Shock shot through Finchnose, and she dropped down almost instinctively into the grass, camouflaging her pelt with her surroundings. Strongheart signaled that the others should do the same before crouching down beside her, his amber eyes narrow slits.
Silverbreeze looked infuriated. "This is not how I imagined this going," she hissed, lashing her tail. Reedfur nodded agreement.
"We'd better back away from here before deciding what to do. We don't want the GreenClan cats catching us by surprise." That was Bramblepath, who never seemed to lose her head. Finchnose, on the other hand, felt like she was going to scream. She had been so looking forward to going home, away from all the fighting, betrayal, and bloodshed of their recent adventures. Her paws longed for the cool earth of the Tunnels, despite the darkness, and she wished they could already be lolling in the Chamber, laughing and telling jokes or chasing each other around the maze of tunnels.
But that apparently wasn't going to happen.
Nodding agreement, she called in a loud whisper, "Guys! Get back behind that hill!"
The confused group of cats murmured amongst themselves as they turned and began crowding behind a small rise that stood out against the rest of the flatland. Finchnose joined her best friends as they faced the rest of the rebellion. Each of the expressions on their face mirrored an emotion she was feeling: confusion, anger, hopelessness. They looked weary, as if their last hope of rest had just been snatched away. Wetstream gave her a sympathetic look, and Finchnose squeezed up a small smile, glad they had strong friends who had been with them from the beginning. But the other cats were beginning to look mutinous, and she couldn't blame them. The four of them had made the Tunnels sound like a paradise, a place where GreenClan wouldn't touch them for a while, and after being locked up in a gas chamber, it was exactly what the rebellion needed. Until now.
"Well," Fernheart said. "What do we do now?"
Reedfur opened his mouth, then closed it. Strongheart tore up a clump of grass. Silverbreeze and Bramblepath looked up at the sky. Finally, Finchnose felt compelled to speak, just to break the oppressive silence. "I think it's obvious. We have two choices."
"Which are?" Brightsong said, tilting her head to the side.
"We either high tail it out of here, and find another place to camp, or," she paused, glancing at the cats like Birdsong and Violentclaw, who had actually lived in the Tunnels, "we fight for the place."
Relief flowed through Strongheart at Finchnose's suggestion. So he hadn't been the only one considering the option of a fight; if the gentle medicine cat thought it might be nessecary, then surely the others would agree. Except, as his gaze travelled around, he saw shaking heads and rolling eyes. Only a handful of cats were nodding and unsheathing their claws. Most of them have never called the Tunnels home. They're tired. They won't fight. And how can we make them, after all we've put them through?
Ordinarily, Strongheart wouldn't have paid much attention to what others thought. He would have led whoever wanted to come into battle, heedless of what everyone else said. But in the short amount of time he had led the rebellion, he had realized it didn't work that way. He and his friends were responsible for all these lives; they had to make choices that the whole group agreed with.
"Can't we just find another place?" asked Snowdrift. "Even Viperstar did that much; after we destroyed his fort, he went to the canyon, and it served pretty well, didn't it?"
"Plus," added Firesoul, always practical, "If we attack GreenClan here, our location won't be a secret anymore. You can bet that they'll come back and look for us. The Tunnels will be invaded again and again."
A strange thought struck Strongheart. "Do we even know they discovered the Tunnels?"
"Of course they did!" exclaimed Reedfur in frustration. "This place is coated with their scent." Then his eyes widened. "Wait... You think... They haven't been inside?"
Silverbreeze's blue eyes flickered with hope, making her look even prettier. Strongheart brushed away the feeling. "The entrance is pretty well hidden."
"And GreenClan cats are dopes," volunteered Violentclaw.
"So maybe they haven't gotten inside yet," finished Finchnose triumphantly.
"How does that help us?" Cloverice asked. "We'd still have to go through them."
Strongheart nodded. "Maybe, but it solves the problem of them coming back. We can hide in the Tunnels and lash out at them before they know what hit them."
Jaywalker's brow furrowed. "You say that like it's already decided that we're fighting."
"We might as well take a vote," sighed Silverbreeze. "Just to be fair."
"Okay." Strongheart drew a long line in the dirt with his claw. "Everyone stand in the middle," he said, flicking his tail. "Now, if you want to fight, go to the right. If you want to find another place to camp, or go somewhere else, go to the left." Immediately, he leaped to the right. Silverbreeze followed suit. Reedfur looked torn for an instant, then joined them. However, Finchnose gave them an apologetic glance, and walked over the left side with Fernheart. Eventually, the group was split nearly straight down the middle. The only cat left was Ivyfleet. Strongheart felt his heart sink. Surely the she-cat would never choose to fight, when it could mean going up against Tornadoheart. But then Ivyfleet's backbone straightened, and she held her head high as she marched over to the right side. A wave of excitement flooded through Strongheart.
"Then it's settled. We fight."
"Okay. Battle plans." All eyes swung to Reedfur. His pelt prickled uncomfortably. Why me?
"Uh..." he said uncertainly, but his mind was already miles ahead, planning out strategies, double-crosses, and traps. Finally, he selected the most practical set from the millions piled in his mind. "Okay. I've got it."
Bramblepath's eyes widened slightly. "That was quick."
Silverbreeze grinned. "Let's hear it."
"It'll take a bit of communication and effort to pull it off," he warned. They blinked steadily back at him, so he continued. "The first part requires a spy mission. We need to figure out how many there are of them. I'd say we should do that right away, because if we go after dark it'll look suspcious. Strongheart, pick out a patrol while I tell you the rest of my plan."
"Bossy, bossy," the tom chided, but he winked and slipped off to do as instructed. A few minutes later he was back, with Wetstream, Cinderdapple, and Birdsong in tow. "Silverbreeze, you're a smooth talker. You can go with them."
"Okay. And I'll take that smooth talker thing as a compliment," she said with a smile.
"You do that," Strongheart said.
Reedfur grinned at them both. "Okay. You guys can go right away."
Silverbreeze nodded and flicked her tail, leading the other three cats around the hill and out of sight. He had prepped them with what kind of questions to ask. Their cover story was that they were a few innocent GreenClan members who had gotten lost, and they were all supposed to act innocent and starry-eyed at meeting actual GreenClan officers. He felt like hacking a hairball just thinking about it, but they had to play to their enemy's weaknesses. In this case, ego.
Finchnose turned back to Reedfur. "What's the rest of your plan, chief?"
"I like the sound of that. Chief."
She rolled her eyes. "Reedfur."
"Right. Sorry." He paused a moment to collect his wits. There was a good chance this plan would bust, and it would all be his fault. "After we find out how many GreenClan warriors there are, we plan accordingly. We split into three patrols, two large ones and one smaller one. The first patrol will attack the GreenClan warriors under cover and try to take them by surprise. The second patrol will join when the first patrol is almost tired out, to keep the fight going longer. Then, when the GreenClan warriors are fighting for their lives, the third patrol runs straight through the battle and makes for the Tunnels. They set up position by the boulders and only let in our fighters. We can defend the entrance easily from there, and eventually the enemy has to surrender." He hoped they wouldn't see all the loopholes he had failed to fix in his mind.
Finchnose looked awed. "How did you come up with all that?"
"Never mind how he came up with it," Strongheart said brusquely. "What matters is if it works. I like the idea though. Very clever." The ginger tom tilted his head. "I think the third patrol should be all cats that know the Tunnels. How about Reedfur, Finchnose, Birdsong, and Fernheart? Finchnose, when you get there, you can set up your herbs and prepare to care for injured cats."
"Sounds good," Reedfur mewed.
"Yes," a voice purred silkily from further above the hill. "And I'm sure my GreenClan commander would just love to hear it all."
Silverbreeze glanced around the plains till she picked up a thread of GreenClan scent, relatively fresh. "This way guys," she said.
"I do not want to kiss up to a bunch of GreenClan rat-faces," Wetstream huffed angrily.
Birdsong nodded in agreement. Cinderdapple smiled patiently. "It's part of the plan. Besides, it'll all be over soon, and then you can go back to clawing their pelts off."
The others looked mildly happier at this thought. Silverbreeze smiled to herself, then paused. "There they are. Our heroes."
Birdsong wrinkled her nose. "You'd think they would at least be slightly less ugly."
"I know, right?" Wetstream agreed.
Biting her lip to stop from laughing out loud, Silverbreeze led her friends towards the GreenClan cats. She noted that there were about a dozen of them. If that's all, then we've got them licked.
"Hello there!" she called in a sunny falsetto tone, channeling all her inner peppiness to a point where she felt like a little puffball of some sort.
A gray tom she knew to be Risingheart raised his head. His eyes narrowed and he began approaching them, flanked by the rest of his group. Silverbreeze's heart sank. Where Risingheart was, Aristo was bound to be close. And she didn't see him here, which meant there were more cats in the GreenClan patrol. Oh well. They'd have to cope.
"What do you want?" Risingheart snarled once they were in earshot. Silverbreeze fluttered her eyelashes delicately, willing Wetstream to quit looking like the Grim Reaper.
"Excuse me," she purred giddily. "But are you guys, by any slim chance, actual officers of GreenClan?" She pumped such awe into the last few words that she could see the tom's chest inflate like a balloon. Score.
"Yes, as a matter of fact we are," he said, the ice melting from his expression. "Why?"
Silverbreeze nudged Birdsong, as if she could hardly contain her excitement. "They're actual officers!" she shrieked wildly.
"No way!" exclaimed Cinderdapple. "That's so cool! Do you know where we are? We were on our way to attend one of Viperstar's speeches, but we got lost." Her face fell in the perfect way of sadness; she could definitely act. Silverbreeze could see why they had fallen for the Viperstar trick when they had first met her. "I'm so disappointed; I really wanted to hear him speak."
Finally, Wetstream consented to a tiny bit of play-along. "Don't worry. At least we get to meet these brave warriors instead." She glared daggers at Risingheart, but luckily he was too egotistic to even consider the possibility that these apparently starstruck she-cats were playing him like a fiddle.
"That's right," Risingheart said. "Which speech were you planning to attend? I can point you in the right direction."
Silverbreeze's mind blanked. She put on an airhead look. "Excuse me? I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't pry, but you're obviously a great leader, so maybe you wouldn't mind me asking." She gave him a flirtatious smile, trying not to throw up at the way his eyes popped. "How many cats do you lead? I know I could never command such a big patrol." She gestured to the cats behind him.
Risingheart grinned widely, exposing rows of yellow fangs. "Oh, this isn't even half of it, honey. We've got about ten more cats in our group."
Trying to conceal her fear(and the fact that he obviously couldn't count or divide by two), Silverbreeze said, "Wow! That's amazing!"
Cinderdapple broke in. "I remember now. We were on our way to see a meeting about the rebuilding of Viperstar's old headquarters."
Silverbreeze froze, her heart pounding at Cinderdapple's bold guess. They had no idea if there was such meeting being held, and if they started getting suspcious-
"Oh, that one's straight thataway," Risingheart said, flicking his tail towards the GreenClan woods. "You'll have to travel a bit, but I'm sure the conference won't be over by the time you get there. Viperstar is dedicated to his cause."
"He certainly is," agreed Birdsong, her eyes flashing dangerously with a hidden threat. Once again, the GreenClan warrior didn't pick up.
"Thanks, bye!" Silverbreeze said, ushering her friends off before they could rip the officer to shreds. "Great job," she whispered. "We got what we came for."
Finchnose swallowed hard, gazing up at the she-cat who had spoken. She was a pretty cream she-cat with a pink scar on the side of her face. Her light blue eyes glittered as she gazed down at them, but there was a suprising lack of malice in them. She scampered down the hill and stood there, fearlessly.
With a low growl, Strongheart said, "What's to stop me from killing you right now, before you open your sneaky little mouth?"
"Because," she said simply. "I'm on your side, and I know everything about the GreenClan patrol you're about to attack."
Reedfur's eyes widened. "You can't possibly expect us to believe-"
"Shellbeam?" An incredulous-looking Firesoul appeared. "It's really you!"
A triumphant look came on Shellbeam's face. She scampered towards the ginger she-cat. "Firesoul! So you survived the collapsing of Viperstar's lair! I was so scared for you when I heard."
Firesoul turned to the others. "You can trust her. We were fellow 'traitors' to GreenClan. I don't know how I would've gotten the message about the opening to destroy the fort through the Network without her. She's a huge part of communication among rebels."
"The Network?" repeated Finchnose disbelievingly. "You work for the Network?"
Shellbeam nodded. "Yep. But after you," she nodded at Firesoul, "went missing, I decided to come look for you. The vacancy on Aristo's patrol going out here seemed the perfect place to start. You always did wish you could see the prairie."
Firesoul nodded wistfully. "And now I got my wish. Shellbeam, these are the cats of my rebellion. I'm no longer undercover. I'm a part of their group."
The cream cat's pale blue eyes widened. "Really? Cool. Maybe I can help. I do know a thing or two about the patrol, like I said before. I can help you know what you're dealing with."
Finchnose glanced at Strongheart. He gave a quick nod. She looked towards Reedfur. "Affirmative," he said. She knew Silverbreeze would agree.
The rebellion clustered together on top of the hill, cloaked in darkness. The only light came from a sliver of crescent moon and a scattering of glittering stars.
"Guys," Silverbreeze said a bit nervously, hoping they approved her idea. "There's one thing we need to do before we go in."
Strongheart turned to her, his masculine profile outlined in silver. Beside him, Reedfur was a shadow inked in black. She tried not to think of how different yet completely good-looking they both were. "We need a name. We're fighting for our home. We should know who that belongs to."
Reedfur raised his eyebrows. "The Sparklies' home?"
"No," she said hesitantly. "The Hidden."
Everyone was silent for a long time. Then, "I like it." Bramblepath nodded at her. "It captures us."
"Whoo! Sounds like we're ninjas or something!" That was Violentclaw.
Smiling, Silverbreeze nuzzled Finchnose on the ear. Her friend returned the grin. "Ready? This'll be the battle of our lives."
Fernheart nodded at them. "Lead the way."
And so, shoulder to shoulder, flanked by her friends, Silverbreeze did.