"You will be the elders' personal assistants. And I'm not talking just changing out bedding for the week or anything - I know for a fact that Breezepaw already has to do that for loudness and disrupting conduct. I'm talking, whatever they want, you get it, and you get it at that moment. Food, moss, bedding, entertainment, whatever. If they want a pawful of snails, you get them snails. Do I make myself clear?" Oakstar thundered.
Who on earth made him leader anyway? He was a slavedriver. This was an apprentice labor violation. I was pretty sure. Weren't there rules in the warrior code about this? I instantly lost all my love for SpringClan's wise old leader, though I guessed I deserved this punishment.
"You make yourself perfectly clear, Oakstar," Minkpaw said dejectedly.
Why that stupid little suck-up.
And now I was stuck being her fellow assistant. Hopefully the elders told her to go to the moon. Then I could actually enjoy caring for the elderly- that is, except cranky old Fuzzears.
"And what about you, Breezepaw?"
Fuzzears was such a grouch. Every time I walked past her, she glared at me and talked loudly about "the youth of today being the end of the Clan, with our disheveled appearances and worse attitudes". It was highly annoying.
"Breezepaw!" Oakstar all but screamed. "Do I make myself clear?"
Ignoring Minkpaw's smirk, I sighed. "Clear as crystal."
Walking as far from each other as we could get, Minkpaw and I headed for the elders' den. Inwardly, I prepared myself for the worst day of my life.
Behind me, I heard Daisypaw yelling. "Breezepaw! Want to come hang out with me and Blossompaw? We're going to play in the berry fields."
Oh, why didn't they just kill me now and get it over with?
"I can't," I called back. "I have to assist the elders."
Both my friends gave me sympathetic glances, more related to Minkpaw than the elders, I assumed. Except Fuzzears. Fuzzears annoyed me too.
Minkpaw and I entered the elders' den, which was located under a log that had fallen at a slant against a big bush. The result was a cozy niche sheltered by the bush's limbs and the soft bark of the rotting tree trunk. Moss and mushrooms brushed my fur as I crept through the small opening and into the much larger part of the den, where all the nests were.
SpringClan's four elders, Grayfinch, Redbelly, Fuzzears, and Creamflower, all glanced up as we entered. Fuzzears rolled her eyes and curled back into her nest, Grayfinch and Redbelly smiled, and Creamflower mewed in a kindly voice, "Well, Breezepaw and Minkpaw, Oakstar told us you'd be dropping by. You're our new assistants, correct?"
In a creaky tone that just about frightened me out of my wits, Redbelly said, "We'll work them good and hard, won't we fellows? Teach them a lesson."
Seeing the expressions on our faces, which must have been terrified, Grayfinch laughed and elbowed Redbelly. "Oh look honey, you've scared them to death! Don't you mind my mate now. Old age has bored him, and he takes it out on young innocent apprentices."
"Now, Grayfinch, can't you take a joke?" purred Redbelly rustily, licking the she-cat on the ear.
Giving a nervous smile, I said, "So, what do you guys need first?"
"Would one of you run and tell Lionpatch that this stinky old mustard poultice isn't helping my throat at all?" grumbled Fuzzears. "And tell him that his herbs taste foul too! I doubt they serve any purpose at all, actually. Just an old fleabag trying to get rid of leaves by shoving them down my throat. And tell him I said that too."
At this point, I was a very willing candidate/volunteer to get out of there, but Minkpaw stole my chance. "I'll go, Fuzzears! And I'll tell it to Lionpatch too!"
"Oh, now there's an apprentice with guts," Fuzzears chortled. "Thank you!"
I had never heard Fuzzears say thank you. In my life. Creamflower, Redbelly and Grayfinch looked equally stunned. Maybe Minkpaw is just as cranky and annoying as she is, so they're combining to form the Ultimate Torture Breezepaw Team! How was I ever going to survive this week of punishment? Had Oakstar delved into an unknown evil portion of his mind to come up with this sheer torture for me?
"Sit down, Breezepaw," Creamflower invited. "You look like you're going to be sick."
Never had there been a more accurate statement, but I gave her a grateful smile and sat. "Is there anything else you guys will need?"
There was a pause, and then Redbelly and Grayfinch exchanged glances. The couple turned back to me with identical grins. "Well, actually, there is. You see, when you're older, you have nothing else to do but talk about what you did when you were younger, and the Clan was different. But few cats aside from kits will listen to a couple of old badger-faces ramble on and on and on- and the kits are having their naps right now."
Wondering where this was going, I mewed, "And...?"
"And if you get us a snack, we'll be happy to tell you some of our stories," Grayfinch finished with a flourish.
Well, it could definitely be worse. Much worse. "Mice, voles, rabbits...?"
"A thrush for me, please," Creamflower said. "Or a mouse would be fine if there aren't any thrushes."
"We'll split a squirrel," Redbelly said, wrapping his tail around Grayfinch cozily. "Fuzzears? Would you like anything."
"No," the old cat griped. "I'm not hungry, and if I was, I wouldn't trust that young loon to choose my prey."
I was tempted to talk back, but I literally bit down on my tongue and didn't. Instead, I trotted out of the elders' den- nearly running into Minkpaw on her way in. We exchanged mutual looks of weariness; for once we had something in common in that we hated this punishment.
Again, I didn't mind the elders themselves. But to be trapped in here on a beautiful day when I could be playing in the berry fields? That royally sucked.
Quickly selecting the requested pieces of prey, I hurried back as fast as I could on my three legs(yes, my dislocated ankle hadn't shown much improvement) and deposited them to each elder, accepting their thanks with a flick of my ears. Seeing that Minkpaw was sitting on one side of the den, I sat down a comfortable distance from her and waited while the elders crunched down their food. Somehow, watching them, most of my resentment faded away. Despite the wisdom of the moons imprinted on their gray-flecked faces, there was something fragile and kit-like about the way they moved, the way their knobby bones pressed through their rumpled coats. I wanted to protect them. Maybe this week with them would teach me to be more caring, more sympathetic. That would certainly be worth it.
"Now," Creamflower said, gulping down her last bite of thrush. "What would you two like to hear about? May I suggest some hot topics? A lot of cats like to hear about drama, the Clan's previous leaders, and anything to do with Duskwatcher's posse."
My mind traveled back to Bluebird, and the way he had helped me to my paws when I fell. Surely he would be included in a story about Duskwatcher. "Can we hear about that last one?"
Minkpaw shot me a disgusted glance, but didn't protest, I noticed.
Knowingly smiling at me, Creamflower stretched and purred. "All right then. Hm... where should we start?"
"There's plenty of drama surrounding that group of cats," Redbelly said with a rueful smile.
I pricked my ears. "There is?" I had thought Duskwatcher's family was just naturally perfect, with no trouble whatsoever- other than which of their many admirers they actually wanted to hang around.
"Of course there is. You guys wouldn't remember- the parts you were alive for you were only kits, but the rest of the Clan remembers."
Both Minkpaw and I were silent, waiting for her to elaborate.
After a brief pause, seemingly to collect her thoughts, Creamflower began the story.
"A lot of cats say Duskwatcher was just born perfect, but that's not true. Yes, his father was the deputy and his mother was very popular, so it seemed like he had won at life already. But he did put effort into things. He trained hard as an apprentice, and sought to do everything he could. Bluebird was born when Duskwatcher was about to become a warrior- it was a very happy occasion for their family. Duskwatcher became a warrior early because of all he put into his training- and yes, he did have plenty of natural athletic ability too. Well, once Duskwatcher became a warrior, the Clan's hottest cat was finally on the market, according to just about every she-cat."
I raised my eyebrows. "How many she-cats liked Duskwatcher?"
"Well," Grayfinch said, taking over the story. "Back then every she-cat thought they had a chance with him. It wasn't like now, where everyone just jokes about being mates with Bluebird, but no one has any clue who he really likes- and they're sure it's not them. Back then, it was an open contest for the young she-cats. Other toms were left in the dust as she-cats tried to win Duskwatcher's interest."
Despite the gray tom's undeniable good looks, that did seem unfair to me. "What other young toms were around at that time?"
The elder thought a moment. "Well, Goldenburst and Ravenwing, your father, were there, but they got lovely mates." Her eyes misted over briefly, and I knew she was remembering my parents. I felt distinctly awkward, especially given how I'd remembered their faces so vividly the night before. "Let's see, what other toms were hard-pressed with Duskwatcher around? Cranelegs, Blackheart, Hawkeye..."
Blackheart. Is that why he's so bitter? she briefly wondered. Then, Nah. Craneleg and Hawkeye are perfectly nice; there's no reason for this to have affected him directly.
"Well, when Shinecloud became an apprentice, it was contest over. Two of the most attractive cats in the Clan becoming mates. It seems perfect now, but back then it was scandalous. All the she-cats - and plenty of toms - were in an uproar. Wildstar, our leader, was frantic with worry over the Clan because half the warriors were too busy gossiping about Duskwatcher and Shinecloud's relationship to do any work."
With a frown, Minkpaw asked, "So that's it? It was just a match made in StarClan for them?"
"Not exactly. Duskwatcher did see a few other she-cats before becoming mates with Shinecloud. He tried his advances on Breezepaw's mother, Cloudberry, but she'd have none of it. He even went as far as to lead Lilyshade, Shinecloud's sister, on before dumping her. Lilyshade fell hard for him, and it broke the Clan's heart to see her devastated because of a tom. You know how sweet she is, always smiling."
Even Minkpaw nodded. Lilyshade was awfully nice- she was as beautiful as Shinecloud, but not as shallow.
"Eventually though, the Clan got over the scandal. And when Bluebird was made a warrior, he became the new 'it-thing', but only this time, girls were shyer and more sensible- at least, around him. I take it you young ones still have plenty of time to fantasize behind his back?"
"No," I lied.
Minkpaw snorted. "It's all Breezepaw does."
Who was she to pretend she knew me? I glared at her, about to respond, when Fuzzears cut in.
"I thought these two young ones were here to help us, not for storytime."
All of us turned to her. Redbelly sighed. "Yes, yes they are. But we told them we'd like to tell them stories."
She smirked. "I'm not sure this was what Oakstar had in mind for their punishment."
Abruptly, Creamflower got to her paws. "Well, I, for one, don't need anything right now. I'm going outside to soak up some sun."
Together, Redbelly and Grayfinch stood and joined her. "We will too, I think," Grayfinch said happily, winking at Minkpaw and I. "What about you, Fuzzears? The warmth will be nice for our bones and revitalize our pelts, don't you think?"
"I think it'll get in my eyes," Fuzzears rolled her eyes. "And I don't want to be out there listening to the noise and racket of the Clan. I'm perfectly fine in here, except I want Minkpaw and Breezepaw to stay with me. I need company, you know." Oh, you've got to be kidding me.
The other three elders gave us apologetic glances, and I flicked my tail dismissively. "Have fun, all of you." Creamflower smiled at me, and they vanished out into the camp.
Exchanging glances with Minkpaw, I turned to Fuzzears. "Was there anything particular you wanted us to do for you?" I asked, trying to not sound like I wanted to bite her head off.
As if she had to think about it, Fuzzears tilted her head to the side, then cackled, "Nope, not really."
"Then, if you don't mind, I'll be going," Minkpaw said through a forced smile. In this instance, I completely sympathized with her, much as I disliked her. "I have apprentice training, you know."
Something odd - loneliness? - entered Fuzzears' gaze. "No! Wait! I mean... I might have something, if you want to do it."
Minkpaw's shoulders slumped, as did mine. Hurt flickered over Fuzzears' gaze, and I felt bad instantly. "Never mind then. I know you youngsters want to go out and live your lives rather than be trapped in here with me." A trace of her old rudeness reentered her voice. "Now get out of here! I don't want you cluttering up this place while I try to sleep."
To my utter surprise, Minkpaw said, "I'll stay. What is it you want?"
Incredulous, Fuzzears studied her cautiously. "You're not kidding?"
"No," Minkpaw said, shaking her head. Then she added impatiently, "But I wasn't kidding about training either, so can we hurry this up already?"
"Watch your tongue!" snapped Fuzzears, but, incredibly, a smile was playing across her lips. She thrived on this- banter. She didn't have anyone, I realized. People(like me) labeled her as old and grouchy, and just didn't take the time to listen to her based on that assumption.
Well, I wasn't going to make that mistake again. "I'll stay too, Fuzzears, if you want."
An emotion akin to kindness, a sad sort of kindness, played across Fuzzears' features. "Thank you, Breezepaw, Minkpaw."
"No problem," we replied at the same time, then glared at each other.
"This might sound silly, but... I actually want the same thing as Creamflower did. Only I didn't want it while the others were around. I'd like to tell you a story."
I hated to admit it, but I was truly relieved she didn't have some sort of unique form of torture planned for us. And then I was disgusted with myself. She was just an elder! A fellow member of SpringClan! What would it take for me to stop judging cats? I really needed to work on that.
So wrapped up in my next thoughts, I barely heard her next words, which were whispered softly. "A story about my son."
Time froze in the little den. I heard myself or Minkpaw gasp, I didn't even know who.
Finally, I managed to stammer, "Y-You have a son?"
She swallowed hard, and before I knew it, Minkpaw was crouched beside the elder. With a gentleness I'd never seen in my archenemy, the liver-furred she-cat stroked Fuzzears gently, murmuring soothingly, "There there. I know it hurts."
Snot bubbled at Fuzzears' nose as more tears poured down her cheeks. I couldn't believe it, so I stood there, paralyzed, like the useless idiot I was. I watched Minkpaw comfort the elder till she was coherent.
"I was a horrible mother," she said in a sort of soft wail. "I let him down."
At that moment, I forgot everything I'd ever thought about Fuzzears. Joining Minkpaw, I lay my head on the she-cat's shoulder and whispered, "It's okay. Everything's okay. No one blames you."
Swallowing hard, Minkpaw asked softly, "Fuzzears, you don't have to tell us, but... who is your son?"
Sorrow pooled in her gray eyes. "It doesn't matter. He's lost to me. Forever."
We both stayed there with her, not saying anymore, till the other elders came back. If they were surprised to see us by Fuzzears - who was now sleeping peacefully, tears dried on her cheeks - they didn't say anything.
"You got off easy today!" Redbelly called after us as we made our escape - which wasn't as blissful as I'd imagined. In fact, I almost wished I could stay and talk to Fuzzears some more. "Tomorrow we'll really work you hard!"
"Poor Fuzzears. No one's listened to her all this time," Minkpaw murmured to herself.
I glanced up at her, wrestling with myself. Hey, what had I learned about not judging people today? "Would you like to get something to eat with Daisypaw and I?" I offered. "We could chat, hang out-"
She curled her lip. "Please. I have training to do, and even if I didn't, I wouldn't want to spend my time with you two."
"You're going to train now? It's evening."
"I know what time it is. And some of us have a work ethic, you know." She pranced off with her tail in the air, heading towards her mentor, Cherrynose.
Some cats never change. Whatever. Minkpaw was still Minkpaw, but a lot had been revealed about Fuzzears today. The cranky old she-cat was beginning to grow on me.
Almost grateful for Oakstar's punishment, I walked over to Daisypaw, ready to eat and then call it a night.
I couldn't wait to start my punishment tomorrow.