It's everywhere. Stinging my eyes, coating my fur, stiffening my once-agile muscles. I can hardly see for the pebble-sized mounds of white that are hurled from the sky relentlessley, but I push on. Huddled between my forelegs, a pair of kits are setting trembling, tiny paws onto the hard ground. They are the only reason that I have not yet given up entirely.
"Cloudy? Cloudy!" my mouth lets out a yowl before I can stop myself. The bigger of my kits - a beautiful, fluffy white she-kit who is like her father in every way - gives a tiny mew of fear at my sudden outburst. I lick her head comfortingly. I can't let my own heartbreak hurt my kits in any way. I owe Cloudy that much.
"Dust?" my head jerks up. Through the pelting flakes of snow, a pair of brilliant blue eyes are staring straight into mine. My heart literally stops.
"Is it... you?" I whisper. Then I shake my head. It can't be him. It can't be. Not unless I'm ...
"Yes." I can't be dead. I can't have let my beautiful, innocent kits die. They are too precious, too perfect. I have not let us die. I won't.
"Look," a broad white head pushes a little further towards me, his eyes soft. I want to drown in his gaze, to live in the moment forever. I want to forget about everything, everything except him. I want it to be me and him forever...
But he's not here. He's gone, and all I have left is our kits. I have to love them, just like he would have done if he'd survived.
"Mummy?" my daughter whispers. Panic surging through me, I glance down at her. She's lying very still, almost unmoving in the snow. Her brother is staring down at her in utter shock, unsure what to make of his littermate's downfall.
"No!" I know what has happened, but I cannot accept it. My beautiful daughter cannot be gone. She is still alive. She has to be.
"Let me take her, Dust." Cloudy murmurs. His eyes are not glittering with anger, like they should be. They are shining with love. I do not deserve that love. I derserve nothing.
"Never!" I hiss, unsheathing my claws. The handsome white tom tries to carry the tiny kit from the ground, but I swipe at him unexpectedly. My claw catches his ear, and although no blood is drawn, a lifetime of shock and surprise shines in his eyes. In that moment, I finally realise that I cannot keep what I love the most. So after a final glance of utter desperation at my kit, I accept that I can do nothing but watch. My heart is being torn in two, but I know that there's nothing left for me to do.
So I simply watch as my daughter's final struggle comes to an end.
"Let me take her," he repeats. I don't reply. There is nothing left in the world for me now. Cloudy must know that, because he doesn't even take the time to say goodbye. With a last, loving gaze, my truest love picks his lifeless daughter from the snowy ground and pads softly into the night. I do not call after them as they leave my sight.
"Mother?" two huge, frightened blue eyes are staring up at me. But my heart is beyond repair, and this final kit means nothing to me. I have lost my mate and daughter. With them, my feelings have gone too.
"Live well," that's my final goodbye before I pad into the ever-falling blizzard.
Perhaps, if I die out here, Cloudy will forgive me for letting our first-born kit die.
Everything is white. It hurts my eyes. I don't like this. It's so cold and empty here, like the winter sky. I want Mother, but I can't see her anywhere.
"Star?" my sister is lying beside me, soundless. Her body is cold and fragile, so I snuggle up to her to keep her warm. For some reason, her scent is fading.
"Wake up," I mew into her ear. She doesn't reply. Feeling more alone than ever, I settle down beside her. My head is hurting, partly because of the cold, but mostly out of confusion. Why won't she wake up? We need to get out of here. Maybe we can go home. But the Scary Cats might still be there; the ones that ripped up Father. I wish Star would wake up. She always knows what to do.
I nudge my littermate in fear. Her eyes are wide open. They're such a pretty colour; bright blue. I don't think that those eyes can see me. You can't see when you're sleeping. You only see dreams. Sometimes dreams are scary, but mostly they're okay. This might be a dream right now. I hope it is. It's so cold, and I'm so afraid. If only Star would stop dreaming.
"Help..." my own eyes are drifting shut. It's so, so cold here. Too cold. But that isn't what's bothering me. It's my fear. I'm very, very scared. Where is my mother? Where should I go? And most importantly, why won't Star wake up?
I'm sitting upright in the center of the nursery, my head held high and my eyes narrowed. Sunnykit is muttering something that I can't quite make out, and the other kits are sniggering. I know that they're talking about me, because one of them glances in my direction every so often.
"Honeykit, what's up with you?" a harsh voice mews. Surprised, I look up to find my mother, Starlingheart, gazing down at me.
"Nothing, Mother," my words don't convince her.
"Well, if something is wrong, you'd better spit it out!" her eyes are a cold blue colour, like the sky in a cold Greenleaf . I never noticed that before. That sounds terrible, me not knowing my own mother's eye colour, but it's not my fault. It's hers. Mother isn't around much; she's the leader's mate, and BlizzardClan's ex-deputy. I'm alone most of the time, stuck watching the other kits play.
"Yes, Mother," it's not what I want to say. I want to say this:
Of course I don't know that, because it isn't true! You'd never believe the truth. You love Sunnykit more than me, and you give her all the attention. I always get teased by her and the other kits, but of course you always turn a blind eye to it. You're a rubbish mother.
But I don't say anything more.
"Hm. Well, I bet Sunnykit has more to say than that. She's the best of the litter, no doubt about it. Look at her playfighting technique! So graceful and agile! Why can't you fight like that?" that's a classic statement from Starlingheart, and it hits with the force of a stone. Making me reel backwards in shock, Mother's comment has the usual disguised venom in it.
"Hi, Honeykit!" Sunnykit must have heard her name, because she's strolling over to me now. Mother shoots her a warm, loving look.
"Hmmph, look at all the dust in your fur! Never mind, your fault. I saw the vole you caught earlier; you'd need to get a bit dirty to kill a creature like that," her eyes twinkle. Sunnykit purs in delight, her azure blue eyes shining. Her fur is sleek and shiny all the way round. I wish mine was like that.
"Can Sunnykit come and play in the snow tomorrow?" a green-eyed tomkit squeaks. It's Stonekit; one of the only kits that doesn't tease me.
"We'll see. Now, Sunnykit has to sleep," Mother yawns, and settles down beside my sister. I join them, feeling useless. Nobody cares about me. There's nobody there for me. No best friend, no loving parents, no devoted siblings. The only kit that I think I could be friends with is Stonekit. He's lying on a pile of moss near me. I can hear his shallow breathing, and the moonlight allows me to glimpse his dark gray fur amongst the darkness. I wish he would be my friend and not Sunnykit's. Another way that Sunnykit has ruined my life.
I close my eyes, willing sleep to take over my troubles. It won't. I'm wide awake, even though everyone else seems to have fallen fast asleep. I think I'm going to slip out of the nursery, and walk around the territory a bit. It sounds terrible, but I've done it before. Fresh night air helps me sleep.
I check if Mother is awake. She isn't.
"Bye," my voice is a bit scratchy, but my words are loud. Too loud.
"What are you doing?" a whispered voice makes my fur fluff up instantly. It sounds like an apprentice has spoken. But what apprentice would be caught dead in the nursery?
"Who's that?" I snap defensively.
"Stonekit. And is that... Honeykit?" I curse myself silently. Now Stonekit is going to think that I'm a traitor to the Clan, sneaking away in the dead of night.
"Yes. Aren't you asleep?" I blurt out, then hate myself even more. It was a stupid question. I tense, waiting for a snide comment.
"No, I couldn't sleep. Would you like to come on a walk with me? I know it sounds bad, but I sometimes sneak out of the nursery at nights, when I can't sleep." my jaw falls open in surprise. How could I not have noticed that another kit has been leaving the nursery? I bet Sunnykit would have scented him easily.
"Oh, I don't mind if you don't..." he says hastily, but I stop him.
"No, I'd love that. Come on, let's go!" I begin to bound playfully out of the nursery in an attempt to copy the way most kits behave. Apparently, though, Stonekit isn't keen on that sort of stuff. He pads at a quick pace behind me. The two of us travel all the way to the camp entrance without any attempt at conversation, before Stonekit accidentally steps on a thorn.
"Sorry, Honeykit. I'm being careless today... or should I say, tonight," he mews. No wailing, no whining, no embarrassing kit-like behaviour that everyone else seems to fall prey to. I purr.
"It's fine. I'm sure that there's some cobweb around..." I spin around wildly, checking the tall logs that make up the camp walls. It seems to be nothing but destiny that a spider has chosen to spin his web directly beside us. Using my teeth, I extract the thorn from his pad, tear a little of the cobweb away, and begin to wind it round Stonekit's foot. He winces, but doesn't complain.
"You're quite the young medicine cat," he doesn't seem to be taunting me. I squirm, embarrassed.
"Yeah, well. Let's go," couldn't I have worked some kind of friendly compliment into my words? Some sort of laughing remark? We leave the camp a little awkwardly, starting to shiver in the bitterly cold night. Stonekit's eyes meet mine quite a few times.
"You know, you're quite pretty, Honeykit," he says. It sounds like a casual remark, but it means the world to me.
"Nah, Sunnykit's got the looks of the litter," I reply offhandedly, but the happiness of hearing his remark is rapidly disappearing as I remind myself of the truth. Can he hear the bitterness in my tone? I don't know. I hope not; he's good friends with my sister.
"I think Sunnykit's more of the entertainer of the litter, if you ask me. She's always making me laugh, and let's face it, Honeykit; you're the cleverest kit I've ever met, but you couldn't entertain an excited hyena!" I burst out purring at his words. He's talking about my flaws, but I can't help finding it funny. There's something about the joking tone of his voice that would never, never offend anyone. Maybe it's because he's such a serious kit that any sort of joke he makes is funny.
"Help!" a voice cries. I look up, the humour vanishing rapidly.
There's not much that's funny about being lost in the middle of a forest in a bitterly cold leafbare, with snow on the ground and a skinny little tom dragging a corpse up behind you, giving a cry for help.
"Look, Star. We're here. We did it!" I whisper. My muscles are aching, and my heart is all cold. I think it's broken. Hearts do get broken, don't they? Mother says that they do. It's funny to think of a heart breaking. The blood would go everywhere, wouldn't it? Having a real broken heart doesn't mean blood. It's more of an ache, or a bruise. I want Mother now. It's been hours, and it's so cold. I can barely open my eyes, but I don't know if I am safe. Star hasn't woken up yet.
"Who are you?" a tiny shape whispers from the shadows, making me leap like a startled sparrow. The cat's scent is warm, like a kit's, but I don't trust it. I don't trust anything any more.
"I'm Strike. Who are you?" I snarl weakly.
"I'm Honeykit, and this is my... um... friend, Stonekit. This is BlizzardClan territory. Is that your friend?" I can't see her, but I know that she means Star.
"No, she's my sister. She won't wake up. Can you help me?" I demand, my voice hoarse. Honeykit pads over to me. Our pelts brush as she bends down to sniff my sister.
"I don't think so. Maybe I could ask Juniperfoot; she's the medicine cat," she says doubtfully. I stare hopelessley down at Star's unmoving body. She's never slept this long. I don't understand it.
"Can she fix cats in long sleeps?"
"Nobody can fix death, Strike. But she can heal wounds. Come home with us, Strike. Stonekit and I will carry you back. You look tired," I nod slowly, because I have wounds everywhere and I need to rest. Maybe it would be a good idea to stay here. I don't want to trust Honeykit, but I don't know if I have a choice.
Oh, Star, if only you would wake up.
You always know what to do.
"Honeykit, wake up!" I spring to my feet like a startled sparrow. Sunnykit is sneering down at me.
"We saw the kit that you let in. He says you let him stay here. A rogue kit, he was. Caring about nothing but himself. A filthy rogue. You know that the Clan hates rogues," she smirks. My head feeling hot, I snarl at her.
"His sister was dead, Sunnykit! He was barely alive as well. I had to-" I hiss, but Mother interupts me.
"Are you being mean to your sister, Honeykit?" my littermate erupts into silent laughter. I shake my head furiously.
"Where's Strike?" I demand, looking around for the fluffy black tom from last night. He isn't there. The corpse is gone too, but I can smell her scent. It's stale and mouldy, like fresh-kill that's gone rotten. Yuck.
"Is that the kit you brought home last night?" I hear carefully controlled anger in her voice. I guess I should have expected anger, letting a rogue kit sleep here. But it seemed so right at the time. Why didn't I think about the consequences? Sunnykit wouldn't have let him stay. Sunnykit would have fought him off single-pawedly. Sunnykit would have been a hero, not a soft-hearted mousebrain.
"He's sick, Honeykit. And he was crawling with fleas. I can't believe he slept in here," she shudders. I raise my head angrily.
"So should I have let him die, then?" I squeak. To my dismay, the other kits hear my complaint, and start sniggering in the corner. Only Stonekit stays silent, his bright green eyes widened in... no, it can't be. Is Stonekit looking at me with pride in his eyes? Encouraged, I carry on my argument.
"I thought the warrior code said that we had to help kits, not drive them out to die. It's not his fault that he's a rogue-" an cough from behind me silences my words. I can scent who has stopped me from talking, and it's not someone I can disobey.
"Well said, Bunnykit!" it's Honeykit, I think sourly. But I don't complain. The golden-furred tom that towers above me is too important to know a random kit's name, even if that kit is his own daughter.
"Thank you, Goldenstar," I whisper. His eyes twinkling, he turns to my mother.
"It seems that your daughter and her denmate have completed an astonishing feat for BlizzardClan. With any luck, we might be able to rejoin the Forest Union..." his voice lowers. I feel ready to burst with pride. I don't know what he means by the Forest Union, but it sounds important.
"No... it can't be true! She allowed a repulsive rogue to stay in here. You know BlizzardClan's history with rogues. You can't just let her..." Mothers voice lowers into whispers. Goldenstar raises his head angrily.
"Starlingheart, I understand that you'll want a say in the matter, but this could save the..." they both glance guiltily in my direction every so often. But this time, they're not gossiping about me. They're actually praising me!
Suddenly, my life doesn't seem to hopeless any more.
I'm standing in a pool, with mist everywhere. I wish it would go away. It makes it so hard to see. I can scent another cat; I can feel the warmth of her body all the way from here. Her scent is familiar, but different. It's like everything I have ever loved; the damp, sharp tang of winter, the warm smell of summer and the comforting smell of milk, all stuffed together to create the sweetest thing I have ever smelled.
"Strike?" the mist clears a little. I can see the cat now. She is very, very pretty. It's hard to place what she looks like. Her fur, which I thought was white, occassionally turns to gold. But then it turns back. Her eyes are doing the same strange colour-changing thing. It's weird.
"Hello," she whispers, but I still don't know if it is my sister standing before me.
"Star, is it you?" I plead. My heart is screaming at her to say that it is. My eyes are trained on her mouth, desperate for an answer. I need my sister. My best friend. My protector.
"It's never going to be Star. She is gone," the cat says. I want to screech at this cat that resembles my sister so closely, but what good will that do?
"Where can I find her?" my head feels dizzy. I am so afraid. The mist thickens a little, covering the she-cat that holds everything I want.
"It is not my place to tell you that, Strike. But I can tell you what I am, and I can certainly say that you and I are sure to become good friends," I unsheathe my claws, feeling the cold water ripple with the momentum. My scared, desperate feeling has turned to anger.
"Who are you, and where is my sister?" my voice is all wobbly. Yuck. If Star had been here, she would have teased me... OUCH. Thinking of Star hurts, and it's not even a sad feeling, It's a sore feeling, like real pain.
"I am everything that you want," she mews, and just as the world tears into shreds of light, I see her morph and collapse on the floor. This time, it's a new cat. A mangled, torn body. Her body is light brown and her eyes are amber. The cat is dead.
The cat is my mother...
"NO!" I screech, but the cat on the floor is gone. The pool isn't there any more, either. Instead, I'm lying somewhere warm. I think it's a bed of moss. My head and paws all hurt, and there are voices chattering in the background. There's a thick, plant-like scent in the air.
"I see you're awake," a raspy voice frightens me. I try to stand up in order to protect myself, but all my body feels so heavy that I don't. Instead, I just snarl at the cat that has announced my awakening.
"Don't touch me!" my words are all blurred together. It hurts to even talk. The cat purrs, but it's not a happy sound. A humourless, dry rasp. My vision slowly beginning to focus after my long sleep, I see that the cat is far from young. Her whiskers have a hint of gray round the tips, and her dirty yellow fur is patched and scarred all over. I can tell that she's been in a lot of fights.
"Who else is going to stop you from catching infection?" she gestured to my foreleg, which is wrapped tightly with a layer of thick spiderweb. I try to shake it off. Big mistake.
"Ouch!" I squeak. The old she-cat smirks. Angered by her amusement, I open my mouth to cuss her, but quickly remember my priorities.
"Star," my anger evaporates. Where is she? Has she woken up yet? I'm so anxious to know, but I can't say anything. Fear has made me go all stiff. I remember the dream that I had last night, and say a silent prayer that it is not true. That my mother has not abandoned me. That Star is not gone.
"Is that the kit you dragged here?" the cat's voice is gentle, now. Still hoarse, but gentle. I want to screech at her to tell me where that kit is, but I stay as calm as I can.
"I took her here," I say. The cat's warm amber eyes cloud with an emotion that I can't read.
"I think you'd better tell me all about how you made it here," she says quietly. My claws unsheath in fury, but the cat seems really concerned. Maybe, somehow, my story will change what she says. I open my mouth and begin, in a scratchy kind of whisper.
"My parents, my sister and I used to live in a barn. It sounds silly. It was warm and we were happy there. There was always enough food. Star - that's my sister..." - my voice falters a bit - "and I used to play all the time. She always used to come up with the best games.
"One sundown, big cats came into the barn. They had big teeth and they scared me. My dad, Cloudy, told us to keep quiet, and we hid in a pile of hay while they tried to use our scents to find us. While we tried to be silent, Mother coughed. It wasn't her fault! She didn't mean to! The cats heard though, and they found us. Dad... dad tried to protect us. They turned him into prey. He stopped breathing. It was horrible! Mother was all scared, so she grabbed Star and me, and we ran into the snow. We walked forever, and it was freezing. Star fell asleep a few miles from the barn, and Mother was too upset. She ran off. I waited for her to come back, but I couldn't wait long enough. So I dragged Star here. Mother's going to come any minute now. She's probably looking for me right at this minute!" my voice is sore, but I feel a bit better after getting the horrors out of my mouth. The cat sighs sadly.
"I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Juniperfoot. What's your name, kit?" she says softly. I glare at her.
"I'm Strike, and I want my sister back. Where is she?" I growl. Juniperfoot shrugs uneasily.
"Strike, your sister isn't coming back. Your sister died in the cold."
"How's the kit?" I ask Mother continuously. She looks so proud of me.
"He's in shock, Honeykit. The rogue crowfood didn't even know his sister was dead. I mean, what an idiot! It's not his fault, though. You should have saved the poor she-kit from dying. Sunnykit would have done that," she sniffs. I try not to let the final comment get me down, but it does.
"Is he okay, though?" I insist. A gentle tail lightly taps my shoulder. I spin around to find a dirty yellow she-cat standing behind me, her amber eyes a touch concerned.
"Strike'll live, Honeykit. He'll be upset for a while. It's hard to get over losing a cat, but I dare say he'll manage. I've seen more grieving cats than I care to count, kit. It isn't something you should underestimate. You should leave him alone." I nod respectfully, but I feel like asking what the sarcastic catch will be. This isn't right. Juniperfoot isn't been scornful, for the first time that I can remember! This is a crazy day, there's no mistaking it.
"Do you think I could go and see him?" I suggest. The old she-cat rolls her eyes.
"Didn't I just say that you should leave him alone?" she snaps. I nod my head obediently. Sunnykit, who has padded up behind me without my noticing, begins to talk.
"Honeykit would never dare go and visit him against your word! She's too much of a coward... oh, wrong word... I mean a good kit to do that," she mews clearly. Juniperfoot narrows her eyes. If there's anyone that can see right through that kit, it's Juniperfoot. Age certainly hasn't rotted her brains, thats for sure!
"If I caught you being good, Sunnykit, I'd faint from shock. And this is coming from the toughest old cat in all the Clans. Now, I don't think I'll be seeing either of you badgering the kit. That is, if you want to keep your fur!" she strolls off. My eye meets my sisters. I know what I'm going to do, and she does too.
Like the mousebrain I am, I am going to prove Sunnykit wrong.
It's a snowy day. Not happy snow. Not drifting pieces of white fluff that are nothing more than entertainment. This is freezing snow, falling like stones onto my bare back. My legs are so deep in the cold that it's hard to walk. Star is by my side, warming me up. Mother is licking me from the other side. Cloudy is a little ahead of us, purring with Mother. We're cold, but we're okay.
"Strike, sweetheart, do you think you could catch me and Cloudy a mouse? You're so fast. Star, go with him," I hardly need another word. Me and Star run so fast that we end up tumbling over in the snow, and the mouse that we were running after gets away. We're laughing now, in a huge heap on the snowy floor. I can hear Mother and Cloudy purring at us from a distance, but I don't care that they're laughing at me. Everything is so perfect here. Star can hardly talk from laughter.
"Ohmigosh... Strike.... I told you to wash the dandruff from your fur... so many times..." she pants, and her words crack us up again. I'm so covered in white powder that she's right; it looks like I'm coated in dandruff.
"You have to admit, though, I'm..."
"Hello?" my eyes snap open. I'm somewhere warm and smelly . I blink in confusion, trying to summon the reality that has suddenly disappeared. Then I remember that this is reality, and the snow was all a dream.
Star is dead.
My sister. My best friend. She's not coming back. Her heart isn't beating. I will never laugh with her again, hunt with her again, play with her again...
"STAR!" I call out. A golden she-kit - the one who woke me up - narrows her eyes.
"Your sister's dead, Strike. I'm sorry," she says. But I already know that. Star is gone. She is dead. Dead.
No, she can't be. I must be able to see her again, somehow. Star is so lively and she isn't old. YES, that must be it. Juniperfoot - that lying, mangy old piece of dung - has lied to me. She's probably taken Star captive, and told her the same about me. Star is probably grieving for me right this moment. She must have woken up by now.
"Tell me the truth, mousebrain," my claws unsheath.