By The Shore

This is a short story for Red's contest. 

Grass cushioned Shellskip's fall as she somersaulted across the ground, the rabbit clutched in her paws. When she stood, she gave the prey a swift shake, then dropped it, pleased with herself. It had been a good catch, worthy of any WindClan warrior.

Yawning, she spied a patrol of her clanmates in the distance, and turned away. As much as she loved her Clan, Shellskip preferred to stick to her own quiet ways. Less cats got hurt that way.

Padding back towards the camp, she enjoyed the wind ruffling through her silky cream-colored fur. Her bright green-blue eyes scanned the open sky, dotted here and there by a soaring bird, and she breathed in the cool, damp scent of the vast moor. WindClan. My home. And she wouldn't have it any other way.

Ashstar glanced up as she padded in. "Hello Shellskip."

Giving a polite nod to her leader, the she-cat placed her prey on the fresh-kill pile and settled down into the grass. From her hiding place, she observed the rest of the Clan. Apprentices played. Crowfeather and and Ashstar talked in low tones, their matching dark gray pelts stark against the pale plains. They were all so carefree and happy. Their lives were simple. Not her. She had a secret. One that could never get out.

It came back to haunt her in her dreams again, like she knew it would. The screams of her parents and younger sister. The smell of smoke, choking her, permeating her fur and stinging her eyes like a ghostly enemy. And worst of all, saddest of all, the thud of her paws as she ran. Away. Turned tail and fled from her family, from her home, like a coward. Not a warrior. A helpless baby of a kit. It was the source of her greatest shame, and it would dog her pawsteps forever. She just knew it.

That was why Shellskip never participated in patrols unless she had to, never offered to fight or guard the camp. She didn't trust herself. She was so desperately afraid that she would run again, and lose her last chance at living happily, with others. What would she do then?

Spotting the first streaks of dawn coloring the sky, she stretched and got to her paws, crawling out of her nest. How could the others Clans stand to live in such sheltered camps? Shellskip loved the way their camp was uncovered, closest to the stars and sky. It gave her chills to think that StarClan was so close yet so far. If they care about cowards like me.

Pushing away the thought, she began grooming her fur- and froze. Why were the streaks of light so... red? And why was the sky pitch-black beyond, stars still twinkling brightly? And why wasn't Ashstar awake yet? Usually the leader got up much earlier then even the sun to prepare herself for the day. Shellskip froze, then clubbed herself on the side of the head. The pain sent her reeling, but it didn't wake her up. So it followed that she wasn't asleep. Or imagining it. The acrid taste hit her mouth at the same time as the bile rose in her throat. Pure terror colored her voice as she screamed the word that had been her worst nightmare for moons.


The camp came to life, slowly at first, then with more urgency as the cats scented the smoke in the air. Ashstar sprang to her paws and began barking orders.

"Kestrelflight, get the herbs and medicine out of here. Crowfeather, take Whiskernose and Sedgewhisker and get the kits and queens out of here. Furzepelt, help the elders get out. Everyone else, get out now! Run for the lake, and don't stop till you get there!"

The words barely registered in Shellskip's ears as she stood, frozen with fear. Well, looks like I won't abandon my Clan by running. I'm too terrified to even move.

Across the horizon, orange flames roared towards the remaining cats like a charging wall of monsters, throwing a reddish light across the plains. The moor winds, normally her friends, sent hot ash and grime blowing into their faces. And still Shellskip didn't move.

Even as her body stood stock-still, her thoughts were racing. She imagined the taunts and teasing from the other Clans, the cold, disappointed stares of her clanmates, and the ice in Ashstar's voice as she banished her. Then a more vivid memory came to her mind, painful and fresh. A pair of cats, playing and laughing together, eyes shining with love for her and each other. A younger she-cat, leaning against her with trusting, milky blue eyes. Blind, yet able to see so much about others. Yet for all her intuitiveness, Faith had struggled to cope with the outside world. Shellskip was her hands, her feet, and Faith was in turn, her everything else. Till that day. The day when she had left her sister alone in the burning brush, ignoring her parent's desperate cries as they dived back in to save her in her panic. The day when every last shred of her old life, and who she used to be, was devoured with the flames. 

I can't stand here doing nothing. Not again.

Whirling, she gazed frantically about the camp. "Is everyone out?" she called. Ashstar had already left, and the shallow scoop was empty. Empty except for-

"Help!" A cry reached her ears, and she stood at attention.

"Where are you? Keep yelling! I'm coming to get you." Under her breath she added, "I won't fail you again Faith. I'll save you this time." 

The shout came again, and she pinpointed its location. It was coming from a crevice in the side of the hollow, blocked by a stone; the apprentice's den. Darting forward, she threw her weight against the boulder, stifling a shriek at the pain that lanced up and down her entire body, and yelled, "Get out!"

A small gray shape darted out, then froze. It was Runningpaw, Heathertail and Breezepelt's lone surviving daughter, and Shellskip knew how much it would devastate her mother if she died. I have to get her out of here.

However, as her gaze traveled around them, her heart sank. The fire had enclosed the camp, and was rapidly moving in on them. Heat scorched her pelt till she thought she would explode, and hot embers singed her whiskers, making her eyes smart and water. She used her body to shield Runnngpaw, but knew it would do no good. They needed to get out. Now.

Finally she saw an opening. The flames burned out a patch of ground, and for a split second, the wind shifted them onto another course, leaving a path of blackened grass open. "Run!" she yowled, leading the way through. Runningpaw was aptly named though, and quickly caught up. Side by side, they wove through the burning fields. Shellskip's pads felt like she was walking across hot coals, which she practically was, but she kept going. "We have to get to the lake!"

"Right," Runningpaw gasped beside her. The young she-cat's steps were slowing, and her eyes growing unfocused as the smoke dulled her senses. She staggered, then fell against Shellskip, only half-concious.

Every bone in Shellkskip's body longed to run, as fast as she could, and escape. She was trembling from the force of her own internal battle as she forced her legs to cement to the floor, and picked up Runningpaw by the scruff. Then, she ran, stumbling along at an awkward gait, hindered by her heavy bundle. All around her, smoke billowed in curtains, and little tongues of flame lapped at her fur. Would they be able to make it?

StarClan, she thought. If you're really there, please let me save Runningpaw. Please.

"Shellskip?" a voice called hoarsely from the thick blackness. A tom emerged, shaking soot off his gray fur. She recognized Boulderfur, a handsome warrior she had "admired" from afar for a while. Shaking off those silly thoughts, she managed to cough out an illegible reply. He was by her side in an instant, and gently took Runningpaw, then motioned with her tail for her to run. She did, though by now she had lost all sense of direction and had no idea where the lake was. Trusting her instinct and Boulderfur, Shellskip forged ahead, till finally her depraved lungs found oxygen. The air was clearing. They were free. 

As the three of them emerged from the cloudy smoke, Shellskip collapsed to her knees, gulping for air. Her head began to stop spinning, and she coughed and sputtered till her throat cleared. When she could hear past the roaring of the fire, she heard... cheering?

"Shellskip! Shellskip! Shellskip!" 

"What?" she stammered, her voice coming out like a croak. She winced; she sounded like a toad. Boulderfur didn't seem to notice though. He was grinning at her, a smile that could light up the sky. She returned it.

Then a black tom pushed his way through the crowd, anger etched on his face. "There you are, traitor!" 

Shellskip blinked at him, wondering if it was some kind of joke. Boulderfur's face crumbled into a heavy scowl, and he stepped in front of her. "What are you talking about Breezepelt?"

He smirked at them. "I think we both know. She doesn't belong here, and she knows it too. But instead of getting her contaminated life away from us, she had to have the last word." He turned to Ashstar, his smile convincing and benign. It dimmed a little when he saw the expression on Crowfeather's face; his father looked like Breezepelt had just turned into a two-headed snake, but only a little. "So, she stayed behind to kill Runningpaw. Thank goodness you had the good sense to send Boulderfur after her, or we would have lost the apprentice."

"You're accusing me of setting the fire?" Shellskip asked incredulously, her eyes wide with shock. 

"No, you're not that smart. But you saw that this was the perfect cover to get your revenge and leave. No one would know for sure if you had just died in the fire, and certainly no one would suspect you of such a murderous crime."

"Exactly..." she said weakly. "Because it's outrageous."

"But true."

"Stop it!" Boulderfur yelled. "Shellskip would never do such a thing. Right Ashstar?"

The leader looked uncomfortable, and Shellskip felt icy terror trickling down her veins. Did she really believe Breezepelt? "Shellskip, what do you have to say in your defense?"

"Yeah," said Heathertail, with a frown. She wrapped a protective tail around Runningpaw, who was still slumped on the floor. "You didn't leave camp; I saw you just standing there. Surely you had an ulterior motive?" She stood beside her mate, their accusing glances focused on her. Only Heathertail's was filled with love for Runningpaw, while Breezepelt's was cold and completely unattentive of his daughter.

Shellskip felt completely and utterly helpless. All eyes were fixed on her, some questioning, some threatening, others doubtful. How could she possibly explain this without telling them the whole story? 

Then she glanced up at the sky. The stars twinkled down at her, and, without warning, a ghostly pelt brushed hers, coupled with a scent she never dreamed to smell again. Gasping, she looked to her side, and there was Faith, shimmering like she was made entirely of mist. None of the other WindClan cats seemed to notice her.

"Shellskip, they're your friends. It's okay. You belong in WindClan, and you have proved yourself," Faith whispered. She touched her nose to her sister's briefly, then vanished.

"Wait!" cried Shellskip. Everyone stared at her like she was a lunatic. Ashstar was beginning to look exasperated. Taking a deep breath, she began, "I need to tell everyone something."

Boulderfur looked puzzled, but brushed his pelt against hers reassuringly. A static shock raced through her, giving her the last bit of strength she needed to go through with her decision. Hesitantly, she began her story. At first, no one seemed to care. Then, slowly, emotions began to register on their faces. Crowfeather winced visibly when she got to the part about how she had run, and Heathertail's blue eyes clouded when Shellskip recited how she had broken Faith's trust in her. By the time she was done, almost every cat seemed lost in memories.

"And so..." she said meekly. "I've lived with that all my life. That's why... that's why I was so different from you guys. Why I seemed so distant all the time."

Ashstar met her with clear green eyes. "Well, you're not that different from us at all. We just do a better job of covering it up." 

Slowly, despite the sound of the fire in the background, and the inferno behind her, Shellskip smiled. "I guess not." 

"What?!" cried Breezepelt aloud. "You can't be serious! You're believing her? She was a coward! She's not fit to be a warrior!" He was practically foaming at the mouth.

"Enough," Ashstar said calmly. "What Shellskip did required more courage then anything else a warrior could ever do. I respect her for it, and I don't think you'll find your 'differences' a problem anymore. After all, it doesn't hurt to be different."

No, that's where you're wrong, Shellskip thought to herself. It shouldn't hurt to be different. But it does. Oh, how it does.

"Thank you Ashstar. But... I'm sorry. I really am, but I have to do this. I'm leaving WindClan." Ignoring the startled gasps and the bright look on Breezepelt's face, she pressed on. "I don't belong here. I think... I think that now that I've finally gotten over Faith and my parent's death, I can find my true home. But it's not here. The truth is, I think I only fit in here because I could run. Well, I don't want to run anymore."

Breezepelt snarled. "Are you insulting us? Will you join one of the other Clans? I knew it!"

"No," she said, shaking her head. "I'll go somewhere else, somewhere far, far away. Start over new. Trust me, it'll be better for everyone that way."

Ashstar sighed, then nodded. "Okay. You're a brave cat Shellskip. I wish you the best of luck."

Shellskip smiled. "Thank you." Bending her head down, she touched noses with Runningpaw. The young she-cat burst into tears, burying her face in Heathertail's fur. Then she turned to face Boulderfur. His blue eyes were anguished.

"Why must you leave?" he whispered. "I- I don't want you to."

"I don't exactly want to either. But I have to. It's my destiny. I'm sorry. I think we could've meant a lot to each other Boulderfur. Once upon a time, in another dimension, we belonged together. But not here. And not now." Shellskip told herself, looking into his heartbroken face, that they had never truly discovered what they could've been. So why did it hurt so much? Her heart physically ached as she touched her nose to his one last time, then turned and slowly padded away.

Faith's voice seemed to speak in her head one last time. Follow the shore. Follow it to where you need to go.

"Okay," Shellskip whispered. A cool breeze blew the ashes off her creamy coat, and her sea-colored eyes fixed on the dawn horizon as she left the fire behind her and began the last leg of her journey. 

It shouldn't hurt to be different, but it does. And I need to find a place where I'm not different. Where I'm free to be me. And loved for it.

~ ~ ~ ~

Hello there. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Faith. Yes, the same Faith that Shellskip spoke of. Am I in StarClan? No. Not all cats belong to the Clans, and not all of us have to go to StarClan. My parents and I are somewhere else, and rest assured that we are very happy. But enough about me. I'm sure you all want to know the end to Shellskip's story.

The truth is, there isn't an end, not yet. She's still traveling. Maybe you're disappointed by that. I'm not. I don't think you would be either, if you saw what I've seen. She's met cats, loved and lost, moved on, and never stopped questing. Eventually, she will find her home. Don't lose faith. I choose to believe that there's always something out there for each of us, the reason we're alive, our destiny. There really is, and if we look hard enough, or perhaps when we're not looking at all, we will find it. I never got to fully discover mine, and I do not blame Shellskip for that. I'm so glad she was able to forgive herself for it. It has brought her a lot closer to her own home.

Am I still blind? No, but then, I was never really blind. You are never blind as long as you have an open heart. You see all you need to see about others right there. The rest is just a bonus.

Do I know where Shellskip is headed? No, I don't, and we don't use prophecies either. I trust my sister. Sometimes that's all we can do.

Time for some flashbacks. Though we're not directly related, I do have some access to the Clans. Breezepelt remained the horrible tom he always was, but let's smooth over his fate and go on to happier things. Runningheart is a beautiful warrior of WindClan today, and she has never forgotten Shellskip. As for Boulderfur, he has healed too. I don't think he will ever know what he had in Shellskip. No one can, because no one has seen her journey like I have. I do wonder if he really loved her sometimes, but then I look down at him, and see the sadness in his eyes at times, and see how he has never taken a mate, though he is admittedly handsome, and could've taken one easily, and I know he did, with all that he could offer. But some things aren't meant to be, no matter how much we wish they were.

Do I sound much older then my age? I really am only six moons old, apprentice age for Clan cats. But I've always been a little... wiser. More serious. More thoughtful. I suppose it's what makes me different, though I've come to think that maybe Shellskip was wrong about one thing. We're all different, and in that way, we are all the same. It really shouldn't hurt to be different, and maybe one day, far in the future, it won't. Till then, I'll do my best to guide my sister through her life.

What is she doing now? Right now, she's standing by a river, the breeze blowing through her fur as she skips stones across it. Her eyes are thoughtful, and I can feel her thinking about me, like a small warmth in my heart. She has another choice to make, one about helping a family of kits or continuing her journey before leaf-bare sets in. I think she'll make the right one. Shellskip may be a wanderer, but she will find rest on earth before she joins us. Of that I am certain.

Till then, she goes on following her own path, growing as a cat. One last question, huh? Go ahead. Is it fair? No, I don't think so, but life never is. Some of us have harder paths then others. Till she reaches the place she was made for, my sister will ever be a little spark of wandering flame. Journeying, journeying, always journeying. And of course, she will only walk by one place.

By the shore.

The End

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