Frost on the Grasslands | Shelha Series 1

The Darkwood

“Guys, can we walk a little faster? Please?”

Sethral looked around as Silversand’s plea broke the silence between them. The forest was warm and sunny, quiet except for the occasional buzzing insect or bird twittering in the trees. “Why? Did you h—”

The Royal gestured frantically for her to lower her voice. Sethral stared at her. Silversand glanced around, then edged closer to Whipper, her tail jittering.

Sethral gritted her teeth and mustered her knowledge of what Whipper had begun to teach her and Silversand along their way. ‘Whipper?’ she flicked.

‘We’re being watched.’

The world turned a somersault. Silversand was furrowing her brow, struggling to understand the silent language. Whipper whispered something to her and her paws began to prance on their own. The moment she turned away again, Sethral caught Whipper’s fur.

He put a finger to his lips. ‘I don’t know who. Just be ready to run,’ he flicked.

While the mountain foothills rose steep and high on the South Flats side of the chain, no such topography graced its forest flank. Barely noticeable dips and rises rolled the forest floor. Sethral glanced over her shoulder. She could see nothing, but she trusted Whipper. That said, Greenfalls might be easy to climb but at its base was a cliff. Silversand couldn’t scale cliffs.

Silversand had taken to sniffing the air like it contained a murder trail, her paws tripping over obstacles she did not appear to notice. Sethral picked up a twig as quietly as she could. She snapped it.

The Royal leaped half a copper-length in the air. “Don’t do that!” she squeaked when her fur had deflated again. “They’ll hear it!”

“Who’s ‘they’?”


“What you just said! You said ‘they’ will hear us.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

Sethral was about to fire back when Silversand lunged at her. She bolted aside; the cat caught Whipper by the scruff and hurled him at a tree as a cackling, caterwauling howl exploded behind them. Creatures flew up their trail; uglier creatures than Sethral had ever seen, with sharp teeth and a nose horn and long, twisted front limbs. Their noise was deafening. Whipper had shot into the branches, screaming Sethral’s name. Sethral wrenched Silversand skywards as two hunters cracked heads where she had been standing. The ground spun away.


Whipper pointed to Greenfalls and vanished into the trees. Sethral carted Silversand to the middle of the overgrown, cave-ridden mountain slope, deposited her in a cave and sat on her.

The cat writhed. “Get off me, you fat feathered fraud! I want to go back! Let me go! Stupid, mangy creatures, they would eat their own tails if they thought it was food. Mangy, yowling, stinking, low, kit-killing, nasty, filthy, stupid—”

“What were those?” Whipper dropped in beside them, fluffy and wide-eyed. Sethral let go of Silversand and hugged him. He knotted his paws in her fur and curled up against her chest.

Silversand had begun to dart up and down a small section of the slope, growling.

“Silver,” said Sethral.

The cat’s gaze snapped to them, wild. The look vanished the instant she noticed Whipper.

“Whipper!” She scooped the Forester from Sethral’s hug and wrapped around him. Whipper clamped to her and stayed there.

Sethral peered down the slope. The cliff at Greenfalls’ base hid any view of the ugly hunters, but she could hear them yowling. “Silver, kindly tell me what your counterpart is doing in this forest.”

“What? They live here!”

“No, they don’t.” Sethral turned back to the cat. “Hyenars left the South Forest for good when your clan disappeared. They’ve been in the Highlands and the Western Shield, and only those places, for three hundred years. What is a full pack of them doing here?”

Silversand just stared at her.

That would probably take a while to compute. Sethral spat and jumped in the air. She floated down to the slope’s bottom and landed again. The Hyenars threw a fit when they saw her watching them from out of reach. They were broad-shouldered, with ears more crumpled than flat. Definitely the Highland breed. These creatures were at minimum a moon from home.

Sethral returned to Silversand and Whipper. “Silver, are you telling me you failed to realize you never saw a Hyenar the last time you lived in the South Forest, or now?”

Silversand looked at her paws. “I… guess wasn’t thinking about it?”

“No Drakon shit. Have you at least realized how weird it is that you’re here? Because if you’ve shoved all of that kind of thing from your head, I swear I will scream.”

“I know.” Silversand glanced up. “I mean… both of those things. I know it’s weird. And I know you’ll scream. I should have noticed the Hyenars thing.”

Sethral let out a deep breath. “Okay, good. Do you know what they’re doing here now?”

“Being as weird as I am?”


Sethral stopped. She looked at Whipper, at Silversand’s bright fur, and towards the bottom of the slope. Then her brain presented her with a series of images of other things that weren’t supposed to be in the south right now. Winter. The other kind of winter. The Coppertail herd. Jay. Come to think of it, that was a pretty eerie pattern.

“Okay, I’ll give you that,” she said. “It is weird. A lot of things are going weird.”

“I don’t like it.” Silversand scrunched up her muzzle. “Winter’s making things go funny.”

“No, Winter’s one of the things going funny.”

“No, she’s making them go funny! I can feel it. She appeared again, and everything started to go funny.”

“Not the creeping winter.”

“But she appeared again five years ago, right?”

Whipper shivered.

Silversand wrapped around him more tightly and continued. “Five years ago was when Winter reappeared for the first time since the end of the North War. She appeared right when the North Forest fire happened. And then the creeping winter started.”

Sethral ticked back over the last five years one by one. One year ago, Kastar and the herd had made contact with Rose and her creatures. Two years ago had been the foggy year: Mist Moon had lived up to its name so badly, the herd had been stranded on the Grass Flats for a quarter of it. Three years ago, a late snowstorm had chased them over the cliffs. They had hung out in the South Forest with Sethral, which had been fun, but a bit concerning. That had been the year when the pattern of the creeping winter had started to sink in.

Four years ago, chilly winds had nearly frostbitten the Coppertails’ paws on their migration home. It had been the coldest year they could remember, at the time. Each year since it had proceeded to break that record.

And five years ago, the plants on the Plains had failed to thrive for the first time. The herd said the spring bloom had come late, and the fall seeding had not been as prolific as before. That had been the winter immediately after the North Forest fire.

“Maybe the fire changed the climate,” said Sethral. “Or the death of the North Forest did. That’s more significant than anything that happened with Winter. She just appeared near it. Probably came to watch it burn.”

“She lit it,” came a whisper.

Sethral and Silversand both looked at Whipper. He had hidden his face in Silversand’s fur. He was no longer shaking, but his paws were holding her fur so tight, Sethral could see every bone of his delicate fingers.

“She lit it,” he whispered again. “Winter. She started the North Forest fire.”

Greenfalls went so quiet, you could have heard a seed drop. Jewel-green insects roved among the plants, their buzzing the only sound in the still air. The Hyenars had gotten bored and wandered off.

“She… what?”

Five years ago, when the home of Whipper’s clan and their counterpart had gone up in flames, the news had spread that it had been a natural catastrophe: a perfect storm of drought and a lightning strike. It had not crossed anyone’s mind that a creature would dare use fire as a weapon, or that a forest of trees the size of this one could fall to such a thing.

“Why?” said Sethral. Her throat felt sucked dry.

“To steal them,” said Whipper.

“Steal what?”

“The Leasorrels.”

“Those don’t exist.”

He lifted his head, and the look in his eyes strangled her doubt faster than her seventh sense could have.

“They’re fake,” said Sethral. “The ones on her old collar? Creatures like the stories, so they fake the stones. She’s just doing it to scare Lowland creatures.”

“We had them.”

The air left again. Sethral scrabbled to hold onto her senses against what felt like a situation slipping out of her control. “What do you mean?”

“My clan had three gems.” Whipper let go of Silversand’s fur and clasped his paws together, making a double fist the size of a large nut. “This big. They were red, but they looked black until you put them in the sun. She came looking for them, and when my clan didn’t give them to her, she burned the forest.” There were tears trickling down his face, but his voice didn’t shake.

Sethral shook her head. “But even if the Leasorrels were real… Whipper, the legends say they disappeared three hundred years ago.”

Silversand’s head bolted up. “That’s when—”

“Your clan disappeared. The Last Great Silence.” Sethral put her face in her claws. “No, don’t talk for a heartbeat, Silver. I need to process this.”

Silversand put her paws around Whipper again.

“I got washed to the Rock Flats on the river,” said Whipper. “The river flooded, and it carried me almost all the way south. I got stuck on the Rock Flats, but a Drakon picked me up after I fell down, and I managed to escape it in the forest. Then Winter came the next winter, and I followed her. I’ve followed her every winter. I didn’t want her to hurt any more creatures.” His voice broke. He put his face in Silversand’s shoulder.

“Okay, Silver,” said Sethral. “Fine. Winter might have something to do with the weirdness.”


The next days were spent scouring the forest around Greenfalls, spying on Drakons—and hiding from them—and pursuing dozens of hypotheses and trails. Nothing paid off. At last the three gave up. It was probably time to meet up with the twins again anyways, they decided; it was almost mid Tracker’s Moon and Drakons’ eggs were getting ready to hatch. The Hyenars at least had disappeared.

There was no shortage of conversation topics along the way. Silversand, of course, had the full guide on how to fight a Hyenar, one of the few advantages of having them as a counterpart. “Don’t try to out-fight or out-run them. And no blows if you can’t really make it count; small ones just make them mad and that makes them attack even harder. The best thing is to try and trick them into running into water, or to make them fight each other. And you’ll always be outnumbered. Pretty much your only advantage if you can’t fly, outclimb or outrun them is that they’re really, really dumb.”

“Sounds like my kind of fight,” said Sethral sarcastically.

Silversand’s brow was bunched in a thinking frown. “And don’t get caught out on a flatland unless you’re with Jay or the twins. The only thing that runs faster than Hyenars is a Coppertail.”

There was a silence as that sank in, and as the cat became distracted by a rustle.

Sethral trailed her tail across a treetrunk. “What I’m most worried about is that they’re hunters, and you said they’d do anything for food. Even the Drakons are smarter, and they still took a side.”

Whipper glanced over. “The Mountainairs.”

“Exactly. Winter is manipulative, and clearly she’s sticking around. I’m sure she would find some way of controlling that pack if she ever found them. The best thing we could do would be to eliminate them somehow before Winter gets to them.”

Whipper was watching the wind toss tree flowers about like tiny yellow snowflakes.

“Out with it, fuzzface,” said Sethral. “I know you’re thinking something.”

The Forester drew a circle in the dirt. “I don’t know. Sethral, you’ve said that there haven’t been Hyenars in the South Forest since the time of the Royals, except for a lost pack now and then. Well, let’s pretend that one was a lost pack. They’d be coming from the Highlands, right? Those are down beside the Lowlands. So how did the Hyenars end up so far east? How did they find us? What are the chances they just stumbled across our trail?”

“Are you saying you think someone led them?”

“We were being spied on. And it can’t have been the Hyenars spying.”

“But then we can’t lead them back to Rockhall!” said Silversand in a sudden panic. “The spy, I mean. If they’re still watching us somehow, we need to shake them before we lead them back to Rockhall and Taz and Fletch and Jay!”

“A flash of instinctive brilliance,” said Sethral. She met Whipper’s eye.

“Darkwood?” they both said. They burst out laughing.

“It’s the closest,” said Whipper.

“And it handles sight, smell and sound. We can shake off any spy we have there.”

By midafternoon, the Darkwood was leaning in to wipe out the last traces of sky. Past a mixed edge, the trees became uniform, not only the same age like the rest of the South Forest, but the same species too. This was not quite true, Sethral corrected. There were three subtypes, distinguishable by their slightly differing shades of green.

“Hadn’t you noticed?” she said, when Silversand and Whipper both looked at her blankly.

“We’re both nocturnal,” said Silversand. “It’s all just green to us.”

They changed directions again, and changed the leaves on their paws. In the still, open understory, any spy would have to fall back out of sight and sound range to keep following them. At that point, that spy would be easy to lose.

It began to rain above the trees. Whipper jumped as a leaf flicked by his paw. The muffled thumps of drops on soft ground began to amplify around them. Silversand shook her head as a drop hit her on the nose. Two more struck her back and she pranced in a circle trying to hold more paws off the ground than was physically possible. She scowled at Whipper, who of all of them seemed unperturbed by the change in weather. He hid a laugh as she was hit in the face by another drop and nearly went cross-eyed.

“Well, I’m happy you’re enjoying yourself,” huffed Silversand. “Not all of us are lucky enough to have waterproof fur!”

“It’s not waterproof. Just water-shedding.” A bonus of his northern origin, the Forester’s guard hairs sloughed off the raindrops like the North Forest scale-needles he had grown up among. “And I don’t mind the rain even if I do get wet,” he said. “It makes everything smell cleaner, and it makes things grow in spring.”

“Well, in the Lowlands, things grow on their own, and it always smells clean enough, and I like staying dry—”

“Hey guys, come look at this!” shouted Sethral.

In the middle of the forest was a thicket. It was almost perfectly circular, at least seven tail-lengths across by one high, and woven so densely even a snake could not have wormed its way through. When the shock of seeing something so huge in the South Forest understory subsided, something about it struck Sethral as distinctly strange. The bushes were not familiar to her.

In that moment, Silversand screamed.

It was not so much a scream as a surprised yowl, as the ground beneath her gave out and the Royal was plunged out of sight. Whipper and Sethral dashed to the spot. Bush branches thrashed around a freshly uncovered hole.

“Silver, are you alright?” called Whipper down it.

“I think so,” came the reply from… below? “That scared me, and now my paws hurt. But come see what I found!”

Whipper and Sethral followed her gingerly down the hole. It turned out to be a tunnel, sloping steeply into a depression in the forest floor. Its floor was a beaten dirt trough, its ceiling woven from living bush branches. Sethral was so absorbed in the architecture that she missed her step at the tunnel’s end and tumbled head over tail into the middle of an open space. She gasped.

The thicket they had just passed through had been only a wall. They were standing in a deep bowl, carved into the ground as though somebeast had taken a bite of the forest floor. Bushes grew halfway down its sides, encircling a grassy clearing as soft as a thistlecloth blanket. Arched over it was a roof of vines. These were so thickly layered that no rain fell beneath them even now that it was pouring. It was like standing in a small green Rockhall with the floor carved out.

When Silversand and Sethral lowered their eyes, Whipper was nowhere to be seen. They were given no time to worry.

“There’s dens!” Whipper’s head appeared straight out of a bush-wall. He wriggled through a camouflaged doorway and scampered across the clearing, diving into the bushes again. After a pause, he popped out a tail-length to the left, looking delighted. “They’re all abandoned! Come look!”

The spaces were indeed dens: lots of them, woven into the bushes like the tunnel had been. Tunnels and rooms honeycombed the thicket like a hive. There were sleeping dens and storage rooms half dug into the cool, damp soil. There was a nursery with rocks to play on, a healer’s complex—a small hall ringed with alcoves and shelves—and a set of deep, densely woven rooms that could serve as kitting dens, or shelters in the event of a storm or attack.

“It’s a whole village,” said Sethral.

“And I think I know who lived here,” said Whipper.

Halfway up the slope opposite the tunnel was a treetrunk, broken and propped up horizontally on its remaining branches. Whipper stood at its end, gazing down at the wood between his paws. They joined him. The trunk top was a pale beige, worn to a glossy finish by generations of paws. Whipper traced a pattern in the wood. One line, curving as if shaped from wire, was carved deep into the trunk. It made a three-leaf clover.

“Who’s there?” said Whipper suddenly. Something vanished through the vines at the top of the bush-ring. Whipper reached the ring in a flash. There was no way up, so he ran out the tunnel instead. Ten heartbeats later, Sethral and Silversand skidded to a halt outside the thicket.

Whipper was perched on the bush-ring outside the vines, glaring into the forest. “I lost it.”

His friends scanned the trees. “How?” panted Sethral. That’s not possible unless it can fly. Or climb?”

“It didn’t climb; there’s no smell on the trees. But I found its way in.”

Sethral flew Silversand to the bushtop. Whipper was standing on a platform woven into the top of the bush. It had been beautifully hidden, the tips of its twigs teased through to cover it in a shroud of green.

Silversand poked her nose at it. “This is recent! Well, more recent than the rest. A few years old, max.”

“Does it keep going?” said Sethral. Whipper nodded and stepped back, vanishing straight into the vines. Silversand yelped and darted after him. The leaves seemed to melt before her; had Whipper not grabbed her tail on the other side, she would have gone clean into the bushes.

“Careful, it’s narrow,” he said, hauling her back. He was standing on a platform that mirrored the one outside. From it to the fort’s clearing ran a woven path across the bush-tops, barely three paw-lengths wide.

Sethral pushed through the vine screen to join them. She followed the path fluttered down into the clearing, landing in a beaten circle of grass. She sniffed it. “This makes no sense.”

Silversand frowned. “Yes it does. That creature made a path to get in without using the tunnel, and walks through the vines and jumps down into—”

“That’s not it,” said Sethral.

Whipper turned to the Royal. “Silversand, look around you, then take a good, deep breath and tell me what you smell.”

She complied. “There’s nothing there. Just leaves and us. What were you expec—”

“Silver. Look around you. Where are we?”

“Where that creature was; I know that!”

“And what do you smell?”

Noth—” She stopped short.

“Nothing,” said Whipper. “Whoever it was was just here, and there’s no smell at all. Even on the vines, so they can’t have just covered their paws.”

“Not just that,” said Sethral. She landed beside them again and pushed back through the vine screen. They joined her outside, where she pointed back the way they had just come. There were cuts on two leaves of the vines. One was fresh, but the other had long since healed. Sethral dipped her head and pushed through them, but her backswept horns did not catch. “Silver, you try.”

The Royal, whose first passage had afforded precious little chance to see anything, copied the move. Her upturned horns snagged the leaves and drew a new scar down one of them.

“Whipper, scratch one,” said Sethral. Whipper did. Sethral sniffed the scratch and the cut from Silversand, then the one the creature had made. “What kind of creature doesn’t leave a smell? It was horns all right, but either it coated its whole self in something or else… I don’t know what else. Every creature has a smell. Whipper, I don’t like this. Let’s go.”

It was still raining, but Whipper nodded. They left the fort quickly and quietly, tying leaves to their paws again so they wouldn’t leave a trail. There was no further sign of the creature.


It was night when the trio returned to Rockhall, a quarter moon later. The fort was empty. Sethral left to look for Taz and Fletch, who had promised to stay close. The Rock Flats were a vast, frozen sea, silver in the moonlight, from which the shapes of the outer Rockland spires rose like ships’ sails. Sethral caught a cloud shadow and flew with it to the inner Rocklands, then turned north. Soon she could pick out an island of inner Rockland in the distance. She checked for Drakons and swooped towards it.

The flight back to Rockhall had the twins keeping pace. Hugs, tussles and nose beeps were exchanged.

“Is Jay here?” said Fletch when everyone had been sufficiently greeted.

“He hasn’t been for a quarter moon,” said Whipper. He had been scouting the back caves.

“Did he leave for good?” said Silversand.

“You look sad,” said Sethral.

“I am sad! Jay was nice!”

Fletch rolled his eyes. “Whipper, did he leave anything?”

“Yeah, his room’s untouched.”

“Then he’s not gone. He’s probably just off on an herb-hunting mission or something. Silver, relax. He’s coming back.”

“Though now that we’re a group, for how much longer is the question,” said Taz under his breath.

“Winter’s not here though,” said Silversand. “Maybe she migrated. Sethral, how do you know she didn’t just migrate again? It’s after River Moon.”

“She didn’t migrate,” said Sethral through gritted teeth. “It would have been the gossip of the Drakon world if she had. The north is getting too cold for Coppertails.”

“You know what I think?” said Whipper. Silence leaped. “I think it’s bedtime,” he finished.

“An excellent idea,” said Sethral, and breezed off to her room without another word.


A game was underway the next night when a Drakon screeched outside. Silversand plunged behind Fletch and Sethral; Sethral abandoned her and ran to the window.

“It’s Jay!” she hissed. Fletch stifled Silversand’s yelp. Sethral ducked back as a Drakon whizzed by outside. When she looked again, the Coppertail was gone. The Drakons chattered angrily. Sethral drew a breath and counted fifty heartbeats. Jay would know not to come in while the flight was there, wouldn’t he? He was smart.

The Drakons lingered for a while longer, then gave up and left. There was a pattering of paws and Jay whisked through the window like a windblown feather. He was out of breath and looked pleased about something. There was an object in his mouth.

“Dear Shelha, were you in the inner Rocklands?” said Taz as he joined them at the boulder. The Northlander had Drakon scent in his fur and scrapes on two paws.

Jay lay down and tossed something in the sand. ‘I found out what cut Taz’s paw.’

Sprung by the Rocklander’s speed, it was a sharp metal trap.


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