I can't believe I'm letting two she-cats do all of my hunting.
It was a serious blow to Strongheart's pride, but after his recent battle and wild escape, he had no energy left to fend for himself. What little reserves he'd had were used up in his struggle to get out of SunClan territory.
While Silverbreeze and Finchnose, his two new friends, were out hunting, he had some time to himself. Time to reflect.
And of course the first thing that came to his mind wasn't Frostpaw, or even SunClan'.
It was Hazelpaw.
The everlasting sparkle in her green eyes. The sheen over her silver coat. The melody of her voice.
Aloud, to himself, he whispered, "Why didn't I get a chance to tell her before she left? Why couldn't I tell her how much I loved her? She never knew..."
"Who are you talking to?"
Jerking up, he found himself gazing into a pair of disorientingly blue eyes. Silverbreeze.
"Oh, I, uh... no one."
Subtly, she raised her eyebrows at him, and dropped a vole and a rabbit onto the ground. Obviously, she thought he was lying or crazy - or both - but she didn't say so. In an attempt to steer the conversation away from his decimated love-life, Strongheart mewed, "Where's Finchnose? I thought you were hunting together."
Silverbreeze gave an affectionate purr. "Oh, she wouldn't hunt for the world, at least not if she could be gathering herbs. She's a medicine cat, you know."
Surprised, he said, "No, I didn't." Although it shouldn't have been news to him; the little she-cat did possess that caring gentleness that all medicine cats had. Plus she carried a pouch of herbs around her neck- how had he not put two and two together?
"I'll take the vole," he offered, motioning to the fresh-kill.
"Oh, okay. Are you sure?"
He nodded, hoping she wouldn't hear his stomach roaring. "You guys need to eat too."
Together, they lay down - though far enough apart that their flanks didn't brush - and began to eat. When Finchnose arrived, with a refilled herb-pouch, she joined Silverbreeze in sharing the rabbit. Strongheart detected a cozy friendship between them, most likely because they were both BreezeClan(at least, he was pretty sure they were).
When his stomach was full, and the she-cats had had their fill too, he mewed, "So, what's your story? I've told you mine."
Gustily, Silverbreeze exhaled. "It's a long one, so I'll paraphrase," she sighed. "Finchnose, you can go first."
"Okay, well, when Viperstar started to take over my Clan, my family sorta moved out. Like, we were still close to GreenClan, but he enforced all these crazy rules on medicine cats, and extra taxes and stuff... we thought it best to go away for a while. But he found us. And he killed my father when he tried to protest GreenClan's treatment of me." She choked up a little, her long cocoa-colored lashes growing dewy with tears. "After that, I had to almost give up medicine cat training just to keep my mother and I alive. I hunted during the day, and I snuck into the BreezeClan camp at night, to help them with healing wounds and keeping themselves strong. It was all I could do. My mother was in no state to be left alone after my father's death... I had to take care of her. Then, she died. I was free - okay, that sounds really bad, what I meant was I could..."
"I get it," Strongheart assured her.
Giving him a grateful smile, she continued, "I was free to really try to make a difference. I raced back to the BreezeClan camp- in time for the final battle. It was awful. I joined their medicine cat and did everything I could to save our Clanmates, but they just kept dying and dying... and I knew I had to get out of there. So I ran."
"Did you two run together?" he asked.
Silverbreeze shook her head. "I think my story was more like yours, Strongheart. I remained in camp till the final battle, and as you know, things grew steadily worse under Viperstar's almost full-control. He recruited our best cats for GreenClan, including my father. At least, he tried to recruit my father. But we sent him away, where Viperstar couldn't find him. I haven't seen him since. Anyway, with all its best warriors gone or dead, BreezeClan was left in a dangerous position. We grew weaker, and Viperstar grew stronger off of our prey. We had no strength to chase him off; all of our resources were directed at keeping ourselves alive enough to fend off the GreenClan warriors. But we couldn't hold them off effectively at all either. We were besieged on all fronts. We stood no chance."
All of them fell silent. On the horizon, the sun was melting into the hills, painting the heather with streaks of orange and bathing the grassy meadows in violet twilight.
For once, maybe there was hope. Strongheart had found friends after he had lost every other cat he loved and cared for. Who knew what else was possible?
I'll tell you what's impossible though. Getting my old life back.
And that was the only thing he truly wanted.
Resting his head on his paws, Strongheart let himself succumb to his exhaustion and his wounds.
Perhaps morning would bring him answers.
Unfortunately, morning only brought a face full of strengthening herbs.
"Do I have to eat these?" he squalled, impertinent as a little kit.
Finchnose faced him stolidly. Despite her small frame and the kit-like innocence in her round hazel eyes, she was quite imposing when it cames to herbs, medicine, and other forms of cruel and unusual torture. "Of course you have to eat these. We can't have you fainting during the day."
The idea that she thought he might faint rankled Strongheart; what rankled him more was the fact that she might be right. He was still weak from his fight and ordeal, but no way was he going to eat those disgusting-smelling leaves. He'd rather eat his own foot off.
When he voiced this, Finchnose threatened to rip his own foot off, beat him with it, and then stuff it full of herbs and shove it down his throat.
That was enough to cow anyone. He ate the herbs.
"You're mean," he told her.
A pleased smile was all he got in return.
"What do we do now?" Silverbreeze asked. "I mean... where do we go? We can't just be nomads."
"What other choice do we have?" Strongheart shook his head. "There's no way we can go that's safe. I don't know how far Viperstar's reign extends, but you better believe that he'll find us if we stay here. GreenClan is huge, if it took down all three of our Clans like that."
Defeated, the silver she-cat nodded. "You're right. I was fighting some IceClan cats in the battle... and the worst part was, I think some of them actually believed in GreenClan's cause. IceClan! Imagine that. We never got along, but this... if there was one thing I thought I could rely on IceClan to be - besides cold and austere - it was loyal. Loyal to the warrior code."
Quite morbidly, he said, "I'm beginning to doubt there is a warrior code anymore."
"There has to be," Finchnose insisted. "Without it, we stand no chance against evil. The warrior code is what binds us together."
"I guess you're right, but-" Strongheart halted abruptly, sniffing the air. Just for a second, he had been sure he'd smelled... there it is again! "Guys," he said slowly. "We need to get out of here."
Puzzled, Silverbreeze looked up at him. "Why?"
That was when the first GreenClan warriors broke over the hill and began racing towards them.
All three of them broke into a run, the opposite direction of the Clan territories and their pursuers. Strongheart had no idea where they were going, but at this point, "anywhere but here" would've been a perfect answer.
The blind run soon gave way to blind fear. Strongheart was beginning to seriously doubt his capability of keeping up the pace. Already, his legs burned, his lungs begged for air, and his wounds felt like fire. "Guys," he panted. "I need to rest."
Silverbreeze and Finchnose instinctively slowed their pace, running alongside of him to urge him onwards. But he couldn't let them be captured because of him. "Go on! I'll be fine."
"No way!" Silverbreeze said. Her gaze flew desperately around their surroundings, and then she gave a determined grin. "How do you feel about tree climbing?"
By the time he had ungracefully clambered to the highest branches of the thickly-trunked oak tree, Strongheart was ready to just hand himself over to the GreenClan warriors. The only things his legs wanted to do at this point was either rest or punch himself in the face. He was pretty sure half his heart had stopped beating on the way up the tree, and his head hurt like someone had dropped a little two-ton boulder on it.
"I... hate... you..." he managed to gasp at Silverbreeze.
Perched on a branch beside Finchnose, she flashed him a chaming smile. "At least we're safe," she whispered. "Now shut up, they're coming."
The GreenClan warriors had lost the trail, and were milling about suspiciously on the forest floor. One of them, a snowy white one with black ears, looked straight up at the oak. Strongheart held his breath and pushed himself against the bark, hoping against all hope that he wouldn't be spotted.
Thankfully, the white tom continued on his way, yelling, "They must've doubled back and headed back towards the territory! Let's cut them off!"
When the GreenClan cats had streamed away, Strongheart half-fell, half-slid off the tree, and was tempted to kiss the ground when he finally reached it.
"Can I lie down and die now?" he asked feebly.
Even the athletic Silverbreeze looked tired. "Just a little more walking," she promised. "We've got to put some distance between us and them. And we have to get out of this forest; it's just getting closer to GreenClan headquarters."
"GreenClan headquarters? But the Clans are pretty far off," he said confusedly.
Finchnose's face was grim. "Maybe, but Viperstar has a real base situated in these woods. It's where he trains his warriors... and keeps his prisoners. Trust me, you do not want to go near there. I don't either."
With a resigned sigh, he dragged himself back to his paws. "Fine. Lead on."
Hurriedly, Silverbreeze began weaving through the trees, obviously looking for a way out of the forest. Above them, the afternoon sun watched from the deceptively blue sky, offering a warmth that barely reached them through the thick canopy.
"I think this way will lead out to the plains..." Silverbreeze was mulling indecisively, when they heard the clamor of a GreenClan hunting "pack"- which was a group of highly-skilled GreenClan warriors.
Not again, Strongheart moaned inwardly. He did not have it in him to climb another tree, and there wasn't time anyway. The enemy would be upon them too soon.
Seeing that the two she-cats were frozen in fear, he shoved them both backwards into a thick clump of brush, and then leaped in after them. He just made it too; as soon as he whisked himself into hiding, the cats burst into the clearing.
There were three GreenClan cats, and one lone cat running ahead of them. Instantly, Strongheart's heart went out to the skinny black tom, who was barely managing to keep a step ahead of his pursuers. He used tact to duck in and out of trees, but it seemed to be the end of the chase now.
With a whimper, the black tom backed against a tree, hissing at his three cornerers. "I'll go down fighting," he warned.
Before he knew what he was doing, Strongheart crept out from under the bush. Silverbreeze hissed his name from behind him, but he paid her no heed. While the GreenClan warriors were distracted, he leaped on the back of the closest one and bit in hard, yelling, "Run!" to the black tom.
Instead of obeying, the tom sprang for another GreenClan cat. At first, Strongheart was worried, as they were outnumbered. But he shouldn't have been. Silverbreeze was right there by his side, taking on the third GreenClan cat with the ferocity of a lion.
In their weakened state, they might still have lost, had it not been for Finchnose bravely pitching in and helping wear down their enemies. She was no world-class fighter, but her bites and nips were precise and effective.
"You'll regret this!" one of the GreenClan warriors yelled before his retreat. "Especially you, Reedfur! No one escapes GreenClan! You can run but you can't hide!" And then he turned and raced away- tripping over a stick in the process.
"Who is he to talk?" Silverbreeze muttered. "He can't even run, let alone hide."
Strongheart grinned at her. "Nice."
Meanwhile, Finchnose turned to the black tom. "So you're Reedfur?"
He nodded, gazing at them shyly. "Yeah. I'm an ex-GreenClan member. Well, prisoner is more like it. And before that I was IceClan. I assume you know what that means."
They fell to GreenClan first.
"So you weren't willing to fight for Viperstar?"
Ironically, he shook his head. "Nope. So instead, I got put in jail. Today's the day I made a break for it, and I wouldn't have been successful without you guys. Thanks."
"No problem. I'm Strongheart."
"I'm Silverbreeze, and this is Finchnose."
Reedfur smiled at all of them, though his green eyes seemed to linger on Silverbreeze, which was something that made Strongheart uncomfortable, though he didn't know why it should.
As the four of them looked at each other, something seemed to flow over them. Strongheart wasn't sure what it was. The approval of StarClan? Some strange force of fate? Whatever it was, it bound their very souls tightly together. Somehow he knew that this - these three cats and him, together - was meant to be. It was preordained in some way.
He just had no idea why.
It was nearly night by the time they finally reached the plains. To Strongheart's aching paws, nothing had ever looked better than a welcoming bed of soft grass.
But first, he forced himself to look out across the prairie. Tall, silky grass made up an ocean of silver-green, dotted with wildflowers that resembled patches of jewels. The stars had come up in the sky, and the last glimmer of the lilac-and-cream dusk shone on the edge of the gently-sloped hills. A little fairy breeze had sprung up in the air, and it was heavy laden with the perfume of phlox and the tang of dew. Strongheart could taste the sweetness of the season on his tongue.
At a time like this, it was hard to put himself back in time, to remember all the havoc and heartbreak and destruction of the past war with GreenClan.
But all that had still happened. And when he looked up in the stars, he could see Hazelpaw's face. It broke his wounded heart even more to imagine her, up there, life cut short.
"Guys," he whispered quietly. "I can't do this."
"Do what?" asked Silverbreeze, frowning.
"This. Hide. Pretend everything's okay."
Finchnose brushed her fur with his. "We weren't planning on it, Strongheart. Sure, we'll need some time to rest. But there's no way we can just abandon all those cats out there that might be clinging to a hope that GreenClan will someday be abolished."
Everything seemed to be winding in circles. "So what do we do?"
Reedfur thought for a minute. "A rebellion. We start a rebellion."
He raised his eyebrows. "You really think there are enough cats out there that will join us?"
The tom nodded, and Silverbreeze and Finchnose did too. "But we all have to be in this. Together."
For a second, Strongheart closed his eyes. He saw everything that had happened to him in the past moon; Frostpaw's cold, still body, Hollystar's fall, the countless, futile attacks on GreenClan, the final battle, and Hazelpaw's limp form, the sound of her last breath. It was enough to make him want to hit something, or scream, or just kill himself. But he couldn't. He had to make a comeback from all that hardship, if for no other reason then to get revenge upon GreenClan and the much-hated Viperstar.
Placing his paw in the middle, he said, "I'm in."
Three paws came on top of his. "We're all in."
Strongheart gave a satisfied sigh. When he looked up, he thought he saw the ghostly form of the white StarClan cat who had given him his warrior name. Though he couldn't really tell, the StarClan tom looked like he was smiling.
"Remember Strongheart, what doesn't kill you makes you..."
He could finish that sentence.