Title credit to Mildred D. Taylor
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Adrenaline still sizzled in Mousewing's veins, her heart still beat fast. She felt energy burning straight through her legs, making her feet tremble where she stood. Anticipation coursed through her, her brain whirring and a smile curling her lips. She could barely contain herself - the excitement of the battle still made her giddy, and having won the skirmish only heightened her senses. Beside the deputy stood a cat nearly as calm as Mousewing was eager - his midnight fur lay flat along his spine, his blue eyes were cool and collected. He sat completely still, face void of emotion, and merely ignored the antics of his companion.
When Mousewing spoke, however, her voice was even. "You seem impartial," she observed, beginning to pace around the reserved cat. "We did win, you are aware."
"There's no denying that," the cat - whose fur smelled faintly of mint and other herbs - replied darkly. "I'm well aware of the outcome of this...skirmish. I retain this sobriety, however, only because of the outcome - Mousewing, the consequences of this battle were far too drastic. The price paid does not weigh up to what we've earned. A sliver of territory for the lives of Mothpaw, Pooleye, Reedpelt, and Mintstar?"
Mousewing studied her feet, humbled by her medicine cat's words. "Sage-ear, I know that this is really hard for you. Mintstar...you two were very close, I know. And Reedpelt was your littermate. For him to sacrifice himself for his mate...to send Pooleye's murderer up to StarClan and then to join her himself is..."
"Despicable," Sage-ear replied stiffly, standing up and shouldering Mousewing aside. Without breaking stride, he padded into the shadows, the sooty tip of his tail lashing as he trundled deeper into the undergrowth. "What Reedpelt did was despicable. His time had not yet come, he was still in his youth. It is a despicable mockery of the lives of others lost - Pooleye would never want him to do such a thing. Icepaw should very well be ashamed of his father's actions. Reedpelt still had much to accomplish - he still owed his Clan. But he left his Clan. He left me."
The she-cat bounded after her advisor, mousy brown paws thrumming against the leaf-strewn forest floor. Unable to come up with a satiable reply, the pair trotted in silence until their destination - jagged peaks, silhouetted against the clear, navy sky - materialized in front of them. There was a faint light emanating from somewhere around the rocks, though both Mousewing and Sage-ear had to squint to make out anything other than the vague shape of the structure.
It took a few more moments of picking their way around fallen branches, their pads - ground smooth and very vulnerable by the soft ground they tread on and the water they soaked their paws in - beginning to bleed and blister from the rough terrain. Mousewing winced as a thorn embedded itself in the thick flesh of her paw, but Sage-ear only spared a moment to grip it between his teeth and pull. The blood-soaked thorn was spat into the undergrowth, and they were on their way once more.
Mousewing's breathing hiched when they arrived at the base of the rocky outcropping. The faint outline of a tunnel leading inside the structure - from which the unearthly glow was emitting - was visible in the darkness. There was an ominous atmosphere lingering about the rocks and its presumably cave-like interior, something that sent Mousewing's nerves jangling and replaced the adrenaline of the prior battle with fear. Perhaps it was the presence of her ancestors, their starry pelts invisible to the untrained eye, or else the lingering threat of ThunderClan - the pair was, after all, in the territory of their worst enemies. The attack earlier that day was enough proof of the bloodlust and reckless cruelty of Mousewing's nemeses.
"I'm nervous," the she-cat blurted the moment Sage-ear paused. Though he didn't show it, Sage-ear was vaguely surprised at the headstrong she-cat's outburst, but as a medicine cat it was his duty to listen to his (future) leader's worries and insecurities and do his best to assuage them as he would any corporeal wound. "Mintstar was always so diplomatic...so kind. She knew how to handle this sort of thing. I don't...I don't know. I'm not confident enough to lead an entire Clan, I can't do this, Sage-ear. I didn't have to make so many decisions as deputy - but now choosing a deputy, choosing mentors, choosing names, choosing battles, choosing a mate, choosing...all of these choices, I'm not ready, Sage-ear. And here I am, getting my nine lives...StarClan deserves a leader far more worthy to bequeath these gifts upon. I don't..."
She broke off, aware of her babbling. Embarrassment flooded her cheeks, but neither she nor Sage-ear spoke. Taking a deep breath, however, she steeled herself to follow her medicine cat down the tunnel, disatisfied with the lack of advice and with her stomach still in a knot. It wasn't easy keeping herself from having a total meltdown - but if anything, a conversation with her ancestors would do the trick.
Both cats' brief senses of panic were alleviated as the glow at the end of the tunnel grew brighter, the passage eventually opening up into an enormous cave - the ceiling at least three tree-heights tall - the walls covered in rocks the size of Mousewing's head. The rocks weren't ordinary rocks though, they shone - gave off an opalescent sheen, illuminating the features of both cats and sending shadows dancing up the wind-roughened walls. It was, to say the least, beautiful in a rugged sort of way.
"Moonhigh's almost past," Sage-ear said, speaking for the first time since his outburst the former evening. "We'd best get this meeting expedited, or else StarClan will have given up on us. Go on then, touch your nose to one of the Moonstones and let's get on with it."
• • •
When Mousewing awoke, she was surrounded by the heavenly glow of her ancestors. Though her meetings with StarClan had been quite far and few between, there was something achingly familiar about feeling their presence around her - something that made her feel automatically safe, estranged from the life back on the island, where ThunderClan cats prowled the paths and lurked around every corner. Surrounded by long-gone family, by cats she didn't even know but had sworn an oath to protect her...there was something that induced such a sense of security, and though Mousewing would never admit it aloud, it was very, very nice.
The voice came from a tom, small in stature but with authority indicative of his time as a warrior. There was something vaguely familiar about the shine in his wide blue eyes, but Mousewing couldn't quite put her paw on what - at least not until her eyes landed on the easily-recognizable she-cat by his side, whose face was stretched wide in a grin and whose eyes sparkled with mischief just as they had in life. There was no sign of the injury that had crippled (and eventually lead to the death of) Mousewing's littermate, and for that Mousewing thanked StarClan. Rushfoot might very well throw a fuss if she'd been reborn into StarClan with a mangled hind- and foreleg and stubby tail to match.
He nods as more cats begin to fill in the spaces in the loose circle that has gathered around Mousewing. Stress has begun to tighten her stomach, shooting ice through her veins. It was unusual that she was afflicted by such crippling emotions, but with all times of invincibility must come times of extreme vulnerability - it was only unfortunate that Mousewing must suffer that time of vulnerability in front of numerous members of her Clan and a portion of her family.
All eyes turned to Mousewing. She gazed expectantly back at them, feeling overwhelmed but rather detached from the entire situation, until pain shot through her bones. It was paralyzing, rooting her paws to the ground. Mousewing couldn't move; though her eyes were open, all she could see were the blinding stares of her ancestors. The pain finally subsided, leaving Mousewing panting for breath, chest heaving.
Hailnose stepped forward. "Your old life has been stripped away in preparation for your new ones." He moved closer to Mousewing, touching his nose to the top of her head. "With this life I give you charisma. These are dark times and a sense of diplomacy will be necessary to save the lives of your Clanmates."
Pain burned through Mousewing's muscles, but she managed to stay standing. Perspiration had already begun to bead her forehead, and her heart rate was going wild. She watched as Rushfoot stepped forward, a kind smile dancing across her lips and a warm light flickering behind the blue eyes the two sisters shared.
"With this life," Rushfoot said, the laughter fading from her voice to be replaced with solemnity, "I give you compassion. Use it well as your Clanmates endure and overcome their own obstacles."
Again, a similar, fire-like sensation tore through Mousewing's tensed body. The pain, though ephemeral, left her slightly more aware and not as astonished, though she still struggled to regulate her breathing. The she-cat began to hope dearly that not all lives would be received in such a painful manner, but her prayers were cut short as another cat - a pretty ginger she-kit whose fiery pelt had long been muted by her time in StarClan - stepped forward. She could barely reach the top of Mousewing's head, and the deputy had to bend down so the tiny kit could touch her muzzle and deliver Mousewing's third life.
"With this life I give you a sense of adventure," she chirped, "do not be afraid of the future - use it to your advantage."
This time, an elderly gray tom hobbled forwards, gazing proudly at Rushfoot, Hailnose, and Mousewing, and rumbled, "With this life, I give you patience. Let no one, not even your Clanmates or your very own family, exhaust it." Shooting Mousewing a fleeting smile, he returned to the ranks of his celestial comrades to watch as Mousewing received her remaining five lives.
"With this life, I give you endurance. Use it to overcome any obstacles that may threaten your success."
"With this life, I give you loyalty. Use it to defend your Clan and defend the ones you love." The she-cat stepped back, amber eyes narrowed as though she didn't believe Mousewing was strong enough to endure the spasm that rocked her body. Though she was sent to her knees, Mousewing regained her footing and straightened up, taking a deep breath and turning in anticipation for her next life, delivered by a sturdy black tom with glowing yellow eyes.
"With this life," he said, resting his furry muzzle on the top of Mousewing's head, "I grant you conviction. Use it to defend your beliefs and do not let anyone waver it."
Mousewing's eighth life was to be given by Pooleye - a pretty, silvery-blue she-cat killed in the battle earlier that day. Leaving the side of her fallen mate, she padded before Mousewing, shining blue eyes already darkened by a burden far beyond her moons. "Mousewing, with this life, I give you passion. Honor your Clan and defend it with every fiber of your being. Do not let this ferocity waver."
"With this final life, I give you confidence. Do not doubt yourself, Mousewing. You have the power to do whatever you may put your mind to. You only need to believe in yourself." Retreating a few paces, Mintstar bestowed upon her successor a warm-hearted smile. There had always been something so genuinely good about the former leader, since the day she'd decided to check in on all of the nursing queens, and the days she'd spent helping the apprentices clean ticks from behind the elders' ears. She gave truth to the meaning of loyalty and embodied the spirit bestowed upon her. And yet, this was only accentuated by the starry pelts aroaund her - her happiness positively radiated from her glossy silver coat, groomed to perfection; her wisdom and kindness shone behind the burden she bore in her eyes. "I hail you by your new name, Mousestar. Your old life is no more. You have now received the nine lives of a leader, and StarClan grants you the guardianship of RiverClan. Defend it well; care for young and old; honor your ancestors and the traditions of the warrior code; live each life with pride and dignity."
As the outlines of her former Clanmates began to fade into the midnight sky, Mousestar felt each life swell within her. Gone was the old Mousewing, the cocky she-cat hyped on adrenaline, harboring a sensitive, nervous apprentice inside a deputy's body. In her place stood a leader versed in diplomacy, passion and loyalty burning through her veins and endurance burning in her muscles. Compassion burned in her heart and patience and conviction in her head, where a sense of adventure led her forward, away from the past and into the future. And yet it was that courage bestowed upon her that allowed her to open her eyes the moment she woke up, to rise to her paws, tilt up her chin, and face the world with a smile on her face.