A small leaf of dried coltsfoot landed on Finchnose's nose. Giving a sneeze, she pushed the sorted heap of yellow flowers to the back of her stock and started on a jumbled pile of chervil and burdock roots.
"Finchnose?" Wetstream padded in, gazing about the Chamber as if she still wasn't used to being in there. Finchnose couldn't blame her; she and her friends had only just become true members of the rebellion a few days ago. "Can I have something for this cut on my paw? I cut it on a stone while hunting."
"Sure," the medicine cat said, padding over. She quickly chewed up some herbs and applied the juices to Wetstream's paw, then bandaged it tightly. "That's a nasty cut, but it'll be all right provided you stay off your paws for a few days."
The dark gray she-cat's tinted yellow eyes flashed irritably, clearly unhappy with the prospect of being practically bedridden when she had just joined the rebellion, but she said nothing, only muttered a hasty word of thanks and headed for her nest on the far side of the Chamber.
Feeling her stomach complain loudly, Finchnose gave up sorting herbs and selected a mouse. Preferring not to eat down here; it made her feel claustrophobic, she exited the Chamber through the thick tangled curtain and padded down the Tunnels, her pawsteps ringing around the earthen walls. Passing through the Hall, she reached the main entrance and sat down, breathing in the cool air coming from outside. It smelled of wet earth and constant rain, though the sun was out now, and she could hear birds singing. That was one of the things she missed most about her old life; being outside.
As she bit into her fresh-kill, Finchnose berated herself furiously. And would you rather have the outdoors and lose every bit of freedom and family you ever possesed? She tried to push away the recollections, but they kept coming, the screams, the cries of pain and horror, her name being shouted, over and over again... Finally, her head hurt so much that she lay back and gave in.
She had only been an apprentice when Viperstar had become leader, but the memory was burned into her mind like an everlasting mark. That was the first, and only time she had actually seen the horrid tom in person. She would never forget the murderous look in his lifeless blue eyes, which were pale and devoid of any emotion whatsoever, like a frigid artic landscape.
Not to say he hadn't had his charms. He could persuade anyone of anything, and that was how he got most of his followers. By fooling them into thinking that this was all for the best. He didn't bother to mention that disobeying him or placing even a whisker out of place would mean a one way trip to StarClan.
Finchnose's one consolation was that she had seen right through him, and, though she could never imagine how truly evil he was, hadn't trusted him from the start. She didn't think her parents did either, but they went along with GreenClan's new set of absurd rules, to protect her, Finchnose had later realized. She never really knew how much Strikefur and Goldenshimmer had done for her till they weren't there to do it anymore. Tears pricked the back of her eyes, but she shook them away. She was stronger then that. She had to be. There were too many cats depending on her for her to fail them by being weak.
Still, the images flashed through her mind. That fateful day when Viperstar had declared all medicine cats had to be employed for GreenClan, meaning that they couldn't provide care and help to cats he didn't approve of, nor could they talk to StarClan without permission, or predict things that he didn't agree with. Strikefur, standing up in a crowd of shivering, helpless cats, raising his head, his blue eyes defiant and protective. Her heart, clenching, knowing what he was about to do, opening her mouth to stop him, yet knowing it was too late. Claws flashing as two GreenClan warriors knocked him down. It had all been over in a few minutes; he lay on the ground, his life-blood leaking over her paws like a last desperate plea for help. Then the terrible, engulfing sadness.
Goldenshimmer had never been the same after that. Circles had appeared under her once merry bronze eyes. The luster and laughter disappeared from her personality completely. Finchnose had struggled with her mother's situation at first, but eventually she had stopped blaming her. She couldn't take it. She just wasn't strong enough. But I have to be, just like I was then.
After her father's death, Finchnose had strived to provide for herself and Goldenshimmer, whose health had begun a rapid decline. She had overworked herself, hunting enough to feed them both and give the required 'payments' to GreenClan. At the end of her long days, she didn't have any time to do medicine cat duties or the such, as she was too exhausted.
Still, she had tried her best, for Goldenshimmer's sake, till her mother finally died in leaf-bare. She was happy then, at least, Finchnose reflected. It was true. Moments before her death, Goldenshimmer had suddenly snapped back to her old self.
"Finchnose," she had told her daughter. "I'm going to be with Strikefur, at long last. Take care, my love. I'll always remember you, and watch over you. My love will be with you all your life."
Crying, Finchnose had mourned and buried her. The next morning, she left their old home near the middle of GreenClan territory, vowing never to return. She had fled, going on the run. Since she was registered to make payments, the GreenClan warriors had been on her tail for a long time, and she would've been caught by them had she not met Strongheart. They had become fast friends, and upon meeting Silverbreeze and Reedfur, Finchnose had known she had found something special, a place where she could belong. Together, they had started the rebellion, and they planned to stick with it through to the bitter end.
Finishing her mouse, the small brown she-cat headed back inside, her expression a whirlwind of emotions. It had been a mistake, allowing those old memories to surface. Now she felt like a giant claw had reached through her and left her with a jagged hole in her heart. "Goldenshimmer," she whispered softly. "If you're listening, tell me this. Can I ever really heal?"
Shudders ran through Reedfur's body, and a cold sweat cast a sheen across his black pelt. He knew he was dreaming, he must be dreaming, but oh, it seemed so real.
A cruel, cold laugh echoed around the dark cave which he was trapped in, terrifying him more. He pressed his back against the wall, regardless of the sharp stones that pressed into his spine, only wanting to get away from the shadow that was making its way towards him in the darkness, the pair of scathing blue eyes, so cold he could feel himself shivering, hear the unspoken ridicule and disdain for him ring in his ears.
"No..." he moaned, burying his face in his paws, as if to block it all out. It didn't work. The taunts, the sting of claws and bite of the long reed whip against his skin, came, like he knew it would. It always did, when you were Reedfur and you were standing next to Viperstar. He had learned to cope with the inevitable. Curling into a ball to hide your tears worked. So did biting your tongue to keep from crying out.
But nothing could block out the words, raining like meteors from above, paralyzing him with the sheer truth of them.
"You are worthless. You will never amount to anything."
"Short on prey again, huh Reedfur? We should've fed you to the Beasts while we had the chance, though they would probably spit you out like the crowfood you are."
And of course, who could forget Viperstar's parting words to him when he had been fired from his job as assistant: "Get lost you vermin! Don't show your face around here ever again! No one has ever cared about you, and no one will miss you when you die!" And all that for dropping the GreenClan tyrant's food while he was in a bad mood.
Breathing hard, Reedfur awoke. His heart was pounding loudly in his chest, and he looked around the Chambers frantically, as if still enclosed in his dank little assistant's cave in Viperstar's headquarters. All was quiet though, and gradually he begain to assure himself it was all right.
But it wasn't all right, not really. Reedfur could feel the old doubts stretching up their tentacles again, latching onto him, dragging him back into the gloomy darkness. I can't do this. I never could. Not even for Silverbreeze, not even for the best friends I've ever had. I just can't.
"Silverbreeze?" Fernheart asked, staring at her unblinkingly. "Are you okay? You look kind of... distant."
"Huh?" The silver she-cat shook herself from her thoughts. "Oh, sorry. I was just thinking."
Fernheart's large hazel eyes glistened with empathy. "About what?"
"About life," she said haltingly. "As it used to be for me."
"You mean before GreenClan?" Fernheart inquired, sitting down and wrapping her tail around her paws attentively. It was clear she expected a story. The two she-cats were in the Hall, having just come back from a hunt and depostited their prey in the Chamber. "Before Viperstar? When the original Clans existed? Which one did you belong to?"
Another cat might've been intimidated by the questions, but Silverbreeze didn't mind. She enjoyed talking. Sometimes, it was the only way to resolve things. "Yeah," she said. "I belonged to BreezeClan."
Fernheart cracked a smile. "That explains your bubbly personality. I don't remember much about what it was like before Viperstar took over, but I do know that I was in IceClan, and happy too." A wistful look took over her face. "Happiness... I barely know what that feels like anymore."
Silverbreeze gave a small smile, feeling a sudden urge to comfort the younger cat. "I remember what that used to be for me. Curled up in the apprentice's den with my friends, talking and laughing, knowing that my parents were safely across from me in the gorse thicket."
"I bet you had a lot of friends," she said softly. "Being as pretty and nice as you are."
"That's not true," Silverbreeze said, shaking her head. "I could be quite a jerk back then. But I was well-loved anyway." Her face darkened. "Till Viperstar came along. My dad was a great hunter and fighter, so Viperstar, I think he was even Viperfang back then, targeted him as one of his first warriors."
Fernheart leaned forward a bit. "And...?"
"He refused." Pride and regret mingled in her voice. She knew her dad had made the right choice, but where had that gotten them? Separated, lonely, and living in fear that every cat coming to visit bore news of his demise. Bladeclaw had had to go into exile so Viperstar wouldn't catch him and either force him to join GreenClan's ranks or torture him in some horrible way. She hadn't seen her father since.
"Oh." Fernheart seemed to sense the hidden pain in Silverbreeze's tone. "I'm so sorry."
"It's not exactly your fault," she said, turning to face her. "None of us asked for this to happen. It just did, and now we're going to have to battle it."
The brown she-cat nodded and squared her jaw. "I know. That's why I was so excited when your friend, Finchnose, came and told us about this. It's an opportunity for a life time for me. Something I've been wanting to do for a long time; stick up to Viperstar and his pack of mousebrains."
"Thanks," she said, putting an extra bust of joy into her voice. However, when her companion left, she stared up at the tiny opening in the Hall, which provided the burst of light that came down, reflected off shards of shining rock, and lit up the entire enclosure. The stars were like chips of ice in the sky, and she wondered if StarClan even existed anymore, whether they cared.
"In case you do," she said, "And in case you can send a message to my father-" She refused to believe he was up there. He had found a way to escape, she knew he had. "-tell him I love him. Tell him I think of him every day, and that I know we'll be reunited someday. I know we will."
Despite her words, a lone tear trickled down the side of her cheek and splashed to the ground.
Strongheart paused to look out over the plain of grass, the thrush and field mouse still held in his jaws. It was a good thing he had gone out to hunt alone; he was beginning to feel the familiar tug on his heart that meant a Frostpaw memory was coming on. He didn't want to remember what had happened to his brother, but he couldn't bear thinking that he could forget, erase that part of his life like it had meant nothing to him at all. Frostpaw, up in StarClan, would be so hurt. So he let his mind and heart travel back to happier days, spent in the SunClan camp with his brother.
After a few moments of reliving the best parts of his life, his thoughts switched to when everything changed. The prey fell from his mouth as the world disappeared around him, and he was transported back in time, to a stormy, blood-filled night.
"Frostpaw, you can't go. You just can't. I can't lose you. Please. We have to stick together."
The shadows of the trees above cast eerie patterns across the tom's pale white face, illuminating the torn look in his blue eyes. But he seemed to steel himself, and shook his head. "I'm sorry Strongpaw," he said, a note of desperation in his voice. "But I love her. I have to make sure she's okay."
"Forget Carrotpaw!" Rage suddenly overtook Strongpaw at his brother's stubborness. Why does he care so much about a she-cat anyway? Don't I mean anything to him anymore?
"Look," he said in a more reasonable tone, fighting to keep his cool. "If Viperstar finds you with a BreezeClan she-cat, he'll kill you for breaking the warrior code."
Frostpaw peeled his lips back in a snarl. "Like Viperstar knows anything about the warrior code. I'm going Strongpaw, and you can't stop me." He darted forward, pressed his cheek to his brother's, and, without another word, disappeared into the night.
"Frostpaw!" Strongpaw yelled, but his cries were swallowed up by the stillness.
"No." A blood-stained body. "No." Coming closer, he could see that the pelt under the scarlet liquid was white. "No, please no." The stench of death hitting him at the same time as the familiar scent of his littermate did, his knees buckling, sinking to the ground. "No! No!"
A cold and unforgiving moon, staring down at him, when, several hours later, he came to. Tears still caking his face. The knowledge that he had failed the one cat he would have died for.
"Excuse me?" A voice snapped him out of his reverie. He looked up to see a small, silvery tabby she-cat, a deep scar cutting across over one of her green-blue eyes. "Are you part of the rebellion?"
"The what?" he stammered, staring. Her companion, a brown tabby tom, took a step forward.
"We heard about you," he explained. "We were listening nearby while this medicine cat talked to Bramblepath. Do you know her?"
"Yeah..." he said slowly, still trying to catch up. "I know them both. So... you want to join?"
"Yes please," said the she-cat. "I'm Ivyfleet, and this is Tornadoheart."
"Strongheart. So you want to join up with us, huh? Follow me," Strongheart said. He led them to the boulders, then dashed inside quickly... and slammed into Silverbreeze. "Sorry!" he yelped, helping the gorgeous tabby to her paws, then snatching his paw away hastily.
She looked hurt for an instant, but then it vanished. "Strongheart, I don't think I can do this-"
"Silverbreeze! I'm sorry, it's just not working-" Finchnose skidded to a stop with a frown.
"Finchnose! Guys! I don't think- What?" Reedfur blinked. Shock registered on each of their faces as they realized what was happening. Then, without warning, Silverbreeze broke out laughng. Soon they were all rolling on the floor, chortling like a quatret of idiots.
"Guys," Strongheart gasped when he could breathe. "There are two new cats out there, waiting to join the rebellion. Are we going to let them down?"
"No," Finchnose said firmly, her eyes filling with determination. "I think we've all been drowning in our memories a little." She looked from cat to cat, and one by one, they all nodded. "But that's over. We have each other, and many more friends." As if on cue, Aquatail walked in.
"Well, are we letting those poor cats in or not?"
The four friends exchanged glances. Strongheart cracked a smile. "Well, only if they can pass the ultimate test. Can they stand Reedfur's snoring?"