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Story 4

William Ledbetter

William Ledbetter is a speculative fiction writer with a love of science as well as a gift for writing science fiction short stories that feature compelling characters. Bill has been writing speculative fiction since he was a teenager. His short stories have been published in various publications and have been included in Yard Dog Press Anthologies.
Bill is a member of THE NATIONAL SPACE SOCIETY. Because of his interest in space and science, Bill is often called upon to participate on space- and science- related panels at science fiction conventions.
4 Star Stories is proud to present to its readers William Ledbetter's short story, A BEAST NAMED WINTER.

A Beast Named Winter


William Ledbetter


"Hello, Law Caster. Do you like the weaving?"

Monia turned, prepared to answer the question with a glare, but was taken aback by the teachers appearance. He was by far the ugliest male she had ever encountered. In addition to the scaly, discolored hide common to old age, his spines had been surgically removed and his cutting teeth had been clipped. She realized her rudeness and glanced at the wall weaving.

"You can look at me if you like," the teacher said. "I know that I'm a strange sight. In my younger days, in order to show a total void of partisan ambition, it was necessary to have all tokens of leadership removed. That's considered barbaric in these modern days, but at the time it was the only way to make all parties accept me. Im sure someone in your position could appreciate the necessity."

Monia pointed to the weaving. "I was surprised to find such a high-ranking scholar's reception area void of the usual academic baubles and trappings. I thought there was nothing elitist for a representative of the masses to loathe, until I saw this exquisite weaving. Definitely opulence, but of a more sublime kind."

"It was made by my grandmother and is one of my prized possessions."

"Such an intricate and subtle piece. What a shame its beauty is marred by flaws. Was your grandmother an artist by trade?"

"No, just a lowly memory teacher, as am I."

"So why did you summon me, Teacher?" Monia said. "Even your revered status would not have pulled me away from the work of the masses had my mother not asked on your behalf. I do hope you havent made me cross half a continent, through winter tunnels, for a cozy chat about the Bio-Correction legislation. If so, youve wasted a favor and much of my time."

"The forum still shows your official position on the Law as open," the teacher said with a glint of humor in his old eyes. "You might want to have them correct that misprint."

Monia strained to keep her spines from raising, then took a deep breath. "This law will make the harvest of our great science available to even the lowest worker and will elevate our race as a whole, ending this this biological polarization that has been taking place. Thousands of mutant hatchlings are killed by their own mothers every season. Those who are not killed face a life of ridicule and strife. If we can prevent it from ever happening again, we should."

"Be calm, Law Caster. I have no intention of trying to stop your supporting the legislative proposal when it goes to the Council. But, as you said, this law would be a far-reaching, race-affecting change and I think you ought to be aware of every consequence. Only those with complete understanding of a problem can find the best solution."

Monia glared at him, but her spines didnt raise.

"Please come into my work chamber; you will be more comfortable while we talk. There are also many more elitist trappings to loathe."

Monia ignored the tease and followed the teacher into a large, cluttered room. The unfinished stone walls were lined with old skin books, antique reading globes and art pieces from around the world. There were a few modern conveniences, like star charts and a communications card, but for the most part the place looked like a museum.

The Law Caster scowled and settled herself onto the mat provided. She took time to carefully arrange her four walking legs beneath her, smooth her official mantle and open both digging claws and both holding hands in the posture of listening.

"How far does your family memory go back, Law Caster?"

"A little further than average," she said. "I have regressed ten generations on occasion. Nothing near what such a renowned memory teacher as you can accomplish."

"That's why I wanted to see you. I can recall memories as far back as six hundred generations, to the days before the great cities. With my gift there are many lessons to be gained. I would like to share one with you."

"I am not a student of history, Teacher. I dont feel it has much bearing on our modern plights. Besides, I do not sharetalk with anyone but my mate," Monia said and closed her hands as if preparing to leave.

"I will only share my memories with you. I will not intrude. If I do, you can stop at any time."

Her spines rose and she crouched slightly in the beginnings of a defensive posture.

"Consider what is at stake, Law Caster. Your law may decide the fate of our whole race. Can you afford to leave any path unexplored?"

Monia shuddered.

"I suppose details of my refusal would leak to my opponents?"

"We're alone here and Im not aligned with any party, but I believe this is very important. Please try."

Monias spines relaxed and she leaned forward. The old memory teacher pressed the side of his face to hers and the world changed.


For the first time in her life, Bigeyes was not hungry. She stared at the newly harvested seed and realized that even a single bite would make her sick. It was a strange feeling. She had always been hungry. When young, she had needed to eat constantly to grow. Once matured she again needed to eat huge amounts while her eggs were forming, but now they were ready to lay. The eggs had actually grown so large that her sack was full, tight and painful.

She dropped the seed and flinched as it flipped itself over and pushed roots into the soil. Instinct urged her to grab it, but she held back. Within the span of a couple breaths, the seed had pulled itself so far into the dirt that only its hard crown was visible.

Reminding herself of the task at hand, she started up the hill. She had decided earlier that morning to climb a large outcropping of rock in order to see farther. It seemed like a good idea then, but now she was tired, aching and not so sure it was going to be worth the trouble. Groaning as each step jostled her sack, she forced herself upward.

When Bigeyes pulled herself onto the rocky shelf her quivering legs gave out causing her to pitch forward and nearly over the edge. She tried to keep her balance by lunging backward, but the bulky egg sack hanging between her rear legs made her fall into a pile of sharp rocks. Her scream echoed off of the cliff wall and was loud enough to summon every flock of tippers in the valley.

She shivered at the thought of the vicious carnivores and watched the sky while checking herself for blood or broken eggs. Satisfied that her babies were still intact, she crawled to the edge and looked over. Spread out before her were more swaying pod trees than she would have believed possible. It was a stunning sight. Luckily for Bigeyes, most of them had dropped their third crop, making their foliage sparse enough to see through.

Even more amazing to Bigeyes was the number of seedeaters. They seemed more numerous than the blades of grass. Random rays of sunlight glinted from the bright red and yellow spines of her kin as they bobbed, darted and dug between the tree trunks. They were so busy in the pursuit of food that they seldom even looked up from the ground. Bigeyes realized she had been the same just days before and wondered what changed. Many other things had changed since she molted. The air was cooler, clouds filled the sky and there was more wind. The tippers were even suspiciously absent. It worried her, but she had more pressing problems. She had to find nesting males.

Even though it had been difficult, Bigeyes was satisfied with the results of her climb. She could have wandered for days and only found two or three nesting males, but from this height she could see more fresh mounds of dirt than she could count. She looked first to the fringes of the valley, the rocky areas where it would be hard to dig a nest. These spots might see less traffic from nest-ready females and meant a better chance for one as ugly as Bigeyes.

The sun was still high and she decided on a course through the rocky hills that would take her past two single mounds and leave her, just before dark, at a strange mound cluster surrounding the base of a large pod tree. The climb down exhausted her as much as the ascent, but when she hit the ground she kept going toward the closest nest mound.

When she approached the first site her heart jumped. The digging male was scarred and discolored, with what appeared to be only one good eye. She took a deep breath and began her display by circling the mound and hole slowly. She started clicking and cooing at a barely audible rate, letting her desire for him emerge slowly.

He stopped digging and climbed from the hole to look around, obviously interested.

Bigeyes laid her dried gift seed before him and began turning in slow circles to show off her full egg sack.

The male sniffed and came closer.

Her heart hammered and her breathing quickened. She saw his focus shift from her egg sack to her huge eyes, more than double the size of any other female, and held her breath.

He leapt backward hissing.

Bigeyes followed him, so excited that she considered depositing her eggs in the hole anyway. She scooted the gift seed closer to him.

His spines flared and his cutting teeth snapped.

The smell of male and fresh dirt made the urge to deposit her eggs almost maddening. She eyed the deep, black hole, but knew that if she dumped her eggs the male would destroy them. She considered starting her mating dance again, but decided it would be a wasted effort and moved on.

The ground grew rockier as she pressed on under the weight of her eggs and disappointment, but she couldnt stop. She had a good distance to go before to present herself to the other males before dark.

After a long uphill grade, she found the second site. It was a nearly completed nest, but the male who dug it was dead. He lay on his back, spines down, typical of tipper attacks. Even though she'd never been close enough to witness one, she had many old memories of the vicious strikes. Five or six of the winged beasts would descend on a lone seedeater. Two would attack the head, poking at the eyes and face, while trying to dodge the defensive spikes. Then two or three others would attack one side, wedging their long bony beaks under their crouching prey, dig their powerful talons into the ground and push.

During mating season the tippers did well, because up until a pair nest bonded, the males were alone and egg-heavy females were easy to tip over.

The carcass was being picked clean by a pack of screamers. They eyed her carefully, and she considered scaring them off, but feared their shrill screams would draw tippers.

Sickened by the sight, she stood to leave, but the pain in her egg sack forced her back to the ground. Each movement felt as if she too were being eaten alive by tippers. She rested and stared longingly at the nest. Bigeyes had passed several such depressing deposits, where pain-maddened females had dropped their unfertilized eggs into old or unused nests to rot. The thought made her feel ill. She hoped she would never be driven to do such a terrible thing. With a groan, she stood and moved on.

As the sun sank low, she approached a rocky hill and looked up at the mounds of dirt surrounding the large pod tree at its summit. She had almost dismissed these strange males when planning her route. Building a nest under a seed pod tree did not seem wise. Never in any of her memories had she seen one built in such a way.

She watched for awhile and became increasingly puzzled. There were seven mounds that she could count, yet only one male. And instead of several nests, there seemed to be just one big hole directly beneath the cage-like roots of the pod tree.

The males underside was covered with ugly scales and although his clutching and digging hands seemed to work, two of his four walking legs were badly scarred. He limped terribly. She wondered if he'd been born with such problems. If so, racial memory told her he would be a bad mate. Just as she was about to begin her mating dance, a second male passed very close to her, carrying a seed, a leaf and a stick.

She followed him up to the edge of the big nest and watched in amazement as he wrapped the seed in the leaf, then added it to a large pile of similarly wrapped bundles. He immediately turned to leave, still carrying the stick and still ignoring her. Was he bringing food to the nesting male? That was a females job.

Her intention had been to dance for both of the males at once, but now she was confused. She watched the departing male with the stick and noticed that he was quite small, but had the coloring of a full grown male. He didnt go far before stopping and jamming the stick in the ground. For the first time since her eggs began growing, curiosity won out over mating. She followed the digger and watched him from behind a large rock.

He repeatedly jammed the thick pole into the dirt. Not straight up and down, but at an angle close to the ground. He eventually seemed satisfied with its placement and with great effort, began pushing the stick around in a circle. She immediately heard sharp, popping noises and could see that the pole left a trail of loose dirt behind it. It occurred to her that he must have been digging a seed. But why use a stick?

The small male stood up with the seed in his hands and she immediately understood. It would have taken Bigeyes at least twice as long to dig beneath the seed and coax the roots loose enough to pull it free.

He started back toward the big nest hole, but stopped next to a pile of clatter leaves and laid the seed on the ground. With its roots snapped, the seed was helpless. It would have to grow new ones before it could flip over and dig into the ground. The male chewed off a large flap of the clatter leaf, picked up the seed and his stick, then trundled back to the nest.

Bigeyes followed close behind him, not caring if she was seen. Her pulse raced, making the pain from her egg sack even more intense, but she didnt care. She wasnt sure why the two males were behaving in such a strange way, but it excited her.

When the seed saver reached the nest, Bigeyes began her mating dance. Instead of the demure approach she had been using, she got the attention of both males with a loud chatter. She laid her gift seed on the ground and ignoring the pain, began a vigorous, twirling dance around it.

Both males were mesmerized by her display. They stared and made no attempt to chase her off until she was practically on top of them. Then the scarred male looked away from her swaying egg sack and at her face. Like with the other males, the change was instantaneous. He backed up a few steps and hissed loudly.

The protest startled the smaller male into a similar reaction. His eyes widened and he backed away. Bigeyes realized she was wasting her time again and stopped. Her legs were quivering and the pain was constant. She dropped to the ground in a heap.

Long shadows crept across the valley floor as the males hissed and chattered. Bigeyes lay where she dropped, unable and unwilling to move. After a few minutes the noise died down and the seed saver came forward. Much to Bigeyes surprise, he pressed his face against hers. She hadnt felt the cold, tingling sensation of sharetalk since she left her nest mates and it made her gasp.

"We're not looking for mates," he said. "We do not have time to build a nest. Go away and let us work."

"If this is not a nest, then what is it? Why do you dig under this big pod tree?"

"We're building a shelter."

"What's a shelter?"

"The winter is coming and we will die if we dont have protection. So we are building a shelter."

"What is winter? Will it eat us?"

"You are tired. You can stay there until morning if you wish," the seed saver said, then moved back to his tasks. The sharetalk left her feeling exhilarated, but still weak.

As Bigeyes watched the pair work, one bringing more seeds, one digging deeper beneath the roots, she wondered about this Winter beast and why they needed to hide. When night came on full, the males stopped working and went to sleep. Bigeyes was very tired, but the pain in her egg sack kept her from sleeping. She worried and felt certain that if she waited too long, the eggs would fester inside her and she would die.

She found it strange that these two males were in a big rush to finish their shelter, yet they seemed determined to sleep the whole night. She rose and crept closer, looking over the pile of seeds. There were many more than she could count. The pile was almost as large as she was. Then she saw the seed digging stick leaned against a pile of dirt and had an idea.


Someone poked Bigeyes from a deep, exhausted sleep. She opened her eyes and saw both males staring at her. The seed saver poked her with his digging stick.

When they saw she was awake, they dropped to the ground and pressed both of their faces to hers. The thrill of sharetalk raced through her again.

"Where did these seeds come from?" said the limper.

She was sore, stiff and confused. Every breath brought a fiery stab from her egg sack.

They were obviously referring to her new seed pile nearly as half as big as theirs.

"I dug them for you."


"During the night."

"You dug all these seeds at night?" the seed saver said. "By yourself?"

"Yes. Then I piled them on a clatter leaf, pulled them here, cut up the leaf and wrapped them like yours."

"How did you dig them?"

"With a stick. I think my digging stick works a little better."

The males broke contact and looked at her stick. Seedsaver examined it closely. They came back and pressed against her again. She could sense excitement and knew that she had pleased them with her efforts.

"I wasnt able to find a stick as long and strong as yours. Mine kept breaking. So I found this shorter, fatter stick and sharpened one side of it. When I pull on it, the roots break easier."

"How did you make the edge sharp?" Seedsaver asked.

"With my stripper teeth."

"Your stick is very clever," Limper said. "But we want to know how you found the seeds at night?"

"What do you mean?"

"It was very dark. How did you see them?"

"There were no clouds last night, so the stars were bright and I could see them easy enough."

"You can see in the dark?"

She was caught and considered lying but couldnt deny the pile of seeds, the obvious result of her strangeness. Embarrassment and shame made her want to hide.

"Well, can you see in the dark?"

"Yes. A little bit. Not as good as daytime."

Contact was broken and Limper sat down on the ground to stare at her pile of seeds. The other one stepped closer to her and looked closely at her eyes. Such scrutiny of her deformity usually caused her to feel uncomfortable, but not this time. He did not wear an expression of disgust or fear and pressed his face to hers again.

"Why did you do this?" he said, pointing to the pile of seeds.

"I hoped if I helped build your shelter, maybe..."

"Collecting our seed pile took all season. You got half as many in one night. If I fertilize your eggs, will you do this again tonight?"

"If you fertilize them, I will do anything you ask."


Winter was more vicious and terrifying than any beast Bigeyes could have imagined. Winds howled for weeks without pause. Storms produced dancing sheets of lightning that marched up and down the valley hitting every pod tree and churning up the soil like a giant digging stick. Their pod tree was hit as well, leaving only a blasted stump, but the shelter Limper had designed protected them. He found a way to weave long, tough cords of clatter tree bark into strong, rigid walls. Then all three of them spent several days packing dirt and rocks around the outside. When the lightning came, the walls shook and sprinkled dirt on them, but held.

The rain and cold were Winters cruelest tricks. Even though their shelter was on the crest of a hill, allowing most of the water to flow away, it was still wet and cold. They all huddled together, shivering for days on end.

During this time, they spent much time in sharetalk and Bigeyes learned a great deal. Limper had survived two other winters, the first by a lucky accident that left him trapped under some rocks with a pile of rotting seeds, and the second by his own efforts to create a shelter when he realized that Winter would return.

Limper had tried to warn other seedeaters, but they thought him crazed by his injuries, or were just too busy to care. Only when he had found Seedsaver, did someone believe him. The undersized male who learned to dig with a stick already had a small seed stash and a full belly, which gave him the time to hear Limpers ravings.

Limper grudgingly allowed them each two seeds per day, reminding them over and over that even when the winter was over, food would be scarce until the pod trees dropped their first crop. Bigeyes didnt understand exactly what he meant by that until the spring actually arrived.

A day finally came when Limper declared winter was over. They ventured outside the shelter many times during those long cold days, but never strayed far from the tree. This time they climbed to the crest of the tallest hill in the area and looked around. The breeze was gentle and the sun burned high and bright in the sky. The clouds were white and scattered. Bigeyes was stunned.

The landscape had vastly changed. New streams had appeared and old ones were gone. Fuzzy green growth covered not just the ground, but every chunk of rock and blasted tree. Limper said that it would grow into the tall grasses, which the young ate until they were old enough to eat seeds.

The strangest thing about their new world was the quiet. There were no noisy clatter leaves, no sounds of popping seedpods, no screamers and as far as she could see in any direction, nothing moved. There were no other seedeaters to be seen. For the first time Bigeyes really understood. They had all died. And they would all die, every winter, without shelter. Only the eggs survived.

Before winter came, Bigeyes helped Seedsaver finish the nest left by the dead male. She detached her egg sack and buried it very deep, feeling sure they would be safe from anything, but after seeing the devastation winter had brought she began to worry.

Bigeyes wandered for hours trying to find familiar landmarks that would lead her to the nest site, but never found it until Seedsaver joined in the search. She had been in the right place, but the whole nest area was buried under a thick layer of mud. Old memories flooded through her, of some long ago hatchling struggling up through the dirt and aching for air. With the memory of starving lungs still roaring through her, she began to dig.

She dug for days, sometimes losing hours of work as huge piles of mud slid back into the hole. Seedsaver helped some, but Limper constantly chiding them both about the wasted time and effort.

Bigeyes knew she had been right when four days after she started digging, the first of her babies struggled to the surface and immediately began to eat. There were eleven hatchlings, and to protect them from hungry young tippers, she lured them back to the shelter with piles of the tender grass.

When the males returned from their search for a better shelter site they were stunned to find the hatchlings contentedly munching on piles of grass inside a crude corral. Muddy and tired, Bigeyes carried a big stick and hovered protectively over the little ones while watching a distant flock of tippers.

Limper and Seedsaver pressed their faces against Bigeyes.

"We'll have to build a bigger shelter and gather many more seeds," Limper grumbled.

"Yes, but we may have help," Seedsaver said and pointed to the hatchlings.

Even though they were very small and would not molt for a long time, it was easy to see that three of the little ones had their mothers big, ugly eyes.


Monia swayed when the connection was broken. It felt strange being back in the warm, dry office. The memories had been so strong and vivid.

The old one said nothing as he rose to fetch her some cool water. The Law Casters head swam as her own family memories flooded through her. So much struggle.

"I have to leave."

"Yes, I know."

"I havent changed my mind about anything, but obviously have a good deal to consider."

"That's all I ask, Law Caster."

Monia stopped before the intricately woven wall covering in the waiting area and turned.

"These flaws are no accident, are they?"

"I dont see any flaws," the old one said and went back into his chamber.

Monia stepped out of the burrow into the dark, noisy bustle of a winter tunnel. Many in the crowd stopped to stare, attracted by her Law Casters mantle, and they all had their mother's big, beautiful eyes.


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