Frost on the Grasslands | Shelha Series 1

Chapter Two: Renegade

Have you known the night,

Do you fly along the starfields?

Does the dusk attend

At the dawn

Of a rising shadow?

Loyal to the end

To the ways of a renegade,

Freedom is the password,

Thief is the name.

Come to the vermin lair,

Traps lightly lifted,

Seeming to take to air,

Trackless here

Traceless there;

Your wish is yours to take,

Captives releasing,

Work for your honour’s sake,

Nothing secure.

Shadow in the storm,

Seen by none,

Caught by fewer,

Sing the song of freedom,

Vermin to grief …

Sing the dirge of outlaw,

Rebel and thief.


“No change,” said Rose as Kastar slipped through the bushes to join her.

It had been a full day since the fight. Kastar lay down and licked Tornado’s face, but there was no response that Sethral could see. Rose was pressed against her mate’s back. It was becoming clear that Tornado’s injuries ran deeper than it had first appeared. Echo had done all she could, but it wasn’t enough. Kastar looked up Sethral’s watch tree.

Sethral hopped down before he had a chance to call. “What’s up?”

“We need you to go and find someone.”

Sethral cocked her head. Rose and Kastar were exchanging a look, like they were trying to determine how much to tell. If there was someone they knew who could help Tornado, why hadn’t they told her earlier?

Kastar looked back up again. “Do you know the Rocklander twins? Taz and Fletch?”

“Yeah, I’ve seen them before. Never met them directly, but they seem friendly enough.”

“They are. Do you think you could find them again?”

“Do they have a range?”

“Most of the closest end of the Rocklands.”

“Then yeah. Is one of them a healer?”

She hadn’t thought so. Kastar shook his head slowly. “No. We just need you to bring them a message. Tell them what happened to Tornado, and that we need Jay.”

“Is that someone I could find myself?”


Sethral frowned. That was too abrupt. “I know my way around the forest. Wouldn’t it be faster if I just found someone myself instead of having to go through the twins?”

“I’m not concerned about the finding part, though no, I do not believe even you could find Jay if he didn’t want you to. I’m more worried about the danger.”

“I’m not scared of danger.”

“Jay can be a fairly unique kind of danger.”

“What is he, even?”

The Coppertails exchanged another glance. Sethral realized they were speaking in tail-talk and wished she knew the signed language.

“Is this someone I’m not supposed to know about?” she said. This was far more serious, obviously, but she felt like she was asking a pair of sworn-to-secrecy kits where their friend was hiding.

“Close enough,” said Kastar, with a hint of relief.

Sethral left them alone. It would take less than a day to get to the Rocklands with this wind at her tail. She packed snacks, found a good breeze and left the setting sun behind her.


Afternoon sun beat down on the Rocklands, warming sheltered nooks until some shimmered with heatwaves even in the cool of the season. Taz whisked his tail as hard as he could and stuck his nose into the wind. This was perfect weather: warm enough not to freeze a muzzle, but cool enough to run.

Sensing a familiar presence behind him, Taz bolted as Fletch blasted over a rock. He couldn’t move fast enough to avoid the pounce. The twins rolled about picking up dust until Fletch bit his brother’s tail and fled, giggling, behind a spire.

“You’re not getting away like that!” yelled Taz. “Only Mountainairs fall for that trick!”

Fletch dashed behind a different spire and attempted to flee to another, keeping the first between them so it blocked Taz’s view. Taz caught up and tackled him.

“Wait, hold up!” gasped Fletch when they had tumbled to a halt. Taz spun around. A dark point was approaching in the eastern sky. It flew with the purpose of a Drakon, but its wingspan was too broad. As it drew closer, it put on a burst of speed and dove. A tail-length from the ground, its wings shot out with a splitting snap.

“Saggitayria!” whispered Taz.

“I don’t see any others. What’s one doing alone this far north?”

With a graceful flip of her wings, the Saggitayria landed on top of the closest spire. The twins trotted to greet her as she fluttered down.

“Sethral,” she said, smiling. “And no, I’m on my own. You’re Taz and Fletch, right?”

They nodded.

“Um, sorry… which is which?”

“I’m Taz.”


“Thanks. Okay, I’m here for the herd. Winter ambushed them in the Snake River coulee and Tornado got hurt. Kastar was hoping you could find Jay.”

“I’d brave Jay for that,” said Taz.

“Give us a day,” said Fletch. “Can he hold out?”

“I hope so. The herd’s sheltering in another coulee right now, just northeast of the Snake River’s fifth fork.”


Sethral winged back the way she had come. Fletch thumped his brother. Taz shut his eyes, muzzle crinkled with concentration as he strained to focus what most agreed was a Coppertail’s seventh sense. “That way?” he said at last. Fletch did an independent assessment and got the same direction. The Inner Rocklands it would be.

Meeting with Jay was always a tricky business. While well out of his native habitat, the Northlander was uncannily good at not being found, not just by the twins but by Drakons—Rockland natives—and all other species, too. This rendered traditional Rock Flat creature-location techniques obsolete and reduced the options to tracking and instinct. As neither twin had the skills to track out here (nobody really did), that left them with instinct. Then, assuming they managed to locate Jay at all, there was always the question of whether Jay was willing to be found. At least the chances went up when there were injured creatures involved.

Instinct led the pair to the Inner Rocklands and deserted them again. Taz groaned. “He’s moved out of range. How in Shelha’s name does he know when we’re looking for him?”

“It felt like he was close to Glassrocks at first though. Let’s go there and see if he shows up.”

Taz dragged his paws.

Fletch tail-wrapped his neck and towed him towards the first formations. “Don’t be a suck. I thought you said you’d brave even Jay for this.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t say willingly.”

They had reached the edge of the Inner Rocklands. Taz jumped up the first cliff-like wall and disappeared over the top. His voice came back sour. “I’m only doing this for the herd, understand? For them, and only ever for them.”

The Inner Rocklands looked as though someone had taken all the spires and formations of the Outer Rocklands and compressed them like a sponge. Half-paths wound between cliffs and rock spines, overgrown spires and lumpy towers like fungal growths. It was safe from floods, but most creatures didn’t come here if they could help it. It took a Rocklander’s footing not to break a leg.

At moonrise the twins crested a ridge only a handful of creatures knew how to find. Scooped out beneath them was a valley. Glassrocks was lined with glossy black, paper-like stone that grew in sheets and flaked as easily as a butterfly’s wing scales. Beneath the night sky, it reflected back the stars.

They had nothing to do now but wait. Taz yawned and looked around for a remotely comfortable place to lie down. Finding none, he pushed Fletch down instead and used his twin as a pillow. Fletch nibbled at a bulb he had picked up along the way. Then he started grooming Taz. He got a paw on the nose.

“If you’re going to groom me, don’t eat wild onion first,” grumbled his twin.

“Sorry. I’m having a hard time taking my mind off Tornado.”

Taz removed the paw. Clearly that made two of them.

There was a tiny sound from above and both Rocklanders spun around. Jay’s fur whiffled in the wind as he dropped off the ridge. Though it lay flat without an undercoat, his fur was longer than either of theirs. Taz started to scramble to his feet, but lost his nerve and got stuck halfway. Fletch got up slowly.

Jay didn’t look at either of them. Fletch followed his gaze to Glassrocks and cleared his throat nervously. “Kastar and Rose’s herd got attacked by Winter on the South Flats. They sent us to try and find you.”

Jay continued to stare at the valley. After what felt like eons, his tail-tip curled. ‘Where?’he flicked.

Fletch’s shoulders sank with relief. He heard Taz flop to the ground. “Sethral said they’re sheltering just northeast of the Snake River fifth fork.”

Jay glanced over.

“Oh, sorry. Sethral’s a Saggitayria.” Fletch felt his face fur rise as the skin beneath it heated. “She’s the one who brought the message.”

Jay topped the ridge with an easy bound and was about to vanish over it when Fletch blurted out, “Can we come too?”

‘If you find your own route,’ flicked the Northlander.

Taz and Fletch jumped onto the ridge after him, but he was already gone.


Whipper stood up on his branch as something moved at the top of the mountain pass. A creature with a pelt so white it glowed was first over the rocks. He knew only one creature with a white pelt.

By the time the Mountainairs had descended the pass, Whipper was close enough to slip in behind them. Winter was restless with anger and wearing a new, silver-coloured collar. Her pack looked relieved to be off the flats. They would head south to the Lowlands now, as they did every year. There was plenty of food there even for Mountainairs, and plenty of opportunity to terrorize the locals into crafting collars and chains. Whipper hoped that was all Winter would do again this year.


A cry went up from the coulee’s edge as two creatures were spotted running towards it. Taz and Fletch arrived panting. Sethral took a moment to test her theory on telling them apart. Both were a medium green like Echo’s spots, and at first glance still identical. However, Taz was slightly faster and let his fur go spiky on his narrow shoulders. This seemed the natural result of the twins’ muscle structure; Fletch probably battled his pelt constantly to keep it smooth.

“Did we beat Jay?” said Taz. Someone told him yes and he whooped. “For once!”

“How’s Tornado?” said Fletch.

“Still holding out,” said Elm, subdued.

The twins were escorted into the hollow where the herd was sheltering. They promptly joined a game of tail-tag, doubling its intensity.

At sunhigh, an alarm call sent everyone under cover. In the distance, a Drakon flight was massing. They flew at something between two rises, then scattered.

“Jay,” said Taz in an undertone.

A hundred tail-lengths from the coulee, Jay stopped weaving between the rises and let himself be seen. He walked the last twenty tail-lengths. Except for Elm, Greyling and the Rocklander twins, the top of the coulee had become mysteriously deserted. Sethral watched from a tree, fascinated. Jay was a gorgeous Northland Coppertail, with black eyes and royal blue fur. What he was doing here in the South—alone—she could only imagine.

Jay stopped at the coulee entrance and cocked his head. Elm led the way to the hollow. The herd circled nervously as the Northlander entered their refuge, though he was a paw-length smaller than most of them and not strongly built. Jay didn’t deign to look at any of them until his escort reached the tree grove and someone blocked their way. Adder, the herd’s only Northlander, bared his teeth and hissed softly. Elm clicked her teeth at him. He hissed at her too. Jay looked him up and down, and Greyling growled. If this evolved into a territorial spat, Jay was out. But as Adder hissed again, Jay simply dipped his head and began delicately cleaning each of his paws.

Elm faced Adder herself and hissed until she had asserted seniority and directed him out of the way. They wove into the trees. At the back of the grove was the largest tree in the hollow, cradling soft depressions between its roots. Rose lay in one with Tornado at her side. Echo was asleep nearby. Jay left Elm’s side and approached Tornado. He put his muzzle close to the black Highlander’s flank and immediately located the worst of the bruising. Moving to Tornado’s chest, he licked the spot over a broken rib, then the spot over another. Then he stepped delicately over Tornado’s paws and flicked for Rose to move away from his back. There was no damage there, so he let her return and went back to Tornado’s head. This time he found the bite marks where Winter had grabbed him, and several rock cuts and bruises. The worst was a gash on the back of the Highlander’s skull. Jay lingered there for some time, then licked Tornado’s cheek. There must have been some response, because he repeated the lick, then licked a different spot and gauged that too. Several more spots yielded a conclusion. He flicked something to the now-awake Echo.

Echo fetched supplies from a tree hollow and piled them beside Rose. Jay looked them over and sent her off to find more. Working a rock slab from the soil, he brushed it clean, flicked several things onto it—herbs and a berry—and began to knead them together with his paws. Echo returned with fresh bark and a small, bulbous root. Jay sent her off to find water, one of the few tail-talk words Sethral knew. He added the root to the mixture and pushed the rock slab to Rose. She licked it, and a smile twitched Jay’s muzzle as the taste made her face cringe. Rose sent Kastar off for water, too.

Rose licked a blob of paste off the rock and pressed her muzzle against Tornado’s. Sethral gripped her branch as the black Highlander stirred. Jay had his mouth wrapped gently around Tornado’s throat. He let go again, and when Echo returned with a leaf-cup of water, he sent her off again. Then he resumed the gentle bite. After a few heartbeats, Tornado responded again to Rose’s licks. A windpipe puncture. Unless Jay was blocking the wound, the Highlander was having trouble getting air.

Echo returned with a lump of resin and dropped it beside the Northlander. Jay wet his teeth before handling it. In short order the bite wounds were closed. Rose finished feeding Tornado the rest of the herb mixture. She soaked a piece of moss and pressed it to his muzzle, and he accepted a drink, too. Echo purred with relief. She added the water Kastar had brought to the leaf bowl and went for another refill. Before long, Tornado had finished the bowl.

Jay was now working on the cuts and bruises, making more mixtures and licking them on. Tornado twitched at the contact. He had started to shiver now, and Rose pulled him closer. Jay tapped her head. He had a paw on the black Highlander’s broken ribs. Rose held Tornado steady, and Jay pressed gently with both paws. Immediately, Tornado’s breathing eased.

“How did you do that?” demanded Echo.

Jay flicked something, then trotted into the forest, leaving Echo to lick the now-fixed ribs and try to figure out how he’d fixed them.

“He’s not a healer for nothing, you know,” said Rose. Echo swatted her face.

When Jay returned, he used the rest of the resin to seal the gash on Tornado’s skull, then covered it with a leaf. He indicated it with a flick to Rose, then flicked something else that was probably care instructions.

Thank you,” said Rose when he turned away. Her voice caught. She buried her face in Tornado’s fur.

Sethral looked away. She wasn’t sure if she felt like laughing or crying. Rose and Tornado had always dodged the question of whether they were bonded, but this didn’t leave much doubt. Rose never cried.

Jay remained in the hollow for a while longer, tending to other injuries. It was after sundown by the time he finished, but when Kastar invited him to stay for the night, he declined. He slipped away after a last check on Tornado.

Sethral found Kastar and the twins at the coulee’s edge.

“I’m not sure I will ever understand that one,” Kastar was saying.

“He’s like that,” said Taz.

“And if he ever did get lonely, he’d never admit it,” said Fletch. “We’ll stay the night though. Quite happily.”

Kastar chuckled, and the three Coppertails turned back to the coulee below. Sethral intercepted Kastar.

“You two go on ahead,” he said to the twins.

When they were alone, Sethral sank to the ground. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Concern creased Kastar’s face. He lay down in front of her.

“I couldn’t warn you about Winter,” said Sethral. “I got held up by Drakons in the forest, and … and …”

Kastar curled around her and pulled her close as she broke down. “That isn’t your fault,” he said softly. “I’m sorry we asked you a favour that got scary.”

Scary wasn’t the word for it. Terrifying. And helpless. Sethral struggled to control her sobs. “What was Winter doing? Why did she do that?”

Kastar didn’t seem to have an answer. He just stroked her back.

“Will you be okay here for the rest of the cool season?” said Sethral.

His silence indicated something was wrong.


He sighed. “It won’t be just the cool season. We didn’t tell you, Sethral, because we didn’t want you to worry. We’re staying in the south now. For good.”

What? Why?”

“Because there was frost on the grasslands until halfway through summer, and we got snow even before we left the Plains. This has been going on for five years and it’s not changing patterns.”

“So it’s not getting better,” said Sethral. “The creeping winter.”

“We have nothing to indicate it’s getting anything but worse.”

“But how will you spend the storm season, then?”

A wry smile twitched Kastar’s whiskers. “You’re forgetting that all young herds spend time on the South Flats before the strong ones start to migrate. We’ve lived out a storm season here before. Several, in fact. We’ll survive.”

“Is Winter staying, too?”

Kastar went silent again. Sethral poked him.

“We don’t know,” he said. He sounded tired. “But Sethral … we think it would be better if you didn’t come with us anymore. The South Flats are a Drakon haven in storm season, and there won’t be much food for you. And if Winter bribes Drakons into working for her like today …”

“No, I get it.” Sethral wiped her eyes and hugged him. “I should go, then. If I’m not with you, I at least want to keep an eye on Winter.”

“You’ll be following her, then?”

“If I can. If not, I’ll be in the South Forest. Come visit, okay?”

His face softened. “We’ll try to.”

Sethral left. It wasn’t until she had said her goodbyes and flown halfway to the mountains that she realized Kastar hadn’t given his parting “Be careful,” like he always did. The change didn’t taste as sweet as she had always thought it would.


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