Reedfur cast one last glance over his shoulder at the two large sentry boulders that had guarded him and his friends for so long. Then, taking a deep breath, he took his place between Strongheart and Silverbreeze at the front of the group. Finchnose had fashioned a large pouch out of leaves, stuffed it full of herbs, and slung it across her neck. She smiled reasurringly at him, obviously reading the unspoken anxiety in his eyes.
"Okay," Strongheart said. The large ginger tom seemed to prepare himself for a second, then he flicked his tail and called, "Let's go!"
Behind them, the rest of the group began to move. The four of them started off, staying a few tail-lengths ahead. They would definitely need Angelcloud, Jaywalker, or Snowdrift's help getting to Viperstar's lair once in the woods, but they could find their way on the plains part of their journey just fine.
"Guys, I've been thinking," Silverbreeze said. "We need to come up with a name for our rebellion."
Strongheart rolled his eyes. "Do we really?" She frowned. "Okay, okay. How about, The Rebellion?"
The two she-cats ignored him, and Reedfur gave a small smile. Leave it to Silverbreeze to think about something like our name when we're on the most important mission of our lives. It was just another reason to admire her; she knew what she wante and stuck to it. Of course, he would never actually tell her this. His fear of rejection was too strong, not to mention the fact that a beautiful cat like her would never fall for him.
"Hm..." Finchnose said, as Silverbreeze argued over "Sparklies" and "Fox-dung Eaters". "I think we should wait, and the right name will just come to us."
Strongheart paused in the middle of explaining the merits of fox-dung. "Right. Good idea."
Reedfur sighed. "As long as we don't use either of those options."
"Hey!" exclaimed Silverbreeze. "What's wrong with Sparklies?" She nudged him, and he grinned, his fur prickling where her pelt brushed his.
They reached the woods, and Strongheart stopped and motioned. Angelcloud ran to join him. "Okay. I'll take it from here."
"Thanks," Finchnose said with a wink. "We're right beside you." The white she-cat gave her a quick nod.
"Okay," she said briskly. "Follow me." She set off at a fast-paced trot. Overhead, the sun was slowly climbing in the sky; it was late morning by now at least, Reedfur was sure. He hoped that they got there in time; even though she had promised they would, he was still a little nervous. There were so many things that could go wrong.
Finchnose tried to focus on not breathing too loudly as she practically jogged to keep up with the others. If they realized she was having trouble, they'd have to slow down, and she hated to be a burden. Glancing at Fallensky, she saw that the gray she-cat was keeping up just fine despite her twisted leg, and Angelcloud seemed to have no trouble with her splayed paw. All I have is short legs. Shame on me.
Just then, Strongheart stopped ahead of her, so she almost ran into him, and called, "Let's take a break. We need to hunt and rest."
"Why?" Snowdrift said impatiently.
"We've got time," the tom insisted. He nodded at Finchnose, his amber eyes kind, and she smiled. He had figured out she was tired on his own, and done this for her.
"Thanks," she murmured, brushing her pelt against his. He grinned and winked.
"Any time, Shorty." Before she could nip his nose off, he was gone, talking to Silverbreeze and Aquatail.
With a sigh, she headed towards the woods, though she was sure she wouldn't be able to effectively hunt anything.
"Finchnose?" Wetstream padded up behind her, and the medicine cat jumped. She hadn't heard her approach. "Want to hunt with me?"
"Sure," she said with a smile; she had seen how much prey Wetstream had brought back in the Tunnels. Then, berating herself for being so selfish, she added, "I'm not that good of a hunter though, I must warn you."
The dark gray she-cat shrugged and winked. "No one expects medicine cats to be. Come on."
Finchnose followed her into the undergrowth, though brambles scratched her already aching legs, and all she wanted to do was flop down and go to sleep. A thousand different prey-scents hit her nostrils, but all she could focus on were the more planty ones; the sharp odor of winterberries, the moist flavor of catmint clumps growing in the wet dirt, the sweet aroma of marigold flowers drifting from somewhere nearby. Her paws ached to run over the cool leaves of the herbs, squeeze the juices onto her aching pads, clip delicate buds off in her jaws, but she forced herself to focus. There, a trail of vole. Or was it squirrel. No, definitely vole. She followed it a few steps, and ran into something hard.
Without stopping to consider why the vole was dangling limply in midair, she grabbed onto it and- "If you want my prey, just ask."
"Sorry!" Finchnose said, leaping back. She felt herself blushing furiously as Wetstream watched her amusedly, still holding the vole.
"Don't worry about it. Here." She handed her a squirrel. "Let's go."
"But I didn't-" The cat was gone. Sighing, Finchnose followed. Life was grand, wasn't it?
"Finally," Strongheart couldn't keep from muttering under his breath. The sinking sun cast rays of golden light splaying across the scene before them and richoteing of the trees and bushes. A leaf-fall chill had crept into the air, and a cool breeze wafted the scent of flowers and honey towards them. However, there was something sickening about it. It was almost too sweet, as if someone had dumped it into a river of blood. He shivered and pressed against Reedfur, grateful for his friends.
If the honey and flowers were there for the smell, nothing had been done for the actual headquarters itself. The peaceful aura that pervaded the woods stopped instantly at the giant mass of gnarled, blackened, vine-covered wood that jutted out from the earth like an unsightly, grotesquely disfigured claw.
"Yikes," muttered Silverbreeze under her breath. "Someone needs to give this place a makeover, stat."
Strongheart ignored her. "Well, here we are." He narrowed his eyes. "And it's not midnight yet."
"Well, might as well set up camp," Snowdrift sighed. Aquatail nodded.
"We should be prepared," she pointed out. "Wetstream, Jaywalker, Fernheart, Violentclaw, and I will go hunting. The rest of you can make plans and rest. We'll need it."
Strongheart gave a nod. "Sounds good. Bramblepath, can you come here? We'll need your help with planning."
"Sure," she said, twitching her tail and padding over. "What's the plan?"
He gave a lopsided smile. "That's what we're trying to figure out."
"Oh." She stared at her paws, and Finchnose nudged her sympathetically, shooting Strongheart a glare. What did I do?
"We called you here because we value your opinions. We're about to enter the lion's den, and we need a foolproof plan," Finchnose said. Bramblepath gave a wan smile.
"Okay," Strongheart said. "First things first. Where are we meeting Firesoul?"
Silverbreeze beckoned Angelcloud over and repeated the questions. The large she-cat scrunched her face, thinking. "Well... I'd say over there." She motioned to the ugly formation. "But we'll have to make sure Viperstar's gone first."
Reedfur nodded. "I don't think we should all go meet her right away. It could be a trap, and it would be best to keep most of us in reserve."
"Yeah, good idea," Silverbreeze said. She looked around the group. "Strongheart, Reedfur, Finchnose and I."
"What?" said Bramblepath in protest. "We can't risk all our leaders! Let me go."
Strongheart shook his head. "No, it has to be us. If things to badly, we can either hold them off, or you can risk your necks to come save us. I'd reccomend choosing the former. But if this is a good deal, our words will hold more weight. If this cat has any sense at all, she'll want proof we're actually a rebellion and not trying to get her killed."
"She's trying to oppose Viperstar from the inside," pointed out Reedfur. "She can't have that much sense."
Silverbreeze elbowed him in the ribs. "But she has bravery."
Nodding his head, Strongheart said, "Okay. Good job team. Get plenty of rest, because now there's nothing to do but wait." As the others dispersed, he muttered under his breath, "I hate waiting."
"Have to look good while on this mission?" Finchnose teased Silverbreeze as she groomed her silver coat.
"Exactly," she said with a grin. Then her face collapsed into a more serious expression. "What if this is a trap?" she said softly.
"Then we cut and run," rumbled a voice behind them. Strongheart pressed against her briefly, before pulling away. Oddly, Silverbreeze found herself longing for him to stay, his comforting bulk and reassuring presence chasing away her fears. But that was silly. She was independent, and he was only a friend. Granted, a close friend, but weren't they all? She would trust her life to any of these cats so-
Her thinking was cut off by a voice. "Guys?" It was Tornadoheart. The dark brown tabby looked nervous. "I have a suggestion."
She looked up from washing one delicate paw. "Yes?"
He kept glancing at his paws, then shifting his eyes from side to side. Silverbreeze could feel her patience growing thin. "Well... I don't think we should do this."
"What!?" exclaimed Finchnose. Aquatail, listening nearby, looked up and narrowed her eyes.
"Why?" Bramblepath said, her green eyes attentive, a frown furrowing her brow.
"I just..." he stammered, looking flustered. "It's too risky, and-"
"We've already been over this," Silverbreeze pointed out, her voice colder then she had intended. "If you don't like it, you don't have to be a part of it."
"Besides," pointed out even cautious Reedfur. "We saw Viperstar leaving."
"No, I mean-"
"What's going on?" Ivyfleet appeared, her small frame silhoutted in the darkness.
Tornadoheart flushed, and something new, a stronger emotion then the shiftiness he'd displayed below, crept into hs eyes. Love? Interesting. "Nothing," he mumbled, staring at his paws. "I just... Never mind."
Strongheart glanced up. "It's almost midnight. Let's go."
Taking a deep breath, Silverbreeze went to stand side-by-side with her friends. Even though her heart was pounding crazily with fear, that was where she felt safest.
Moving as one, and without looking back to meet the anxious gazes they knew were following them, the four cats stepped out into the clearing. The dark shape of the wood-pile seemed even more intimidating in the night, and a shiver ran through Silverbreeze's slender body. The moon was a blank white disc in the sky, illuminating the scene just enough so she could see the cat as soon as she appeared. Her ginger pelt was like a burst of flame as she leaped nimbly from log to log, finally landing on the ground and taking a few steps towards them.
"Are you Firesoul?" asked Reedfur, his voice betraying only a slight quiver.
"Who's asking?" she said.
Strongheart raised his chin. "The four leaders of a rebellion. I'm Strongheart, this is Reedfur, Silverbreeze, and Finchnose."
She raised her eyebrows. "You trust me enough to tell me your names? Provided those are real, of course."
Finchnose shrugged. "We know yours. And yes they are, though you might not take my word for it."
Firesoul seemed to relax a little. "You do know I'm in charge for Viperstar, right? I could get you all killed." They nodded. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Well, you said you were leaders. Are there more of you then?"
"Yes," Silverbreeze nodded, fixing her blue eyes on the pair of wary green ones. "You can trust us. Can we say the same for you?"
The she-cat paused, then nodded quickly. "Get the others, quickly."
"I'm on it." Reedfur dashed across the clearing. Moments later, the rest of the rebellion had assembled themselves and stood ready and at attention. Firesoul's eyes widened at their numbers, though she didn't say anything.
"Follow me. We need to work fast, and divide into groups." Strongheart opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off. "Trust me. We all will get caught if we go thumping around there in a large herd."
"Okay," Birdsong said. "Let's divide up."
A few minutes later, they were in three separate groups. Firesoul beckoned with her tail. "I'll need to direct each group, so wait for my cue." She pushed aside a few scraps of dirt to reveal a large hole at the base of the wood pile. Reaching in, she dragged out two toms and shoved them into the crowd. "Guards. Make short work of them." When no cat moved, she snapped, "Kill them!"
"Firesoul! What are you-" The gray tom was cut off as Snowdrift fixed her teeth around his throat. Moments later, Violentclaw and Fernheart had taken down his companion. Silverbreeze felt her stomach twist as Firesoul kicked dirt over the bodies with a face.
Finchnose whimpered, and Firesoul rolled her eyes. "Get used to it." In a softer tone she added, "It's the only way."
"I know," the small brown she-cat said, and Silverbreeze laid her tail across her friend's flank comfortingly. She knew how hard it was for the medicine cat to see cats killed, or even hurt, without helping.
"Ready?" said Firesoul, sticking her head back into the opening. "Coast is clear. No one heard us."
Silverbreeze took a deep breath and stared at her friends. They nodded, and she smiled as she looked into each one of their eyes, hazel, amber, and green. After what she'd just seen, she wasn't sure if she would even make it out alive. She wanted to remember them.
We're going straight into Viperstar's lair. Talk about lion's den. Steadying her nerves, Silverbreeze followed Firesoul into the darkness.
"Rats," hissed the tom. "They got in."
His companion snorted. "And our dear friend's a no-show. What a surprise." He curled his lip. "I knew spies were a bad idea. You can't trust them. They go soft."
"Agreed." They headed back to the agreed meeting place and paused, staring out at the assembled cats. All eyes were on a black tom standing on a rock above, his voice convincing and persuasive.
"Let's save the bad news for later," suggested the lighter of the toms.
The other, a dark gray, nodded, his olive eyes cold. "Viperstar doesn't appreciate unhappiness. Let's get out of here while we can, and leave our dear friend to answer to him. And that traitor, Firesoul."
Chuckling, the two of them padded in and joined the back of the crowd. High above their heads, the same moon shined down over the gnarled wood-pile. The stars twinkled urgently, as if trying to send a message to the cats inside, but it was no use. They were already in the den.