To Arti - though it will be ages before you leave, I'll never stop missing you when you do, and may your last few months be the finest. :)
Caught in the Brambles
I found her where a warrior could usually find their deputy – seated on our side of the river, her leaf-green eyes trained on the waving fronds on the opposite bank. Her thick tabby fur was fluffed to its maximum size from the chill, and I had to suppress a shiver as I picked my way carefully through the slippery, rain-slicked leaves littering the break in the forest, where the ground sloped to the water. I saw her head lift as she caught my scent, and I smiled slightly as she turned to face me, the grumpiness in her eyes fading slightly.
“Hey,” she mumbled, turning back to face the gently blowing water plants. “What are you doing out here? It’s freezing, and the rain is only going to worsen.” She gestured with a flick of her tail at the rapidly darkening sky, but I shrugged.
“I could ask you the same thing,” I pointed out, a smile slipping onto my lips again.
Bramblepath sighed. “It’s refreshing,” she said at last, her eyes flashing. A large drop of water splattered on my back, but I didn’t flinch, only moved out of the cover of the trees towards my deputy.
I settled down on the bank beside her, neither of us saying a word. The foam-tipped water in front of us swirled with an unstopping current, thrashing wildly and sending up spray. No cat, probably not even the bravest and most water-loving cats in RiverClan would want to take a swim in this weather, with a current this strong. At long last, Bramblepath spoke.
“I’ve been growing tired of Clan life,” she said quietly, as though begging me to listen but not wanting me to hear.
Rain was now falling at a steady pace, slicking the fur to my back. Though we were RiverClan and loved to swim, this didn’t provide us with an inclination for wet weather over dry. Even in leaf-fall, rain was freezing cold and could give a cat a bad case of whitecough.
“It’s…stressful,” she replied, her voice sinking even lower, burdened with her duty as a deputy, but rimmed with her desperation to be free of the very same burden. “I hate being a deputy.”
“Step down,” I suggested gently, turning my head ever so slightly to look at her. I could see her eyes focusing on me, but she didn’t turn her head, only pierced the whispering grasses across the banks with a firm, resolute glare, as though they were responsible for all of her emotions.
“It’s not that easy,” she mumbled. “And the Clan is counting on me to lead them through this.”
“This?” I persisted.
“Leaf-fall. Leaf-bare. Everything. There’s so much pressure resting on my back – but I love you guys, I do, you’re my Clan, you’re like my apprentices or my kits. I can’t just leave you,” she whispered, looking distraught. She was torn between fighting for herself, something she’d set aside since being a kid, and working hard to help her Clan, just as she had done for her entire life. The Bramblepath I knew had never done a single thing for herself, always for the good of her Clan. She’d exiled her love after his treachery to the Clan, while our Clan leader was absent. She’d sacrificed her share of food to feed our elders and nursing queens.
It was undoubtedly time for her to gain something in return.
“I won’t say I understand where you’re coming from,” I began. “I won’t say I know what you’re feeling. I won’t say I’m sorry, I won’t tell you what to do, I won’t! Because all of those things won’t help you in the slightest, my advice and my feelings can’t sway your opinions, because in your heart, Bramblepath, I know you know what you’re going to do and why you’re telling me this. I know that this,” my voice cracked, “I know that this is goodbye.
“But,” I continued, before she could object, “I also know that this is undoubtedly making your decision harder. But as I said before, I’m not going to stop you. It’s your decision, and whatever you do, I probably won’t support it wholeheartedly. I’m letting my familial love for you get in the way of what’s best. Something you’ve never let get in the way of what you believed to be good for the Clan.
“It’s time you do something for yourself. And if what I’m expecting you to do is what you believe to be for the better, than by all means, I won’t put up a fight when you leave the Clan.”
“No,” I interrupted again, my voice growing sharper. “Don’t say you weren’t going to, because that will be another lie ‘for the good of the Clan’. You’ve always done what’s best for us. Now you’re doing what’s best for yourself, and you just don’t want to admit it. It’s not a weakness, Bramblepath! It’s strength that what you’ve done for so long is for the good of your Clan. It’s strength that you’re finally realizing you need to do something for yourself. And I guess…I guess I congratulate you on that.”
“Redpoppy,” Bramblepath began, finally looking at me. Her green eyes were searching, pleading. I made to cut her off again, but the look on her face forced me into silence. “I don’t want to do this.”
“Then why are you?” I demanded harshly.
Bramblepath’s expression seemed to contort for a moment, before being wiped blank of emotion, the only flicker of feeling being the steely glint in her eyes. “I want to do something for myself for once!” she said, her voice rising rapidly. “I want to be able to love someone like you have, like Stargaze has, like Wetstream and Sunmark and Forestheart. I want companionship! I want to be able to succeed! I want to live my life through my own means, not through the Clan’s.”
I sighed, still not quite knowing what to say. Bramblepath, the she-cat who always knew the right words, had stolen my own right off of the tip of my tongue. She’d rendered me absolutely speechless, and yet a bubbling sadness was rising inside me like the water in front of the two of us.
“Well,” I said finally, “I don’t want to spend our last days together arguing. I’ll race you to Frost’s Pond.”
A shadow of a smile flickered onto Bramblepath’s face, a spark of competition igniting in her eyes. She stood up, stretching her long legs, and gave a rusty purr, the noise sounding as though it hadn’t come out of her throat in a while. “You’re on,” she growled playfully, and took off.
Struggling to keep up with my longer-legged friend, I noted the path she was taking and swerved to the left. The straight-shot diagonal path would be shorter than Bramblepath’s rather circuitous one, as she wove around the Sky Scraper.
I realized what she was doing, as I skidded to a halt, out of breath, on the frosty banks of the namesake pond. Bramblepath was winding through all of the landmarks she’d leave behind – the Sky Scraper, the tallest tree in the forest that no one had reached the top of, and towards the Gathering place at the tip of our territory. She was passing through the million ponds, a spot where the rough rock of WindClan’s territory encroached on ours, and gave way to tiny tidal pools. She was looking at her reflection, splashing in the puddles just as the apprentices loved to do in Greenleaf.
I caught up to her as she was bounding through the grove of fruit trees, on the complete opposite side of our territory from Frost’s Pond. She gave me a sad smile as she stopped at a large, barren tree, one I recalled used to hold bulbous red fruits called apples. Raising a paw, she hooked her claws into the dark bark and started climbing.
Though neither of us noticed the break in the deluge, we certainly noticed the increase. Rain was pouring from the sky in torrents since I had dashed back to my friend, and Bramblepath was struggling to climb against the downpour. A flash of lightning nearly blinded me, and the accompanied crack of thunder left my ears ringing. I looked nervously up at Bramblepath, whose claws were fastened in one of the highest branches. Another strike of lightning illuminated Bramblepath’s dark frame on the dark bark of the tree, and I realized she was frozen.
“Bramblepath?” I cried, my voice nearly lost in the noise of the rain and the accompanying sounds. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” my friend replied, but I could hear the tightness in her voice. She was probably terrified, her form rigid as she clung to the tree, which had no begun to sway in the wind, gathering speed.
I paced at the base of the tree, waiting for the sound of her claws shredding the bark as she crept down the tree. I expected tiny splinters to rain down along with the thick, fat drops of water, but none came. Bramblepath was frozen at the top of the apple tree, soaked to the bone with water just as I was, and terrified out of her mind. Her soaked body was quivering with exhaustion as her muscles weakened, and I let out a warning yowl at the next lightning strike.
“Do you need me to help you?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” she insisted, her reply nearly whisked away by the rain. She cast a horrified glance back down at the ground, and I saw her beginning to lose her balance and slip. “I’m fine,” she repeated, as if to reassure not only me, but herself as well. “I’m fine!”
A flash of lightning and the roar of accompanying thunder drowned out my yowl of warning, as the sliver of light struck the tree beside Bramblepath’s, sending flames shooting up the ancient trunk. The trembling she-cat began to creep downward, just as the old tree, age-old stories going up in smoke, began to tip. Not towards Bramblepath’s slow moving form, however, but towards me.
I couldn’t even hear the deafening noise made by the trunk crashing to the ground, only feel the excruciating pain in my tail as it was caught in the tangle of branches and tree limbs, and the heat scorching my face. I pressed myself to the flame-dried grass, creeping forward in an effort to drag myself from beneath the fallen trunk. My tail was nearly lifeless as I tugged it from beneath the tree. I could barely feel the pain from the awkward angle at which it was bent.
“Redpoppy!” shouted Bramblepath, assuring me that she had safely made it down from the neighboring tree. “Redpoppy, are you under there?”
“Yes,” I choked back, inhaling a ton of smoke from the tongues of fire licking at the tree. “But—” I was overcome in a fit of coughing, and though pressed to the ground, it was still stifling and I felt as though I was slowly suffocating.
“I’m going to get you out,” Bramblepath replied, her voice raised above the din of the storm and the flames. Though rain continued to pour from the sky, it clearly did nothing to quench the flames that raged above my head.
“N-No,” I stammered, raising my voice and struggling to keep the smoke from my lungs. “I can get out myself, don’t—”
I pushed forward, and instantly drew back as pain lacerated my body. I had blindly plunged into a thicket of brambles, their thick, spiny tendrils scratching at my face like enemy claws. I could already feel blood welling above my eyes, and I let out a soft whimper of pain, undoubtedly heard by Bramblepath, who was trying to force her way beneath the burning branch.
Through the haze, I saw Bramblepath’s lithe frame materialize on the other side of the thicket of brambles. Relief shone in her green eyes, but she was coughing as the smoke filled her own lungs.
“I can get myself out,” I insisted, but my breath was already coming in short gasps. I felt my eyes beginning to close and then—
“You still want to do this?”
“Yes, Earthstar. I’m sorry.”
“It’s your choice, dear,” the elderly leader said gently, smiling slightly at the tabby she-cat. Wetstream assumed a somber expression, while Sunmark and Forestheart looked on the verge of tears. Even the apprentices had stopped bouncing around.
“I’m going to miss you guys,” Bramblepath said, touching her nose to each of her friends’. “You were great.”
“Where will you be headed?” I piped up, wincing at the soreness in my chest.
As it turns out, after I lost consciousness, it was Bramblepath who dragged me out from beneath the tree, tearing through the thickets and sustaining some minor scratches herself. It pained me to see her go – not only was she my savior, my metaphorical sister, but she was one of the best friends I had in RiverClan.
“I’ll probably be a loner,” she replied thoughtfully. “I might roam around a bit, StarClan only knows. But I’ll never forget you guys.” The promise lingered in the air, unfulfilled at the present, but knowing Bramblepath, it would be a vow she would never break.
“We’ll never forget you,” Wetstream promised in return, giving her friend a lick on the ear.
“Never ever,” Sunmark said cheerfully, and though upset to see her friend leave, she was determined to maintain a cheery disposition for Bramblepath’s last moments in RiverClan.
“Good luck,” Forestheart said, smiling slightly. Birdwing echoed her, her voice dying to a whisper.
“And may StarClan light your path,” we chorused, as one of our best friends gave us a smile and departed through the tunnel, her dark tabby tail creating an everlasting trail in the dust.