As soon as the branches at the entrance of the elders' den stirred, I practically hurled my body across the clearing, Minkpaw right alongside me. We nearly slammed into Creamflower, who looked rather scared by our approach. "Creamflower! Is she okay? What did Lionpatch and Blossompaw say?" I blurted.
"What is the sickness? Does he have the cure?" Minkpaw yelled at the same time.
The pale elder said nothing, only gazed at us with misty blue eyes.
It felt like someone was squeezing on my heart. "What... say something."
Creamflower shook her head. "You might want to... go inside. And talk to her."
So. This was it. As Minkpaw and I stepped inside the elders' den, I was telling myself fiercely not to believe it. Fuzzears was an amazing fighter. She never backed down. Something like a cough could never-
"Oh." I let out a small gasp as my eyes fell on her. I had never seen her so still. The fight seemed to have leaked out of her small, frail body. Her ribs jutted out of her rumpled fur even more then usual, and she seemed completely lost to the world. However, as we stepped closer, she opened her eyes and gazed at us. At first she didn't even seem to recognize us. Then a small spark flared in her gaze, and she smiled a little.
Both of us knelt at her side. "Fuzzears," Minkpaw whispered, her voice hoarse. It was times like this that I could see how sensitive my friend really could be.
"I think I'm going, guys," Fuzzears said ruefully, flicking her ears.
Without warning, tears began quivering at the corners of my eyes. "Don't say that. Lionpatch and Blossompaw have cures. They'll get you all fixed up."
She shook her head. "It's too late for that. I just hope I die quickly, without a lot of suffering."
Nearby, Redbelly cleared his throat. I glanced over at him and saw him and Grayfinch exiting the den. Their message was clear: they were giving Minkpaw and I some alone time with our loved one.
Once they had gone, I leaned my head on Fuzzears's flank and let out a long, low sigh. To think I had disliked her so little ago... so much had changed. So, so much had changed. And now it was changing again, being ripped away with the wind.
"Can you two do me one favor?" Fuzzears rasped.
"When I'm gone, please find my son. Tell him... tell him that I'm sorry for everything, and that I never meant for us to be so estranged all his life. Tell him I'd do anything... anything to make it up to him. That I'd give anything to relive the moment when he was born, to change things, to make it different."
Her son. Yes, she had told me about him when I'd first talked to her.
Squeezing her paw, I said, "We will, Fuzzears. We'll tell him."
Minkpaw opened her mouth, clearly intending to ask the identity of Fuzzears's son. But she caught my gaze, and the words stuck in her throat. Her mouth formed a silent "O", asking if I was serious. I gave my head a little nod.
"We'll be back in the evening," I said, getting to my paws. "Please hang in there... there's something we want to do for you."
Fuzzears nodded imperceptibly and curled back up into a tight, furry ball.
As soon as Minkpaw and I were outside the den, she rolled her eyes. "You're nuts. You're the one who sent him away, who gave him a new life. And now you're going to-"
"I know, I know," I snapped. "But we have to! It's what Fuzzears wants. Can't you see that? This is the only way to settle things. I don't know what happened between them, or why they never told anyone else they were mother and son. But at this point, I don't care. Fuzzears is dying, Minkpaw." It hurt to admit it. It hurt me so bad, like a claw between the ribs. But I swallowed down the pain. "We have to do this."
I was begging her, pleading with her to understand.
Only she was only half way out of the camp. "Hurry up, Breezepaw! We don't have time to waste!"
Half-laughing, I raced after her, pausing to tell Quailfeather we were "going on a little hunt and would be out all day". The deputy raised her eyebrows and frowned. "Okay, but be careful. Remember that the rogues are everywhere. Oh, and one more thing Breezepaw. If you see that rogue who said he was bringing his sisters to the camp to help us, make sure to be friendly to him. He seems like a nice guy, if a little eccentric in his hatred of us."
Oh, you have no idea. "Oh, you mean Ryan? Sure thing." I hurried out of the camp with Minkpaw.
"Who the heck is Ryan?" she asked as we began traveling through the woods.
"He and his sisters, Chamomile and Lily, are the three messengers who came to our camp that one night, remember? Only they're not with Claron's rogues anymore. They didn't know that she was hurting cats. When I told Ryan that Blossompaw had been hurt, he seemed genuinely shocked. So they're joining our cause against Claron, even though they don't like the Clans."
She snorted. "And you actually fell for that?"
Hurt, I frowned. "What do you mean?"
"He's obviously pulling one over you- the stupidest trick in the world. Do you seriously believe he wants to help us, after how much he said he hated us?" A scowl appeared on her brow. "Oh yeah, and when did you tell him that Blossompaw got hurt? What possible time could you two have to talk and interact when you didn't have him pinned down for trespassing?"
Oh boy. I was cornered now.
"I, uh, well, I just..."
Minkpaw raised one eyebrow.
Well, fate had mercy on me, for once. Which was ironic, because what happened next was a complete disaster, and not very merciful at all.
The rogues were on us before we even realized what was happening. One grabbed me around the throat and yanked me backwards, cutting off my supply of oxygen. Nearby, I heard Minkpaw struggling with two other cats, but I couldn't move my head enough to see what was going on, let alone help her. Claws dug into my throat, right at the base of my life-blood. I knew that making one false move would prove fatal.
"What... do you want?" I choked out.
Ignoring me, my captor snarled to her companions, "Look at this! Two SpringClan apprentices, all out here alone!"
"This our territory you-" The rest of Minkpaw's words turned into a garbled sound as the tom who had her pinned her to the ground.
Cowards. They jump two apprentices on our own territory? There's three of them, all full-grown cats. If this was a real fair fight-
"Come on, you two. You'll make a pretty pair of hostages." The she-cat holding me dug her claws deeper, eliciting three ruby drops of blood, which shone against my dark black pelt. "SpringClan won't be so cocky and self-righteous once they see you two with your pelts turned to blood."
I winced at that, exchanging a look with Minkpaw. Having my pelt turned to blood didn't sound like fun. At all(understatement, by the way).
"Where should we take them, Cinnamon?" asked the tom, who was a large, ugly white cat with a pair of squinty olive eyes. Beside him was another she-cat who apparently served no other purpose than to ensure the odds weren't fair.
Cinnamon, the cat who had me around the throat, paused to consider this for a second. When she tilted her head, I could catch a glimpse of her face, even in my awkward position. And I had to admit, I was surprised. She didn't look anymore threatening then Lilyshade ever had. She had a soft ruff of honey-gold fur that grew cream around her face, and a pair of sparkling sapphire eyes. For a second I had to remind myself that she was trying to kill me/hold me hostage. The blood pooling at the scratches on my neck helped me with that a bit.
"Take them to Claron right away," Cinnamon decided. "We're in SpringClan territory, and those stupid Clan cats are like leeches. They keep randomly turning up across the territory, claiming to be on 'patrols'. We'd better get out of here quickly. Come on, Whiskers and Sari."
The three rogues formed a triangle around us, as if we would dare to try to escape. Cinnamon took the lead, with Whiskers and Sari on either side of us.
Inside, I was seething. We had come out here to find Blackheart and Lilyshade. To fulfill Fuzzears's last wish and make her death peaceful. But these moronic idiots had to come along and ruin things, with their stupid anti-Clan attitudes and nothing but rubbish grudges against us. Seriously. This was beginning to tire really fast. We had done absolutely nothing to them. They had moved onto our territory, attacked our cats, threatened us, attempted to kill our leader(and cost him a life) in a false treaty, and they still dared to pretend like we were in the wrong? Why couldn't they at least admit to being power-hungry evil landhogs?
It was at that moment that my eyes caught onto something. In just a passing gaze, running my eyes over the nearest undergrowth, I locked gazes with a pair of burning yellow eyes.
He was crouched under a bush; I could now make out Lily and Chamomile beside him, but for some reason my vision had found him first. They'd probably been heading to the Clan camp right now, but they'd stopped. Why? Did they honestly care about Minkpaw and I, or were they just scared of being rediscovered by the rogues and taken back to Claron's group?
Seconds later, Ryan confirmed that I was doubting him for the wrong reasons. "I'll get you out," he mouthed silently.
I blinked to show I understood, but couldn't do anymore, because we were already brushing past them, and that would've aroused suspicion.
We were making our way past the SpringClan border, beyond High-Rock, to a part of the world I'd never even seen before. Despite my situation, I couldn't help being on the alert. I had to make a mental note of where the rogues' campsite was; it would be invaluable information once we escaped. If we escaped. When we escaped. Whichever.
"Password?" Two rogues barred our way down a grassy slope, nodding at Cinnamon, who whispered something - the password, probably - in their ears. Personally, I thought the whole "password" thing was really stupid. Couldn't they tell members of their group by scent? And what if someone forgot the password? Would they honestly not let them in, even if they were obviously a known member of the rogue group? Not stuff you need to concern yourself with, Breezepaw, I reminded myself.
The guards parted, and we made our way into the rogue camp.
Instantly, every one of my senses was assailed. The air reeked, not with blood or anything, but with the scent of unfamiliar cats. Glowering eyes fixated on me from all directions, and I could feel tension and hostility crackle the air around my fur.
"Whiskers, Sari, take them to the corner and guard them. I have to go talk to Claron." Shaking out her pelt, Cinnamon stalked away.
"We're beyond dead," I whispered to Minkpaw.
Her amber eyes darkened. "Don't be such a pessimist, Breezepaw."
"We're close to being not alive," I amended.
"Close enough," she sighed, flicking me on the shoulder with her tail. Whiskers and Sari glared at us, but I just lifted my chin and stared back at them, daring them to do something about it. They didn't. They only shoved us roughly into a small, enclosed den under a bush, and then sat in front of us, blocking the only exit.
"Ryan better have a good plan to help us escape," I muttered.
With a blink, Minkpaw frowned at me. "Ryan? What's he got to do with anything?"
"I spotted him while we were being captured," I explained, aware that this was a touchy subject with her, considering our previous conversation. "He and his sisters signaled that they were planning to help."
A layer of ice had settled over Minkpaw's face. "Is that so? And you still feel for it, huh?"
Now feeling defensive, I snapped, "I'm not an idiot, Minkpaw. I don't go around befriending rogues for no reason! I trust them. If they want to get us out, I know they'll at least try. They're okay cats. Even though they hate us Clans, they promised to help us against Claron."
"They're the one who sided with her in the first place," she pointed out hotly. "And besides, they have no reason to hate SpringClan so much, so I don't consider it a huge deal that they're making a 'huge sacrifice' to side with us against a bunch of filthy bloodsuckers." When I didn't reply, she added, "And you seem a little too familiar with this Ryan fellow for my comfort."
Shocked, I gaped at her. "What on earth do you mean by that?"
She raised her eyebrows at my reaction- obviously I'd made a huge mistake by being so quick to leap at her. "Oh, nothing," she said, aggravatingly vague. "It's just that you two-"
"Both have black fur? Both have a sense of sarcasm?" a voice suggested from behind us.
Letting out a collective yelp, Minkpaw and I turned to see Ryan framed against the small den, thorns and burrs caught in his rumpled fur. "How- how did you- there's only one entrance in here..." I stammered.
Ruefully plucking a twig out of his neck-scruff, he nodded. "I know. I kinda burrowed in here. Now keep your voice down, before those two bozo guards outside catch us."
"We'd better get out of here quickly," I said, then couldn't resist adding, "So this was your master plan? This was all Minkpaw and I needed to do? Burrow our way out of here? We didn't even need your help?"
"Hey. It's harder than it sounds," Ryan retorted, eyes warm. I knew he was glad I was okay, and I was glad he was here too.
Meanwhile, Minkpaw was staring at us like we were three-headed aliens who had just confessed our love of fish entrails.
"You go first," I said to Minkpaw, gesturing to the hole in the back of the den that would lead to our freedom. "You're the smallest."
"Hurry," added Ryan urgently. "They could find us any second."
Nodding, Minkpaw dove into the hole and began struggling to get under the thickly-woven back portion of the den. While we waited, I turned to Ryan. "You didn't have to come get us."
He shrugged. "Well, there's no way SpringClan's going to trust Lily and Cammy and I. I figured saving the two of you wouldn't hurt a bit- not that I care what a stupid Clan thinks, but..." He ducked his head and winked at me. "I wasn't in any hurry to see you get hurt either."
Butterflies exploded in my stomach, but aloud I only cleared my throat and nodded towards the tunnel. "Who goes next?"
Both of us answered at the same time: "You."
It probably would've become a huge argument if Whiskers, our guard, hadn't turned around at that instant and yelled, "Sari! They're escaping!"
"Run!" Ryan shoved me into the burrow, and I found myself choking and spluttering on a mouthful of dirt. Frantically, I churned my paws, trying to avoid getting ensnared in the bramble wall of the prison we were in. When I managed to reach the other side, Lily, Chamomile, and Minkpaw dragged me up and out, steadying me while I gasped for air. Seconds later, Ryan popped out of the ground, and the five of us made a run for it.
Behind me, I could hear the rogues shouting at each other, as well as the pounding of their pawsteps as they gave chase. Still, we had a good headstart, since we'd come out behind the den, and they had to make their way through the entire camp. Besides, running was my strongest strength- I quickly took the lead of our group, then forced myself to slow down, reminding myself that Ryan, Chamomile, and Lily had chosen to save me, and that it would be incredibly fox-hearted to just ditch them like that.
When we tumbled across the SpringClan border, I instantly felt more secure. We slowed down to a trot, ears perked to listen.
"I think they aren't chasing us anymore," Minkpaw announced.
Lily flicked her ears in agreement. "So what now?" she said awkwardly.
"We take you guys back to camp, I guess, and explain how you saved us," I said. "Except Minkpaw will have to do that. Because I have to go find two cats... it's really important."
"What?" Minkpaw screeched. "No way! I want to come find Blackheart and Lilyshade too!"
"One of us has to go back to the camp with the others," I said. "To tell our Clanmates how they saved us from the rogues- and to tell Oakstar that we know where the rogue campsite is."
Stubbornly, she stuck out her tongue. "And why can't it be you?"
"Wait, wait. Who's Blackheart and Lilyshade?" Ryan said. Then he paused. "Are they, by any chance, a black-and-white tom and a white she-cat with brown ears?"
My jaw dropped. "Yes! How did you know that?"
"I met them a while ago," he said. "They live about two miles off your territory, in the opposite direction of the rogue campsite."
"You have to take me to where you met them," I said urgently.
Minkpaw groaned. "I guess that means I'm the one who goes back to camp, huh?"
Apologetically, I opened my mouth to offer swapping positions, but she shook her head. "It's okay. I'll take Lily and Cammy back, pass on the news to Oakstar, and keep Fuzzears company. You go get Blackheart. For the both of us."
I really did have the best friends ever. "Tell Specklepaw and Daisypaw I'll be back by evening, and tell Fuzzears that... that I love her."
"Shall I tell Specklepaw the same thing?" Minkpaw joked. Next to me, I felt Ryan tense, and felt like slapping Minkpaw, though there was really no reason for me to. But seriously. Tell Specklepaw I loved him? Was that what dating was? Because I hadn't imagined anything like that...
No time for an apprentice crisis, Fuzzears is dying right now, you idiot. "Er... um... bye," I managed, turning around. "Let's go Ryan."
"Who's Specklepaw?" he asked.
"No time for that. We have to find Blackheart... before someone I really love runs out of time."