It was always easy to tell when Winter was in one of her moods. It didn’t happen often—for the most part she was an eerily composed leader—but Sethral liked to watch for the moments when the queenly demeanor shattered; when nothing seemed to be going her way and her pack would scramble about trying not to draw her attention. It was reassuring to know that even the most known figure of the North War acted like a kit sometimes.
This morning’s blowup seemed to have something to do with Winter’s collar, which had disappeared overnight. It was a shiny thing, all yellow metal and set with three oversized stones the Mountainair had acquired around the time of the North Forest fire. They were probably meant to mimic the Leasorrels—the blood gems—that terrified everyone in Lowland stories. The Leasorrels, it was said, followed trouble around through history like a Draklet followed its parents. Winter liked dramatic symbolism. That said, she was far from the first to pretend to have the gems.
Most of Winter’s pack had fled the mountain hollow, leaving their leader to fume at rocks. Without creatures to dodge it, her tantrum became a lot less interesting. Sethral rolled over and treated the grey Mist Moon sky to a baleful gaze. An attack on the Coppertails had brought promise of more unusual behaviour, but the most exciting event in Winter’s camp in two days had been the burglary of a trinket. The rest of the world was not compensating. The South Forest had been known as the Forest of Legends before the Royals had disappeared, but not much in it today lived up to the reputation. Running away here would have been a lot more fun if the silver cats had still held sway, with their complex clan structure and legendary cave-fort in the cliffs. She would probably have been welcome among them, too. Their clan and hers had been on good terms.
But she’d been born three hundred years too late for that, and come here too late to even intercept news of the end of the North War and Winter’s glory days. She had barely caught news of the fire. Five years ago she had met the Coppertails, who had taught her how to find food when running away proved more difficult than anticipated. Three years ago, Winter had chased the herd for straying accidentally onto her new northern territory. Last year, the Coppertails had met Rose’s little band, and the two herds had joined forces. It had taken all of three days to get to know the newcomers.
Sethral jarred her horns on the branch as she tipped her head back. She groaned. She was bored.
The upper edge of the South Cliffs was an unbroken band of boulder fields, stretching east and west as far as the eye could see. Whipper had always found it funny how so many rocks could be found at the top of the cliffs, when so few were found below.
Past the sheer cut of the cliffs, the Rock Flats spread like a dropped sky, an expanse of baked brick-red as featureless as the blue dome above. Whipper set the collar in a tree fork and sat back to groom the dust from his fur. A gleam made him glance up. The trees rustled in a light wind, and a sliver of sunlight danced across the collar. Where it crossed the three gems, it was swallowed without a trace.
Whipper picked up the collar. Each gem was larger than his fist and as black as the new moon. He thrust them in a patch of sun. For a brief moment, red sparked in their depths. Whipper set them down again. It had taken all his self-restraint not to pitch these in the river the moment he set paws on them, but he needed somewhere safe to put them. Somewhere Winter would never find them. Hopefully somewhere they would never be found again.
When his fur was clean, Whipper cast about for two pieces of bark. Pulling the fibres off their undersides, he twisted himself a serviceable cord and sandwiched the collar between the bark plates. When the whole package was secured to his back, he pulled himself to his paws. The trees at the forest’s edge were less bushy than the ones farther in. Faced with the yearly onslaught of the Rock Flats’ heat, their sparse canopies grew as if trying to sprawl to catch any cool breeze that passed. Whipper lined up and sprinted down a branch. Its springiness compounded his jump to send him rocketing off the tip, tail whirling. He landed, leaped, hit a long bough and was bounced clean into the next tree. It was a dangerously visible way to travel, but Shelha, was it fun.
A Drakon flight on the flats spoiled that fun. Whipper darted back to denser trees.
By evening, the Drakon flights were coming twice as often. Whipper tracked one as it patrolled its territory, then found a stream within range. A Drakon soon drifted down to drink. Whipper shimmied up the back of its tree, sticking to the undersides of branches. In short order, he was poised above the Drakon’s back. As it finished drinking and shook out its wings, he dropped from his branch.
As he landed, the Drakon shot into the air with a startled screech. Whipper locked his tail around its body. When it realized it could not shake its rider, the Drakon stopped rolling and began a different screech. It was calling its flight. Whipper reversed himself on its back, shimmied to its tail end and bit the tip—the only soft part of its body—hard. He was nearly flung off by the acceleration.
The Drakon kept flying for most of the night. When Whipper had clung on for as long as he could, he simply let go. He plunged to the canopy and curled into a ball, letting himself blast through several layers of twigs before grabbing them to slow his fall. He thumped to a halt on a broad limb. Now the Rocklands smelled close. Finding a thick patch of canopy, he pulled and wove the living branches into a nest and fluffed himself up inside.
Getting up the following afternoon was not an enjoyable process. The stiffness in Whipper’s muscles wore off by the time he reached the forest’s edge. The Outer Rocklands broke the horizon’s monotony. Here the Rock Flats were dotted with spires: tall, jagged stone cones that seemed to sprout from the ground like spines thrust through holes in a leaf. Whipper moved to the forest’s edge. Along the cliffs was a series of squat stone formations, like enormous tree stumps with their roots sunk in boulder-and-brush moss. He darted across the open ground and ran up one. From the top, the sky was a wash of red, and the land was just as vivid. Across the Rock Flats came creeping the shadows of the Rockland spires, dark teeth closing down on the cliffs. Whipper trotted to the center of the plateau. He checked for Drakons, then circled a patch of stone as blank as pond ice and jumped through the illusion-cloaked skylight into the cave below.
A Coppertail tail-length was longer than his own body and tail combined; the drop was several. Whipper thumped to a halt on a large boulder in a cavern as wide as a tree was tall. Sunset flooded in through a large window in an alcove overlooking the Rock Flats. A sand-dusted floor basked in the glow and reflected light up to a ceiling of stone teeth paler than the red walls.
The cave wall opposite the window harboured a shadow near the ceiling: a pocket of a cave tucked into the stone. Whipper bounded up to it and checked that nobody had visited his nest inside. He shed his package in a back corner. There were plenty of rocks around, so he gathered several and buried the whole secret in a pile of stone. He was about to leave when a patter of paws sent him into the shadows. A Coppertail appeared at the window in the cavern below. Whipper relaxed. This creature had frequented this hall before he himself had even found it. They had never spoken, but Whipper had a feeling they both knew the other was there.
The Coppertail checked for Drakons outside, then trotted across the hall and vanished down the biggest tunnel leading into the cliffs. Whipper had never figured out what a Northlander was doing on this side of the Rock Flats. Or why he was here alone. Northlanders and Flatlanders were the two Coppertail types known for being obligatorily social. Those that didn’t form herds formed pairs at least.
He should probably get back to Winter now. Whipper scaled the wall and picked his way upside-down through the stone teeth of the ceiling. In a heartbeat he was back out the skylight. He shimmied down the plateau and ran to greet the trees.
Before dawn, Sethral was snapped awake by a distant yelp. She leaped to her paws as Winter kicked her pack awake and led them out of the hollow at top speed. Sethral let them pull ahead, then launched into the air and gained height. Mountainairs were mountain natives, and Winter moved across the rocks with the ease of a Rocklander. By midway to sundown it was clear she was making for the mountain pass. The Coppertails would still be in the valley on the other side.
The screech of a Drakon came too late; she had crossed a territory without realizing. Sethral dove for the trees. Two Drakons appeared at her sides; a third swerved to block her way. Sethral pulled in her wings and plunged into the canopy, only to find two more Drakons beneath the trees. They gave chase as she streaked away.
The mountain pass loomed ahead, blocked by the rest of the Drakon flight. Sethral blasted above the leaves to avoid a Drakon strike and dove beneath another. She was halfway to the pass when a self-sacrificial Drakon plowed into her from above. Leaves and twigs whipped her face. Sethral yelped as something seized her scruff. A tree mouth reared from nowhere. She was shoved inside and the ground thudded up to meet her as something jammed a piece of bark across the entrance to the hollow trunk. Drakons screeched and chattered outside.
There was a creature beside the newly blocked hole, half her size, fluffy, and so black she almost couldn’t see him. Sethral gasped and his teeth flashed in the darkness. It wasn’t a smile. The flight outside was milling like a gnat swarm. Failing to find their prey, they would get frustrated and fly off eventually, Sethral knew, but Winter was moving fast. She could reach the mountain pass by moonhigh. The black creature pulled back and made himself comfy on a large knot. Sethral sank her fist into the soft wood of the trunk’s interior. The creature startled violently, then glared at her.
“They won’t hear it,” she snarled. “They hunt by sight, not sound.”
And if she didn’t hit something, she was going to scream. Several more punches were cut short by a sharp chatter. The black creature was locked onto his knot, pressed against the wood beside him. He was fluffier than before.
Sethral was about to growl again when the scent of fear reached her. The creature jerked his gaze away. By the stiffness in his body, he was gripping his perch harder than necessary. He flinched as a Drakon thudded into the wood outside.
A tree-creature who didn’t like it when trees shook. What a helpful ally.
The Drakons weren’t going away; they had nearly had her, and they weren’t going to give up on a member of their counterpart that easily. Sethral watched the light glimmering through the cracks in the barricade fade from gold to grey and hoped against hope that the herd would spot Winter’s approach.
A rough shaking was Sethral’s indication that she had fallen asleep. Pale light trickled through the half-blocked tree hole. The black creature checked outside, then knocked out the barrier. He was gone in a flash. Sethral clawed her way up the trunk. No Drakons. She squeezed outside and climbed until she could get airborne. The mountain slopes were empty. Sethral angled her wings and flew for the pass.
The South Peaks were a baby range, a string of sharp-tipped mountainettes running like a spine between two different worlds. To the west, the South Forest washed up the rocks like a wave. Montane shrubs and herbs made all but the very tips of the mountains green, and even now there was no snow. Beaten by eons of use, the mountain pass snaked up the slope. Sethral crested it, and the South Flats rolled out beneath her like a beige sky.
They were endless. Their dips and rises rose to the height of South Forest trees, rolling oddly and saturated with the colour of short summer grass in its last stage of drying. Scrawled through the hills were coulees—flatland river valleys. In one great scar, a river escorted its warm, silty waters through the foothills towards a hole in the mountains’ roots. Far upstream, a cluster of figures sprinted towards a way out of that same valley. Coming towards them across the flatland was a swarm of Drakons, and Winter.
Nobody saw the Mountainair until she crested the valley ridge and bulled straight through the herd. Rose’s mate Tornado was seized, shaken like a kit and flung down the hill. Drakons were annihilated as Rose sprinted after him. Winter had another creature by the throat, about to deal the same punishment, when the Drakons scattered like mice. The whistle of diving wings came heartbeats before Sethral tore through the swarm. A Coppertail landed on Winter and kicked her head. She dropped her victim, who was dragged to safety. As the Drakons’ leader fell, the flight fled. Winter found herself alone on the hill with the herd out of reach and a cold-eyed, rose-furred Highlander stalking up the incline towards her. Others were watching Tornado. There was a chilling hesitation in the Mountainair queen’s body language. Any sane predator would by this time have left the scene fast.
At last Winter whirled and bounded away. Rose was about to take another step when a sound from the hill bottom froze her. Tornado was churring, the involuntary plea of a Coppertail begging for comfort. Like water down a hole, it sucked every herdmate closer, compelled to help. Echo, the herd’s healer, licked and licked his face. Rose brushed her aside. At her touch, the churrs died away.
Mountainair footsteps began a drumbeat in the distance. This time the whole pack was coming. Rose pulled Tornado onto her back and ran for the hill. Realizing they could reach the flats now, the Coppertails dashed after her. Through the ground they felt the Mountainairs’ angry stamps as the pack was forced to give up the chase. Kastar tapped his back as Sethral swooped over. She landed on it.
“Winter’s stopped running,” she panted. “The pack’s headed for the pass again.”
There was audible relief. The herd slackened their pace, and three sped ahead to scout for shelter.
“Then what was the point of attacking us?” said Elm quietly, so that only Kastar could hear.