This is book one of the Poisonous Perfection series. Enjoy!
The worst day of my life was the day Birchstar died. Or more appropriately, the day Ivygaze became leader. Which, now that I think about it, could possibly make me a bad sister.
I couldn't help it. I had slowly watched Ivygaze get everything as we grew up. The memories flash through my head one by one, each more painful. The day I walked in on the elders merrily telling Ivykit a story and was asked who I was. The day Birchstar offered to mentor Ivypaw and I got the worst cat in the whole clan, Blackstorm. The time when Ivypaw had gone through three assesments, all sucessfully passed, and I hadn't even had a chance. The day we had to choose partners in training and Beetlepaw and Thornpaw fought over Ivypaw and wanted to be a trio, while I had no partner. The list goes on and on.
I can understand why it's easy for other cats to love my sister. She is gorgeous, intimidating, and dominating. She has a tall, lanky frame and long silver-and-white layers that seem to be constantly blowing around her even when not a breeze is stirring. And her large, clear green eyes seem to put each tom she meets in a trance. I think even little Heatkit once asked her to be his mate. Yet she has no mate. She prefers to hold the power of her beauty over all the toms, leading them on to do her beck and call, then leaving them in the dust. I've watched it happen time and time again.
Ivygaze is horribly jealous. She makes life so hard for us she-cats, not letting us eat with the toms, making us go last in everything, sending us on separate patrols. It's a wonder some "accident" hasn't happened to Ashsong's kits yet.
The one thing I have buried deep in my heart though, is my parents. Beepelt and Honeywind. They never made me feel inferior. In fact, there were times when I thought they viewed Ivygaze almost the way I did. Devious. Cruel. Unstoppable. But they couldn't have, because she was just a kit when they died. A spoiled brat of a kit yes, but a kit all the same. How could they have known? It's probably best that they didn't know. It would've broken their hearts. Still, nothing can stop me from wishing they hadn't died, from cursing badgers for all eternity for taking them from me. They were all I had.
And so, when the newly named Ivystar walked through the thorny barrier and into our camp, I was not the proud sister you might imagine. Yes, I was the bitter bystander. No, I didn't care.
The first thirty minutes of Ivystar's leadership went by sickeningly, but not extremely painfully. She stood in the middle of the camp, twirling and laughing and accepting the congratulations of every SnowClan tom. Then she climbed onto the Leader's Rock and hit us with her first bomb.
"Cats of SnowClan, I just want to say that I am extremely flattered to be leader." Pinecloud and I exchange looks that say, Here we go. "But I think that our clan needs a few changes."
Cold claws of fear grapple my stomach. My sister practically ruled the Clan when she was deputy; in Birchstar's eyes she could do no wrong. What was she planning now?
"First, I think the idea of having a deputy is silly." Pinecloud, Ashsong, Blackstorm, Whisperpelt, and I, or rather every she-cat in the clan besides Aquakit and Summerkit, stared at her as if she had suggested we become vegetarians. The toms were nodding and murmuring agreement, or rather, whispers of admiration. "We cannot rely on the judgement of just two cats."
"Please," hissed Pinecloud under her breath. "We'll only be relying on her 'judgement' and she knows it."
"So instead of selecting a deputy, I shall select a council of four cats to help me with my decision. This is a great honor, and I hope you realize so. Beetlefur, Thornfur, Weaselclaw, and Blackfire."
The first three names made sense to me. They were the three toms who adored her the most, who practically drooled whenever she was around. But Blackfire? He was the one tom in our Clan that didn't seem to have been brainwashed by my sister's charms. He never hesitated to argue with her or disagree. Maybe that's why she paid so much attention to him. He was a prize to be won, and Ivystar had always liked a good challenge. She must be trying to win him over. Somehow the thought of our last hope that Ivystar wasn't the only she-cat toms paid attention to in the world disappearing made my blood boil. She couldn't have everything!
The four toms stepped forward. Beetlefur was so excited he was shaking. Ivystar's green gaze travelled over them approvingly, stopping on Blackfire. "From now on, you shall sleep outside my den, and answer to me whenever I call. Is that understood?"
"Yes!" chorused Thornfur and Weaselclaw. Beetlefur screamed something incoherent, and Blackfire remained silent, his golden eyes cool and relaxed under my sister's hypnotic powers. I had to admit, I was impressed. After moons of seeing toms to nuts for her, it was nice to see Ivystar get snubbed.
If she noticed, which I'm sure she did, she didn't let on. "Everyone else, you may select something from the fresh-kill pile." The toms turned and left, but before we could go, she said in a much nastier tone, "Not you. You four go hunt. We need more prey. You cannot stuff your faces without contributing anything to the Clan you know. Ashsong, get a mouse and go to your worthless kits. Jump to it now!"
"Okay," I meow hurriedly. The last thing I want is to appear to challenge her, but apparently Ivystar isn't done with me.
"Snowheart, you stay for a bit. You can catch up later." Shooting me an apologetic glance, Pinecloud leads the patrol out of the camp.
"What is it Ivystar?" I say. Her green eyes are petrifying me to where I stand, making me reel with fear. I want to run, but I can't. Something tells me this is not a healthy sister-to-sister relationship.
"Oh nothing really. I just wanted to ask you to do me a favor. I can trust you, right?" Her face clearly spells out what my only answer to that question can be.
"Good. I want you to go and ask Blackfire to take a walk with you. While on this walk, I want you to ask him a few questions."
"Me?" I'm completely confused now. I thought Ivystar hated for toms and she-cats in her clan to interact, like there was any chance one of us would get a mate when she's around to gawk at. Does she really think that I'm so repulsive no one would ever think of me like that?
"Yes you. Go do it. Now." There's no room for argument. I have no choice. Turning, I spot Blackfire standing with the new Council, looking bored. I take a deep breath. It's now or never.
"Snowheart!" I freeze as I hear Ivystar's sing-song voice call out behind me. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
"Huh?" I ask.
What some cats would mistake for a playful smile, but I know as a cruel one, dances across her face. "The questions Snowheart. Or were you just so excited at the thought of a walk with Blackfire that it slipped your mind?"
I keep my face completely blank. I have no idea what she's talking about, but I've learned this is the best way to react to her little jabs and pointed remarks. Pretend you don't notice. Make her feel smart. It deflects the sting without getting you in trouble. "What should I ask him?" I say in a monotone voice.
"Ask him how he feels about me being leader. Lead it up to about me in general. Whether he likes me." Ivystar's eyes narrow. "Alone."
I know what she means. No one can know she put me up to this. I nod my head. "Good. Now go."
I turn and walk over to Blackfire. He ignores me. I clear my throat. Still nothing. "Blackfire?" Finally all four toms stop talking and turn to look at me. Or rather, through me. I doubt it even registers in their brains who I am.
"Yes?" he says, his intense copper eyes boring into me.
"Can we go for a walk?" I hold my breath, waiting for the cruel cut down. What will I do then?
"Um, I don't know."
"Really?" He's mocking me now, I can feel it. Tears brim up in my eyes, but I fight them back frantically. I will not cry. I won't give them, and Ivystar, the satisfaction of it.
To my surprise, his eyes soften. "Okay," he grumbles. "But it better be important."
"It is," I stammer, still in shock that he said yes. We head out of the camp. I can see the path the hunting patrol took, and go the opposite way. I don't want any of the others getting suspicious. "So," I say. "Ivystar's leader now."
He blinks at me like I am the dumbest cat he's ever met. "Yes," he says slowly.
"How do you feel about that?"
He watches me closely, like he's estimating whether this is a trap. "I don't know. Not really anything. I mean, I know some toms, er, warriors, were really excited about it, but it's no big deal. She hasn't proved herself to be anything but a mouse-brain, choosing a Council like that." He seems to realize what he said, and turns away. "Of course, now you'll tell her. Sisters always stick together. Oh well. I don't want a position on the Council anyway. Ivystar is-"
"I couldn't have said it better myself," I meow. He looks surprised for an instant, then gives me a curt nod.
"So... you aren't a spy?"
How did I get so off track? "Never mind," I tell him. "The point is, do you like Ivystar? You know, as a cat?"
He grimaced. "About as much as I like poison ivy. They didn't make a mistake in naming her, though she always says it's because of her eyes."
Vexed to find a smile tugging on the corners of my lips, I sigh. "Well, that's all I guess. Let's go back."
He looks hurt. "Wait. How about going down to the Lily Pond? We can hunt too.
I hesitate, then shrug. "Sure. It can't hurt." We head down SnowClan's rocky slopes towards the fir trees that ring Lily Pond. Our camp is nestled on a stony ledge that juts out of the hill, backed by a mossy cliff-wall, and our high vantage point lets us spot any intruders.
Upon entering the fir trees, I feel right at home. The cozy scent of pine and gentle aroma of late greenleaf flowers wreath around me like a cloud. For once, I'm completely happy. The Lily Pond is the most beautiful place in our harsh, bare territory. Surrounded by leaning fronds, whistling ferns, tall grasses, and nodding reeds, its dark green waters hold a mysterious power. Pale green lily pads skim it's surface with their translucent delicacy, supporting the weight of luciously budding pink and white water lilies, whose petals are now fully opened cups. For a second I'm silent, just taking it all in. Blackfire is silent too, his gaze travelling from me to the pond, then back to me.
Finally he clears his throat. "I smell a mouse on that side. See you in a few minutes." He stalks off, his black pelt only an extension of the shadowy ground.
I scented the air, and caught a strong squirrel-smell. Our squirrels are stringy and tough, but at this point, with the little food we she-cats got, I would accept anything. Dropping into a stealthy crouch, I creep through the ferns till I see it sitting at the base of a pine tree. Muscles tense, I wait in my hiding place till it comes closer, then pounce. It doesn't have a chance. I nip its neck quickly and began digging a hole to bury it, ignoring the mouth-watering aroma drifting into my nostrils. Maybe with our prey and the hunting patrol's combined, there'll finally be enough to fill our bellies.
Blackfire is back, appearing like a black ghost out of the blue. He has a mouse in his jaws. Pushing me roughly aside, he drops it in the hole I've dug, then covers it.
"Hey!" I protest. "I have to bury my squirrel."
He rolls his eyes at me. "Eat it."
"What? That's against the warrior code."
His golden eyes flash with a strange light. "There is no warrior code anymore Snowheart. Ivystar will lead SnowClan to destruction, but the least we can do is not starve. I can see your bones through your pelt, and it's only greenleaf."
I start to take a bite, then pause. "It's not fair. What about the others?"
Blackfire blinks. "What others?"
"The other she-cats. We all don't get enough food."
He hesitates, then gives me a small smile. "I'll see that they get some."
I'm not that easily appeased. Living with Ivystar has taught me to never take things for granted. "How?"
"Well, now that I'm a member of the Council, I'm sure I'll get even more prey, more then I'll ever be able to eat. I'll bring some to you tonight outside the camp, by the bushes at the edge of the ledge. Can you meet me there?"
"Sure," I say. "But why are you doing this?"
His gaze is steady. "Because. I'm a warrior, whatever Ivystar does in her Clan. And the Clan comes first. Whatever it costs, it's my job."
I look at my paws, taken aback slightly. Then I nudge the squirrel towards him. "Do you want some?"
He shakes his head. "We're kept well-fed. You need it all."
"Thank you." He only shrugs. I bend my head and began gulping the fresh-kill down. Warm meat slides down my throat as I tear into the prey ravenously. Blackfire is silent, and I'm sure he thinks I'm a pig. But I'm so hungry it doesn't matter.
"Let's get back," he meows. I nod, and he picks up his prey and trots slightly ahead of me as we leave the pine forest and start up the rocky slope. My pads are hardened after a lifetime of climbing, and I quickly catch up with him. The camp comes into sight, and we both enter the thorny barrier at the same time, pushing our bodies together.
Feeling a warm flush of embarassment shoot through me, I quickly scramble into the camp, leaving a few tufts of swirled silver, dark gray, and snowy fur caught on the bushes' limbs. Blackfire follows, and heads for the fresh-kill pile.
Pinecloud runs towards me. "What happened to you?" she askes in a low voice. "We were wondering where you were."
Whisperpelt walks over as well, her olive green eyes worried. "Why were you with Blackfire? If Ivystar finds out..."
"It's not like that," I meow. "I'll tell you in our den, but you have to promise to keep it a secret."
"You know we will," says Pinecloud, brushing her light brown coat against mine. I know I can trust them, even Blackstorm. We're a close-knit family. Oddly, Ivystar's treatment of us has only strengthened our bonds.
Ashsong peeks out from the nursery, Aquakit, Summerkit, and Heatkit at her legs. I shoot her a small smile to show I'm all right, and she returns it, then vanishes quickly. She can't risk being too conspicious, or Ivystar might go after her and her kits.
We head for the den which we sleep in, a small cave near the edge of the camp, with its back to the thorn bushes. It's sheltered by a few gnarled branches, but we've thatched it up with straw and dried grass, which really helps in the winter. The other warriors, or should I say, toms, are heading to their den, a big spacious overhang near the stone back of our camp. Ivystar's den is further up the wall, with a small path leading up to it.
The den was originally dank and damp, but we've added bits of decoration and patched it up into quite a cozy place. It's probably a good thing Ivystar never comes to visit us; she'd insist we take it all down. There are flowers tucked in between the walls, Pinecloud's idea, feathers that Whisperpelt collected, and a collection of pretty stones that Ashsong brought before she became a queen. Blackstorm brings nothing but a cranky attitude, but at least she's one of us. That's enough for now, I guess.
"So, spill." The other she-cats focus on me expectantly. Blackstorm is asleep, so there's no danger of her overhearing. Though she was my mentor and is a relatively honest cat, if ill-tempered, I still don't want her to hear.
"Okay," I say. "Well, Ivystar wanted me to talk to Blackfire and ask him a few questions."
"About what?" Pinecloud asks, tucking her tail around herself snugly.
"About whether he liked her or not, and whether he was happy she was leader."
"He's not." I see the others try to control their laughter. "But we also decided something else. He's going to bring us prey tonight. Since he's a member of the Council, he'll get more prey then he needs, so he'll bring some out of the camp, and I'll meet him and bring it around the thorn barrier to you guys." I hope it sounds better to them, instead of like we'll be taking other cat's food.
I needn't have feared. Their eyes are shining. "Really? That's really nice of him! You must have really turned up the charm Snowheart."
I glare at them. "No. He offered actually."
"Sure," Pinecloud says, whiskers twitching. I sigh.
"Do you want the prey or not?" They nod their heads. "Then shut up."
The others try to shield me from view as I try to squeeze through an opening at the back of our den. Finally I wriggle through the thorny branches. I turn to face them. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
Whisperpelt nods. "Be careful."
I smile and head into the darkness. Quickly making my way down the slope and out of the camp, I scent the air. He's here. I make out his dark outline as he pads toward me over the moonlit rock. The smell of fresh-kill reaches my nostrils. He stops a few tail-lengths away, his golden eyes glowing. "Snowheart."
"Blackfire." I don't know what else to say. "Thanks for coming."
His eyes narrow slightly. "Did you think I wouldn't?" Before I could say anything, he drops the prey and stalks off, calling over his shoulder, "Not every tom is Ivystar's minion you know."
I blink, and he's gone. This was not how I envisioned his heroic sacrifice going. Picking up the prey, I tell myself that all that matters is the fact that my friends will get enough to eat. Yeah right. I can't even fool myself.
I sneak into the den again. The she-cats crowd around me, including Blackstorm. I drop the prey and race out of the mob. "Should we take some to Ashsong?"
Blackstorm glares at me and speaks through a mouthful of mouse. "No. She gets enough prey because she's a queen."
I frown. "Getting prey isn't the same as getting enough. I'm taking some to her."
"Wait," meowed Whisperpelt. "Ivystar might get suspicious if you're the only one doing things. I'll go." Before I can protest, she slips out with a squirrel in her jaws.
"Here," Pinecloud say. "You deserve the most." She nudges a pile of prey toward me.
I shake my head, not knowing how to explain that I already had a squirrel. Still, it seems like a far off memory, so I select a shrew from the pile and began eating. Whisperpelt comes back, and we finish off the prey at alarming speed. Pinecloud rests back on her haunches contentedly. "StarClan bless Blackfire."
I'm not so sure about that. I don't know what his motives were in this, but I won't question them for now, seeing my friends so happy. I close my eyes and drift off to sleep.
Morning, even greenleaf mornings, is cold up on our hill. My breath billows around me in puffs of fog, reminding me that leaf-fall is quickly approaching. But for now I want to just enjoy the last golden days of summer. Like that's going to happen now that Ivystar's leader. Still, for one moment, as I witness the glorious fingers of light splaying above the tops of the pines, I'm enraptured by possibilities. Then Ivystar approaches, slamming me back down the earth with her cold smile.
"Good morning Snowheart." I frown. She's up to something. I had Pinecloud bury the bones of our prey in the dirtplace tunnel, but the look on her face still sends chills down my spine. Did Blackfire rat us out?
"Good morning Ivystar," I say, hoping my voice doesn't betray my emotions. She curls her tail serenely around herself, letting the fluffy fur catch the dawn light. Pretending not to notice the toms gawking by the fresh-kill pile, she focuses on me, making me feel like a cornered mouse.
"So, your walk with Blackfire. How was it?"
Of course. How could I have forgotten about it? What could I tell her? That he hated her? That he found her behavior just as conniving and repulsive as I did? None of those were options either, but I couldn't lie and say he liked her. Somehow that would feel like betraying Blackfire. "Well?" Ivystar's green eyes narrow. When I don't say anything, she glances around. "Good idea. Let's get out of the camp."
Numbly, I follow her out of the camp and onto a rocky ledge. She sits down in front of me. "Now speak," she commands, like I'm some sort of puppet. I do anyway.
"Well, he wasn't really willing to open up to me. You know how toms are, and Blackfire is worse then most. He was pretty vague in his answers, but I get the feeling he feels more strongly about you then any other she-cat." In a bad way, I add silently. I hold my breath, wondering if she'll buy it.
"Really?" She looks pleased. Before she can say anything else, Beetlefur runs towards us.
"Ivystar. Are you coming?"
"Yes, Beetlefur," she sighs. Glancing at me, she says, "It's the first meeting of the Council today. Make sure there's plenty of prey for them after we finish."
"Yes Ivystar," I mutter. Wearily, I go to tell the others. We'll have to hunt more now. And the day's just starting.
"That should be enough," groans Pinecloud, putting the last vole on top of the fresh-kill pile. We sit outside our den and start sharing tongues. Whisperpelt is visting Ashsong and her kits, and Blackstorm is snatching a quick nap.
"Looks like they're finally done. I wonder what they decided for their first meeting," she says.
"I don't want to know," I meow. Beetlefur, Thornfur and Weaselclaw come out first, looking almost in a trance. Finally, Blackfire emerges, with Ivysar draped all over him. Her plumed tail hangs over his back, and she's speaking softly into his ear. When he glances up and sees me looking at them, he pulls away from her hastily, stalking stiff-leggedly towards the prey. Meeting my gaze, he picks up a rabbit that I myself caught and heads for his den, giving me an almost imperceptible nod. I understand. He'll bring us food again.
Quickly, I look at Ivystar to see if she noticed. Thankfully, she's too busy talking to the other toms of our Clan. I turn and head for the nursery. Ashsong is curled up in her nest, watching as Whisperpelt played with her kits.
"Snowheart!" yells Heatkit. The little dark ginger tabby kit scampers towards me. His two sisters follow, chirping excitedly.
"Hi guys," I say, ruffling their ears fondly. I pad over to their mother and say in a low voice, "Did you enjoy the prey last night?"
She nodded smilingly, her golden eyes grateful. "Whisperpelt told me how you managed to get it for us. Thank you so much."
I look at my paws. "It wasn't me. It was Blackfire."
She smiles. "Him too." They exchange looks, making me feel suddenly awkward.
"Um, well, see you around." I wave my tail at the kits and pad out of the nursery.
Ivystar is standing outside the medicine cat's den. She and Spiritsky are talking intently. Spiritsky looks distressed, her blue eyes wide. She's shaking her head and appeared to be pleading with Ivystar. Casually, I stretch out in the sand while watching them out of the corner of my eye. I can just make out what Spiritsky is saying, because she's almost shouting, which is really unusual for our normally gentle medicince cat.
"Ivystar, it's not going to work. You can't just do things like that. It's not meant to be."
"Keep your voice down," hissed Ivystar, flattening her ear and sticking her face in Spiritsky's face. "We'll talk about this later. I'll get this. And you'll regret not helping me." She turns away. "Remember who's really in control here Spiritsky. Not your silly StarClan. Me."
Spiritsky gives a worried sigh. Her worried face turns towards me for a second, then she vanishes into the shady cove where her den is. Now what was that about?
A sickening feeling rose in my gut. Nothing Ivystar thought up led to anything but trouble, and as tired as I was of getting caught up in the whirlwind, I knew I didn't have a choice. Whatever she was up to, it was up to me to find out.
I shoot up. I'd know those voices anywhere. My heart swells so much it hurts as I focus on the two cats in front of me. My parents. Honeywind and Beepelt.
They purr and rub against me. Their familiar scent wreathes around me, making me feel like a kit again. I want to bury my face in Honeywind's fur and never having to face the world again. "We've missed you daughter."
"I've missed you too. So much." I can't express all my heartbreak and emotion in those words, but I can see in their eyes that they understand.
"How is Ivystar?" A shadow passes through Beepelt's eyes as he says my sister's name, and I don't miss it.
"She's fine. She's finally got everything she's ever wanted. She's leader of SnowClan." I fight to keep the bitterness out of my voice. What will they think of me?
"But she wants more." I nod. I know it's true, though I have no idea what it is. "However, we are here for you Snowheart. We have come to help you."
"Help me?" I say, puzzled. I can't think of something I need help with right now besides Ivystar. Blackfire brought the prey to our meeting place, and we all slept with full stomachs.
"Yes. Do you know why we named you what we did?"
"For my Clan," I guessed.
"Yes, but that's not the only reason. Birchstar could see it in you."
"Before she fell into Ivystar's influence."
Beepelt gives me a sharp glance, then shrugs. "Yes. Your warrior name suits you perfectly. At least, it did."
"What do you mean?"
"Snowheart. You were meant to have a heart of snow. Don't let envy of your sister cloud your judgement. It ruins your purpose, choices, and personality. It's not who you were meant to be."
Despite myself, I feel a flash of anger. "What? You're blaming me?"
"Of course not," Honeywind says. Her eyes fill with pain, and I instantly regret what I said. "It's just, you have a special destiny. One far greater then Ivystar's. She is trying to build hers. Yours was made to be. Don't let petty disagreements spoil it."
"I know she's hurt you," Beepelt says. "But as hard as it is, you have to let it go. Please."
I watch helplessly as they vanish from view. "Please. Don't go." But it's too late. All that remains of their frosty presence is their words in my memory. And somehow I have to find the strength to carry them out.
I awoke to Ivystar's summons. Coming out of the den, I see my sister on Leader's Rock, watching the Clan assemble with a smirk on her face. Great.
"What does she want now?" mutters Pinecloud sleepily.
I shrug. "Who knows?" We pad to the back of the crowd and sit down next to each other. Ashsong has brought her kits out, and is trying to keep them quiet, telling them they're too young to be apprentices yet. Which is true, but part of me wonders if they'll even make it to apprenticeship with Ivystar as leader.
"SnowClan, you all know that leaf-fall is approaching quickly. During this time, it will be harder for the Clan to find food, and it will only be close to impossible when leaf-bare comes. Obviously, something needs to be done."
I frown. It was true that our barren landscape provided precious little prey in the winter, but we had survived before. What was Ivystar getting at?
"After meeting with my Council yesterday,our decision was unanimous." Blackfire's ears flattened at her words, making me wonder if she was lying. Scratch that. I knew she was. "Our clan cannot afford to support the weak. Queens, kits, elders, they do nothing for us."
"Kits are the future of our Clan!" yells Whisperpelt. I'm surprised that she's brave enough to speak out like that. I guess it's from the look of terror on Ashsong's face as she wraps her tail around her litter. It hurts me too, to see her so frightened in her own Clan.
Ivystar silences her with a glare. Spiritsky comes to sit beside us. "What are you saying Ivystar?" she asks.
"I'm saying that we must prune our Clan before the cold season in order to survive. This is how we will do it. You all must get in groups of three. Kits do not count as cats."
"Even the queens and elders?" asked Blackstorm. For once, she looks like she actually cares.
"Yes," Ivystar says impatiently, as if it's obvious. "Then, you shall disperse into our territory for three days. You must keep yourself alive for this time. No group alliances can be formed. You will hunt as much prey as you can to bring back to the Clan. All members of your group must be intact at the end of the journey. A group that doesn't bring back enough prey or loses a member will be banished from the Clan. You will leave tonight. This will help keep our Clan bonded together and well-fed by true warrirors. That is all." She steps down and walks to her den between Thornfur and Dustwhisker, as if she knows someone will claw off her pelt otherwise. I'd dearly love to be that someone.
Turning to my friends, I see that they are just sitting motionless, while the toms around us form groups excitedly. Our Clan's lone elder, Sageheart, stands outside her little den, looking bewildered and forlorn. "I can't believe she can do that," Whisperpelt says softly.
Pinecloud isn't shy about it. "The nerve of her! Standing up there and explaining it as sweetly as a kit. Who does she think she is?"
"She doesn't have to think," I say grimly. "She knows. Leader of SnowClan."
"Can we fight it?" asks Blackstorm.
I look around at their determined faces, then shake my head. "There are too few of us. All the toms would fight on her side, you know that."
Pinecloud glances up. "Maybe not all the toms."
I turn and see Blackfire making his way towards us. "I didn't vote for this," is the first thing he says.
I shake my head. "We guessed that. But it doesn't matter. She did it anyway."
"So let's form groups," Pinecloud says. "Ashsong, Whisperpelt, and I will be one."
I hesitate. "I'm going to invite Sageheart to be in my group." I pad over to the grizzled brown she-cat. I can remember all the times she's shown kindness to me over the moons. Now it's my turn. "Would you like to be in my group?"
Her eyes flood with tears. "You wouldn't want an old badger like me slowing you down. I can't hunt, and you know that. You'd have to strain yourself too much to bring back enough prey and protect me." But I can see how much she wants the offered protection despite her selfless protests.
Before I can say anything, Blackfire is at my shoulder. "No we won't. We're both young, and good hunters. It's time we repay everything you've done for us." He looks at me, and I give a tiny nod. We're in this together, if only to protect Sageheart.
"Thank you," she says. I smile and give her a lick on the ear. Blackstorm has joined up with Weaselclaw and Spiritsky. Between them, they'll be able to handle that mouse-brain. I take a deep breath, trying to prepare myself for the silliness yet totally real danger of this... journey? It's more like an exile to me.
"I'll meet you guys here in the evening," I say. I head for my friends, hoping being around them will calm me down. I need them near me. I might never see them again.
There is an air of uneasiness as the sun sinks. Cats mill about, looking for their groups or saying farewells to friends not in their groups. I join Blackfire and Sageheart, nodding at my other friends.
Ivstar is giving a final speech. "I shall be staying here with Dustwhisker and Torntail. Good luck everyone. Go!" Of course she's staying, I think bitterly.
All the cats of SnowClan begin pouring down the sides of the hill. Our group is last out; we have to help Sageheart down the rocky slope. As I turn to catch one last glimpse of my camp, I see Ivystar standing proudly on Leader's Rock, the wind playing with her thick, glossy fur. Her eyes are issuing a plain challenge to me. She doesn't think I'll make it. And I'm determined to prove her wrong.
We walk in silence for about half an hour. Sageheart looks awkwardly from Blackfire to me, then back again. Finally, Blackfire says, "Well, I'll bet it made Dustwhisker and Torntail's day that they got to stay behind."
I play along. "Because they didn't have to go out and brave the elements?"
He grins. "No. Because they get to wash Ivystar's paws all by themselves." Sageheart and I exchange glances, and the three of us laugh. I feel a warmth in my chest I haven't felt since my parents died. Family. That's what this feels like.
Blackfire glances up at the darkening sky. "We'd better find a place to stay."
I nod. "Good idea. Then you and I can hunt, and Sageheart can rest." I see the elder's shoulders slump a little, and I know she feels hurt that she can't help. Knowing words won't help, I nuzzle her shoulder gently, hoping she understands how much I care about her. Blackfire watches quietly, his expression unreadable. I get the feeling that he is mocking our sentimental show of affection, and my hackles rise, but I don't say anything. We have to learn to at least tolerate each other if we're going to make this work.
"How about over there?" asks Sageheart. She flicks her tail towards a pine tree whose branches grow low enough to the ground to make a dense covering. There is just enough space for a cat to squeeze through, and the ground is hollowed out to make the perfect sleeping place.
"Yeah, good work," I agree. We let her slip in, then wave our tails and go off in search of prey.
"I'll hunt around here, and you go down to the stream," Blackfire says.
"Okay." I head towards the stream, which is more like a small trickle of water that cuts through our territory. As I approach, I scent other cats. Pinecloud is on the other side of the stream, a water vole in her jaws. When she sees me, her eyes light up, but then she seems to remember that there are no truces between groups. She turns and heads away. I stifle a sigh. How will Ivystar find out if we talk? I didn't think she had this much power over even my friends.
I quickly catch a fish, wrinkling my nose at the taste in my mouth. But I remember that Sageheart loves fish, so I keep it while I hunt some more. Soon, I'm heading back with a robin as well. It'll have to do for now; there are only three of us. Blackfire and Sageheart are waiting outside the tree for me. Blackfire has caught a squirrel and two mice, so there is plenty of prey for everyone. We eat quickly and without talking, then crawl into our makeshift den.
"We should stay here," I meow, desperate to break the silence. The others nod.
"I don't know what Ivystar was getting at, sending us out here. Three days won't prove anything." Blackfire scowls and pummels the dirt with his paws before laying back down.
I miss my soft nest as well. Just then, a thought strikes me, sending chills down my spine. "Maybe she has something more planned," I murmur. "Something much more sinister, that will make three days seem like an eternity."
Blackfire's copper eyes turn amber with foreboding. "Or send us into eternity."
I feel something prodding my sides. "Go away," I mumble.
"Snowheart, wake up." Blackfire's hiss makes me open my eyes.
He gives an aggravated grunt and shoves me to my paws. "Okay, okay. No need to be so rude." We glower at each other for a few seconds, then he glances at Sageheart.
"We'll catch breakfast while she sleeps." I give him a curt nod and stalk off indignantly. I run into a tree. Blinking sleep out of my eyes and ignoring Blackfire's laughter, I hurry towards the stream. After a long, refreshing drink of cool water, I prepare myself mentally and physically for the day.
The streambed is lined with the scents of other SnowClan cats, and there is no sign of prey. I must be too late; all the prey has been scared off or killed, so I choose a different route, leading towards the Lily Pond. There is no time to enjoy the beauty of the morning scene; maybe Blackfire was right about waking up early. I scent the air and pick up the trail of a woodpigeon. It's hiding in a clump of bushes. When it sees me, it starts to escape, but with a flying leap that would put a rabbit to shame, I pin it to the ground. Perfect. Just then, I get the feeling that I am being watched. Startled, I look up, but no one is there. Only a slight rustle in the bushes. Uneasily, I pick up my prey and start to head back.
I'm just heading out of the pine forest when they attack. Beetlefur, Thornfur, and Branchtail. Branchtail bowls me over and starts pummeling at me with his paws. Beetlefur joins in, and Thornfur rips the woodpigeon from my jaws. "Hey!" My fighting instincts kick in. I jam my claws into Branchtail's throat, holding the skinny brown tom's head up and away from me while clawing at Beetlefur's throat. He lets out a gurgling growl and jumps away. Thornfur hands the prey to him and leaps in. I fight back hard, but my heart is sinking. There's no way I can beat all three of them. At this point I'll be lucky to get out alive.
I turn tail and run, my legs pumping as fast as they can go. It feels horrible to retreat, but what choice do I have? After a few minutes, I stop and listen. Over the hammering of my heart in my chest, there is no sound of cats crashing through the undergrowth after me. My guess is they only came for the prey and won't follow me. With a disgusted and defeated sigh, I make my way back to our camp.
Blackfire enters the clearing on the opposite end the same time I do. He freezes. "What happened?" he asks. I glance at my pale pelt and wince. It's not that bad, but they did do some damage, and it hurts.
"Thornfur, Beetlefur and Branchtail attacked me and stole my fresh-kill. I tried to fight them off but..." My eyes narrow in anger. "And all for a woodpigeon."
Blackfire scowls. "They really have no standards." His claws unsheathe and grip the ground in fury. Then his eyes soften. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," I mutter.
"Nonsense," scoffs Sageheart. "I might not be any use as a warrior anymore, but my sister was a medicine cat, and she taught me a thing or two. Come here dear." I step over to her and she inspects my scratches.
"Okay. Let me go get what I need." She hurries off into the woods, leaving Blackfire and I alone. He is staring at me instensely, and rather angrily.
"What?" I snap. I can't help it.
"Nothing." He shrugs and turns away. Stifling a growl, I wait impatiently for Sageheart to come back. Finally, she emerges from the bushes holding a clump of leaves in her mouth.
"This might sting a bit," she warns. "So just hold still." Gingerly, she approaches me and begins chewing them up into a pulp. I wince but don't say anything as she smears it over my cuts. She's no medicine cat, but it does help a little.
"Thanks," I say through gritted teeth. She smiles thinly.
"Happy to help." I wonder if she still thinks of herself as a burden. She shouldn't, but all I want to do right now is sleep. With a yawn, I lie down carefully and tuck my tail around myself. The last thing I see is Blackfire standing guard before I close my eyes.
It's late afternoon when I wake up. The stinging in my cuts has died down a little, and I feel a lot better. Climbing to my paws, I see a pile of fresh-kill to my right. Sageheart was sleeping on my left, but she stirred now. "You're awake. Blackfire has been hunting all afternoon. He's overworking himself, but I can't get him to stop. It's only the first day. Maybe he'll listen to you."
I seriously doubt the gloomy black tom will listen to me of all cats, but it's worth a try. As soon as Blackfire pads in with a scrawny mouse in his jaws, I step in front of him. "Blackfire, it's your turn to rest. There'll be no prey left if you continue this. You're tiring yourself out, and we still have two more days. Come on." I gaze steadily into his copper eyes, though my heart is thumping wildy for some reason. He just makes me nervous, probably because he's kind of scary. Yeah, that's it.
Then he shakes his head. "Snowheart, there's too much on the line. I have to-"
"Then I'll hunt. I'm part of this team. I should help." I start to push past him, but he blocks me now, his eyes burning.
"No! You need to rest."
I flatten my ears. "You can't control me. I'm not some little kit to be protected."
He curls his lip. "Neither am I. And we can't afford to have you half-dead." We glower at each other. I can feel myself shaking with anger at his condescending tone. Sageheart finally steps between us.
"I have never seen a more stubborn pair of cats," she says, clucking her tongue. Herding us both back to the pine tree, she makes us lay down. "Both of you rest. And no complaining." For a second, Blackfire looks like he's about to argue, then seems to think the better of it. Instead, he rolls his eyes at me, and I catch myself smiling. Laying my head on my paws, I surrender under Sageheart's stern watch and try to sleep. It's impossible, so I settle for watching ants crawl across the ground. Blackfire taps the ground with his tail, and I know he's itching to go hunt again, but doesn't dare.
I give a small sigh, wishing I was with Pinecloud and Whisperpelt. They'd make this journey fun. Instead, it feels like what it was meant by Ivystar to be. A grueling test. But I know it's no use being enemies, so I make an effort to be friendly. "So Blackfire, do you think Ivystar will really banish a group of cats?"
He shrugs, looking relieved at the distraction. "I don't know. But I don't want to be that group if she does."
"Yeah..." I say. "But it would be even worse to watch it happen to another group." He looks at me curiously, but doesn't reply. Great. Now he thinks I'm a freak. What else is new? Closing my eyes, I shut out the sounds of the outside world and finally go into an uneasy sleep.
Golden light and shadow patterns across my coat and the air smells of dusk when I wake up. With a yawn, I glance around and see that Sageheart is eating a squirrel while Blackfire watches. He nods at me, and I pad over.
"What are we doing now?"
Blackfire glances cautiously at Sageheart, then meows casually, "Snowheart, why don't we go for a walk quickly?"
Puzzled, I look at the elder. She looks up with a twinkle in her eye, and both Blackfire and I shift uncomfortably. "Sure," I say, my heart thumping wildly. As soon as we are out of earshot though, Blackfire reveals the real reason for this.
"Today while I was hunting, I scented badger," he says in a low voice.
"Badger!" I yelped, forgetting to keep my voice down. In a softer tone, I say, "Where? And how recent?"
"Near the stream," he said. "I think it's come down from the woods up in the mountains to feed before leaf-bare. Either way, it's bad news. And pretty recent too. It must definitely still be around here."
"Great. That's just what we needed." I sit down to think about this new problem. Who knew three days could stretch so far? And this is only the first.
When we arrive at the pine tree and settle down as nonchalantly as possible, Sageheart looks up. "So what did you guys decide about that badger?"
Blackfire gives a startled jump, his face taking on the expression of a cornered hare. "W-what?" he stammered.
She gave us a stern look, but a tiny smile tugged on the corners of her lips. "Did you really think I bought the whole 'walk' excuse? I know you two, and you'd die rather then admit you have feelings for each other. Besides, I don't just sit around the whole day. I probably gathered more information about the badger then you."
"Sorry Sageheart," I mumble. She was right; we had been wrong to exclude her from this. As for the whole stuff about feelings, I wasn't sure what she meant, only that Blackfire had blushed furiously when she said it. Weird.
The black tom's tone was a little harsher. "We weren't trying to keep secrets from you. We just didn't want to worry you."
"Oh?" The old she-cat arched an eyebrow. "Did you happen to notice that the badger is a pregnant female, who has made her nest by the Lily Pond? Do you know that she had her cubs just this morning? I do; I heard her on my walk, which by the way was before even you were awake Blackfire. And do you know how dangerous a mother animal can be?"
Once again, Blackfire is at a loss for words, so I step in. "No, we didn't know that," I admit. Sageheart gives me a warm smile.
"Don't worry about it sweetheart. Lots of young cats assume the same thing; an elder has served the Clan all they can and all they're good for now is kit-sitting."
"That's not true," I say, returning the smile. "I guess we both know better now, huh?" I nudge Blackfire, who stiffens like he's been electrocuted, then gives a stiff nod.
"Come on now," Sagehear says, stretching. "Let's get some sleep."
"I'll take the first watch," Blackfire says. He stands outside the pine tree as we slip under it and curl up, looking lost in thought.
I yawn and snuggle against Sageheart's warm flank. The old she-cat gives me a surprised, yet touched smile, and lays her head on my neck. "Wake me up when it's my turn," I mumble to Blackfire. Then I am fast asleep.
As early dawn light blankets the woods, I blink sleepily and peer into the shadows at the base of the pine tree. Both Sageheart and Blackfire are fast asleep, a few inches from each other. I smile softly, my gaze lingering on both of them. They look so peaceful, so dreamy, so- Blackfire opens his eyes. Mortified, I look away, but it's too late. Now he thinks I'm a stalker who watches him sleep. Once again, great.
If it's what he's thinking, which I'm sure it is, he doesn't say anything about it. Instead, he pads over to stand beside me. "Second day begins," he says softly, almost to himself. I nod in agreement.
"Snowheart..." I freeze and look around, the squirrel dropping to the ground.
"Who said that?" I growl. A cat steps out of hiding in a bush in front of me. My heart stops beating for a second. "Ivystar."
"What's wrong?" she asks. "You don't look very happy to see me."
I have to bite my tongue to prevent myself from assuring her I wasn't. "I'm just... surprised, that's all. I thought you were back at the camp, with Dustwhisker and Torntail."
"Oh, those two idiots," she says, rolling her eyes. I frown, and she laughs airily. "Don't take things so to heart, sister dear. I just sent them on a little hunt to get them out of my fur. Meanwhile, I have a proposition for you."
I narrow my eyes. "And what would that be?" She smiles deviously.
"Nothing really," she purrs, her voice sickeningly sweet. "I just want you to make me a promise." I don't say anything, so she continues. "Well?"
"What is the promise?" I say, fighting to keep my voice steady.
"Well, I need a spy." I blink.
"A spy. You know, to report back to me everything that everyone says."
A wave of anger washes over me. "Fat chance."
"I wouldn't be so quick to say no if I were you Snowheart. You have your friends to think about. If you be my spy, I'll see to it that each of your friends, especially Ashsong and her brats, get enough fresh-kill, even in leaf-bare. Otherwise... it's a tough world out there. There are all kinds of dangers that little kits could get into."
The bile rises in my throat. "You can't be serious." One glance at her face leaves no doubt that she is. "Who would I spy on? My friends, the ones you say I'll help so much by doing this?"
"The whole Clan." She whirls to face me with a sudden fire in her gaze. "I must know who are the traitors."
I take step back. She looks half-insane. "What traitors?"
She glances around wildly. "Shh. They might be listening." I blink. Finally, she seems to regain her composure. The unnatural light in her eyes dies out. "So Snowheart. Are you in?"
I know I have no choice. Hopefully, no one in our Clan is a traitor. But I can't have anything happen to little Summerkit, Aquakit, and Heatkit. Ashsong would be crushed. The extra prey would be nice too. Still, the weight of what I'm doing isn't lost on me. Ivystar's no fool. I'm basically selling my soul to the devil. Closing my eyes, I tell myself it's worth it. I think of all the cats I'm doing this for. "Okay."
Though it's afternoon, the sun's heat doesn't seem to penetrate the shadowy pine grove where we are. There is an air of supressed excitement about us, even as I and Blackfire struggle to hunt what little prey there is left. Today is the third day. Tonight, we will be heading home. And three cats will be leaving the Clan, I think to myself, and my stomach twists painfully.
Dragging a skinny vole back to the pile, I collapse beside it. "There. Two hours of hunting for that. Face it Blackfire. The other groups have wiped the territory clean."
He sits down heavily. "I guess you're right. What was Ivystar thinking, sending us all out like this right before leaf-bare? We've depleted all our sources, and who's going to eat all this fresh-kill before it rots anyway?"
"It's a mouse-brained idea all right," I agree. "But we can't do anything about it."
Sageheart frowns. "I used to admire that she-cat myself. She's changed for the worse, make no mistake about that." I nod, though I know Ivystar didn't change. She was like this all along.
"I'm just dreading seeing her kick out a group," I sigh. "But it's going to happen, like it or not." I still couldn't believe I was part of my sister's evil schemes, but it looked like the whole Clan was technically helpless the same way I was. I was doubtful I'd find any traitors anyway. Right?
"Well. We're home." I take a deep breath and slip into the thorn barrier. Sageheart and Blackfire follow. We make several trips to bring all our fresh-kill, then stand still and look around.
Ivystar purrs when she sees us, and comes towards us, Torntail and Dustwhisker on either side of her. "Hello there. You're second." She flicked her tail towards Pinecloud, Whisperpelt, and Ashsong. The three of them looked exhausted; even the kits were collapsed in a heap beside their mother. I took a step toward them, but Ivystar blocks my way. However, she doesn't even acknowledge me. "Blackfire, wow! How did you manage to do so well? When I chose you for the Council, I didn't know quite how extraordinary you really were." She waved her tail alluringly in front of his face. I felt myself bristle for some reason, probably because I was so stressed and angry at Ivystar. Venom coursed through my veins as she flirted with the black tom.
Blackfire stood stiffly, his eyes darting from side to side, then tried to brush past her. She didn't let him. "The others helped," he muttered.
"Oh really? Even Sageheart?" The way she said Sageheart's name suggested it was a bad word, or an insult. I let out a low growl, and she gave me an amused glance. "Did you forget Snowheart?" The others look puzzled, but I just grit my teeth and shake my head.
"Good," she says, smiling. "Oh look, more returning heroes." Blackstorm, Weaselclaw, and Spiritsky pad in. Blackstorm looks irritated, Spiritsky looks panicked, and I don't have time to see Weaselclaw before he bounds to Ivystar's side and starts jabbering about his hunt. She listens with an expression of completely fake interest.
Turning away in disgust, I join my friends. "How did it go?" In response, Pinecloud collapses against me with a gusty sigh.
"Three kits. Three kits. Three kits! Three days! Ugh." I laugh and lick the top of her forehead gently while giving Ashsong, who has gathered her litter protectively, a reassuring glance.
Whisperpelt returns my smile. "How did it go with you? And Blackfire? Was he as mean as always, or nicer?"
We trade stories for about ten minutes. It's good to be all together again. Finally, the last group stumbles into camp and drops their prey down. Ivystar scampers onto Leader's Rock and stands over us. Her silky silvery fur blows around her thin, tall frame, making her a gorgeous silhouette against the now dark sky. She gives the toms a moment to drink her in before speaking.
"Well, it looks like everyone's group has done well. However, there are of course, some cats who have done exceptionally well. And some who haven't." The clan is silent, so she continues. "As you know, SnowClan needs to prepare for a cold, hard leaf-bare. We can't afford extra mouths to feed." She stepped off Leader's Rock and beckoned. "I and my Council shall inspect the piles of fresh-kill." Blackfire gets up and trudges over. Beetlefur, Thornfur, and Weaselclaw join him, puffing out their chests importantly.
Slowly, the five cats make their way around. Everyone else is silent, except for Torntail and Dustwhisker, who have nothing to worry about since they spent their three days being Ivystar's personal slaves. Something which I fear I might end up turning into. When they stop in frong of Sageheart and I, my belly clenches. Ivystar's green, snake-like eyes, harden when she looks me over, but then she looks at Blackfire and smiles. "Your group did great, thanks to you." I bristle, but they've already moved on.
"What is this?" she snaps when she reaches Pinecloud's group. The kits hide behind Ashsong. Pinecloud flinches, but her tone remains steady.
"Prey. Fresh-kill. Food."
"Oh really?" A horrid smirk tugs at the corners of our leader's mouth. My stomach pitches dangerously. This means trouble. "Did you think it was enough?" Whisperpelt gives out a faint gasp and sways on her paws. Pinecloud supports her, eyes blazing.
"Yes. We slaved and overworked ourselves to get this much." I can't believe how much nerve she has. I'd expect and totally understand it if she had flung herself down at Ivystar's paws to plead for mercy. Maybe the knowledge that you were going down gave you strength. Or maybe she was just way braver than I was.
"Really? Did all of you help?" Her eyes cut towards Ashsong and the kits. The queen's golden eyes start to blaze. Protecting your kits can give you courage too, I guess.
"I helped all I could. And I thought you said kits don't count as cats."
"They don't," Ivystar said. She bent down and tapped Summerkit's head lightly with a single claw. "Hey there sweetiepie," she cooed. Ashsong bristled, but before she could do anything, Aquakit swiped at the leader's paw.
"Leave her alone!" Despite her tiny stature, the dark gray kit jumped to her feet, whiskers bristling, dark aqua eyes bright with outrage. That's it. Their fate is sealed. Tears of anger began gathering in the corners of my eyes, and a lump forms in my throat.
But Ivystar isn't going to be so merciful as to banish them instantly. Like she's hunting a cornered mouse, she circles them, her eyes never leaving them, tail twitching tauntingly. "Does everyone hear that? The little kit doesn't want me touching her sissy." A ripple of cruel laughter spreads through the crowds. Only the other she-cats, I, and Blackfire don't laugh.
"This isn't funny," I hiss through clenched teeth. Sageheart nods stiffly, her eyes riveted on the scene.
"I think we have a clear group that needs to be banished. Not only did they not catch enough prey, but they disrespected their leader, were rude, and taught their kits to say abdominable things. Justice is served. Pinecloud, Whisperpelt, Ashsong and your trash, get out. You are relieved from all duties as warriors and all rights as queens. In other words, if you are found on our borders by dawn, we will kill you."
I felt sick. I was about to throw up. The world was pitching crazily, or maybe it was just me. "You can't." At first, I wasn't sure it was me who had spoken. Then I realized all eyes had turned to me, and I felt my pelt prickle uncomfortably. This is so not good.
"Excuse me?" Any other cat would have been yelled at by now, or dead, but Ivystar remained silent, giving me a chance to take it back. To rejoin her side. It was probably my first test as her spy. And already I was going to fail. But I didn't care. My friends were more important.
"You can't do this. They don't deserve to leave. Be banished. Whatever."
She cocks an eyebrow. An amused expression is on her face, but I know it's only for the benefit of the Clan. I can see the rage building in her darkening eyes. "Would you like to join them?"
Even though it's the most obvious comeback in the world, it still hits me hard. I don't want to stay in SnowClan for selfish reasons. I mean, I love the place. And who knows what will happen if I leave? But how do you make that choice: clan loyalty or friendship? "I..."
"Don't do this Snowheart." I don't know when Pinecloud approached me, but suddenly she's right next to me, hissing in my ear. "It's not worth it. SnowClan needs you."
I stare at her, my mind rishing headlong through all the memories we have, starting when we were kits and I poked her in the ear when she was born. "Pinecloud, I can't let you guys go."
She shakes her head. "And your solution to that is to come with us? Snowheart, that isn't going to help anyone. Sometimes, you have to make the right choice, and it's not always the most obvious or the one that makes the most sense. Staying here might feel like you're abandoning us, but really, you're protecting what we love most. SnowClan-"
"Enough!" Ivystar's tail lashes impatiently. "I have no use for these petty emotional displays. The choice is yours Snowheart."
"What choice?" I stall.
Her eyes are slits. "Your friends are leaving no matter what. Will you go with them, or stay?"
I glance around the assembled cats. Aside from my friends, I don't see one friendly face. Wait. My eyes meet a copper pair. Blackfire. Is it just me, or do I see pleading in his gaze? For what? I shake it off. He's probably enjoying this. "I'll stay."
Pinecloud smiles, but I can barely see her face through my tears. I am only faintly aware of Ivystar's command. "Good. Now get out!"
Pinecloud licks me on the ear, and I bury my face in her fur. Whisperpelt and Ashsong join me. I'm the only one crying. The others look grim and determined, but there is no mistaking the sadness in their eyes. "This isn't the Clan I love Snowheart," Ashsong whispers. "It's not the one I want to raise my kits in. But it's my Clan still. Promise you'll protect it for me?"
"I promise." I curl my tail around her kits and lick each one of them. Heatkit, with his disgruntled expression and his indignant gaze pointed towards his former love, Ivystar. Summerkit, with her scared eyes yet sweet disposition. And Aquakit, who I'd hoped to mentor someday, with her vivacious and untameable spirit. How can life go on without any of them?
The battered patrol turns and slips out the thorn barrier for the last time. The clan is silent, but no one speaks out in their defense either. I'm the only one dumb enough to do that. But... I don't have to be Ivystar's spy anymore. Heatkit, Summerkit, Aquakit, all my friends, are gone. She has nothing to hold over my head.
Then my mind goes back to the promise I just made. I intend to keep it, no matter what the cost. You know what they say. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. My friends are gone, probably for good now. But I have my enemies. And I'm going to play that card for all it's worth.
However, now the only thing I want to play with is my broken heart. Correction. The universe, everyone else, is playing with my heart, and all I want to do is sit in the remains of what was once my life. I collapse into my nest, the empty den a cruel reminder of what I just lost. Blackstorm pads in after several minutes. I can feel her gaze resting on me for several moments, but I don't look up. Finally, she goes to sleep, the silence broken only by a light snore.
I'm tired after three long days of surviving, or whatever you'd call it, but I can't sleep. I'll just take a quick walk, I decide. I slip out of the camp. Good thing Ivystar stopped posting so many guards in the night. Now there is only one right outside her den. I don't know what good that'll do for the Clan, but then again, Ivystar probably doesn't care as long as her own hide is safe.
The night air is crisp and cold around me as I scramble down the rocky slope and enter the pine forest. Moonlight pours down on my pelt, turning it's swirled colors to silver. I don't know what I'm out here for, but it's better then being trapped in my den with all the painful memories. Why did this have to happen, as if things weren't bad enough?
Suddenly, I hear a sound in the stillness. It's far away, but there's no mistaking it. Somewhere in the darkness, a cat is in pain! I rush forward, pausing every few seconds to stop and listen. It comes again and again, punctuated by other sounds, sounds I don't even want to think about.
By now, I can recognize the cries, and fear gives me legs wings. I burst into a clearing, not caring that I just crossed SnowClan's border. Whisperpelt is clinging to the broad back of a mother badger, her eyes closed and her claws unsheathed. Pinecloud darts in whenever she can, but she has a heavily bleeding cut above one eyes, and looks exhausted. Ashsong is desperately trying to herd her kits away from two badger cubs, but just then the mother badger shakes Whisperpelt off. Her body lands with a thud that is muffled by the sound of the bader's roar as she thunders towards Ashsong and her hapless kits.
"Leave them alone!" I don't even realize what I've done till I'm sailing through the air, and by then it's too late. I slam into her and we both go rolling. Though every inch of me aches from the impact, I leap to my paws before she can get up and deliver a slash across the nose.
Then I see the cubs. Their round black eyes stare up at me, and I can feel my anger ebb away. "Run!" I screech. My friends don't need a second warning. Each scoops up a kit and races out of there. I follow, hoping desperately that the badger will stay with her cubs. Over the thudding of my heart and the tearing of bracken, I don't hear anything. She didn't follow us. Then I realize that we're back in SnowClan territory. This is not good for my friends; already I can see the first streaks of dawn on the horizon, but if they go back the other way, the badger will definitely find them, as her den is there and she won't leave her cubs.
I come upon them huddled by a large hazel bush. I can see in their eyes that they were just thinking the same thing that went through my mind. Still, that's not the first thing Ashsong says. "Thank you. You saved my kits."
I sit down heavily. "Not really. Now what will we do?"
Dawn is just breaking over the horizon by the time we make it around the side of the mountain and out of sight from the camp. It was my idea to bring them to the other end of SnowClan's territory, but it took a lot of will and determination to make the long journey in the night with three young kits. As we stagger into the valley, I scan the sides of the rocky cliffs for some place where my friends can rest. If our side of the mountain has a ledge big enough for an entire camp, surely we can find place for three she-cats and three kits. At least, that's what I tell myself.
"If Ivystar find us..." Whisperpelt's eyes are large and terrified in her skinny frame.
"She won't," I growl. "You can hunt, and I'll visit with food as often as I can." We all know the truth: this is no kind of a life for any cat. Eventually, something will happen, a kit will get hurt, someone will starve or get sick in leaf-bare, or... they'll be discovered. I swallow hard. "Come on," I say, trying to appear more confident then I feel. "Let's find a good place to stay."
"How about there?" Pinecloud scrambles upwards. We follow, the kits banging against our chests as we struggle up the shifting shale and rock under our paws. A small cave, hidden behind a large boulder, just perfect for them. I lead the way inside. It is dark, but cozy, and dead bracken already litters the floor, making it more homely.
"I have to go," I say. "Bye!"
"Bye!" they chorus. I take one last mental snapshot of their shapes against the rock, knowing I might never see them again. Then I turn and make my way around the hillside. As I enter SnowClan's camp, my blood freezes. Ivystar and the Council are just exiting her den. Her eyes narrow.
"Where have you been Snowheart?"
I feel my blood run cold. "I... Just for a morning walk." Blackfire's eyes meet mine. I can't tell what he's thinking, but then he speaks out.
His voice is sneering, but there's something else in it too. "Oh please. Little miss Softheart was obviously moping about because her friends left. Admit it Snowheart. You're weak."
I guess what he's up to. I have no idea why he's protecting me, but I lower my eyes and try to look guilty, which is quite easy, because I am, though not of that and not of any real crime. "It's true."
Ivystar's eyebrows arch, but she seems to decide it's not worth pursuing. "Beetlefur, go get me some fresh-kill."
"Yes Ivystar." He darts off instantly.
I wait patiently. "You are dismissed." Trying to hide my relief, I dart into the den. Blackstorm is grooming herself near her nest. She looks up.
"Hello," she meows curtly. I nod. Though she was my mentor, we never had any real bond. But now that it's just the two of us, it looks like we have to tolerate each other.
With a sigh, I lie down in my nest. The next thing I know, Blackfire's head pokes in. "Can I talk to you?" he hisses at me urgently. I spring up and follow him out of the camp quickly.
"What is it?" I say, trying to keep my fur flat.
"What were you doing out of camp? You're not the type to go out on a self-pity walk. Did it have anything to do with the fresh badger scent I found this morning by any chance?"
"I don't answer to you!" I snap. I know I'm being ungrateful, but I can't tell him about my friends. It would be betraying them. More gently I add, "I appreciate your help Blackfire, but I really can't tell you. It's a..."
"Secret?" he spits. "I see." Without another word, he turns and goes back into the camp. I give a miserable sigh. After a few more minutes, I follow him back in. He's talking with Beetlefur, but his golden gaze cuts into me just as harshly as if we were face-to face.
"Snowheart!" Ivystar calls curtly. I pad over hurriedly and raise my eyebrows questioningly. "I need a favor."
"What is it?" I murmur, trying to hide the bitterness in my voice.
"I need you to find out what Blackstorm thinks of me. Can you do that?" I nod wordlessly. She stalks off, waving her plumed tail high in the air. With a snort of disgust, I head back to my den. How can my life get any worse?
"Are you sure you guys are fine?" I study my friends' pelts critically. Ashsong is too busy gobbling down the fresh-kill I brought to respond. My own belly rumbles, but I ignore it. Blackfire hasn't been bringing me any prey since our fight, and it feels like forever since I've last eaten, but this is more important, I remind myself.
"We are," Pinecloud assures me, which is a tough sell since she looks about ready to topple over. Ashsong draws back and she and Whisperpelt take their turn. The kits nestle beside their mother's stomach, too weak to play or scamper about me like they usually do. My heart twists painfully.
"Is there anything else I can do?" I beg.
"No, you've done everything you could. We're so grateful." Whisperpelt nuzzles me gently, but I can barely see her through the tears. This is no way to live! I'm burning up with the unfairness of their situation. And it's all Ivystar's fault.
"There you are!" a voice says sharply. We wheel around as one to see Blackfire making his way up the rocky slope, his face a mask of accusation. Anger flares up in me.
"You followed me!" I snap. He rolls his eyes.
"Oh please. I think I have a right to." He scampers up and drops a large hare in front of us. My nostrils quiver, but I resist the temptation. The others follow suit. Whisperpelt's eyes are huge with fear. He looks around with a half-amused grin. "What? I'm not going to tell Ivystar, don't worry. Not all toms are mindless robots you know."
"Then what do you want?" I hiss. The others relax, but I'm not letting my guard down. He's up to something.
Blackfire stares at me. "Face it Snowheart. If you're telling them not to trust me, you're telling them not to trust you. Ivystar's spy." I'm practically shaking with rage. I hate him! How dare he?
"That's different! How can you say that when I've done nothing but try to help them-" I trail off, choked by my own anger. He looks surprised.
"I didn't mean it like that." I narrow my eyes. Now his face takes on a kit-like pleading look I've never seen on any tom's, let alone Blackfire's face before. "Come on Snowheart. You know I didn't. I meant, we can both be undercover. A team." For a second the earnestness in his voice shocks all of us into silence, but then he seems to realize it. His face flushes, and his lip curls defensively. "Oh I get it. You're too high and mighty to let me join in. I'm just a tom."
Somehow I don't have the heart to snap back anymore. A strange excitement flows through my veins when I recall the look on his face when he tried to apologize. "No, it's not like that." I glance at my friends. Pinecloud is too busy making kissy faces to even notice that I'm staring right at her, but Whisperpelt and Ashsong nod. I'll deal with Pinecloud later. "You can help, I mean, if you want to."
"I do," he says gruffly. "Ivystar's a fox-heart, and I'm not being part of her dumb Council if I can't stab her in the back."
"Well said," I meow. Turning to the others, I say, "We'd better get back now. Bye!"
They wave, and Blackfire and I scramble down the slope, leaving all the fresh-kill behind for them. "I have more," Blackfire says. "We could share."
"Thanks," I say. "But won't that attract too much attention? We can't risk it."
He shrugs. "I'll just slip it into your den. Some for Blackstorm too."
"Thanks," I murmur. He nods briskly and trots ahead. I find a small smile creeping across my lips as I watch him. For the first time, I have hope that Ivystar can be overthrown. As I gaze upon the rising sun across the barren landscape, I understand for the first time what Honeywind and Beepelt meant about having a heart of snow. I not only want to help my friends, but I'm doing it for SnowClan too. For once, my jealousy of Ivystar isn't dominating my thoughts. And that's a start.