A dark gloom hung in the air, like the entire world was weeping. Edith shook off the silly thought as she hurried down the long stone cave, her pawsteps like thunder in the stillness. There was no use in frightening herself with silly fancies, not when she was so close to getting rid of the child. So close to ultimate power.
Two gangly toms awaited her at the end of the cave, slumped against the wall, though they stood erect as she came into view. Lifting her chin, Edith adressed them in a cold, clear voice. "Do you have her?"
The taller one, Xavier, bent down and rummaged among a pile of reeds and dead grass at his paws, lifting out what at first appeared to be a snowball, or a clump of downy feathers. After a few seconds though, tiny paws churned the air, and a small mouth opened wide in a yowl. The kit was dropped ungraciously onto the floor, where it whimpered and blinked its eyes blearily, seeking the warmth of its mother and not finding it. Its mother... But Edith pushed that thought away. Its mother was gone. Not dead, but it was unlikely she'd ever be seen again anyway. She might as well have crossed over to that fool's fantasy, StarClan.
Bending down so that her nose was even with the kit's, she sneered, "Looks like you'll never get to fullfill your calling, Frostkit. You'll never get the chance."
The kit paused in its wailing, and met her gaze with icy blue eyes. Just for a split second, Edith felt a thrill of fear race down her spine. She did not like to be afraid, and it was purely ridiculous to feel fear because of a tiny kit. Still, she retreated a few steps before saying, "Xavier, Castor, take this kit to the dungeon. She'll never see daylight again."
"As you wish, Edith," Castor said, dipping his head, then roughly fastening his jaws about Frostkit's scruff. She let out one more piteous cry before she vanished into the darkness, the black shadows consuming the tiny flare of white that was her pelt.
Edith sat down, waiting for the triumph to come washing over her. But all she felt was a cold, hard knot of dread in her stomach. And her sister's parting words, the last time they had been face-to-face.
"Your actions will come back to haunt you, Edith. They always do."
Again, Frostkit's face emerged in her mind. Only this time, the downy fur was matted with blood, the sky-blue eyes red around the edges, and the fangs at least three times their regular size. The kit advanced slowly on Edith, roaring and snarling. She backed against a wall, but it was no use. The vision was so vivid, she could smell the rank scent of blood, mixed with the mildewy smell of the dungeon she had sentenced Frostkit to live in for all eternity. "No..." she whispered. "You're not real! You can't touch me! Die!"
She lunged for the kit, who was suddenly no longer there. A tiny voice cooed, "Right here, honey." Needle sharp claws pricked her neck.
Horror sent bile reeling up her throat, and Edith collapsed on the ground. The vision faded to stars, revealing Castor and Xavier standing uncertainly by the cave entrance. She moaned and turned to her side. What had just happened? Surely her actions couldn't haunt her for the rest of her life like this. She was much stronger then that. She would overcome it.
A ghostly glimmer of snow-colored pelt appeared at the corner of her vision. She gasped, biting down so hard on her tongue that blood came out. The kit blinked its eyes and disappeared.
My fur brushed the damp stone walls, but I didn't stop to lick the disgusting slime off of my stinging cuts, still fresh and raw from where the reed whip had bit into my skin. Right now, getting out of here was more important then anything else.
A faint wisp of freshness was carried to me over the musty smell of the dungeon, signaling that I was getting closer. My pace quickened further, till I was at a headlong run. A welcome breeze brought more of the fresh scent, the smell of life and growth, two things completely foreign to my prison. I reached a large impasse; a blank stone wall that gave the tunnel a so-called dead end. Without hesitation, my paw shot out, and I pressed down hard on an almost invisible sign carved on the floor. It was two icicles, dagger-like in their shape, with a diamond in between their crossed hilts. I didn't know what the sign meant, but I knew it had some greater meaning; every time my paw touched the stone, a thrill shot through me, and I tasted burning ice and freezing fire.
As I put all my weight on top of the button, there was a loud grinding sound. Pebbles and dust dislodged from the ceiling as the wall split in two, revealing a glimpse of something bright and wonderful beyond. As always, my heart pounded in my chest, and fear of being discovered propelled me through the gap with lightning quick speed. If my wardens knew I had an outlet, a place I could be happy, there was no telling what they would do.
But there were no angry shouts from behind me, no crack of whips and clubs. I breathed a sigh of relief and took the final step out of the dungeon, and into the Isle.
My paradise. My true home.
I let my eyes travel around the large cavern. The walls were infinitely tall, stretching a good hundred tails into the sky, and sealed in by a lichen-covered stone ceiling. A meager waterfall, though still beautiful, wound its way out from a gap in the rock, high above my head. Moss-lined boulders were scattered around the pool at the bottom of the falls, with exotic flowers in all the hues of the sunset poking through the cracks. Grass grew, soft and lush under my paws. Overhead, thin cracks in the celing let in sunlight, which reflected off of crystal shards that marked the top of the waterfall, sending the light splaying over the entire area, and turning the crystals into a spectrum of colors. I wasn't sure exactly how this oasis had come to be, but I was so, so grateful that it did. It was the one place I could escape to in life.
"Dawnwhisker?" I called softly. There was no reply at first, but then a few silky strands of tall grass rustled, and out stepped a gorgeous cream she-cat, her jaws clamped around a thick, shiny fish.
"Nice catch," I said as she approached.
"Thanks." She set the prey down and ran me over with her eyes sadly. "They whipped you again?" There was barely concealed rage in her tone.
I flinched at the reminder, but nodded. "Yeah. I talked back to Edith. Again."
Dawnwhisker gave a weary sigh and sat down. "I'll prepare a salve for that. You help yourself to this fish."
"Okay," I said gratefully. I bent down and nosed the fresh-kill before tearing into its succulent flesh like a starving wolf. She disappeared among the boulders by the pool, sniffing at each clump of plants. A few minutes later, after I had devoured the fish, she emerged with a fragnant clump of leaves in her mouth.
Setting them down, she chewed a few up and plastered them to my cuts. I cringed. "Sorry dear," Dawnwhisker said sympathetically. "But you know you shouldn't run your mouth off to Edith like that."
I watched her carefully. "You know you'd like to see it yourself."
She gave a tiny smile, and, almost unconciously, reached up to touch the pink scar that ran from her ear to the back of her head. Courtesy of Edith, when she had tried to have Dawnwhisker killed. The evil cat had thrown a giant rock at her when she had spoken out in my defense. I had helped my half-dead mentor and friend down the cave tunnel, where we had been cornered against the wall. In my panic, my paw had skittered out to touch the button, and the walls had opened up behind us. Wasting no time, I had shoved Dawnwhisker inside, pressed the button again to close the doors, and pretended that she had died, which wasn't hard given my near-hysterical state. Later that night, I'd returned to the spot, dreading what I would find once I opened the doors. Dawnwhisker had been lying on the floor, the grass around her(which was another shock for me, as I had never seen grass before then) soaked with her blood. But she'd been alive. I had nursed her back to health slowly, and resolved to keep her safe in the cavern we had discovered, which I named the Isle. It had been our safe haven ever since. Edith and her guards could never touch us here.
"There." Dawnwhisker took a step back, staring with satisfaction at my fur. "I've done my best. Why don't you go rest by the pool?"
"Sure," I said, limping towards the clear water. Once I arrived, I lay down by the edge, letting the cool liquid lap against my paws, while the shade of the weeping willows and chilly breeze soothed my stinging whip-marks.
If I hadn't discovered this place, and if Dawnwhisker had died, I was sure I would have gone insane.
- - - -
Regretfully, I pressed the button again, throwing one last wave at Dawnwhisker as the walls closed, concealing me back in the dungeon. I didn't ever want to leave the Isle, but every evening I had to; that was when the guards, and sometimes Edith herself, came to visit me, bringing me "food". Without the fresh-kill from the Isle, I would be a bag of skin and bones about now. Fortunately, Dawnwhisker always had plenty of prey waiting, and I hunted there too, so I was well-fed, which I was sure drove Edith nuts, even though she didn't let on.
As I waited for the wardens to arrive, I wondered vaguely for about the umpteenth time why I was being kept here. Dawnwhisker had never bothered to explain it to me; whenever I'd ask, her lips would tighten, and she would turn away hastily, muttering a hasty excuse. After a while, I had stopped asking, but I never stopped wondering. Wouldn't it just be easy- and not trying to plan my own funeral, but really- to kill me? She had me in her grasp. If she hated me so much, why couldn't she just get rid of me and get it over with? Surely I served no purpose to her, stuck in this dank little cave.
Just then, I heard the grinding sound that signaled the heavy boulder covering the only entrance to the dungeon was being opened. Resigning myself to another evening with the creatures I loathed most in the entire world, I sat down and waited for my "guests" to arrive.
Xavier came first, his pale green eyes eerie in the darkness. In his jaws he held the whip, still stained with my blood from earlier this afternoon. I shuddered just looking at it. Next came Castor, a shorter golden tom with yellow eyes. He held a mangled, scrawny mouse in his grasp. Last of all was a sleek black she-cat known as Cammie. Over the course of a few moons, I'd learned to fear her the most. She held the most weight with Edith, and she was merciless and relentless in her whippings, scoldings, and beatings. As the giant rock slid back into place behind the three cats, I breathed a tiny sigh of relief. So the queen herself wasn't coming tonight. Perhaps I would get out of this with no more wounds. Perhaps...
"Well, well, well. If it isn't little Frostkit," Cammie said, setting down a limp wad of moss, soaked with stale water.
I bristled, but said nothing. Dawnwhisker had held my apprentice ceremony, then my warrior's ceremony, in the secret of the Isle, but they had no reason to take that to heart. I myself didn't understand why I needed a warrior's name, but Dawnwhisker had said it was an important tradition in her old life, and that was good enough for me. I had learned through hard experience, though, that speaking up about something like a name never got you anywhere with the wardens. Now, I treasured the name Frostflower close to my heart, keeping it to myself. I didn't care who they thought I was. All that mattered was that I knew.
"Here." Castor flung the mouse at me. I stared at it bluntly, my belly comfortably full of fish from the Isle, and made no move to take it. "Eat it, you ungrateful louse!" the tom screamed.
I raised my head and met his gaze head on.
Cammie took a step forward menacingly. "We're waiting, Frostkit."
"My name is Frostflower." The words came before I could stop them. The ends of Cammie's mouth curved into a sickening smile. I'd given her what she wanted. There would be blood tonight. Mine.
"The whip, Xavier," she said coolly, examining the claws on one paw. My stomach tightened in anticipation, and my legs started to tremble. No matter how many times I was subjected to the treatment, I could never quite get used to bearing the pain stoically. Pressing my paws together to stop them from shaking, I remained completely still. Running would only make it worse, and besides, there was nowhere to run to. No way would I make it to the Isle before they saw the rock slide open and shut.
Cammie took the whip gingerly, running a paw down its side in a gentle caress. The bile rose in my throat as I saw the evil gleam in her eyes. I had only time to wonder, How could any cat do this to another? before she was on top of me.
The first lash cut into my shoulder as I turned to protect my face. The second came whistling towards the side of my head; I held up a paw to deflect the blow, and the lean reed sheared a claw right off. Blood began welling out of the snowy tufts around my toes, but as I bent down to lick the scarlet drops away, another blow caught me on the right side of my cheek, landing so hard I went skidding across the floor. My head reeled with dizzying amounts of pain, and blood trickled from a gash on my cheek. Cammie's breath was hard and fast from the effort of dealing the lashes, and she came to stand over me. "Had enough?"
Through some insane burst of misplaced bravery, I snarled, "You couldn't whip a flea, mange-pelt. I'll never surrender to a coward like you."
Rage colored her features. "Xavier! The club!"
In a flash, the tom had supplied her with the weapon, a large oaken piece of wood large enough to bash the brains out of any cat. Though Cammie was small, she was strong, and she held it comfortably in her paws. I closed my eyes and thought, This is it. I'm going to die now.
The club came down in a blur of wind. All was silent for a split second, and then- the earsplitting crack of my spine breaking.
I shivered alone in the dark, loneliness covering me like a cloud. I was still stunned from what had happened, and sure any moment I would wriggle my back legs and they'd refuse to cooperate, or I'd fall over from my legs not supporting me. But nothing happened. My back felt fine; I could arch it and bend it however I liked without any trace of pain.
That cracking noise hadn't been me. It had been the club.
For some reason I couldn't explain, the stout piece of wood had cracked clean in half over me, and I hadn't felt a thing. Cammie had been so furious, her eyes turned red around the edges, and she'd stormed off in a fog of anger so thick it was poisonous. The toms had exchanged puzzled looks and hurried after her, leaving me alone again, wondering what had just happened. And I still didn't understand it. Why would a perfectly strong club break because it hit me? I tried to be strong, but I wasn't that strong. I could never dream of doing that in a hundred years.
Getting up, I decided to go to the one place I always went to for answers. The Isle. Maybe Dawnwhisker could help.
- - - -
This is stupid, this is stupid, this is incredibly stupid.
Coalfur repeated the mantra over and over again in the hopes that somehow his intense dislike of his current situation would transport him back home, where he could go back to hunting in his secret part of the woods and teasing the sense out of his two younger sisters. No result.
"Darn," he muttered under his breath. This was so useless. It figured that he had been born into the one old-faashioned family that still clung to the hope of the princess ever being found. Yeah right. Like SkyClan could ever be rebuilt. But every six moons, his father and friends picked another unlucky young cat to go out on a feather-brained mission to find the long-lost princess, in the deluded fantasy that somehow the royal family could be restored to their throne, and Queen Edith overthrown. "As if."
He paused on a grass hillock to gather his bearings. He was close to Queen Edith's fortress, too close for his liking. Deciding to get out of there before he was discovered by some wayward gang of wardens, Coalfur turned and began making his way back down the mountain. He would camp out in the woods for a few days, to convince his family that he had actually tried, and then head back home with some tail of woe. They would have to believe him.
And yet, Coalfur couldn't help feeling a prick of guilt as he imagined the disappointment on his aging parents' face as he told them the "bad news". His father, Duststorm, had been SkyClan's deputy back when it was around, and he had always believed that when it was Coalfur's turn to go on the quest, he wouldn't come back empty-pawed.
"Sorry to let you down, Dad," Coalfur said softly, really meaning it.
It wasn't just that he didn't think the princess would ever be found. It was just that... Where could you start searching in such an enormous territory? What if she had escaped to a faraway land, like the queen had? Another secret their family guarded carefully. Not even their closest friends knew that Duststorm and Applefur had managed to smuggle the queen out of SkyClan territory before she could be slaughtered like her mate.
Besides, Frostkit would be nearly his age by now. She probably didn't even know she was princess. She would think him crazy, or worse, Edith would discover his family, and have them killed.
"That's it. I'm done here." Coalfur took a step backwards, and froze. The ground had vibrated beneath his paws; he was sure of it. "What the-"
The next thing he knew, the floor had fallen out from under him, and he was hurtling through thin air.
- - - -
Dawnwhisker was silent for a long time, taking it all in. She didn't look surprised, which was puzzling to me; instead she looked resigned, as if a day she had long dreaded was approaching. Maybe it was already here. A shiver ran through me for a reason I couldn't identify.
"Do you know why that happened?" I said, inwardly begging her for a rational explantion, though a cold pit in my stomach signaled I wouldn't get one. "Maybe the club was really weak, or already cracked?"
She gave me a sad smile. "I think we both know that's not true."
I scraped my claws against the hard floor in frustration. "Then what happened? Do you know?"
"It's very complicated, Frostflower," she said quietly. "Perhaps now is not exactly the time to reveal to you your past. It might be-"
"Forget what it might be! I need to know." I softened my tone. "Please."
The cream she-cat sat down, and motioned for me to do the same. "This will take a while."
"I have time," I said. "Till morning, when Cammie comes with my 'breakfast'." I hid a smirk at the thought of what the black she-cat was doing now. Was she afraid of me? Humiliated? Then I gulped. What would be my punishment? They would surely blame me, even though I hadn't planned it at all.
Then Dawnwhisker started speaking, and I tuned out the rest of my thoughts, focusing on the story she was telling me. A story of sadness, despair, and betrayal. My story.
- - - -
"It all started with a kingdom called SkyClan. A kindom you should be ruling- but never mind that for now.
SkyClan was ruled by a king and queen. The king was a jovial ginger tom by the name of Blazestar, loved and adored by all. He joked and bantered with the best of them, but in battle he was a fierce and brave opponent. He would die for the lowest ranking soldier without hesitation, despite everyone's constant attempts to protect him. His queen was equally beloved, beautiful and sweet. She seemed to float around the place. Her name was Icewhisper, for her snowy coat and blue eyes. She looked a lot like you, Frostflower. Like mother like daughter."
Frostflower gasped. "My mother...? I'm a princess?"
Dawnwhisker nodded, and she fell silent again, waiting for the she-cat to continue.
"Like I said before, the entire Clan adored their rulers. But in every crowd there are those with evil intent, like poisonous rot in a bushel of healthy apples. Cats who hated the king and queen, and were prepared to commit despicable acts in order to get rid of them. Among them was Edith.
For some reason, she seemed to harbor a particular loathing for Queen Icewhisper. I cannot describe the murderous rage in her eyes when that name came up, nor do I know the reason why she reacted so strongly. I think those two had a past, perhaps, that no one knew about. A dangerous past. One of Queen Icewhisper's weaknesses was that she was too trusting. When everyone with any heart at all is your friend, you don't give that much thought to your enemies. Doesn't mean you don't have them.
Anyway, Edith began gaining popularity with rogues and loner outside the Clan. It was harder, much harder, for cats outside SkyClan to survive, especially since our territory was so big, and took up a lot of hunting space. One day, King Blazestar agreed to meet with Edith and some other cats to work out a solution. It was a fatal mistake.
The location was a shadowy part of the woods, just out of the borders of SkyClan. Blazestar was to come alone, and his almost foolish sense of honor prevented him from bringing any backup, which would've been an excellent idea. He didn't stand a chance. They jumped him as soon as he arrived, killed him with a quick slash to the throat, and set off for the queen. Luckily, the SkyClan deputy, Duststorm, saw them, realized what they had done, and raced back to the queen's living quarters before they got there. That's all I know about what happened to her. They say she died trying to escape with you. Edith couldn't find Queen Icewhisper's body, so no one knows for sure. But she did find you, and that's why you're being held prisoner. The world can never know you're alive, or Edith would be overthrown."
I cut in once again. "But why didn't she kill me?"
Dawnwhisker held up her tail. "I'm getting to that. Edith is waiting for the chance to kill you. Then, all hopes of SkyClan being restored will die from the most loyal cats, and she can truly take over as queen. For now, only her own followers accept her as that; the remnants of Clan cats refuse to call a loner and cat of such evil their leader."
"Waiting for the chance?" I repeated.
Her eyes met mine steadily. "You cannot be killed as of now, Frostflower. StarClan has protected you. You were born on the night of the full moon, a night which would ordinarily have been the one you were taken to the Rock of Dreams to be acknowleged as princess. Instead, when Queen Icewhisper brought you there, Edith's rogues were shattering the Rock. StarClan's last communication with us was to Bind you, so that you were protected for a certain amount of time. A shard of the Rock of Dreams flew out, forming that." She indicated the tiny, star-shaped mark just below my ear. I touched a paw to the soft skin in surprise; I had never thought much about what I considered an unusual flaw in my pelt.
As understanding slowly began dawning on me, I said, "So when does the Binding fade?"
"When you reach the age of twelve moons," she said solemnly.
I frowned; I had no idea how old I was, though I knew Dawnwhisker had "apprenticed" me when I was six moons old. Time didn't really matter in the dungeons. How much of my life has Edith wasted? And how long till she ends it for good?
"When will that be?" I asked, dreading the answer.
"In one moon," she said softly. "We have to get you out of here before that happens."
"How?" I asked in despair. "It'll never happen. There's no way out of here!"
At that point, a giant hole formed in the ceiling. A screaming mass plummeted into the top of the waterfall. My jaw dropped open as the cat, a male, it appeared, despite the high-pitched shrieking, went cascading down the stream of water, paws churning, and fell into the pool with a deafening splash.
I hardly dared to believe it, wondering if my mind, overloaded with all the information Dawnwhisker had just given me, was hallucinating.
"I think- I think we just found our way out."
"Never mind that." Dawnwhisker bounded past me. "This cat needs help!"
I broke into a run, skittering over the slippery boulders and splashing into the pond. Together, we hauled the tom out of the water, laying him out on the bank. Dawnwhisker pressed both paws against his chest and began pounding. Water spewed, then dribbled, out of his mouth, and he blinked his eyes- glowing green eyes, almost hypnotizing- up at us.
"Are you okay?" Dawnwhisker said.
The tom's jaw dropped. "Wha-" He looked up at the gaping hole his entrance had torn in the ceiling. Light was coming out of it, not sunlight, but a duller, more violet-gray light that spoke of dreams and sunsets. A tingle started in my paws and worked its way up to my head. The real outdoors, so close I could nearly touch it! A way out of my prison, if only I could get to it. "What just happened?" The tom's voice jolted me back to earth. He had struggled to his paws now, his black fur slicked to his body with water.
"I think you fell through the ceiling," I informed him.
He stared at me, blinking droplets out of his eyes. Something in the way he regarded me for a second, so intense I could feel it burning my pelt, made me shiver with a combination of pleasure and fear. Of course, that was ridiculous, since I didn't even know him- A sudden thought struck me. What if he was one of Edith's cats, sent here to kill me? I began backing away.
Dawnwhisker didn't seem to sense what I was thinking. She was studying the tom intently. "You look familiar, for some reason," she said.
He shook out his fur, making it spike up all over. Her words didn't seem to register. "Where am I?"
I smiled as politely as possible to someone who had just infiltrated your only secret hiding place by falling through the roof. "I don't think the name will mean much to you, but you're in the Isle."
"Nope, doesn't mean a thing to me," he said.
I sighed and exchanged a glance with Dawnwhisker, but she didn't meet my gaze; she was wrapped in her own little world, lost in thought.
Seeing it was up to me to encourage formalities, I said, "My name is Frostflower. What's yours?"
His eyes widened as if he was seeing a ghost. He looked like he'd been petrified, and didn't speak for so long I was sure he wasn't going to answer. Perhaps his fall had impacted his brain. "F-Frostkit?"
"Your name is Frostkit?" I asked impatiently.
At that he seemed to snap out of his trance. "No! I mean, my name's Coalfur. It's just...," he took a step closer, "Princess?"
I stared at him in disbelief. "How did you know?" I was too shocked to bluff my way out. I hadn't known myself till a few minutes ago.
Suddenly, Dawnwhisker spoke. "Frostflower," she said warningly. "Edith will have her rogues down in the dungeon soon. They'll have heard the noise. And if one discovers the gap from above..."
Fear clenched around my heart at the prospect of the Isle, Dawnwhisker, and our only hope of escape being discovered. "We've got to get out of here!"
I had to give Coalfur credit; he didn't panic or start screaming, or even stare at us like we were crazy. All he said was, "How? We'd have to climb up the waterfall."
"Let's do it," I said.
"You're crazy," Dawnwhisker said.
"Okay," said Coalfur at the same time. They glared at each other.
I flicked my tail and bounded around the pool, pulling myself up onto a boulder. "Come on! We don't have much time; they must be searching the place as we speak. It won't take them long to find the button."
Coalfur frowned as he hopped up beside me. "The what?"
"Never mind. Just climb."
We worked in silence after that, focusing on fastening our claws into the moss on the rocks, made extra slippery by the constant bombardment of spray from the waterfall. All my muscles were tensed in case I stumbled, and after just a few minutes every part of me ached. I gritted my teeth and lifted my head, only to see that we were less then halfway there. Dawnwhisker was just below me, gripping a clump of reeds to steady herself, and Coalfur leaped nimbly above my head, his muscles rippling under his coat. Obviously, he was fitter then me, but who could blame me; I'd lived my whole life in a pit.
Nevertheless, I pushed on, ignoring the screaming pain in my legs. My efforts redoubled when I heard shouts and banging outside the Isle, and realized Cammie and the others had discovered I was missing. Fear mixed with adrenaline in my blood, pumping me up so fast that I caught up with Coalfur. As I reached for the next rock, a blast of icy cold water hit me in the face; I let out a shriek and felt my back paws slide out from under me as gravity yanked me backwards. Just in the nick of time, I felt strong jaws lock into my neck-scruff and haul me back up.
Breathing hard, I looked up into Coalfur's emerald gaze for a split second, before concentrating on climbing again. "Thanks," I panted.
"No problem," he grunted, propelling himself up with his hind legs.
As I continued my ascent, I couldn't help marveling how quickly the tom had adjusted to this. He had just fallen into our world, and already he was helping us. And he had recognized my name. Was he one of the cats that still clung to the belief that SkyClan could be restored? Had I found an ally- and just in time, it looked like- in a most unexpected place? Or were there some of Edith's cats waiting for me at the top of the hole, accomplices of his. Somehow, I doubted it, and not just because falling through a cavern roof was a bit too far for any spy. For some reason, I just didn't think Coalfur had that kind of evil in him. And it had nothing to do with the way it felt to have his strong form around me, almost nothing at all.
"We're almost there!" he called from up ahead; I quickened my pace, and heard Dawnwhisker do the same behind me. By the time I reached the top, Coalfur was already there, and he bent down and helped pull me up. I collapsed, panting with relief, on the soft earth near the bubbling waterfall, while Coalfur hauled Dawnwhisker up too.
The cave was right beside us, a noisy stream of water flowing out of it to jet down the side of the cliff, and just above our heads, so close I could feel the dewy scents of evening on my face, was the hole that promised us freedom.
"Let's go!" Dawnwhisker said, her damp fur bristling with excitement. I nodded and placed my paws on the edge of the hole, then used my forelegs to pull myself up. Leaning down, I helped Dawnwhisker up; Coalfur scrambled out after her.
Anticipation frothing inside of me, I looked around, and nearly fainted. The outdoors was much better then I could have ever dreamed. We were standing on a mountainside, and the valley slope stretched out beneath us, bathed in a heavenly aura of pink-gold light. The sun was just slipping away, so that only the very tip showed amid a halo of burning red on the horizon. I caught my breath at the pure splendor and beauty of the scene, enraptured by the soft trills of birds, musical and foreign to my ears, and the sweet perfume of real wildflowers, sun-kissed and bathed in dew.
I swayed gently back and forth to an invisible tune that the earth seemed to vibrate with. "It's so... alive." Without warning, my legs collapsed from under me, and I lay in the grass, soaking it all in.
Coalfur was staring at me with a look as dreamy as my own; perhaps he too was taken in by the evening. Dawnwhisker though, was all business. "Frostflower, you can revel later. For now, we've got to get out of here, before Edith's rogues find us."
I scrambled to my paws. "Right, sorry. Where do we go?"
"I know. My family will be happy to have you. My dad will be overjoyed," Coalfur volunteered.
I shot a glance at Dawnwhisker that said: Can we trust him?
A shout echoed down the valley, and up at the top of the mountain I saw cats spilling out of a cave, angry frowns on their faces. There was no time for decisions.
My breath came hot and fast, despite the fact that we were running downhill. I stumbled and tore my claws on sharp shards of rock, but didn't stop to assess the damage. We hit the bottom of the mountain and continued running, into what I could only assume was a forest, though I had never seen a tree, let alone a whole congregation of them. The dark canopy of branches and leaves scared me, casting eerie gray shadows over our path, but they also provided more cover then the exposed hillside. Behind me, I heard the shouts fading, but didn't dare to believe we had actually outrun Edith's forces. She would find us, unless we could get somewhere really safe, really fast.
"This way!" Coalfur ducked around a large oak tree, towards where the ground sloped down into a ravine of sorts. I tumbled after him, Dawnwhisker at my side.
At the bottom of the ravine, I saw nothing much, just a dead end, where a sheer wall cut off any means of escape. But Coalfur was slowing, his eyes lighting up the way they only do when you're almost home. "Mom? Dad? I did it. I found her."
Before I could analyze whether his words were good and bad, two cats seemed to step out from the wall. Looking closer, I saw that they had emerged from behind a tall clump of weeds and dead tree stump; there must be a hidden entrance.
"Coalfur?" The tom spoke first, his tone incredulous. Then his gaze found me, and his jaw dropped. "Queen Icewhisper! No... But you look so much like her..."
The she-cat sagged against him, her eyes as round as an owl's. "You... Oh Coalfur. I'm so proud!"
She rushed forward and buried her face in his fur. He looked faintly pleased, and very embarrassed. "Mom."
Ignoring him, his mother raised her head and stared at me in wonder. "Princess. You've come home."
Feeling extremely self-concious, I shifted from paw to paw. Luckily, the awkwardness was broken by Dawnwhisker, who took a step forward. "Duststorm. Applefur." Turning to Coalfur, she said, "I knew you looked familiar. You have your father's eyes, and your mother's ears."
"Dawnwhisker?" The tom, whom I assumed to be Duststorm, looked disbelieving. "We thought you were dead."
She shook her head with a rueful smile. "Nah, just severely injured."
"If only we had known, we could've helped," Applefur said.
Dawnwhisker shook her head. "Trust me, you couldn't have. It'll take a long time to explain exactly why, but just take my word for it now."
"Excuse me? I don't mean to be rude," I said softly. "But we're being pursued by Edith's cats, and if we could get a little shelter or something-"
"Of course!" exclaimed Duststorm. "Follow me." Beckoning with his tail, he led us towards the wall, ducking behind the tree stump at the last minute. I stooped my head and squeezed in after him, anticipating extremely cramped quarters, and instantly found that the cave opened up into a cheery looking home, with light sand-colored walls, good ventilation, and a soft floor. Nests lined the wall, and a small pile of prey sat on the other side. Applefur hurried to the fresh-kill and began sorting through it. I was about to protest that I'd already eaten, but thought the better of it; that climb up the waterfall, followed by a headlong run, had made me hungry again.
"Thank you for helping us," I ventured.
"Are you kidding?" Applefur looked dizzy with happiness as she set a squirrel down next to me. "We've been waiting for this day for so long!"
I smiled, taken in by her enthusiasm, which mirrored what I was feeling, though mine was just at finally being released from my prison. Coalfur looked mortified by now, and was making it a point to look anywhere but at me.
Giving him a gentle glance to show it was okay, I mewed, "I'm glad that it's here too. Where do we go from here?"
Duststorm chuckled. "You're a go-getter, like Blazestar was." His gaze saddened briefly. "But I think for now you should just rest. We have an extra nest," he gestured with his tail, "that you're welcome to."
"An extra nest?" Coalfur said coldly, staring at his parents. Applefur looked uncomfortable, and Duststorm frowned at his son.
"Yes. Ever since your sister moved out-"
"Moved out?" Coalfur lashed his tail in agitation, facing down his father angrily. I frowned, glancing between them, trying to figure out what the big deal was.
"Look, I can sleep somewhere else if it's a problem-"
"It's not a problem," Duststorm interrupted. "Is it?" His green gaze pierced Coalfur's fur. The black tom turned away without responding.
"Okay," I said hesitantly. I intended to lay awake and think about the day's events, but as soon as my head touched down in the soft, plush grass nest, sleep claimed me for the night, and well into the morning.
- - - -
All eyes were on Queen Edith as she sat in the middle of her lair, trembling with rage. Cammie, for once, was silent, her eyes narrow slits in the darkness. Castor looked grim, and Xavier and Harlem, another warden, looked terrified.
Finally, Edith spoke, deliberately, and enunciating each word. "What do you mean, she escaped?"
"She's gone," Cammie said, hoping she wouldn't have to repeat the entire tale over again. Her paws itched to get out of the danger zone; an angry Queen Edith was never a good thing.
Abruptly, Edith stood. "Not for long. We must find her."
"Queen?" Xavier frowned.
"Now." She lashed her tail. "We don't have much time. Assemble hunting patrols."
Even Cammie's sharp brain failed to grasp what Queen Edith's words meant. "Hunting patrols? Whatever for?"
Edith's teeth gleamed white in the darkness, like a snake's fangs before it prepared to strike. "Why, to catch us a nice little cat, of course."
- - - -
The moon was distant in the sky, more distant then Coalfur had ever seen it before. It hadn't seemed this way before. Back when Opalclaw had been around, it had seemed a large, smiling face, lighting their midnight games and follies, like a secret bystander.
"Opalclaw," he whispered, releasing the name into the soft greenleaf night. Every time he thought of her, he felt a pang deep within him. She was the only cat who had ever truly understod him, the only cat he could be himself around. When Duststorm had told her she had been picked for a special mission, he had hoped desperately she would say no. She hadn't. She never did. It infuriated him, but it was also one of the things he loved most about her.
That had been almost two moons ago. She still hadn't come back.
The rift that had come between himself and his father was huge, and unsurmountable, in Coalfur's opinion. Even if his sister did come home, how could he ever forget his parents willingly sending her to what could have been her death? To what already could be- He shook away the thought, turning away from it as if by avoiding it, it could never come true.
"Coalfur?" A soft voice came from behind him. He whirled around, feeling a strange spark of hope as he glimpsed blue eyes, but then he saw gray fur, and oddly, he felt disappointed, though there was no one else, really, that it could have been, that he would have wanted it to have been...
He smiled warmly at his younger sister. "Hello Graypaw."
She trotted over to him and sat down, her thin little body just brushing his. "Hi. I couldn't sleep, especially with Peachpaw in there, snoring her head off."
They both chuckled at the thought of prissy, ladylike Peachpaw's snores.
"I couldn't sleep either," he confessed, returning his gaze to the sky.
Graypaw's next words surprised him. "Do you think, somewhere out there, Opalclaw is looking up at the same sky, and thinking of us?"
Stiffening at the unexpected thought, he said slowly, "I don't know. I suppose she could. She always had a talent for that; connecting with others. So do you," he added, glancing at her large heather-colored eyes, so emphatic and caring, seeming to hold the world in their large dephts. A world that was much too big for his sister's frail shoulders, that would crush her if it could. It was times like this where he knew, no matter how much he resented Duststorm and Applefur, his family was the most precious thing to him in the world.
"I'd like to think I do, but I'm not sure," she said thoughtfully. "For example, I can't read you right now. I thought maybe you wouldn't be so pleased to find the princess, since you hate the quest and everything, but you seemed to be getting along just fine with her."
Despite himself, Coalfur flushed under his fur. "Why wouldn't we get along? I have no quarrel with her, just with feather-brained cats who risk others' lives for a kingdom that is gone and dead." He stopped, shocked at the vehemence in his own voice. Was that really how he felt?
His sister was quiet for a bit. Then, "Maybe, if you give it time, you'll change your mind."
I yawned as I opened my eyes, blinking against the strange feeling of warm sunlight against my eyelids. As I got to my paws, the memories came flooding back, all the unpleasant ones overpowered by a single thought: I'm free!
Dawnwhisker was standing a few feet away, talking with Applefur and another younger peach-colored she-cat I hadn't been introduced to last night.
"There she is," Applefur said, beaming at me. I returned the smile; there was something contagious about the small gray she-cat's energy that made you feel happy and confident just by being around her.
"Good morning." I glanced out the slim gap. "Did I sleep that late?"
Applefur laughed. "Not any later then would be expected after your ordeal last night. Oh," she added, glancing at the smaller she-cat. "This is Peachpaw, my younger daughter. Graypaw, my other daughter, is out hunting with Duststorm and Coalfur. If I know Duststorm, he'll be summoning all of our friends to come meet you as well."
Peachpaw gave me a formal nod. "Hello, Princess Frostflower. It is a pleasure to meet you; you have no idea how long we have eagerly awaited your arrival."
I blinked, a bit taken aback by the cordial tone she adopted, despite her apparent young age; she couldn't have been over seven moons old. "Um... Thanks. And you can just call me Frostflower."
She sniffed. "As if. You are our princess, and I shall address you as such." Bobbing a quick curtsey, she exited the den, slipping outside.
I exchanged glances with Dawnwhisker, and Applefur gave us a look that said, She's always like that; you'll get used to it.
"What have we planned for today?" Dawnwhisker inquired, whiskers still twitching from Peachpaw's grandeur.
Applefur stood. "How about you two come outside as well? It can get dreadfully stuffy in here, and besides, so many cats will be coming to see Frostflower that there'll be no room."
"Okay," I agreed, stepping out through the reeds that hid the exit, into the ravine, which was bathed in the glow of morning sunlight.
Outside, Coalfur was just coming down the slope, a small gray she-cat I assumed to be Graypaw at his side. He wore a bemused expression on his face, and seconds later I saw why.
Duststorm was surrounded by an enormous group of cats, all laughing and talking excitedly, slapping each other on the back and leaping in the air. When they saw me, they all froze, taking in a collective breath. Then the mobbing began.
"Princess Frost... Frost-what? Frostflour? That doesn't make any sense," rumbled a large ginger tom.
"Can I touch your fur?" screeched another young she-cat, barely more then a kit.
"Are you made of diamonds!?"
Incoherent screaming which nearly made me go deaf: "AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! IT'S REALLY YOU! AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"
Not knowing where to start, I glanced about wildly, my mouth hanging open. Who would have ever dreamed this up?
Coalfur came to my rescue, pushing his way through the crowd to stand at my side. "Relax guys, give her some room." Nudging me, he said, "You might as well introduce yourself."
I gave the cats a weak smile. "Hi. I'm Princess Frostflower." The title seemed strange on my tongue, but it also had a nice ring to it, like two pieces made to go together finally clicking.
"We know," a young she-cat, the one who had been screaming, I believe- she had an amazingly loud voice for such a tiny cat- informed me. "I'm Firepaw. I'm your new best friend."
"Gosh, that's nice," I said helplessly.
Next to me, I could sense Coalfur trying to hide a smirk. "Not funny," I muttered out of the corner of my mouth.
"So funny," he responded.
I sighed uncomfortably. What exactly was so great about being princess, and what were my responsiblities? Should I be blowing kisses or something?
Luckily, Applefur saved me by saying, "Calm down, everyone. How about each of you introduces yourself?"
"I already did!" Firepaw chirped.
Giving her a condescending nod, Applefur nodded to the large ginger tom I'd noticed before. He cleared his throat loudly, shuffled his paws, and stammered something out softly. I frowned, puzzled. "His name is Lightningcry," said Firepaw hastily. I gave her a grateful smile, but she had turned away, her eyes distant and burning. I didn't know why, but something had wiped away her cheery personality instantly, and I couldn't help feeling responsible. But what had I done? Lightningcry, I noticed, gave Firepaw an apologetic glance, which the stiff she-cat didn't return. Something was definitely wrong.
I looked towards Coalfur, but he was staring off into space. Duststorm broke the light air of tension by saying, "We must have a feast tonight! I want everyone hunting!" As the cats dispersed eagerly, arguing over who would catch the most prey, he turned to us and added, "Coalfur, why don't you show Princess Frostflower around the territory? She'll need to get to know it, even if she only stays here for a while."
"Sure," he said, beckoning for me to follow him as he trotted up the ravine slope.
Lengthening my strides in an effort to keep up with him, I waved to the others as the hollow disappeared from view. Then it was just the two of us, trotting side by side in the greenery. I closed my eyes and let the different scents wash over me, so different from the dank and moldy air of the dungeon in which I had lived near my entire life. Even the Isle hadn't been this full of life, paradise that it was.
Then I realized that only now had I truly begun to live.
I turned to Coalfur, who hadn't said a single word. "So...?"
He blinked at me as if just now realizing I was there. "Yeah?"
"Aren't you going to tell me where stuff is? Show me around? That is what you're supposed to be doing."
A sly grin slipped across his mouth. "Oh, right. Well," he flicked his tail upwards, "Up there is the sky, down here is the ground, and over there, that's a tree. Done."
I remained silent, glaring at him. "I may have been trapped in a dungeon, but I know there's more to the world then that."
Coalfur's eyebrows went up. "Oh really? Well, miss smartypants, it just so happens that whatever's left to see of the world isn't worth seeing. There's no use to it."
"What? There's always a use in seeing more of the world." I stared at my paws. "Maybe you wouldn't understand, seeing as you've lived out here your whole life, but this is really important to me." Raising my head, I locked eyes with him. "I want to make the most of the life I have now, and forget all about what Edith did to me. It may seem silly, but it- it means a lot to me."
He was silent for a while, and I began to turn back towards the ravine, sure he thought I was insane. Then he spoke. "Okay. Then I'll help you."
I smiled at him. "Thanks."
"No problem," he shrugged off my thanks. "It's no big deal."
"Where are we going now?" I asked, noticing him changing direction.
His eyes sparkled. "The lake. It's really beautiful this time of the year, and there are some lovely heather fields on the hills nearby."
Though I didn't understand exactly what he meant by all that, from what Dawnwhisker had told me, I gathered that we were going to see a large expanse of water, and never mind what a heather was. "Coalfur, can I ask you something?"
A glimmer of suspicion came into his eyes, and his tone was wary as he asked, "That depends. What do you want to know?"
Trying to soothe whatever had ruffled his fur, I said, "Don't worry, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to. I was just wondering if something had happened between Firepaw and Lightningcry. She seemed really angry at him for some reason."
He didn't reply for a heartbeat, as if he was weighing how much to tell me. Then, "She... resents him sometimes. He's her uncle, you know."
I blinked, surprised. "No, I didn't know that." Now that I thought about it though, it made perfect sense. They both had the same bright orange fur, the same glowing golden eyes, and the same hard, determined look about their faces.
"Well, he is, and he's the only family she has left," Coalfur continued. "After her parents died, she went to go live with him. Lightningcry has never been the fatherly type. He's slow, rather thick- not to be mean, but you know-, and can't always keep up with the emotions of a young she-cat. Firepaw is a pawful, and it would be tough for any normal cat to keep hold of her. She doesn't think Lightningcry understands her, and he doesn't know what to make of her. It's not a healthy relationship."
Raising my eyebrows, I was about to comment on how well he seemed to understand the situation. Who knew such a tough tom could get cats' feelings so easily? But I thought the better of it, and kept my mouth shut. I didn't think he would appreciate the observation anyway.
Before I had another chance to come up with a new feather-brained question that I had no business asking, Coalfur stopped and gestured with his tail. "There it is."
I let out a little gasp. "Oh. It's beautiful."
It really was. A large expanse of sparkling cerulean water, gleaming like someone had scattered diamonds across it. A fresh breeze carried the smell of clear water and flowers to my nose, and birds swooped across the blue sky, which was covered with fluffy clouds. I could have stood there forever, except Coalfur broke into my reverie.
"You really like beauty, don't you?"
I glanced at him. He was looking at me oddly. "I guess," I said, feeling a bit uncomfortable.
The intensity in his gaze didn't fade as he studied me. "That's... odd. No offense, but if I had been trapped in a dungeon all my life, I would be more resentful then you. I'd probably end up hating the world." He gave a rueful smile. "More."
Frowning, I said, "Hating people wouldn't change anything. You might as well live the rest of your life to the fullest."
When he didn't respond, I continued in a softer tone, "Why do you hate the world?"
Instantly, I knew I had touched a sensitive subject. His shoulders tensed, and he whirled to face me with such a fire blazing on his face, I took a step back. But a second later, it was all gone, as if I'd only imagined it. It was replaced by defeat. "My sister."
Somehow, I knew he wasn't talking about Peachpaw or Graypaw. I remembered the empty nest, and the staredown Duststorm and Coalfur had, and waited for him to explain.
It took a bit, but he did. "Her name was Opalclaw. She was... my best friend. We did everything together. We had tons of things in common, but we also fought a lot." He gave a faraway smile, lost in memories. I was silent, keeping my eyes on the lake. I was afraid that if I looked at him, this new, sensitive side of him would shatter, and he would be closed to me again. "I could never stay mad at her."
"What happened to her?"
Coalfur turned to me, a burning resentment glowing in his electrifying green eyes. "She left."
There was a coldness in his voice, stopping me from asking any more questions. He was lost to me again, reclaimed by the hard walls he put up all around himself to block out the rest of the world.
I had thought I could penetrate them, see the real him. How foolish.
Clearing my throat, I said, "We should probably get back."
He nodded without saying anything, turning around and starting at a brisk pace down the hill. I cast one last glance at the lake, then scrambled to catch up with his long strides.
"Is this heather?" I asked, pointing to a clump of pale purple flowers growing on feathery stems among the grass.
The hint of a smile quirked at the ends of his mouth. "Yeah. How'd you guess?"
"I'm just that talented," I boasted, puffing out my chest. "Dawnwhisker described them to me once," I admitted in a sheepish tone. "I used to bug her for stories about the outside world all the time."
"That must've been hard," he said thoughtfully. "Having to rely on someone else's words to piece together the world."
I glanced at him. "Not really. I have a pretty good imagination. Besides, I saw enough plants in the Isle."
"The Isle," he repeated. "As in, that place where I was cruelly abducted."
"More like that place whose ceiling you destroyed," I smirked.
Some of the tension between us dissolved. I felt much better now. A gentle breeze blew through my fur, and I breathed in the sweet scents as if just discovering oxygen. The earth and grass were warm under my paws, and everything around me seemed so vivid and alive.
I really did miss a lot, trapped in that dungeon.
But I would make that up now, I decided. There really was no use moping about it.
"So, about that feast," I said. "What exactly is that to celebrate?"
"As if you didn't know," he said scornfully. "The return of the great Princess Frostflower. Hooray."
I studied him closely. "You don't sound too happy."
"Why do you care?"
A hot flush crept into my cheeks. "I don't care if anyone's glad I'm rescued. I'm glad I was, and that's what matters. Being a princess doesn't define who I am. I-" I paused in midthought. "I never really thanked you for saving Dawnwhisker and me, did I?"
He looked surprised, as if that was the last thing on his mind. "Thank me?"
"Yeah. I didn't. I'm really sorry about that. You risked your life." For a second, I thought I saw an expression of guilt cross his face, but he waved it off, so I continued, "You saved me from an eternity down there." I didn't mention my Binding, the mark on my head, or the fact that in a moon, Edith would kill me. If she caught me again, that was. "So, thank you." I meant it from the bottom of my heart, no matter how annoying Coalfur could be.
His eyes locked down on my face; he was at least two inches taller than me, a fact I had never noticed before. For once, he seemed to be actually without words. Finally, he cleared his throat, his voice coming out unsteadily. "Y- You're welcome."
"Wow. I don't think I've eaten this much since... ever."
Graypaw smiled at me wryly, helping herself to another mouse. I had no idea how she managed to eat so much and still remain as thin and lithe as she was. "Careful. We don't need a fat princess. Joking!" she yelled as I pelted her with a scrap of grass.
I laughed lightly and took another bite of squirrel, sticking my tongue out at her. Though I'd known them for less than a day, I had already come to consider Graypaw and Peachpaw like my sisters, especially Graypaw. Dawnwhisker was a wonderful cat, but our age difference made it difficult to hang out like this. Now, she was talking animatedly with Duststorm and Applefur; I was glad we had both made friends we could connect with.
The rest of my tour with Coalfur had gone well; the territory seemed like a really nice place. My only concern now was what to do next. If I stayed here, I could bring down Edith's wrath upon these innocent cats. But if I left, they'd be crushed. I had no idea why they valued the royal family so much, but their loyalty was boundless, and it would be an insult to just up and leave, even out of selflessness. Besides, and I had to admit it, I didn't want to strike out alone either, with a price on my head.
Obviously guessing where my train of thought had led, Graypaw mewed, "Don't worry about it Frostflower. We'll protect you."
Feeling a flare of protectiveness towards the earnest young she-cat, I said, "You don't have to Graypaw. This isn't your family's battle to fight."
"Of course it is," Peachpaw said. "Dad would never let you leave. He's now convinced that we can overthrow Edith for good. And who knows." She tilted her head to the side, studying me intently. "Maybe he's right."
I raised my eyebrows and glanced at my paws, trying at modesty instead of utter bewilderment and self-doubt. "I just don't know..."
"You'll figure it out," Graypaw said gently. "You're a princess."
Maybe. But I really don't feel like one.
As I gazed up at the sky, feeling pathetic and useless, Duststorm came out of the den, talking with Lightningcry and another tom. They were nodding their heads, agreeing about something. I swallowed hard, hoping against all hope that it wasn't what to do against Edith. All the eating I'd just done had made me feel better, but still not good enough to face down an army of Edith's cats. And I doubted anything could make me feel that good at all.
"Everyone's leaving now," Peachpaw observed, watching as Lightningcry called to Firepaw; the young she-cat padded towards him reluctantly, her eyes burning with resentment.
With a start, I clambered to my paws, feeling like I had tripled in weight. Clumsily, I stumbled towards the congregation of cats exchanging farewells in the center of the ravine. Feeling like a total reject, I mumbled, "It was nice meeting you! Thanks for the food and support!" Stupid. I sound like an idiot who can't fend for herself at all. I'm no princess.
Thankfully, the other cats didn't seem to mind my blunders. A gorgeous cream she-cat smiled warmly at me and licked me on the cheek. She introduced herself as Snowdapple, and went on about how happy she was that Coalfur found me till I was ready to die of embarrassment. "Edith and her horrible posse killed my husband, you know," she said mournfully. I glanced curiously at her. She was young; she couldn't be more then a couple of moons older then me, but she had a beaten-down expression on her face. The pretty features and heartbreakingly blue eyes she'd been given were marred with a sorrow I imagined came with losing your mate, the love of your life.
"I'm so sorry," I said, knowing I could never be sorry enough.
A brave smile, one I imagined she used a lot, came onto her face. "He died the death he would've been proud of. Rebelling against Edith." She touched her paw to my face gingerly. "He loved your father and mother like family. So did I. I've dreamed and dreamed of Icewhisper still being alive... of meeting her again." The look she gave me held all the hope in the world, and I felt awed that all that trust was being directed towards unspecial, immature me. "But now I've met you, and you look just like her..."
"So everyone keeps telling me." I hoped I didn't sound bitter; that was the last thing on my mind.
Snowdapple glanced up at the darkening evening sky. "Well, I have to be going, but you can be sure I'll be here tomorrow. We all will be."
Surprised, I said, "Really? Why? Is something going on?"
Letting out a laugh, as if I've actually said something remotely clever or funny for once in my life, she purred, "For battle preparations, silly. Now that we've found you, we can finally wage war on Edith, and destroy her once and for all."
Don't panic. Do not panic. Whatever you do, don't...
"Frostflower, can we discuss battle plans?"
I looked up at Duststorm, pasting a frozen smile on my face. "Uh... Sure. I mean, shoudn't we wait for the others?"
He nodded patiently, as if explaining things to a little kit. "Yes, but we might as well get started. As the princess, I'm sure you have important input to our battle plans. I mean, you and Dawnwhisker know Edith's lair better then any of us."
Desperate, I shot Dawnwhisker a pleading look over the tom's shoulder. The cream she-cat got up and came to my rescue. "Duststorm, I think Frostflower should eat and groom before we get to work. That way, she'll be refreshed. Meanwhile, I can help you a little; when I was in SkyClan, I was quite the battle planner."
Applefur entered the conversation with a smile. "I remember, Dawnwhisker. We would always turn to you for things like that."
As the three older cats padded of, I let my shoulders sag with relief. A purr of amusement rumbled from nearby; I spun around and found myself face-to-face with Coalfur, his emerald eyes glittering mockingly. Hiding the blush I'm sure was evident anyway under my snowy pelt, I mewed, "What are you laughing at? Like you know any more about battle strategy then I do. I was locked up all my life; give me a break."
"Relax, princess," he teased.
I sighed. "Don't call me that."
His expression appeared startled; I couldn't tell if it was false or genuine. "Why? Everyone else does."
Unable to meet his eyes, I stared at the ground and scuffed my paw in the dust, enjoying the way it coated my clean fur. See? I wasn't perfect. "We've been over this. 'Princess' isn't who I am. I didn't even know I was a princess till a few days back. Does that mean that my identity before that meant nothing? No, it doesn't. I'm Frostflower, and I always will be."
Coalfur gave a snort of disgust. "Why must you always say deep things like that? It makes me look like an idiot."
"You are an idiot." I nudged him playfully, then held my breath, wondering if he'd take it offensively.
Thankfully, I needn't have worried. With a grin, Coalfur elbowed me back. "Says you!"
"Well, now I have to come up with battle plans," I pouted.
Flicking his tail against my shoulder, Coalfur said, "Well, you're in luck. Despite what you said, I do happen to be a master at battle plans." A devious smile. "It comes from my diabolical side."
"So all of you."
"Frank, aren't you?"
I grinned up at him, trying not to feel acutely aware of the fact that I was at least two inches shorter. "I try. So what I'm hearing is you'll help me?"
"If you beg, plead, and grovel, I'll consider it."
Time for Plan B. Without hesitation, I link my tail with his and drag him off towards a corner of the ravine-camp. "Nice try. Come on; we have work to do."
- - - -
I pursed my lips and narrowed my eyes in concentration, glaring down at the complex diagram Coalfur had sketched out in the dust. "So... the best plan of action would be to ambush them from behind the hill?"
My impatient teacher gave a loud snort. "No! Are you out of your mind? You'd lose precious time and energy running up that hill! And where would you hide? I told you, that side of the map is all grass. No trees. Nothing. Not even a bush. You'd be spotted way before you had a chance to mount an attack. That is," he added rudely, "unless you planned to have your enemies laughing so hard at you that they were rendered incapable of moving." All this with a happy grin on his face.
Temper boiling over, I snapped, "Well, what else are you supposed to do? You already said the tunnel wouldn't work because there's a fox in it, and that swimming underwater would be ridiculous. This is impossible!" I kicked the drawing roughly, smearing the "pond" where my failed ambush had taken place(apparently cats can't hold their breath for over thirty minutes).
Seeing how aggravated I was, Coalfur's features softened a little. "Relax, Frostflower. Let's try this again. Just clear your head."
Repentantly, I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. "Okay. Again."
"Look at the map, and only the map. Don't just think of it as a drawing; envision how it must really feel. Feel the wind on your face. Which way is it blowing?" He made several arrows to indicate this factor. "Now, you know where the enemy is. Where should you attack?"
Suddenly, it all became clear to me. "The pine grove! The scent will mask our scents, the wind will be in our faces, so we can smell them and they can't smell us, and it has good cover!" I couldn't believe it had taken me so long to figure it out; I was such a dunce.
"You got it," Coalfur grinned.
"I did?" I shrieked with considerable excitement - a pathetic amount, actually, but you don't understand what a burden it was to think of myself being an embarrassment at the battle council. "Oh StarClan! Thank you so much Coalfur!"
Practically hurling myself at him, I wrapped my tail around him. "You're the best."
Taken aback, he stumbled backwards a little, as if trying to get away from me. Instantly, I was mortified. Who did I think I was?
Then, "No problem. It was my pleasure."
A strange warmth flowed through me. We exchanged a smile, our gazes lingering on each other for a little longer then needed. Then I half-turned, waving my tail. "Wish me luck!"
Cats were already collecting outside the den, grim-faced and determined. Ready to take on Edith. I took a deep breath and prepared myself to run the gauntlet.
Exhausted, I rubbed my eyes with the back of my paw. The battle meeting had taken forever; it was inky black outside by the time we'd said farewell to all our visitors.
So far, my impression of "battle planning" was this: You argue a lot till someone comes up with a compromise. Then you do everything in your power to point out everything wrong with the compromise, and go back to arguing.
Not my cup of tea at all.
But then again, I hadn't done too badly considering it was my first time. The others had actually listened to me. It was clear that my opinion held a certain amount of weight.
That wasn't a good thing though. It was authority that should be going to someone else, someone who actually knew what they were doing. I had no idea what half the strategies mentioned even were. If they expected me to lead them into battle against Edith, they had better be prepared to carry me all the way, and then catch me when I fainted. Also, they had to be prepared to lose. Tragically.
"That went pretty well," Coalfur said from next to me. "Duststorm seemed happy."
I noticed he refused to refer to his dad as "father", but didn't comment on it. "I guess so. I'm so tired now, though. I doubt I'll make it through an actual war."
"You will. We need you. Duststorm and Applefur would be crushed if you didn't believe in the cause. They've hung onto the hope that the royal family will be restored for as long as I can remember. You've got to stay." When I remained silent, he added in a voice that cracked a little, "Besides, I- I like having you here." He nudged me gently. "You're not so bad. For a princess."
Despite the last sentence - which was added almost as an afterthought - I felt a pleasant warmth bloom in my heart. "Thanks."
Overhead, the moon was a large, milk-white disc. It cast a beautiful glow over everything, sending shudders of happiness down to the tip of my tail. Maybe, just maybe, I could do this. I mean, I'd already come a long way from the silly little she-cat whose idea of something daring was to mouth back to Cammie and the other guards. I'd come a long way from gawking at everything resplendent and unfamiliar in the outdoors. I could hunt outside the Isle. I was more self-confident. I didn't rely on Dawnwhisker for everything.
Perhaps I really was becoming a princess in my own right.
Next to me, Coalfur moved slightly closer, so our pelts brushed. We stood like that in comfortable silence, and I imagined that somewhere, Opalclaw, Coalfur's sister, and my mother, Icewhisper, were looking up at the same sky and thinking of us.
I'll find you, mother. Father may be gone, but I'll find you. And we'll rule SkyClan once again. Together.
My silent vow fluttered up into the heavens, and I leaned my head on Coalfur's shoulder, never dreaming of what was to come because of the war.
But I'd find out in due time.