"Can you believe that only a few days ago, we were trapped in the Tunnels?" Silverbreeze asked, padding alongside Strongheart. He glanced at her with a knowing smile.
"I know, right? It feels like ages ago," he replied. As usual, he found himself glancing towards Finchnose, as if to reassure himself she was really there. It wasn't that he didn't trust StarClan, it was just... Who wouldn't be surprised if their injured friend suddenly glowed blue, lifted into the sky, and recovered completely? "So, what do you think StarClan meant when they gave us that message?"
"Rest assured that your mission is worthy, as are your hearts. You will accomplish what you set out to accomplish. Now go and meet the clover that grows by the River of Stars," quoted Silverbreeze. "We've got most of that. All we have to find is the clover."
Just then, Cinderdapple called to them from up ahead. "There it is! We're almost there!"
Strongheart's head shot up, and he followed the grayish she-cat's gaze to the horizon, where the rising morning sun was illuminating a gorgeous ribbon of blue, lying on the border between earth and sky like a divine filament. Sparkling in a rainbow of colors, it really did look like a river of stars from here. Much more fitting than the name Blood Claw River.
"Great," Aquatail purred, her tail flicking in anticipation. "Let's pick up the pace guys. I know we're all tired, but we're almost there!"
Jaywalker sighed dramatically. "Very well, slave-driver. My paws are killing me."
Though he wouldn't admit it, Strongheart's legs ached too, and he couldn't wait to flop down on a grassy riverbank and sleep for a moon. Still, hope channeled him forward, and he broke into a springy trot, the breeze blowing through his fur. Whatever a clover had to do with freedom, they would find out. Just then, Reedfur padded up to him. His friend had an expression of worry on his face, his brow furrowed in concentration.
"Strongheart? I don't mean to be a downer, but are you sure this is a good idea?"
"What do you mean?" he inquired, though he knew perfectly well.
Reedfur sighed. "Aristo and his troops might still be there. We have no way of knowing what will happen."
Finchnose joined the conversation. "We can take them," she said assertively. Three pairs of doubtful eyes turned towards her, and she bristled. "What? I'm not made of glass you know. I'm fine now."
"Of course you are," Silverbreeze mewed soothingly, brushing her pelt with her friend's. "It's just... we all thought you were dead, so it was kind of a shock for us."
The brown she-cat's eyes darkened, but she said nothing. "Anyway," Strongheart said, eager to steer the conversation away from the topic, "We can put up a good fight, but we don't want to get into unnessecary trouble. Many cats are still wounded." He winced instinctively, thinking of the way the wood-pile had wrenched itself apart, trying to block out the sound of his friend's shrieks, and the splintering roar of entire tree trunks as they cascaded down around him. With a shudder, he read the same reaction in his friend's faces.
"Yeah," agreed Bramblepath from nearby. "It wouldn't be cowardly, it would just be stupid."
"Hmph," sniffed Fallensky. "Those GreenClan cats need to be taught a lesson no matter what." Personally, Strongheart supported her viewpoint, but he needed to keep a level head in this. "Let's just go. We can't defy StarClan no matter what."
"Well, I guess we'll find that out soon," Silverbreeze pointed out. "We're almost there."
Finchnose gave a little gasp as she stared out at the opulent blue waters rippling before her. She longed to dive in, but knew such an action would be foolish, especially when they needed to keep on their guard. It would make her too vunerable. Still, she stuck her head down between the willowy reeds and lapped at the cool liquid hastily, enjoying its icy presence in her mouth. Beside her, several of her friends did the same, while Reedfur and Angelcloud kept watch.
"What do we do now?" she asked, droplets still sliding down her chin. She licked them away hastily.
"First things first. I'm starving," announced Violentclaw. "I vote we send out a hunting patrol."
"Agreed," Strongheart said. "I'll lead it. Violentclaw, Fernheart, Wetstream, Aquatail, and Snowdrift, come with me. The rest of you, get some rest. Finchnose, can you see to any remaining wounds now?"
"Sure," she nodded, her gaze already turning to the several herbs growing nearby. As the patrol headed off, she removed her somewhat tattered sling from her neck and got to work.
Muttering under her breath, Finchnose recited, "Some watercress, and these cobwebs will do nicely for binding up that nasty cut on Reedfur's leg..."
Looking up, she gave a little shriek as she found herself gazing into a pair of mossy green eyes. Beautiful, but unfamiliar. Finchnose leaped back. "Who are you?"
Silverbreeze and Bramblepath leaped to her side, hackles raised, seconding her question.
The she-cat looked mildly startled. Finchnose noted that her tail was crooked, bent at an odd angle, though she tried to hide it. Otherwise, she was gorgeous, with a lustrous black-and-silver tabby pelt and a sleek form that told them she was well-fed. That was an interesting clue; usually only high members of GreenClan were well-fed these days. Finchnose narrowed her eyes.
"I'm Cloverice." She spoke in a cool, clear voice. "Can I help you? It's rare that we see so many cats planning to cross the river. Are you perhaps part of Aristo's patrol? If so, I can direct you in that direction."
Bramblepath opened her mouth to refuse, but Silverbreeze slammed her tail into her mouth, arching an eyebrow delicately. "And which way is that?"
Cloverice flicked her tail to their left. "Down the bank that way. Away from the bridge. Guess they weren't planning to cross."
Finchnose was still mulling over the cat's name. Clover. Cloverice. "You must be her!" she blurted out.
Several pairs of eyes turned to her as if she were crazy, and she blushed. "I mean... it's her. The clover that grows by the River of Stars. It must be her!"
Birdsong's sharp amber eyes widened. "You really think so?"
"Of course." She tried to conjure up more confidence then she felt. "Who else could it be?"
"Er... Well, what do we do now?" inquired Reedfur. Finchnose said nothing; she hadn't thought that far ahead. All she knew was that this cat was important.
"Hello?" Cloverice's eyes were filled with disbelief. "I'm still here! What's all this about clover, huh? And why are you talking about me, or 'her', or whatever?"
The cats of the rebellion exchanged glances. Silverbreeze gave a quick nod. With a sigh, Finchnose sat down. "It's a long story."
The mouse's soft shriek was cut off as Strongheart's claws snagged it. Satisfied with the clean kill, he scooped it up in his jaws and made his way back to the others, pausing to gather a sparrow and woodthrush he had also killed.
Wetstream was the first one back; she was one of their best hunters. An enormous rabbit lay at her paws. She winked at him. "I was lucky to get this."
"Luck? Please. It was pure skill and you know it," Snowdrift mewed as she and Fernheart returned with a vole apiece. Once the others had arrived, jaws laden with prey, Strongheart flicked his tail for them to return to the river.
As he padded along, Strongheart felt a pair of eyes on his pelt. Spinning around, he saw nothing but shadowy trees, sunlight coming down in crazy patterns to illuminate the forest floor with a spiderweb of lacy lights. I'm just being paranoid. Still, he couldn't wait to get back to the others.
Suddenly, Violentclaw paused, his white-tipped ears swiveling around. "Did you hear that?"
"What?" Aquatail meowed nervously. Strongheart strained to hear above the pounding of his own heart.
Then he caught a whiff of a scent that was frighteningly familiar. Hackles raising, he spun around and began, "It's-" He was cut off as a giant bundle of fur dropped down on him, pinning him to the ground and knocking all the breath out of him. His chest contracted and expanded violently as he fought for air, and the cat who had jumped him seized the opportunity to pummel him furiously with unsheathed claws. All around him, the rest of the hunting patrol had been ambushed too. Fernheart let out a bloodcurdling yowl as a dark gray tom bit her on the ear. At first Strongheart wondered if it really hurt that much, but then he realized she was trying to call for help from their friends while being discreet.
The cat brought him back to his own fight by dealing him a blow on the side of his head. Fighting back the waves of dizziness, Strongheart struck out with his powerful hindlegs, sending the cat sailing into a tree, then pounced on him, raking claws down dark red fur till blood welled out. "Strongheart!" screeched Aquatail. She was standing as if frozen, her green-blue eyes wide with fear. "They took her! They took Snowdrift! What will we do?"
"For starters," he snapped, shoving her out of the way more roughly then he'd intended, "Follow them!"
Strongheart bolted down the trail, but eventually had to stop. It was no use. The cats had mussed up their scent with what appeared to be pine sap, woven in and out of trees, and clawed up the dirt so that no individual pawprints were visible. Strongheart's first thought was, How did they have time to do all this, when Aquatail noticed it right away? Did they pre-prepare the whole thing? How is that possible?
Turning to his friends, who were just approaching, he groaned. "She's gone."
"They are too," Fernheart said. "They ran away while we chased the kidnappers."
"She's gone?" screeched Violentclaw angrily, pounding a paw against a tree trunk. "They can't do that!"
Aquatail sank to her knees. "It's my fault... I should've noticed it sooner. If I had only chased her instead of standing there like a fool! I don't deserve to be in this rebellion." She buried her face in her paws and curled into herself.
Strongheart was in no mood to comfort her; his paws itched to go back and tell the others, but Fernheart murmured soothingly to her friend. "It's okay. It's not your fault. The rest of us didn't even notice, and we should've." Her hazel eyes saddened.
He could stand it no longer. "Let's go! We have to tell the others." Without waiting for a response, Strongheart turned and hammered back towards the river, his only thought being: How could we let this happen?
"What?" Silverbreeze screeched, her eyes wide with disbelief. Beside her, Aquatail burst into sobs, mumbling something incoherent. She had never seen the usually brisk, leader-type she-cat so distraught. What exactly had happened?
"What's going on?" asked a very confused-looking Cloverice. Reedfur turned grave eyes on her.
"One of our friends has been taken by GreenClan-" Too late, Silverbreeze signaled for him to stop. They all froze, eyes glued to Cloverice, hearts pounding. It was so silent, she could hear a minnow splash in the water.
"Why would GreenClan take your friend?" Cloverice asked suspiciously. Reedfur winced, his eyes pleading for help.
Finally, she sighed. "You know how we told you we were part of a rebellion? Well, we are, but... not just a crummy one like you might be used to. We're practically wanted criminals in Viperstar's books." She left out the part about destroying his headquarters and taking off with one of his leading officials. Firesoul was much safer with them anyway.
Cloverice arched an eyebrow. "Really?" Silverbreeze gulped and nodded; she would've given anything to know what the she-cat was thinking at the moment. Then she shrugged. "Cool. I'll help you find her."
"Huh?" she stammered. This was not what she had been expecting. "You'll help?"
"One one condition," the black tabby said craftily. Reedfur narrowed his eyes.
"What?" he meowed.
"You let me join the rebellion."
"What do you think?" murmured Finchnose in a soft whisper. Strongheart's amber eyes were still blazing with anger over Snowdrift's capture, but he managed to talk in a reasonable tone of voice.
"Ordinarily I would say no, since we can't really afford to trust anyone now. But StarClan told us to find her, so we must need her."
"Agreed," said Silverbreeze. Turning back to Cloverice, she nodded her head. "You're in. Now come on. We've got a trail to pick up on."
"I bet I know where they'll take her," Aquatail pronounced, her eyes narrowing. "To wherever Viperstar is."
"But where is that? We destroyed his headquarters," pointed out Ivyfleet.
For a few seconds they pondered this, before Firesoul spoke up. "Well, I did serve very closely with him, and I think I know where he'll go after this. It's in a canyon nearby, just across the river. We'll have to take the bridge, and travel a bit, but we should reach there by evening."
"Great. Another midnight raid," sighed Birdsong. Aquatail's eyes were bright.
"Who cares? It's for Snowdrift. We'll get her back. We'll show them!"
Glancing about, Reedfur wondered if the others were as nervous about the rickety looking log as he was. This was the bridge?
"Are you sure it's safe?" he muttered anxiously. Cloverice shrugged.
"It's been here forever. Chances are it'll stay for us."
This was not particularly comforting, but Reedfur said nothing, only nodded and took a deep breath. "Who goes first?"
"I'll go," Strongheart offered, but Silverbreeze shook her head.
"I will. I'm smaller and lighter; it'll be easier for me to test it." Reedfur felt his heart contract as she put one dainty paw on the moss-covered tree trunk.
"Be careful." He and Strongheart meowed it at the exact same time, then looked at each other in surprise and embarassment.
Silverbreeze flicked her tail to show she'd heard, then began creeping along the bridge in a slow crawl. The process of watching her was nerve-racking, but finally she leaped off and stood facing them on the other side.
"It's fine!" she called. "Just be careful not to slip."
"Like we couldn't figure that out ourselves," Wetstream muttered, but there was a glimmer of fear in her dark yellow eyes.
"I'll go next," announced Reedfur, not wanting Silverbreeze or the others to think he was scared. They moved aside as he stepped out onto the log. It felt slick with mud underpaw, but eventually he got to the rougher bark, which was easier to hold onto. He tried to focus on the pair of blue eyes watching him from the other end, instead of the churning waves below. After what seemed like eternity, the other bank loomed up before him. With a leap, he landed on the grass, rolling against Silverbreeze. Clambering to his paws, he laughed with relief. "Sorry 'bout that."
"It's okay," she chirped, her gaze fixed on Strongheart, who was halfway across, and, Reedfur liked to think, Birdsong, who was behind him. There was no way she felt any special tie to Strongheart. Right? Being handsome, clever, charming, and brave is no reason to like someone. What about more important things, like... me? Surely she wouldn't-
Shaking off the thought, he leaned forward to help Strongheart off, though the tom was the last one who needed it.
After what felt like forever, almost everyone was across, save Fallensky. The dark gray she-cat looked scared, though Reedfur knew she would never admit it. Her twisted leg bumped awkwardly against the log. Yet, for a while, she appeared to be doing fine. Then she reached a small, moss-covered section of the log at the same time as a sparrow did. The bird took off in a flurry of feathers. Fallensky let out a startled exclamation, her bad leg slipping out from under her on the moss. Her chin slammed against the floor of the bridge, and she hurtled over the edge, sending up a soaking wave of water.
"Fallensky!" Several voices echoed after her. Reedfur breathed a sigh of relief as her dark head bobbed up above the water, but it was obvious she was in trouble.
"I'll go get her!" Strongheart yelled. Reedfur bristled. He was not about to get outdone again.
"No, I will!" Without waiting to hear what the tom said, he leaped into the river, paws outstretched.
Silverbreeze screamed his name, but he ignored it, striking out at a strong swim. Quickly though, the undercurrent began dragging his legs down. What appeared to be a tranquil river on the surface was a whirlwind of suction underwater. Waves washed over Reedfur's head, blinding him temporarily. Always, he tried to focus on the shape of Fallensky's body as it drifted just ahead of him.
Finally, with a last burst of energy, he reached her side and fastened his teeth in her soggy scruff. Calling upon every reserve of strength, he turned and began paddling back. Fallensky was a dead weight in his jaws; she was out cold. Soon, all of Reedfur's muscles were screaming in protest. Despite the gloomy late leaf-fall sun overhead, cold was seeping into him, numbing his body like a gradual poisoning.
So this is why they call it the River of Stars, he thought hazily. Because it's the way to StarClan. Good bye world.
"Reedfur!" It was Finchnose. He'd know her cry anywhere, and it was repeated by his other friends, including Strongheart and Silverbreeze. The fear for him in their voices awakened him again. Pushing his head above the surface, he snagged onto the muddy bank, struggling for a hold. His forelegs ached horribly, and he was just about to let go when a several strong claws and jaws locked into his fur. First, Fallensky was lifted out of his grasp. With his burden gone, and them supporting him, Reedfur was able to scramble up, before collapsing on the ground, completely unconcious.
"Is he okay?" Silverbreeze asked anxiously. Reedfur looked so small and weak lying on the grass, it gave her chills. Finchnose glanced up, her face a mask of worry.
"He should be," she said. "But he'll need to rest for a little more time."
"Which means we can't go on for a while," Angelcloud said, pacing frantically. Silverbreeze knew she was just worried because her best friend Snowdrift was taken, but she couldn't help feeling irritated. Couldn't she see Reedfur was hurt? And to save Fallensky too.
The gray she-cat was awake now, and looked on worriedly as Reedfur coughed, spluttering out some water. Relief flooded through Silverbreeze. "Thank StarClan! Reedfur, are you all right?"
His eyes focused groggily on her. "Uh... Yeah. I think I'll be fine." Coughing some more, he got to his paws, meeting his friends' worried stares. "Really guys. I'll be fine. We can go now.'
Strongheart frowned, and looked like he was about to protest, but Aquatail butted in. "He's right guys. I know we're worried about him, but we'll take it slow. Snowdrift could be dying right now."
And that settled it. Reedfur staggered into a standing position, and Silverbreeze flanked him, along with Finchnose, pressing their pelts against his still-damp black fur.
"Well," he said in a weak voice, "That was... interesting."
She nodded. "Cinderdapple, how far is the canyon?"
"Not too far," she said assuringly. "We should get there by night again, okay? Don't worry about it."
"Okay," Silverbreeze sighed. "Think you can make it Reedfur?"
"Yeah," he said, holding her gaze with a pair of glowing green eyes. "I'll be fine, with you- guys to help me." He smiled, and licked her on the cheek.
Feeling her cheeks flush, she stared at he paws. "Oh, okay. Great."
Finchnose interrupted them at that moment. "Well, we survived the River of Stars, as tough as it was. We'll find Snowdrift, and we'll go on with our mission. StarClan is helping us now."
Silverbreeze nodded, feeling reenergized by the hope in her friend's face. "Definitely."
Perfect. They've fallen right into the trap. Perhaps I was right to trust them after all. The shadow vanished into the night.