Silverbreeze's legs trembled with anticipation as she crouched in the tall grass. "I'm leading the second patrol, right?" she clarified with Strongheart for the umpteenth time.
Rolling his eyes in exasperation, he let out his breath slowly. "Yes. Ask me again and I'll kill you." Then his amber eyes softened. Touching his nose briefly to her ear, he mewed, "Good luck out there. Try not to get yourself killed."
She gave him a warm smile, touched by his concern. "Okay," she murmured. He gave her a brisk nod, stood, and walked over to the first patrol, which he was leading, his muscular frame outlined in shadows against the velvety night sky.
Turning to her own patrol, Silverbreeze counted heads again. "Jaywalker, Cloverice, Brightsong, Bramblepath, and Ivyfleet. Are you all ready?"
A chorus of affirmatives reached her ears, strengthening her courage.
"Who are we? What are we fighting for?"
"That's right," she said, blue eyes blazing. "And GreenClan won't forget it any time soon."
Nearby, Strongheart and Fallensky were milking the last bits of information out of Shellbeam, getting her to tell them every last fact she knew about the patrols they were up against. The cream she-cat was responding avidly, her eyes keen and knowledgable. Silverbreeze wasn't sure how they could've managed without her. Her insight had let them make important changes to the plan in order to rival their enemy's advantages; she had proven to be a priceless addition to the team.
Finchnose was arranging her herbs one last time, before stuffing them all into her leaf-pouch. Her hazel eyes were filled with uncharacteristic battle rage. It is the Tunnels, after all. That place was our home away from home. It sheltered us when we had nowhere else to go, when we were broken, bleeding, desperate, and with no one but each other. The memory of when it had just been the four of them was bittersweet, bringing with it the pain of losing her father and Clan, but also the joy of finding a new family in Reedfur, Strongheart, and Finchnose. But then again, her life had always been like this: a mountain range, with mountains so high she could touch the clouds, and valleys so deep she forgot everything but the darkness. "But I'll always have my friends," she whispered. She hadn't intended for anyone else to hear it, but Ivyfleet looked up.
The small silver she-cat brushed her fur against Silverbreeze's. "Yes, yes you will. We'll always be by your side."
They held each other's gazes for a long moment, each remembering when Ivyfleet, stricken by grief over Tornadoheart's betrayal, had left the rebellion and fled into the woods. But that was over now. She had proven her loyalty. That was all that was needed.
Just then, Brightsong raised her head. "They're leaving."
Sure enough, Strongheart's patrol had gotten to their paws. Reedfur and Finchnose touched their muzzles to the tom's cheek in farewell; stepping forward, Silverbreeze did the same. Their contact lingered for a second longer then nessecary, as she looked into his burning amber eyes. Then he was gone, swallowed into the night.
With a sigh, she sat back on her haunches, alert for the start of the fighting, and the cue for her to lead her patrol into the battle.
"StarClan," she whispered. "I know you're real now. Please, please keep my friends safe."
Confidence. There was less margin for weakness now then there had ever been before.
Strongheart channeled these thoughts through his mind as he marched stoically towards the large boulders in the distance. The sleeping forms of GreenClan cats, unsuspecting and clueless, were just visible in the rustling grass. A low growl rumbled in his throat at seeing them so close to the entrance to the Tunnels. They had to win this battle.
"This is... tense." Wetstream was next to him, her yellow eyes glowing against her shadow-swathed fur.
"Very," agreed Violentclaw.
A shiver rippled through Strongheart's fur despite himself, and he had to force a reassuring smile. "Don't worry guys. I know not all of you have seen the Tunnels, but they truly are our best shot for keeping hidden while we plan our next move."
Snowdrift grinned, reveling the glimmer of ivory white teeth. "The Hidden is our name."
"Right. Come on."
Quickening his pace, Strongheart crested the last hill, so that they stood overlooking the GreenClan camp, only about twenty tail-lengths from the Tunnels entrance. Though his paws ached to race across the silent group of cats and charge into his old home, he knew that was foolish. Instead, he raised his head, motioning to a guard padding their way. All the cats nodded, ready to have his back if chaos enused.
Strongheart dropped into a thick clump of reeds, waiting till the GreenClan officer was nearly on top of him before reaching out a paw and hooking the cat's feet out from under him. He cut a clean gash into the tom's throat before he had time to scream.
Fallensky's eyes widened. "Nice," she said, her voice shaking ever so slightly.
He gave her a dip of his head to acknowledge her words. "Okay. Everyone, stand by a group of GreenClan cats that are sleeping. When I signal, attack."
They bounded forward on silent feet. Strongheart was tempted to laugh at the situation; a rebel cat poised over snoring GreenClan officers, claws out, while their enemies snored on. Then, swiftly, before any GreenClan cat could awake and lose them the element of surprise, he yelled, "Attack!"
The she-cat whom he was standing over never knew what hit her. He knocked her out with a blow to the skull, then finished her off with a bone-crunching kick, while whirling to face a dazed, bleary-eyed tom that had staggered to his feet nearby.
He lunged forward, feeling his claws rip through flesh. The others were also fighting for all they were worth, thrashing GreenClan cats left and right.
Eventually though, their rivals caught on. They blinked the last traces of sleep away from their eyes, revealing pure fury beneath, and threw themselves full-on into the offensive. Strongheart knew his patrol was outnumbered, but he was determined to hold his ground for at least a few more minutes before calling for backup. They might as well make the most of this opportunity and take down as many cats as possible.
Suddenly, he saw Shellbeam facing Risingheart. The gray tom's eyes glistened with anger as he spat threats at her, circling her on quick, everchanging paws. "Traitor! You tarnish the name of Viperstar, along with that mange-pelt Firesoul!"
Shellbeam raised her head defiantly, betraying no fear. "I have done what my heart led me to, what I should have done a long time ago."
"You will die a fool's death, as you deserve!" Aristo joined Risingheart, his white pelt stark in the moonlight. It was two against one, but still Shellbeam did not back down. Just as Strongheart was sure she would be killed, a pale ginger pelt emerged beside her. Firesoul. The two former GreenClan associates sprang upon Risingheart and Aristo. Blood shot high into the sky, like a macabre version of a water spring. The fighting began anew.
As he watched his friends fall or go down, covered with writhing masses of enemy cats, he realized there was no help for it. They needed the backup patrol. Now.
Strongheart's call split the air, interrupting Reedfur and Silverbreeze's conversation. She shot to her feet in alarm. "I've got to go."
"Be careful." There was so much more he wanted to tell her, but she vanished before he had the chance, her silver pelt a ray of moonlight dancing across the plains, before it flickered over the hill and into the darkness and chaos beyond. "Good luck," he whispered. "Come back to me."
Finchnose's fur brushed his comfortingly. "She will. They all will. We have to believe that."
One look into her ever-patient hazel eyes told him that she herself had her own doubts, but was desperately trying to keep strong and cling to hope for the sake of others. "You don't have to do that, you know," he said softly.
She jerked her head up in surprise. "Do what?"
"Pretend it's okay. Comfort everyone else. Bear all the worry alone." He touched her shoulder gently with his tail. "It's not just your responsibility."
For a second her shoulders sagged. Then she said, "Yes, yes it is Reedfur. It's a part of who I am."
They sat in silence for a bit, listening to the murmuring voices of their few remaining friends. Then Finchnose stood. "We should get ready," she said. "Come on."
Birdsong sprang to her feet, eager for action. "Finally! Let's go!"
Reedfur followed, Finchnose and Fernheart at each of his flanks. Though their patrol was the smallest, it had the biggest task. They needed to hurry through the battle and defend the Tunnels entrance for long enough for all of the Hidden to get in. Doing so would take speed, stealth, and smarts. His stomach turned over uneasily. It was his plan, but he still doubted he could do it. What if he messed up? What would it cost them?
Now's not the time. They need you. You can do this.
Without pausing to assess the damage, he raced over the hill and plunged into the battle.
Yowls and screeches filled the air around him, and blood made the grass slippery under paw. He saw stars, and had to fight off a wave of dizziness at the reek of the dead and dying all around him. More importantly, he had to block out his thoughts that came unbidden, going like this: What if that dark shape over there is someone I know? Is that moaning cat Silverbreeze? Did I just step on Strongheart's blood?
Feeling sick, Reedfur shoved a GreenClan cat out of his way. The path to the boulders that flanked the Tunnels entrance became clear, bathed in silvery light, like a road to StarClan. He went running down it, pumping his legs for all they were worth, when a scream cut him off.
Turning, he saw Silverbreeze, pinned to the floor, a GreenClan tom's claws embedded in her throat. Meanwhile, Finchnose, Fernheart, and Birdsong had reached the boulders, but were being swamped by enemies; they also needed his help.
"Silverbreeze..." I'll hurry.
Reedfur raced towards the she-cat, breaking his own plan for the cat he loved more then life.
"Where is he?" Birdsong hissed, dealing a blow to a pale gray she-cat, while Fernheart slammed two toms' heads together.
Finchnose strained to peer over the battle. "Maybe he's hurt," she said worriedly, spreading out her herbs.
Birdsong's black coat was slicked with blood, and her amber eyes were cloudy as she fought to stay concious. "We... need help."
"I'm here!" Reedfur bulldozed his way through the GreenClan cats and joined them at the entrance. He was supporting Silverbreeze, but when Finchnose tried to give her friend some herbs, the silver she-cat shook them off.
"I can fight," she said. "Herbs later."
Muttering under her breath, and feeling quite useless, Finchnose retreated past the boulders, into the main part of the Tunnels. Allowing herself only a brief second to breath in the familiar dusty scent, she called, "Start bringing in the wounded! Retreat!"
It didn't take long. Cats from the Hidden began pouring into the Tunnels, coughing or merely collapsing where they stood. The cats healthy enough to keep fighting took turns defending the entrance, putting up a fierce fight. Finchnose couldn't see outside, but it sounded like the GreenClan cats were being forced to retreat.
"They're gone!" Strongheart staggered into the Tunnels; in the wan light she could see that his ginger pelt glowed red with blood, and she desperately hoped it wasn't his. A ragged cheer went up through the ranks, and a few cats linked tails and jumped for joy.
However, Finchnose's work was far from over. She wove between the ranks of cats, Jaywalker helping her a bit, assessing wounds and cuts, chewing poultices and making wraps. Ignoring windy tales of single-handedly beating seven GreenClan cats, she treated Reedfur and Strongheart, then Violentclaw and Angelcloud, who were both injured pretty badly.
Finally, after what felt like a small eternity of groping in the darkness and feeling torn flesh and skin under her paws, Finchnose sat down. Her paws were coated in blood and herb residue, and her mind ached from trying to remember a thousand different cures. Cobwebs clung to her fur, and her legs ached from pacing back and forth among her friends. But she had done it. They had done it.
Silverbreeze, Reedfur, and Strongheart had made their way to the middle of the Hall, covered in assorted bandages, but still fearless. They motioned for her to join them, and she did, sitting down beside Strongheart. The large tom cleared his throat.
"I know most of you aren't in the mood to listen to a long victory speech full of details and extra words, so I'll try to keep this short and simple. There are no words to express how proud I am anyway. You fought like LionClan, ran like CheetahClan, and most of all, you showed the courage of a true member of the Hidden. I have never been more glad to be a part of this group."
"Agreed. What we pulled of today was phenomonal. You helped us regain our quarters, which is now our base for all types of work," Silverbreeze said. "This is the beginning of a new era for the rebellion."
Reedfur stepped forward. "Each of you contributed in your own special way. You showed GreenClan that we are a force to be reckoned with. Whatever comes next, we'll face it together. As a team. As a family. Because that's what we are."
Finally, Finchnose raised her head. "I love you all as my brothers and sisters, and I will do my best as your medicine cat. This is not the end. Far from it. So, now I ask you to stand with us one more time, as we face GreenClan's evil. Freedom is near. All we have to do is go out and take it."
The answer was a resounding yes, as even the most wounded cats errupted into hugs and joy. Silverbreeze turned to face them, tears shining on her cheeks. Reedfur swallowed hard, and even Strongheart's eyes grew a little misty.
"What do you say guys? I know we never intended for this to grow as big as it is, but I like it." Finchnose placed her paw in the middle. "Will you join me in leading the Hidden, one more time?"
"You can't get rid of me that easy." Strongheart.
"This is my life now." Reedfur.
"Okay," she whispered. This wasn't the end. But perhaps this was finally the end of the beginning.