"Everpaw!" A warm whisper cuts me out of my stupor. I turn and see Galepaw approaching me, a rabbit in his jaws.I stifle a purr and quickly pad over to the handsome tom from my perch in a cedar. We aren't supposed to see each other, he's older than me. By two moons, only two moons, I remind myself. So it isn't too illegal.
"Where'd you catch this?" I ask, sniffing it. It smells fresh, unlike the usual prey we eat. "At the pond. It was drinking," Galepaw admits. I laugh a light, breezy laugh. "Even if it had seen you, you would have caught it," I mew earnestly. He snorts, but doesn't protest. "Where's Hazelleaf?" I ask him, peering around the dense foliage. Hazelleaf is Galepaw's mother. She allows him to go on the hunts, but usually stays close to the border, pacing, waiting for his safe return that might never happen.
"Out hunting. Violetpaw saw a deer and they're trying to bring it down." My eyes widen. "Don't worry, it's an authorized hunt." He reassures me. Right. Because that ever stopped anyone from going into the woods to hunt. Namely me and Galepaw. "Good." I say instead. Our Watchers know we hunt illicitly, but they don't protest. They like fresh prey as much as we do. Except they don't risk their lives to get it, unlike us.
"Wanna share?" He offers. I nod, then remember something. "I'll be right back." His brow furrows, but I turn and go back to the camp. Primrosekit, my younger sister from another litter, has prepared a gift for me and Galepaw. It is by my nest, wrapped carefully in a delicate bundle of leaves. I pick it up and return quietly to Galepaw's side in the forest, not drawing attention to myself.
"What is it?" He nudges me, and I laugh, setting it at his paws. The bundle opens like a spring flower in bloom. There are daisies, at least fifty of them, in a small heap inside. Someone gasps, and I have the vague feeling it might be me. Galepaw looks stunned. "How did she manage to collect so many?" He whispers. A faint smile uncurls over my face. "I showed her a patch." "But she needs it for her medicine!" Galepaw protests.
"Evidently not," I observe, sniffing them. They are still fresh, must have been picked just this morning. We divide them as equally as we can, sprinkling them over our newly-caught rabbit. We dig in hungrily, I haven't eaten since last night, and Galepaw hasn't eaten since that morning. It's soon gone. I can tell he's anxious from all the lost hunting time. I lick my jaws clean. "We can make up for it. We hunted plenty this morning." He's unconvinced, so I add, "And they'll soon have that deer."
He nods slowly, skepticism still glimmering in his eyes. "Who went out?" I ask. "Violetpaw, Hazelleaf, Smudgewrinkle, and Roarpaw." "Well, Hazelleaf and Roarpaw know how to hunt," I say, but even to me my tone sounds false. He sighs, staring with dark eyes at the forest. I shiver, knowing he is about to start raving about them, but surprisingly, he doesn't.
Instead, he turns to me "Are you nervous?" He asks. His silky voice creates butterflies in my stomach. "Not as much as you are," I respond softly. "How many times have you entered?" He asks. "Seventeen this year," I reply. "You?" His lip snags on his teeth and I know what he is refraining from telling me is horrifying. "Twenty-six," He says. I know he's lying, but that's enough entries in itself. "Galepaw..." My voice is choked. "Shh, It's okay." He puts his tail around my shoulder, embracing me.
I'm selfish. I know I am. I'm out here, enjoying the day, when everywhere else people are locked at home, distancing themselves from others, nerves eating them alive. And I'm selfish because I'm with Galepaw, and because I ate this morning... I close my eyes. I have to get through the day. The only day I worry about will soon be over, and I won't have to think of it for moons to come.
In a few hours, this will all be over. I sigh, resting my head on Galepaw's shoulder. It's an action of affection, of thankfulness. I remember the other she-cats. They stare at Galepaw, glare at me. I'm jealous, but not for the reason people would think. He's my hunting partner. Mine. I'm surprised when my heart thumps in my chest, and I realized why. Somewhere, deep down, I have grown to trust Galepaw. Trust him to the point of where I think of him as my own.
A revelation such as this one, on a day like this? I want to laugh bitterly. But I don't. Instead I stay with Galepaw, just the two of us, in the forest. Alike. So alike. And yet... I fight the urge to open my eyes and walk away. And yet we're so different. So very, very different.
I stand in the center of the camp with Primrosepaw and my mother. I glance down at my young sister. She's so brave. I'm reassured by the fact that she's only 12 moons, therefore only entered once. Although, that's still one entry too many. Poor Prim. My heart feels like it's cracking. If she gets chosen, she will die quickly. She's a healer, not one of us.
I glance around, searching for a familiar pair of stormy gray eyes. There he is. He gives me a small nod. I'll be fine. I grimace. He smiles slightly at my expression, then turns back to the boulder. My stomach stirs with resentment, and I glare up at the she-cat we all loathe here. It's not her, but the news she brings that makes us hate her.
Her name is Trinkle. Every time we see her, her pelt is dyed oddly. Last year it was magenta. The year before that, muddy brown. This time, hers is pitch-black, some sort of dust caked on heavily. When she moves, it shimmers. Where she comes from, the prey is rich. They don't starve in winter. They don't have rats. I shudder, my eyes wide.
I can feel the fear radiating from Prim. I press myself to her, our pelts mashing together against the cold. Her eyes are bright and scared, like a cornered animal. I wince. Prim is so much more than that. She isn't just some pawn for the Keepers to mess around with. She's my sister. I won't let them take you, I vow. Prim isn't radiating horror as strongly, but I keep myself pressed against her. It's cold, the breaths we take crystallize in front of us in billowing white clouds which we're forced to inhale, then exhale again.
My heart nearly stops beating. He only pauses for a second, but I can see where his gaze is directed. Not me. I think. Please, please, please, not me. He speaks, but I can't hear him. Apparently no one can, because Trinkle stares at him, puzzled. "Oh, er..." His voice is heavy, and I know whoever it is a twelve year-old. His tone varies per age. Then I realize Primrosepaw is shaking. I lick her forehead comfortingly.
"Primrosepaw." He says. A pine needle could drop and be heard in the silence that follows. My sister's heart seems to have stopped beating, but then she takes a breath and shakily starts walking up. The crowd murmurs unhappily. It isn't fair. A twelve-year old, and a healer? The Keepers won't get much fun out of this.
And if they aren't entertained, they punish us. The whole tribe. My breath hitches in my throat. "No! Prim!" I yowl, bounding over to her. With a sweep of my sturdy tail, I push her behind me. "I will represent the tribe." My voice is deadly calm. Trinkle looks taken aback. "Oh! Well, there's no protocol for this sort of-" The Head Watcher interrupts. "What does it matter?" He asks. "Let her." "Everpaw! Everpaw!" Prim is in hysterics. I shush her, pushing her into Galepaw's general vicinity. He nods once at me.
At least my family will be fed. Trickle turns to the next pile of moss-balls eagerly. The system works like this. Each cat has a nest. Their nests will, of course, have their scent on it. They are forced to rip off scraps of moss off their nests and turn them in. Whoever's scrap is chosen will be forced to compete in what is called The Posion Trials. We just call it the Trials. The Head Watcher sniffs the next scrap.
"Larkpaw." My blood turns to ice. Not Larkpaw. Please not Larkpaw. Anyone else, please! Galepaw is watching me. I give a tiny shake of my head. He was thinking of volunteering for Larkpaw. But someone has to feed my family. Because without us, no one will. We supply the whole tribe, just the two of us. I think of Smudgewrinkle, who will only take water vole, or Larkpaw's father, Grimeflask, who will trade squirrel for greens but only when his family isn't around. These people depend on me. And I'm about to get myself killed.
Why am I so upset about Larkpaw? The memory itself is hazy, even to me, and he's the one who saved my life, meaning he most likely won't remember it. The Watchers take us away from the tribe to 'freshen up', as is the custom, which makes me angry. We're from the poorest tribe, where cats starve to death. What could we possibly do?
They separate us, Trinkle walks ahead of me at a brisk pace. "Hurry up now, no dawdling," She snaps. "If I could, I'd go at a snail's pace," I huff quietly. She doesn't hear me, or, if she does, she ignores it. She escorts me to the Head Watcher's den is. It's a pathetic thing, in Trinkle's eyes, but for us, cats who appreciate the importance of warmth and food, it is magnificent. It's sturdily made with ash branches, ivy adorning the sides. It's small, but cozy, and I see how the Head Watcher could enjoy living here.
There are nests inside, pre-made. They have never been used, as far as I can tell. Trinkle chooses the larger, more lavish one, the one decorated with feathers and soft animal pelts. Mine is skimpier, but still cozy and soft. Trinkle is snoring quickly, but I'm revolted. She intrudes on our hospitality and makes everyone in this tribe miserable, and doesn't even feel guilt? The Keepers are twisted, horrible.
I shudder. Sleep doesn't come quickly for me anyways, nevermind with me in the Trials. I need a strategy. I haven't seen any of the other entries, but I can assume everyone will be stronger and more deadly than me. That leaves me one option. Outsmarting the others.
I'm not good at fighting. Well, not the best. I can hunt, so I'm not too worried about starving or getting too dehydrated. I can let the others fight each other, I think I can survive that long. Once there's only a few left, that's when I'll come out.
What about Larkpaw? I wince. I can't kill him. Oh, well. There are eight more contestants. Hopefully they'll kill him before I have to. Hope. I want to scoff. Since when have what I depended on hope? Hope will get me nowhere. Granted, it's the best I can do.
That's okay. Even if I die, Galepaw will feed my family. Primrosepaw will do fine as a healer. She will do fine, and my mother will teach her and- I break off from that train of thought when I realize I'm crying. Trinkle can't hear me, of course she can't. I can hear myself.
I stifle my face in the mossy cover. It's safe here, far away from the horrors of life. My eyelids finally seem heavy. No. I need a plan. I need a strategy! But I'm exhausted, and it's been a long day. My muscles go slack, my eyes close, and sleep lulls me away.