked it where it got its pride;
It said, a river’s strength it comes
From streamlets gathered into one.
It had been a quiet cool season. Sethral draped herself backwards over a tree fork and counted ants marching up—down—the trunk in front of her. After leaving the Coppertail herd, she had attempted to follow Winter, only to find the Mountainair and her pack already gone. She had then tried to locate the black fuzz, but he too had disappeared. After scouring the forest for a quarter moon, she had decided a visit to the Coppertails was worth her while and had flown back to the South Flats. The coulee had been empty. Departing just days before, the herd had headed out onto the flats at a speed, judging by their tracks, that meant they intended to go far. They didn’t usually go far.
And so she had stayed in the South Forest; stayed through the cool season, though she had near frozen her wings off and frozen her brain for lack of anything—anything—to do. The South Forest’s only notable features were inherently uninteresting: a complete lack of native, intelligent species; and trees so uniformly aged and sized that it looked as though someone had taken seven or eight, copied them like a stamp and stamped them across an area the size of the Lowland basin. Their deep shade and lack of successful offspring left their understory as barren as the Rock Flats.
Realizing she had never really gotten to know them, Sethral had explored for most of Hunter’s Moon, and liked to think she had seen most things of interest by the end of it. The upside was that she now knew a lot of little nooks she hadn’t before. The downside was that Glass Moon had then left her stranded in a place whose lack of variation she was intimately familiar with.
That had been a moon ago.
Sethral was halfway to a nap when a distant rumble of voices reached her through the trees. She flipped over and scrambled to her paws. Only Mountainairs had voices that deep. Halfway to her intended spying position behind the pack, a twittering brought her up short. The Mountainair Garnet had stopped behind the rest of the pack. A Vilus—a Lowland messenger-bird—orbited his head, angry, shrill and incessant. How in Shelha’s name he had convinced Winter to let him keep it was beyond her. Garnet yanked the rope, bringing the crow-sized bird to the ground in a tangle of grey and copper feathers.
“I hope you’re ready,” Sethral heard him say. He passed the bird a trinket from his pack, then spun it around and untied its leash. “Screw up and I’ll eat you.” With an unceremonious flick, he tossed it into the sky. Sethral waited for him to turn around again, but instead, he followed the bird at a leisurely pace. She followed him.
The sky was clear. Jay checked in every direction and trotted to the cliff. Three small ledges brought him level with a stretch of stone a shade darker than the rest and oddly featureless up close. He pressed through it into the hall on the other side. Clever light tricks. The skylight at the top of the cavern—the entrance the other creature here used—was shielded the same way.
His room was as he had left it, clean and quiet. Scents hung in the air from the herbs and supplies in the dozens of tiny shelves carved into the back wall. Jay dispersed a new stash of lichen among them, then contemplated the scantly used nest in the corner of the room. The wind on the Rocklands last night had been insistent as a stalking Drakon, or a Royal kit in the mood for play. The walls here felt like a physical pressure wrapping him inside, but it was quiet and still. It might be worth staying the night.
The next morning dawned a damp grey. Jay woke early, even in the absence of light, and wandered out to the main hall. It smelled like rain. The sight of the northern horizon sent a tug through his body. He tapped his paws against the wall. The migration urge was stubborn. It should have been dead already, with the number of years he had spent in the South.
When his stomach reminded him he had not eaten in two days, Jay dropped out the window again. He descended the three ledges with practiced ease and darted east along the cliffs.
Whipper tried to make himself comfortable in his tree, but for once it wasn’t working. Winter had installed herself in a forest clearing. It had been a lucky find; clearings were almost nonexistent in the South Forest, even this close to the mountains. The Mountainairs had shed their heavy packs. The trinkets they had gathered were piled in a mound in the clearing’s center. It sparkled like a snowdrift in the sun.
Sethral held a foreclaw over her mouth as Garnet’s Vilus landed on a rock and puffed its copper-feathered chest. A Drakon flight draped the outcrop in front of it, eying it hungrily.
“Milady Winter has requested your honoured, valued presence in her camp just west of Greenfalls!” shrilled the messenger-bird. “She has returned from Lowlands with treasure, lots and lots, and wishes to make a deal with forest-Drakons of South Forest!” He fluttered up and dropped the trinket from Garnet on the ground.
The Drakons stirred. A few looked at their leader, their grey wings fluttering with interest. The leader chattered. In a whirlwind, the flight left for the mountains. Its leader snatched the shiny clawband as he went. The Vilus fluttered back to the forest.
“Good job, Flitter,” Sethral heard Garnet say.
Winter had picked her camp well. This morning alone, the pair had contacted five Drakon flights whose territories intersected at Greenfalls, a pitted, overgrown mountain slope. Winter wanted to reach a lot of creatures.
A prickle in her neck fur made Sethral look up. There was a dot in the sky: a Drakon flying high and fast towards the cliffs. She recognized it as one of Winter’s new messengers. Trinkets twinkled in its claws.
Five flights, it seemed, was only the beginning.
Silversand yelped as another Drakon flight whizzed by above the trees. When it was gone, she extricated herself from the leaf pile she had flung herself into. A leaf pile? Why had there been such a convenient leaf pile right there? She sniffed it and found small-animal smell on the leaves. A forest burrowing toad. She wrinkled her nose. Not edible. Her stomach growled dolefully.
She had left the Mountainair camp at dawn, as soon as it had become clear that Winter had no intention of going places soon. Silversand drifted north as something pulled her towards the cliffs. It was the same instinct she had felt when she had spied on Winter’s shadow, the Black, the renegade. Silversand chased a twig. He’s found something popped into her head again. They were still the only words she could put to the feeling. She fished about for a tune to go along. It was all very exciting. She attacked a tree, then rolled in the leaf litter, giggling. She was in the South Forest again! If only Ferrin and Ilia could see her now. Back to that big, wild forest, and she wasn’t even a kit anymore.
Drakon wings hurtled by. Silversand careened into a tree before she could find a leaf pile, scrabbled to her feet and promptly fell over. Thankfully, the Drakons didn’t notice her. She sat up and watched them with head cocked. That flight had felt funny. It was the same kind of funny Winter felt like when she was plotting some new rampage, or had just killed somecreature. Like they tipped the world’s Balance just a little.
Shelha’s Balance was more than just a word made up by Lowland creatures to make a good story, though it did make a good story. It was woven like a fabric, connecting creatures and the land itself. In an ideal time it was idle. Small disturbances could make wrinkles. Those were short-lived; they couldn’t hold long if the rest of the fabric was even. Larger disturbances could shift or warp sections. The biggest disturbances could shift the whole thing. Those ones were scary. The last time something like that had happened, several species had disappeared and the world had lost a slice of its history into the Last Great Silence. Silversand batted at a beetle and wondered how she knew about that. Or about the Balance at all, for that matter. She must have learned about it as a kit. Her species’ seventh sense was detecting it, after all.
Silversand wandered through the forest, only half paying attention to where she was going. Her mind paraded across wrinkled blankets, beds, black fuzzy creatures, and Ilia’s warm fish stew. Ferrin and Ilia were an old Rivrit couple who had taken her in when she had wandered all the way to the Lowlands years ago. She missed them. Also blankets. Her stomach growled.
The tug on her paws kept her walking north and west. If she kept following this instinct, she was going to hit the cliffs, wasn’t she? No, she wouldn’t be going that far. Silversand wondered where the black shadow-creature was now. Probably still spying on Winter. Winter made some pretty scary balance-ripples.
Another Drakon flight went by.
Out on the Rock Flats, Jay eyed the low clouds. The wind was uneasy, blowing in fits and starts like an Esker puffing at a rabbit hole. The red wall of the cliffs was still beside him, but it did little to lift his apprehension. Rainclouds pressed low in the sky.
At last a cliff alcove yawned ahead. Jay darted into it and ascended its slope. Erosion had cut the bare rock to crumbles and filled the dead end halfway; by the time he reached the back wall, he was two tail-lengths off the ground. He leaped easily up ledges to the clifftop and crossed the boulder field there. The forest was a mixed blessing. The trees pressed even lower than the rainclouds, but at least they were a relief from the wind. The prickle in Jay’s shoulders died away.
At the end of a sun’s paw-length, a familiar mound of outcrops loomed at the forest’s edge. Jay stopped short. Had he been collecting food again? His mouth held a gently packed pile of leaves he did not remember gathering. He approached the outcrops uneasily. A streamlet trickled out of a cave in the rocks. Jay sniffed for intruders and stepped inside. Aside from the stream, the space was dry, with a smooth floor and a doorway that let in a bit of light. Jay laid the fresh food bundle beside several others in varying states of drying. Behind a rock were nuts and barks, and an alcove nearby held fungi. He didn’t have enough food yet. He circled the space, a sudden anxiety making his shoulders tingle. Why didn’t he have enough yet? He had been stocking this place for moons.
A rumble outside startled his attention back. Jay shook his head to clear it. He was shivering. Why was he in this cave again? He pressed against the wall and tried to capture the instinct that kept needling the back of his mind. The wind sent a curl into the cave. He chased it out. He didn’t want wind in here. Before the tension from outside could come back, he left the cave and began the trek back to the cave-hall, along the clifftop this time. He never retraced his steps exactly. He did not want to start making a trail.