Rain poured like tears outside the Tunnels, soaking the fringes of lichen and moss that coated the boulders around the entrance and running like miniature rivers through the mud, carving paths right between Strongheart's paws. He raised one gingerly and shook it, sending droplets of water flying. Why did rain exist? What good did it do?
As if reading his mind, Aquatail stepped out from behind him and smiled, her cerulean eyes reflecting the gray clouds like sapphires. "I'm glad we're getting rain. The plants need it, and it will hopefully get the prey running again."
Strongheart gave her a wan smile. "Hopefully. Hey, is Finchnose back yet? She said she had some new recruits for the rebellion."
"If you can call it that," came a voice from behind him. A gray tortoiseshell she-cat emerged from the murky shadows of the Tunnels, limping slightly. "We barely have any cats at all. And you think Viperstar-"
"Shhh," Aquatail snapped, her eyes flitting about. "Don't say his name Fallensky." An involuntary shudder ran up and down her spine. Strongheart couldn't blame her. There were few cats, if any at all, that dared to say GreenClan's leader's name out loud. And even fewer who were willing to stand up to him. Was this crazy, this hope to stage a rebellion against GreenClan? Were they out of their minds?
Then he looked at his friends, Fallensky with her biting tongue and courage to match, Aquatail with her determined faith, and all the others, working themselves to the bone trying to recruit others for the cause, risking their lives for it. And he knew they had to try.
"Strongheart!" A pair of sharp amber eyes glared at him as a slender black she-cat approached. "Come on! Finchnose is back; we have to meet the newbies. Let's see if they're up to notch material."
Strongheart nodded once and followed Birdsong down the Tunnels, aware of the others on his heels. He wanted to slow down for Fallensky, but knew she could keep up despite her twisted paw, and would only be angry at him for trying.
"Finchnose?" They emerged into the Hall, which was more of a large cavern, with sloped earthen walls that reached up to a domed ceiling, and a rough floor of packed dirt. A short brown she-cat was standing with a group of other cats across from him. Her eyes lit up when she spotted him.
"Strongheart! Aquatail, Fallensky! Come meet our newest members."
"We'll be the judges of that," Fallensky said. Her tone was firm but not unkind; they all knew that to accept new cats without testing them would be suicide. Finchnose didn't flinch.
"I know they'll work," she whispered to Strongheart as he approached. Despite his wariness, he had to smile. Finchnose had a way of brightening things with her kit-like enthusiasm; it lit up a room like a torch.
"We'll see," was his only reply. Facing the new arrivals, he saw that they were all young, which he had mixed feelings about. Young cats tended to be stronger and faster, but they had also probably grown up under GreenClan's rule. They didn't harbor resentment towards the evil tom, or know much about how he had taken over. This had been their life, and they didn't know they could fight for something more. Well, he reminded himself. That's what we're teaching them.
"What are your names?" he asked. A brown tabby she-cat raised her head and met his gaze.
"I'm Bramblepath," she said. "This clown is Violentclaw, this is Fernheart, and-"
"I'm Wetstream," interrupted a dark gray she-cat boldly. "So you're the great Strongheart huh?" She gave him a look that showed she didn't agree with that description of him.
"Yeah..." he said. Surely someone that forward couldn't be evil at all. "Nice to meet all of you."
"Oh for crying out loud," snapped Fallensky, elbowing him out of her way. "We could be here all day while you made small talk, you oaf. What makes you think you can join our team?" She pressed her face against the others. Bramblepath didn't flinch.
"We believe in your cause," she said simply. "Completely and truly. And trust me, all of us fight for what we believe in."
"That's just the thing though," he explained. "We can't trust you right away. Not till we have some evidence that you're really with us." He turned to Aquatail. "Can you lead them to the Sleeping Quarters?" Lowering his head,he said more quietly, "Near the Observation Post. We can't let them into the Chamber yet." The Chamber was where all the full members of the rebellion slept and hung out. It was a very exclusive place, well hidden behind a maze of tunnels, dead ends, and entryways.
"Sure," Aquatail nodded cheerily. "Come on guys," she said. "I'll show you where your nests will be. You can get comfortable, and then I'll show you how we go out to hunt. It's a bit different then what you're used to probably."
"Okay," said Wetstream. The four youngsters followed Aquatail away. Strongheart, Finchnose, and Fallensky stood staring after them for a little bit.
"I hope they turn out to have what it takes," Strongheart said. "We really need them."
Silverbreeze yawned and stretched. The Chamber was mostly empty, save a snoring Reedfur. She smiled to herself. Who knew quiet Reedfur could pack such a punch when he slept? Most of the others must be out observing the new recruits, she thought to herself. The four cats had arrived yesterday, but she hadn't talked to them much, only seen them as they wandered around the Sleeping Quarters. None of them looked too thrilled about the "rebellion", and she couldn't blame them. They were being excluded from most of what little action there was so far.
Just then, the thick protective curtains of moss and grass parted, and Strongheart shouldered his way into the Chamber, followed by Aquatail. "Hey Silverbreeze."
"Hey," she greeted her friends. Strongheart smiled wearily, his amber eyes shadowed with all the responsibilities they had as the leaders of the rebellion. Sometimes she grew tired just thinking of it, and wondered if it was so hard now, with just a few cats, how they possibly could grow into a force great enough to reckon with Viperstar. Aquatail dropped a mouse at her feet, and she smiled. When you had friends like these, it was easy to believe the impossible could be done.
"Thanks," she purred, licking her friend on the cheek.
"No problem," Aquatail said back. "I always say, give your warriors what they want and they'll do anything for you." Her eyes twinkled.
"I agree," Silverbreeze said through a mouthful of warm meat. Strongheart eyed her amusedly.
"Great. One pig who snorts food, and another hog whose snores could bring the ceiling down on our head." He nudged Reedfur, who muttered something incoherent and rolled over.
Silverbreeze shot him a half-glare, half-smirk. "Say what you want, but I've seen you eat, and it's never been pretty. In fact, I still haven't gotten over the shock or trauma."
He smirked back. "My apologies."
Then she heard it. She cocked her ear and listened closer. "Is that Bramblepath?"
Aquatail froze. "It is! She sounds like she's in trouble."
The two she-cats raced for the exit while Strongheart bellowed in Reedfur's ear. "Get up!"
The black tom flew to his feet and stumbled after them. "Is something wrong?"
Silverbreeze raced outside and began weaving through the Tunnels expertly, following the sound of the shouts. "I don't know. Bramblepath?"
They nearly ran into the four newcomers. Bramblepath's green eyes were wide but calm, which was more then could be said for Fernheart, who was hopping from paw to paw, muttering under her breath. Wetstream's eyes flitted back and forth from cat to cat, a frown on her face.
"Silverbreeze? Strongheart? There are cats outside the Tunnels. GreenClan cats."
"What?" erupted Strongheart. Silverbreeze laid her tail on his flank to calm him down. Aquatail began backing away.
"I'm going to tell Finchnose and Fallensky," she said. "We'll follow you out."
"Okay!" Reedfur called. He whirled back. "Where are they?"
"Follow me." Bramblepath turned and began leading them through the Tunnels. Silverbreeze was surprised at her efficiency; she had only been here two days and already seemed to know her way around, which was more then she could say for herself when they had first discovered this place.
They streaked through the Hall and into the Main Tunnel. Up ahead, the backs of the two large boulders that hid the entrance from view loomed up like a pair of gray sentries. Bramblepath shot through the crack, and Silverbreeze dived after her, out into the open.
Well, not exactly. They were still standing in the shadow of the two rocks, sheltered from view. "I'll climb up and see," Silverbreeze whispered. "Stay here." Digging her claws into the overgrown side of the boulders, she heaved herself to the top. Crouching behind a crag of uneven rock, she peeked out. They were surrounded by open grasslands; the woods didn't start for a while, so she had a good view. Then she spotted them; a group of dark figures standing off a little ways. They didn't seem to notice anything suspicious about the boulders, or sense the cats watching them, but Silverbreeze was still uneasy. It would only take one curious cat to uncover their hiding place.
One of the cats turned and began leading the group towards the boulders. Her heart rate quickened, and she scrambled down. "Guys," she hissed frantically. "They're coming this way. We need to stop them before they get here or-"
"They'll find us," Strongheart said grimly. He squared his shoulders. "We need a distraction."
Fernheart perked up. "Let me go," she pleaded. "I can't just sit here watching."
Strongheart, Reedfur, and her exchanged glances. Reedfur shrugged. Silverbreeze studied the soft brown she-cat. Her hazel eyes were filled with determination. It was plain to see that she wanted to prove herself. She could relate to that. She had been that cat once. Giving a quick nod, she said, "You have to hurry."
"Okay," Strongheart said. "All four of you can come." He turned to Silverbreeze. "How many of them were there?"
She closed her eyes, trying to recall. "About six."
"Reedfur, you can come too. Silverbreeze, when the others arrive, tell them to wait here in case we need help. We'll crouch down low and go around, then pop up from as far away from the Tunnels as possible, so they won't know where we came from."
Silverbreeze set her jaw. "Let's do it."
Reedfur was good at this kind of stuff; being stealthy and stalking things. He snaked through the thick grass silently, letting it envelope his slight black form, merging with it like a true hunter. It always felt good, no matter how important the mission was.
That thought jolted him back to reality. Ahead of him, Strongheart was trying his best to be quiet; his bulky frame made that hard. The new cats, to their credit, were doing an excellent job. They seemed to sense the tension in the air, and respond accordingly.
"Okay," Strongheart whispered. "Here." He passed back a glob of mud, still wet from yesterday's rain. Fernheart's eyes widened.
"It's to disguise our faces and scent," Reedfur explained. "I came up with it." He hoped it didn't sound like he was bragging. "We can't have the GreenClan cats knowing anything about who's involved in the rebellion, or recognizing us anywhere else, so we disguise ourselves. Now lather up."
Bramblepath and Wetstream slathered the mud on stoically. Fernheart exchanged a helpless glance with Violentclaw. The tom shrugged and spiked the fur on his head up into a mohawk. Cracking a smile, Fernheart proceeded to coat herself with mud.
Once everyone's coat was appropriately covered, Reedfur signaled to Strongheart. The orange tom flicked his tail, and they all sprang up out of their hiding place on cue. There were six cats, Reedfur saw. At that moment, one turned its head and saw them. He shouted something to his companions, and pretty soon all six of them were strutting towards Reedfur's patrol.
"What should we do?" Reedfur whispered.
Strongheart considered this. "Fight," he decided. "It's the only way. If we talk our way out of this, they'll just continue searching this area. If we fight as rogues, they'll go away; GreenClan doesn't give two mousetails about rogues."
"Okay," Wetstream said. "Sounds logical to me."
"Hey!" one of the approaching cats yelled. "Stop in the name of Viperstar! We are elite warriors of GreenClan. State your name and group."
Strongheart let out a raw hiss. With his pelt spiked with mud and amber eyes gleaming, he really did look like a ferocious rogue, unable to reason with any clan cat. Shivering, Reedfur turned back to the GreenClan cats. "Attack!"
They surged forward like a wave. The gray GreenClan toms face tightened, and his eyes hardened. "Fine! We'll teach you uncouths a lesson." He reached out and slashed at Fernheart. Reedfur was about to go to her aid when she bit down hard on his paw, twisted, and slammed him to the ground.
"Wow," Reedfur said. "Where did you learn-" He broke off as another tom wrapped his legs around his neck. Letting out a roar, he slammed his back against the ground, crushing the GreenClan cat. All around him, his friends were fighting with the strength of ten cats each. He was astonished at how fierce the newcomers were, considering they had no real bonds or reasons to stand for the rebellion yet.
Bramblepath and Wetstream had teamed up, and sent a GreenClan she-cat flying across the floor. With a whimper, their opponent fled across the plains, in the opposite direction of the Tunnels. Yes!
Victory flavored Reedfur's mouth- Or maybe that was just blood from where a claw had hooked the inside of his lip, but it didn't matter. They were winning. He swiped the gray tom's back, and he too went running, mud and blood mingling on his pelt.
"Send 'em packing!" Strongheart called in a rough voice completely unlike his own. He slammed the last two GreenClan cats together and hissed, "Run... while you still have a chance." They ran.
Satisfied, the patrol faced each other. Silverbreeze, Finchnose, Fallensky, and Aquatail came streaking out of the Tunnels. Reedfur grinned at the pride on his friend's faces.
"You did it!" Silverbreeze cried, her pretty blue eyes melting his heart. I did it for you, he wanted to tell her. Instead, he grinned shyly.
All eyes went to Strongheart, who turned to Bramblepath, Violentclaw, Fernheart, and Wetstream. His tone was filled with respect. "Congratulations. You four certainly proved your loyalty today. We trust you. You guys have shown that you have what it takes to survive as one of us; a true rebel heart. Welcome to the team."