Frost on the Grasslands | Shelha Series 1

South Shelha



Present Day

Just before sundown, the herd reached the Rock Flats. Grass ended as if it had run up against an invisible wall. In the dying light, the ground was as red as spilled blood. Behind the herd, the stars were blotted out hundred by hundred as clouds crept over the sky.

Kastar forced a rest break, but nobody could sit still. A chirp from the herd’s edge made heads snap up. Before anyone could scatter, a second chirp lowered the level of the alarm.

‘Coppertails,’ flicked Elm. ‘Two of them. Not ours,’ she added, when Vixen lifted his head. It drooped again.

The incoming Coppertails could be seen now, a pair of shadows that hardly seemed to touch the ground. “It’s Taz and Fletch!” someone whispered, and the tension broke. The pair skidded to a halt in what would have been a cloud of dust had the dew not dampened it. ​They were small but proportioned like Flatlanders, skinny, with little round ears and long, thin limbs. Kastar had to weave to keep their forest-green fur in sight in the darkness. Other similarities didn’t help: the pair were identical twins, with emphasis on identical. And they never stood still. Kaster’s half of the herd showered them in muzzle rubs.

“New joiners, meet Taz and Fletch,” said Ice. “Rocklanders, so they’re native to this Shelha-forsaken desert, if you can believe it. They helped us cross it lots of times when we first hit migration age.”

“Sorry… which of you is which?” said Rose.

“I’m Taz,” laughed the first twin. “This is Fletch.”

“I can introduce myself, twit,” said Fletch. “We heard you guys coming and figured we should warn you. There’s Drakons on the flats tonight and they’re hunting really close to here.”

“The local flights have started looking for creatures fleeing the storm. Also, they’re saying that Winter’s behind you?”

There were chirrs of consternation. Kastar clenched his teeth. Winter must have been training her pack. The herd usually outran them by days.

“We were surprised,” said Taz. “She usually takes the eastern route. Anyway, you’re headed south, right? We can show you a more sheltered route up to Rocklander’s Maze if that’s where you’re going.”

Kastar put his tail around a shivering Vixen. “Yes, we’re headed to the maze. Do you know a route with shelter?”

The twins nodded together, paws prancing as though itching to be off.

“Then lead on.”

 

Five Years Ago

Thank Shelha for the rain. Grey clouds huddled over the South and drizzled like tears that never seemed to dry. Whipper licked the droplets from his fur, then slept for days. Rain was familiar. He could deal with rain.

The bush he was hidden under was an herb of sorts, bitter but edible. In a few days, Whipper could pull himself upright and look around. To one side of him, the ground ended abruptly. To the other, it morphed into a field of boulders, over which he could see the tops of trees. He went to the cliffs’ edge first. Even from this height, he could see nothing but a clean, straight horizon on the Rock Flats’ other side. Clawmarks scored the ground closer by, but the Mountainairs had moved on. With a deep breath, Whipper turned around again.

The forest he stepped into on the other side of the boulders was unlike any he had ever seen. There were no ropy, segmented needles or tight cones. Instead the trees had leaves… like bush or plant leaves, only bigger and in more different shapes. As if this wasn’t strange enough, their bark came in dozens of textures and shades. Whipper stepped into their shade. The ground was cool and rustly. He buried his paws in the soil and yelped as a large beetle scrambled away. It didn’t smell poisonous. Whipper snatched and ate it, then ran up a tree. Cracks of blue showed between the leaves above him. He climbed to the top and poked his head above the canopy.

Shelha this forest was big.

To the north, the Rock Flats stretched out forever beneath sailing clouds and a blue, blue sky. Everything else was forest. In the far east lay a line of mountains. They looked sharp and toothy, too small to even have snow caps. Whipper pulled back beneath the trees and was about to descend when a whirr of wings went by.

Back to the treetop. This time the view contained three strange creatures, all circling low. They looked like dragonflies, but they were black-shelled and almost as long as Whipper was. Their grey wings looked like feathers. Two stout bug legs reached from their undersides, and their round heads had bug-like mouthparts and black, protruding, slanted eyes. Drakons. Whipper watched them from between the leaves. Anyone who came from the South complained about Drakons. He wondered why.

The Drakons had treed a bird. When it didn’t come out again, they moved on. Whipper found enough lichen and tree buds to make a meal, then wove himself a nest from the tree’s living branches. He liked these trees. Their leaves rustled in breezes, soft and velvety. He wondered when it was going to sink in that this would be his home from now on.

 

 

Present Day

The herd didn’t beat the storm. As the hammer of rain swept across the flats, the twins sprinted for a distant land-ripple shouting, “​Hurry!​”

The ripple turned out to be an island of Rockland farther out than the rest—a spire and a mound of bizarrely jagged formations jutting straight from the Rock Flats. The twins scooted up to a cave at its tip. Only half the herd made it in dry. Kastar dragged the last creature inside as the trail turned to a mud slick.

Taz whistled. “It’s a big one!”

The Flats were black. Thunder roared, shaking the ground, which had mysteriously begun to shake on its own.

“Flash floods in the maze,” said Fletch, catching a small male’s eye.

He relaxed. “So not a landquake?”

“No. We haven’t had one of those in ages. If this was one, it’d be a whole lot bigger.”

Creatures aggregated in piles to lick each other’s wet fur. Kastar saw Taz and Fletch’s gazes connect. They had both noticed Vixen, now lying by the door with his chin on his paws.

‘Where’s his brother?’ flicked Fletch to Kastar. ‘They’re bonded, right?’

Kastar beckoned him away. Taz joined them in a quieter corner.

Winter did ​that?​” he gasped when Kastar told them the story.

Fletch looked troubled. “She’s been lying low since the North Forest fire. I know she’s hunted you off her territory in past years, but isn’t this the most violent yet? Why is she suddenly trying to kill Coppertails?”

“We could ask Jay,” said Taz reluctantly. “Not that he’d talk. But he grew up in the north.”

“He says he doesn’t remember it,” said Kastar.

“And even if he’s lying about that, he probably wouldn’t tell us,” said Fletch. “He shuts a creature out if they so much as mention the North War, let alone Winter.”

“Is there anyone else we could ask?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Kastar. “But thank you for trying. We will deal with it as best we can, and whatever happens, at least we will never have to cross paths with Winter in the north again. As for Vixen…” He trailed off. In spite of all the eyes on him, Vixen did not seem to notice. Taz winced. When one member of a bonded Coppertail pair died, the other usually followed.

“We will try to support him as best we can, and hope for the best,” said Kastar.

 

Five Years Ago

Winter’s packmates pulled themselves over the top of the cliff pass, panting. Winter had spent the last few days oscillating between fury and giddiness, and had bounded away in hopes of spotting at least one Coppertail from the top of the mountains she had heard existed here in the south. With no knowledge of the landscape ahead, nobody was particularly keen to follow her.

The night was pitch-black save for the stars that sparkled among the wisps of cloud. “Split up and hunt?” said Autumn. Everyone agreed.

The cliffs were the best option for finding prey in the South Forest at night. Summer followed the clifftop, her breath misting on the cold air. A footstep, soft as a breath, sounded in the darkness. The creature was sizeable, certainly not a rabbit or squirrel. Summer let it draw closer, then charged. Her prey shot sideways. Claws screeched on stone. Summer closed the gap and timed her pounce on the run.

Something slammed into her like a rock wall. A splitting snap sounded ahead. Summer was dragged back from the cliff by a packmate’s teeth while stones rattled down the crevice she had very nearly gone over. She and Sapphire stumbled away, gasping at the close call.

“What was that sound?” said Sapphire.

Summer crept back to the precipice. In the starlight she could just make out the bottom of the cliff crack, eroded out by rainwater. It was empty. She ran to the cliffs’ edge. There was no sign of the mysterious creature, or of anything that could have made the sharp report she had just heard. “How did it do that?”

Sapphire shuddered. “Maybe it’s the same thing that took that Forester we lost back that way. If it tried to lead you off the cliff edge then it’s probably a hunter.”

They searched the area for clues, but Summer’s own smell had wiped out the creature’s tracks.

“It could have had wings,” said Sapphire after a pause.

Summer shook her head. “It was running. I’ve never heard of anything this far north that can run on the ground and has wings. We need to warn the pack.”

 

Present Day

With the storm past, the Coppertails set out at the crack of dawn. Taz and Fletch ran laps hundreds of tail-lengths ahead and back, outpacing the herd easily. The fact that the ground was getting hot enough to kill insects did not seem to bother them. Kastar showed Rose’s creatures how to lick their paws and change their gait to avoid getting seared.

It took several more days to reach Rocklander’s Maze. Elm called a halt as the first chasm dropped away before her paws. In single file the Coppertails leaped the gap.

Taz sped back from up ahead. “The next jump’s unstable. This way!”

He led them sideways across the plateau. It lay flush with the ground, bordered by deep slits. Beyond the next jump was another plateau, and beyond that, another. The chasms ran deeper and deeper, plunging a tail-length into the ground, then two.

“Get stuck down there and you’re as good as dead when the rain comes,” said Fletch. Seeing creatures’ faces, he added, “There are crumbled places where you can get out again. They’re just hard to find. Don’t take your chances.”

Like a stream of running water, the herd bound-and-trotted their way across the plateaus. Fletch caught Taz frowning at the sky and pulled closer to the herd murmuring, “Keep an eye out for Drakons.”

Taz chirped an alarm.

“Look out!” shouted Elm. The diving Drakon veered away. As the herd’s eyes followed it, two more exploded from the maze and seized Comet in pincer claws. Her friend Greyling lunged, but the Drakons were faster: in a heartbeat they had tipped backwards into the chasm. The decoy streaked back and hit Greyling with claws outstretched. Wings flashed. By the time the herd reached the edge, the chasm was empty. Kastar rolled his eyes.

“You don’t look concerned,” said Taz.

“They’ll be back,” said Elm. “This isn’t the first time this has happened. Greyling knows how to fight Drakons.”

 

Comet was not so much frightened as she was furious: at herself for getting caught—again—at life for making her the smallest creature in the herd, and at Drakons for so consistently capitalizing on it. Her kidnappers’ claws locked painfully around her forelegs. She snapped at their hard-shelled legs, but managed only to jar her teeth.

The Drakons flew with incredible agility through the chasms, so close to the walls at times that Comet jammed her eyes shut in fear of collision. When writhing proved ineffectual, she settled down to sulk. Even if she were to escape now, she’d be half a day’s run from the herd across this infernal landscape. At least Greyling would be with her soon. He always got himself caught when she got taken, so he could harass his captors into skipping their evasive techniques and flying him straight to their nest. He would beat them up then, and come back for her as her Drakons arrived.

There was a screech. Comet’s stomach went airborne and she hit the ground hard enough to lose every scrap of her breath. Something collided with the Drakons at full tilt. One hit the wall and crumpled as another reeled from the sky. Greyling spun it around and smacked it in the dust. Then he sat on it. He was grinning like an idiot. “See? You do know how to get them!”

Comet jumped to her paws and spun around. She sat down in shock. “​Carp!​”

The peach-furred twin sat on the second Drakon, at once delighted and sheepish. His prisoner hissed and beat its wings, spraying him with dust. “I wasn’t expecting to find you two in this company,” he said. “Comet, are you hurt?”

Comet bowled him flat in reply.

When sufficient tears had been shed, the trio found their way out of Rocklander’s Maze and located a quiet corner in the Scrublands beyond. Greyling flopped down and blew out a breath like he was trying not to start crying again. “How did you make it out of the river?”

Carp rubbed Comet’s back with his tail. “I know this sounds made-up, but I found a cave in the gorge about halfway to the North Forest. I climbed into it and managed to dry myself off before that snowstorm hit. When it passed, I poked about and found cave links all the way to the surface.”

“The ground there isn’t even rock by the surface!”

“Actually, I think the whole place was dug.” Carp glanced at them as though checking if they still believed him. “It felt like an army hideout, to be honest. Left over from the North War. It was almost caved in.”

“If it was from the war, that was over a dozen years ago,” said Greyling. “Was there any evidence of who used it?”

“Maybe?” Carp snapped a twig off a dead bush and scratched a picture on the ground.

Comet frowned. “What’s that, a Lowland bowl? Why does it have feet?”

“It was metal,” said Carp. “Those were little round balls on the bottom. Three of them.”

“Metal? So it was Lowland. Winter raided the Lowlands even back then?”

Greyling sighed. “Well, she could have for all we know. It’s not like we know anything.”

There was silence for a while. At last Carp smeared out the drawing. He got to his feet. “Either way, it’s history now. Let’s go find the herd.”

Half a day further south, the land jolted upwards as though someone had tried to lift South Shelha out of reach of flash floods. The South Cliffs stood sheer and rough and red-stoned, stretched as far as the eye could see and taller than three or four Coppertail jumps. Coppertails were good jumpers. A line of mountains ended ahead, their already-small peaks tapering off to blend into the cliffs. The meld turned the precipice briefly to a slope, up which ran several passes. No Coppertails had crossed them yet; there were no fresh pawprints or scents. The trio settled down on the tallest one to wait.

 


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