Bethi crouched under the scant shelter of the barren tree as she watched over her family’s flock in the field below. The bright sun overhead belied the frigid temperatures, with drifts of snow covering large swatches of the pasture. But spring always came late to the valleys of the Cloud Break mountains, and this year would be no different.
A breeze stirred up a breath of ice crystals from one of the many drifts, stinging her face until she sought out the warm protection of her scarf. Her mittened hands dove deeper into her pockets in search of warmth. Bethi hated keeping watch during these cold spring days, but she had begged for the chance. The ewes would soon lamb their offspring and she wanted to be there to see this year’s new crop enter the world.
Movement in the distance caught her eye and she reflexively reached for her sling and shot. Whatever it might be had a white form, making it difficult to distinguish from the patchy snow at a distance. Whatever it was would be good for the stew pot though, as game this early could be difficult to come by. She set her shot into the leather cup as it hung from its straps before setting it into motion.
With a flick of her wrist, the lead shot flew from the sling. It hit perfectly on target, dropping the creature into the snow with a crushed skull. She trotted over, hopeful that it might be a fox because their white winter pelts were popular with traders. What she discovered was completely beyond her experience. It was smaller in form than a fox, more along the lines of a barn cat, if a barn cat was ever covered in white, pearly scales. It had a large head in proportion to its size, which was a sign of young age in Bethi’s experience. Its tail was long and whip-thin, reminding her of a rat’s tail. Two lumpy, leathery frills protruded from its shoulders.
Uncertain what the creature was or what it could be used for, Bethi gutted it then buried it in a snow drift to preserve it for the day. When the sun began to set and it was time to lead the flock back to the safety of the barn, she pulled the frozen body out to present to her father.
Harris had lived in the mountains of Cloud Break his entire life, as had his father before him, and his father’s father before that. His family had been tending their sheep in this very same valley since people first started living in the wild, unforgiving land. He knew every game trail, stream, cave, creek, and beast within ten miles of their home, however, he had no clue what his eldest daughter had brought home for his inspection. He stared at the frozen creature with a mixture of uncertainty and trepidation.
Gloria, his wife of twelve years, had no such qualms. “Nice catch, my dear. We shall try it in a pot pie with vegetables from the cellar.”
Harris left his two ladies to collaborate over the creature while he spoke with his father. “That’s the strangest creature I’ve ever seen, Pa. Almost like a scaley cat, with big, ugly eyes.”
“A rat?” His father demanded from his rocking chair, hearing only part of what his son said to him. “What’s so great about a rat? They’re not cooking one for dinner, are they?”
“No Pa, I said it looked like a CAT. A deformed, scaly cat!”
“My grandpa used to tell me stories about giant, scaly, white rats when I was a lad. Voracious creatures, he said.” His father rambled on, unwilling to release his train of thought. “Damn things killed o’er half the flock! Ate his best ram too. What a waste.”
“I don’t see how rats, or even this creature, could kill a ewe, much less a mature ram. The thing is no bigger than the barn cat.” Harris mused aloud.
“He always said there was a lot of ‘em.” His father sniffed loudly, “Boy, somethin’ sure smells good.”
“Yeah, whatever it is, I’m happy to have it.” Harris agreed. “Game has been scarce, even for early spring. It’s like the squirrels and rabbits haven’t bothered to wake up. Even the mice are hiding away.”
The next morning was overcast and gloomy with the heavy clouds promising fresh snowfall. Bethi glared angrily and threw several stones at them, though she knew it wouldn’t actually chase them off. From her favorite vantage point, she could see one of the ewes slowly separating itself from the flock. She gripped her crook when it became obvious that the ewe was making her way to the brambles. It seemed to her that sheep always chose the most inconvenient times and places to give birth.
She found a place to wait while the ewe began her business that still gave her a view of the rest of the flock. Though each lamb was important to the family, the priority was the flock as a whole and she could not risk dropping her guard for one laboring ewe.
The ewe is question was Bonnie, one of the older girls in the flock and a strong mother. Bethi was pleased to watch her quickly produce not just a single lamb, but twins. As Bonnie licked her offspring clean, Bethi heard a rustle in the dense brambles. The lambs bleated nervously while Bonnie stared into the tangled mess, her body tired but tense.
Suddenly, three of the white scaly creatures burst out from the thorny growth. Before Bethi could react, they had launched themselves at the frightened lambs. She hauled forward her crook and swept the knotty end at the beasts, crushing the spine of one and knocking a second away from a lamb. In the short moment she spent on her attack, two more appeared, dragging the second lamb to the ground. She swung around to rescue the lamb, but its pathetic cry was cut short by a jaw full of vicious little fangs.
Bonnie, panicked by the attack, tried to barrel her way through the bramble only to become entangled in the thorns with her thick wool coat. Her fearful bleatings drew the attention of the still hungry creatures, all four focusing on her struggles. Bethi, over the initial surprise of the attack, swept her crook once more, driving the creatures away from the ewe.
“Get back, you little monsters!” she cried, forcing them to keep their distance. After several tense moments the scaly creatures finally backed down, turning their attention to what remained of the lambs before slinking off into the brambles and out of her sight.
Acting quickly, Bethi untangled Bonnie and lead her back to the flock. Concerned that the creatures might return, she immediately herded the sheep back to the safety of the barn before rushing to find her father and explain what had happened.
The bright sunlight reflected off the newly fallen powder in the pasture the following day as Bethi, Harris, Gloria, and their oldest son stood guard over the flock. After looking over their hay reserves, Harris had declared that they didn’t have sufficient stores to keep the flock paddocked near the house; the animals would begin to starve within a week. The ewes needed the fresh, tender blades that reached for the sun like little emeralds cast out among the snow. Not to mention that penning the flock up would make it difficult for the pregnant ewes to lamb safely.
Already three of them had moved away from the flock and dropped their lambs, conspicuously avoiding the bramble patch. The coppery scent of fresh blood was distinct on the breeze. Bethi suspected it was only a matter of time before the scaly rats returned.
It was late afternoon when she began to notice movement at the edge of the pasture along the treeline. She waved her hands to get her father’s attention before motioning to the spot. “Dad! Over there, by the woods!”
Harris heard his daughter and observed the approach of the creatures to the edge of the pasture. There were easily more than two dozen of the beasts this time, with some of the forms appearing larger and more angular. He was reminded of the racing hounds he had seen once as a child; long-limbed, gaunt, and capable of incredible speed. They stood nearly three times the height of their smaller kin, the leathery flaps on their shoulders grown into small, immature wings. They milled about the edge, their restless shuffling revealing their uncertainty. They bit and snapped at one another, hungry but seemingly unwilling to strike and suffer the wrath of the shepherds.
Harris didn’t care for the odds and whistled to his family and flock. The sheep, having scented the beasts in the distance, were eager to return to the safety of their barn and did not need any further encouragement. One ewe, still heavy and awkward with her unborn offspring, lagged behind the flock and Harris whistled again to encourage her. She bleated in response, but paused in her movement and he realized that the ewe was in labor. He started back down the trail to her when she laid down on the path and, with a mighty push, a lamb slid from her.
The fresh gush of fluid scented the air. Bethi watched her father as he struggled with the laboring ewe for a moment before turning her attention back to the tree line. It took only a few moments for the breeze to carry the smell of the birth to the creatures waiting there. Then, as if on a prearranged queue, they began to spill into the pasture, making their way through the trampled snow to the flock. She cried a warning to her father before rushing forward to urge the flock.
Harris, forewarned by his daughter, turned to face the first wave of scaled beasts. They hesitated for a brief moment as he swung his repurposed wood axe at them. But it did not take long for them to surround them. He brandished the weapon again, but they fell upon the ewe and her lamb as he turned to face those behind him. Harris heard Gloria screaming for him as he chopped at the heads of the creatures, intent now to dispatch as many of them as he could. But it seemed that for every head he cleaved, two took their place, snatching and tearing at the bodies of their fallen kin. Feeling overwhelmed, he stumbled from the mass and turned to make his way to his family. He yelped as one of the beasts bit his leg, clamping down onto the soft backside of his calf. He beat at it furiously until it fell away and then limped quickly up the hill.
Harris ushered his family into the barn with as many of the sheep that could be persuaded into the protective darkness of the windowless building. He called out to his father, who stood out on the porch of their home to observe the source of the commotion. Bethi did her best to help her father, penning the sheep in the back of the barn and pulling forward whatever she could find to help lock up the large doors from the inside. She started to leave to bring in more of the sheep, but her father grabbed her arm to hold her back. “We have enough here, I won’t risk you out there with those creatures.”
With her grandfather’s help, they managed to block the doors closed and they gathered together on the piled hay while Gloria treated her father’s leg. She tried hard not to flinch every time a terrified cry was cut off from outside. Darkness came slowly, and though her mother urged her to sleep, Bethi found she could not. The silence inside the barn was eerie and she could not release the fear that gripped her heart. The cries of the sheep left outside had ceased, but it was replaced by something else; the rat-like gnawing and scratching of the white creatures as they tried to find a way inside.