The birds they left at threat of snow,
And where they went, nobody knows;
‘Neath icy sky, the chill winds blow;
Where winter comes, the clouds hang low.
It was raining on the flatlands, a cold, misty drizzle that dampened the spirits as much as it soaked the fur. Kastar sneezed as an icy speck nipped his nose. The raindrops drifted. A gust caught the furry heads of the Cottongrasses, and for a heartbeat the ground and sky were a swirl of white. In twenty autumns of migration, he had never seen the snow and the seeds dance together.
Kastar ran up a rise. The Plains of the north rolled like a lake, softened at the edges. Had the day been clearer, a creature half a Coppertail’s height would have been able to see for days. Today the crisp blade of the horizon had blended into a smudge. Kastar flipped his tail in the air. He was a Coppertail, and he couldn’t see the herd ten rises away. The glossy copper fur covering his tail’s final quarter caught the glum light. He gave it a few flicks and a twirl, then let it fall back to swishing. A tail twice the length of one’s body and thin like a cattail stem was great for signalling long-distance, but not for staying warm.
Someone had seen the flash. As a familiar pair of pawstep vibrations began in the distance, Kastar eyed a puddle beside him. It caught the wind and shivered miserably. There was an explosion of coloured pelts as the twins barreled from a gully and soaked themselves in the icy pool.
Kastar landed gracefully beside them, hiding a smile. “Was that necessary?”
The twins were laughing so hard they could hardly breathe. “You’re good!” said Carp. “Rose nearly creamed us for that!”
That explained the muddy pawprints on their hindquarters. The pair were taller, faster and even lankier than Kastar was; it would take the aim of a fighter to land a blow on them.
“I’ve known you for a few more years,” said Kastar. “For shame, taking advantage of other creatures’ ignorance. Did you get her?”
“Less than we got Ice,” said Vixen with a wicked grin. “But she got Carp back.”
And that explained why Carp was wetter than his brother. Kastar waved his tail. “Why don’t you two put your energy into something useful instead of tearing about adding to everybody’s wetness? This rain’s going to get worse by nightfall.”
“Scouting? Sure.” Vixen whacked his brother and shot off with Carp in hot pursuit.
“Well, good to see someone’s enjoying the weather.”
Rose had trotted up unheard behind him. Kastar shook the water off his paws and touched noses with her. Rose was from the Highlander Coppertail subtype and stood two heads above him, and he wasn’t short. She patted his back as he tried to lessen the wet on his belly fur. Hers was still dry.
The wind gusted again and died. In the moment of silence, the two found themselves gazing in the same direction. Rain hid the clouds that had hung on the northern horizon on and off, but mostly on, since this time last year. The last time they had lifted had been three moons ago.
“We have to tell the herd, Kastar.”
“I know.” Kastar shook his head. “It’s just hard to believe we’re doing this after so many summers here. For my creatures at least. Yours are probably different.”
“Not much. The place grows on you.”
“Two moons of clear ground, and the Grasslands stayed frozen until halfway through summer. And now we get snow? It’s Cottongrass moon!” A spotted female swatted a bush with her tail. Dead leaves fluttered to the ground, an earthbound copy of the white flakes that once again floated from the sky.
Kastar sighed as he and Rose crested the rim of the hollow in which the rest of the herd was sheltered. With eight creatures of his former herd and five of Rose’s—the two had met and joined last year—they numbered sixteen here. Carp and Vixen were back, playing a game of tail-tag with several others. It was decidedly half-hearted.
Creatures noticed Rose and Kastar’s return and began to coagulate in the hollow’s bottom.
“It’s final then?” said a tall female.
“It has to be,” said Kastar. “Look at this.”
White dusted the cold ground. The morning’s rainfall had already frozen.
“So it’s not getting better?” said a young male.
The tall female shook her head. “Fall and winter came even faster this year than last one.”
“We can’t predict the fall mists in the South anymore,” said Kastar, “and if the plants here keep dying before they can seed, we won’t have food to make it through fall migration next year. This trip will have to be our last.”
“So we’re staying in South Shelha? For good?”
Rose dipped her head.
Creatures pawed the ground. The next question came in tail-signs, not dared spoken aloud. ‘What about the Mountainairs?’
Murmurs spread like water. Nobody had an answer.
Five Years Ago
Winter gazed across the North Flats as smoke blotted out the sunlight, turning the grey sky night-black. An orange glow lit the bellies of the clouds. The trees of the North Forest were backlit, every detail of them picked out by flames that roared like a flooded river. Winter touched the three paw-sized gems at her feet. One race of creatures would no longer live in that forest. What had they had to protect from her, a queen Mountainair, if they had never wanted this power in the first place?
Firelight crackled through the gems, a hundred tiny lightning flashes that set their deep red colour aglow. Winter’s pack was somewhere out on the Plains, but there were no escapees left to catch. She would show them all, when Shelha and its treasures were laid out at her feet, and its creatures were an army at her back. Show them what it meant to lead a life without fear.
Smoke thickened the air, lit with sparks like a rain of fireflies. A creature sprinted along a branch as the tree behind him began to groan like a living thing. He used the last bough like a springboard, tail whirling as he tried to keep a straight course through the air. He crashed into a cloud of needled twigs and clung there, sobbing. The groaning tree tilted the other way. Like the slow course of an avalanche as it comes unstuck, it sank back into the wall of fire.
Burning wood snarled beneath him. The creature scrabbled away as flames curled up his tree like a hungry animal, breathing ribbons of sparks. He ran. Branches bounced and twigs whipped his face. The whoosh from behind told him the tree had succumbed to the inferno.
The forest ended as if severed by a predator’s bite. A deep rumble gripped the trunk like a landquake. The river had heaved up on itself and swollen to twice its size. It moved through the forest with such intention, the ground shook. Water like mud churned over shattered branches, some of them still burning.
The creature shut his eyes and jumped.