Well, the impossible happened.
Brace yourselves. Seriously. Never in your wildest dreams would you have prepared yourself for what I'm about to say...
Minkpaw was talking about toms.
Okay, to be honest, she was talking about how much they annoyed her. Which I guess wasn't super revolutionary. But this was different, because she'd chosen a specific tom to rant about, instead of cursing out all in general.
"... he's so annoying. For some reason he and Cherrynose are best friends now--probably on the road to becoming mates or whatever--so he hangs around her all the time. And I mean, all the time. Doesn't he realize that she has mentoring duties? I don't want him breathing down my neck while I try to train," she ranted, flicking her tail against her nest angrily so that she threw bedding into the air.
I watched her bemusedly. "Bluebird isn't that bad."
"Obviously you would say that," smirked Daisypaw.
It was just girls in the apprentices' den right now: Daisypaw, Minkpaw, me, Cammy, and Lily. Specklepaw and his mentor, Yellowsun, were giving Ryan a tour of the territory. Cammy and Lily, clearly clueless about the various gossip threads and drama being referenced in our conversation, were just watching us apprentices talk.
I hoped they didn't actually take everything we were saying to be truth. If they did, they would develop the impression that Bluebird was a psychotic tom whose main goal in life was to torment everyone.
Then again, they'd been here for a day. You only had to be here for about a minute to realize that Minkpaw talked like this about basically everyone.
"And don't even get me started on his brother. Duskwatcher is- he's just so aggravating!"
Gently, I said, "He has a reason for that."
"Maybe, but he's always been a pompous jerk. In fact, if you think about it, he brought Shinecloud's death on himself."
I flinched. "I know, but-"
"Minkpaw," Daisypaw snapped unexpectedly. All of us turned to her in surprise; she rarely got into heated arguments with any of us, choosing to keep her interests select to light Clan gossip about who liked who. "Stop it. We're not going to go there. That part of SpringClan's history is over."
Despondently, Minkpaw said, "Maybe, but it's not like our future is looking much better. In fact, it's looking a lot worse."
With an exasperated sigh, Daisypaw said, "Would it kill you to be optimistic for once?"
Giving her a churlish look, Minkpaw got to her paws. "Ryan and Specklepaw are back."
All of us followed her out of the den. The two toms left Yellowsun and padded towards us.
"Hey Breezepaw," Specklepaw purred. He leaned forward and touched his nose to mine. Both Daisypaw and Ryan looked away.
Oddly, I felt like looking away too: turning my head away so that my "boyfriend's" nose would only bump my cheek. My stomach churned with guilt. Oh, Specklepaw...
Minkpaw met my eyes. She looked disapproving, but sympathetic. I know, I tried to tell her with my expression. I'm a terrible cat. I'm going to fix this.
"How was the tour?" I asked to break the ice.
"Fine," Ryan said in a clipped tone. "I'm going to go rest." He ducked into the apprentices' den.
Lily sighed and cast me an accusing look. I rolled my eyes. "Anyway..."
"We have training to do," Cammy said. "Lily and I."
"You're letting the Clan train you?" I asked, surprised.
Contemptuously, Lily said, "You'd like that, wouldn't you? No. We're training you guys. We have some techniques you probably haven't even dreamed of. We're taking Goldenburst, Thistleblossom and Quailfeather out so they can learn them and decide if they're suitable to teach the rest of the Clan."
In spite of myself, I was impressed. If our deputy and senior warriors had agreed to learn from these cats, they definitely knew what they were doing.
Then again, just because a fighting technique worked didn't mean we wanted to use it. Oakstar had had to ban certain maneuvers from being taught to apprentices before, because they were simply too violent and dangerous. From what I knew of the rogues, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if some of their fighting moves fell into this category.
After Lily and Cammy had left, Cherrynose and Bluebird padded towards us. "We're taking out a hunting patrol. Want to come, Minkpaw?" asked Cherrynose, nodding at her apprentice.
"Sure," Minkpaw said. She shot Bluebird a glowering look, then looked at me and Daisypaw as if to say, What did I tell you?
Daisypaw and I watched them leave. "We should go hunting too," I said.
"The fresh-kill pile is running low," agreed Daisypaw.
Both of us knew that wasn't the real reason. Daisypaw and I had known each other for so long that there were times we could easily read each other's minds. Right now, I was saying, I need to get out of here. Let's go talk somewhere private.
We ducked out of camp and made our way through the pine woods, towards High-Rock.
"How are you?" Daisypaw asked. Her hazel eyes shimmered with concern.
"What do you mean?" I frowned. "Am I acting like something's wrong?"
"No. You're trying really hard to pretend everything's fine. Which is exactly how I know you're not okay. You can't hide things from me, Breezepaw," Daisypaw said gently. "I know you miss Fuzzears."
I shut my eyes and nodded mutely.
"I can't explain how sorry I am." My best friend touched her nose to my ear. I pressed my cheek to her soft fur.
"I know she's happier now. I wouldn't want her to live this life lonely and sick. I just... I really wish things could somehow be different. I know that's crazy."
Daisypaw shook her head. "No, it's not. At least you fulfilled her dying wish. You reconciled her with her son. That must have meant so much to her. You did the right thing--you always do."
I almost laughed out loud at that. She of all cats should know that I messed up at least three times more often than I got things right. Example: Specklepaw. Who I still needed to break up with. StarClan, I was really dreading that conversation.
As we approached High-Rock, I slowed my pace. "Something wrong?" Daisypaw asked, frowning.
Signaling her to be quiet, I dropped into a crouch. She followed suit. The two of us crept between the pine trunks till we could finally see High-Rock. Part of me was saying I was acting ridiculous, but I couldn't deny the stronger instinct running through me, saying that something was amiss.
When I finally peered up at the jagged outcrop of rock, I saw what it was.
They had taken High-Rock. From a distance, they looked like a swarm of multi-colored ants. At the peak, I could make out the pale smudge of Claron's pelt. Seeing how many of them there were made my mouth go dry. Shock flowed through me.
From a tactical standpoint, taking High-Rock was a really smart move. It brought them inside our territory. It offered them a good vantage point to spot coming attacks. Worst of all, it brought them directly at the edge of the pine woods. If they made a move for the pines, we would be forced to fight. We couldn't lose our best hunting grounds, and we couldn't let the rogues advance towards our camp.
Beside me, Daisypaw seemed paralyzed with fear. I nudged her shoulder. "We need to get out of here and warn-"
Too late. "Well, what do we have here?" A sharp claw dug into my back till I was forced to turn.
Three rogues stood in front of us, all fully-grown cats with lethal doses of anger in their eyes. I recognized all of them: Rory, the tom Ryan had saved me from previously, Whiskers, a scarred white cat with narrow olive eyes, and Cinnamon, a honey-gold she-cat who was as nasty as she was beautiful. I'd encountered all of them before, and I knew they were not to be messed with. Whiskers and Cinnamon had taken Minkpaw and I prisoner in their camp before. We'd gotten away once, but I doubted they were about to let me go again. And this time Ryan and his sisters weren't here to swoop in and save the day.
So it's up to you, I told myself.
"You won't get away with invading our territory," spat Daisypaw.
"Oh really? Your Clan is already stretched thin trying to defend their borders. All we did was make those borders smaller. You know, to make it easier on you," Cinnamon smirked in our faces.
I leaned towards Daisypaw slightly. Barely audibly, I whispered, "When I attack, you run."
She opened her mouth, clearly about to protest. I didn't give her the chance. I launched my attack, trying to get all three rogues focused on me. I dragged my front claws across Cinnamon's face. I kicked out with my back legs, sending Whiskers flying, and then crashed into Rory with all my weight.
I didn't get a chance to see if Daisypaw made it out. The rogues were on top of me, all three of them. I could hardly breathe under the mound of fur. Claws ripped at me in all directions. I put up as fierce of a fight as I could. I thrust out with my back legs and clawed Cinnamon's underbelly. She retreated with a yowl of pain, and I felt a stab of guilt. That was a dirty trick. Still, the stabs of pain running through me were stronger than regret.
Of course, I didn't stand a chance. Rogue reinforcements were bound to arrive sooner or later. Before, there had been a chance that they would take Daisypaw and I hostage. Now, though, I knew that wasn't a possibility. This was personal now; I'd angered all these rogues past the point where they could control their tempers.
My only option was to gather my remaining strength and make a run for it. Otherwise, I would die.
The first opportunity I saw, I took. I bolted out of there like a comet, so quickly that I didn't even realize I was going in the wrong direction.
By the time I did, it was too late. I streaked past High-Rock. Some rogues let out a few yells of alarm, but they were too slow to stop me. I crossed the SpringClan border (the real one, not the one redrawn by Claron's group) and kept going.
Finally, I came crashing down in a heap next to a familiar stream, one I had visited once before with Ryan, looking for Blackheart. There, with blood streaming down my pelt and running into the water, I fell into unconsciousness.
I don't know how long I lay there before Blackheart found me. He and Lilyshade woke me as they started cleaning my wound with water and moss. I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek to keep from screaming with pain.
"Thank you," I finally hissed, once my wounds were covered with makeshift bandages.
"Of course. You know how much we owe you. But what happened?" Lilyshade asked, eyes wide. "Who attacked you?"
Slowly, piece by piece, I told them what was happening back in SpringClan.
"Oh, StarClan." Blackheart squeezed his eyes shut in disbelief. "We'll escort you back to the Clan. I know a way to get there without going near High-Rock--there's a path we can take that won't be too hard on your legs. Both of us will accompany you till the camp, and then get out of there as quickly as we can. Is that okay?"
Wearily, I nodded. The thought of journeying back to the camp made my muscles and bones scream with protest, but I knew I had no choice. I had to make sure Daisypaw had made it back home. I had to make sure my Clanmates knew the danger they were in.
So I began walking, with Lilyshade and Blackheart on either side of me. The path Blackheart had told me about was more of a tunnel. Ordinarly, I would've balked at going inside, but today I rather enjoyed the darkness. It made things a little easier, somehow.
We came out of the tunnel, and to my surprise, we were near the southern border of Clan territory. We had followed the stream, I realized, all the way from the outer plains where Blackheart and Lilyshade lived, around High-Rock, and past the pine forest. The tunnel must've been created a long time ago, from water flowing underground.
Now that I was in familiar territory again, I assured Blackheart and Lilyshade that I would be fine. "Thank you so much for bringing me back."
Lilyshade's eyes were full of worry. "I hope you get better soon, Breezepaw," she said softly.
Once I finally stumbled back into camp, I made a beeline for Oakstar's den. The rest of the Clan was shocked to see me alive. Daisypaw came rushing towards me, near hysterics. "Breezepaw, thank StarClan! I was so sure you were dead!"
"D-did you tell Oakstar that the r-rogues are...?" I couldn't even finish my question. My vision was starting to cloud. A circle of onlookers formed around me. Through the haze obscurring my eyes, I made out the Vale Squad, Dewfrost, and Ivyrose, all watching me in dismay. Ryan pushed through the crowd, calling my name, but it felt like his voice was coming to me from far, far away.
"I told them." Daisypaw was crying as she spoke. "I told them everything, including what you did for me. This is all my fault-"
"Everyone out of the way!" Lionpatch and Blossompaw were at my side, their soft paws parting my fur to examine my wounds.
Blossompaw murmured, "We've got you now, Breezepaw. It will be all right."
My last thought as I blacked out from the pain and exhaustion was, But it's not all right. Everything has gone wrong.