Soot stretched and yawned, basking in the warmth of the few threads of sunlight streaming into the medicine den where she stood. The powerful scent of herbs did not seem as strong as it did when she first came to ShadowClan. While they once overwhelmed her senses, now they faded into the ambience and she could easily make out other scents over them.
She was expecting to find Runningnose at his daily chores, making sure the herbs were neatly organized into piles based on use, keeping note of anything running low. Instead she scented some other cat, a tom, and one she knew but was not all too familiar with.
A towering dark tabby came into her view and she immediately recognized Brokenstar, stiffening at the sight just as she had witnessed Boulder, Blackfoot and Russetfur do the previous night. Then, he had said something to her that had struck her curiosity.
“Are you ready?”
His voice was a low growl and he spoke as though he had already informed her for what she must be ready, and in such a way that there was no question: Whether she was prepared did not matter to him.
Runningnose entered the den at a brisk pace. His rheumy orange eyes were still empty of any joy, dulled by grief, but he masked any waver in his voice with ease. “We want you to train with Clawface and Wolfstep today. You’ve been recovering well, and it will give me a good idea of when we’ll be able to move you out of the medicine den.”
At this, Brokenstar grinned, and Soot briefly wondered if he didn’t have some other reasons for wanting her to train.
The medicine cat surveyed her wounds, applying poultice on any he deemed needing it as he went around a second time. Then she followed both toms out of the den where they were shortly joined by Clawface and his apprentice, a small tabby. Clawface flashed a menacing snarl at Soot as his gaze flickered past her and onto Brokenstar.
“I don’t know why you want me to help train a rogue. Do you expect her to stay with us?”
Soot barely suppressed a gasp. Did he expect her to stay? She wasn’t entirely sure what she had expected, of course. It was clear they wouldn’t let her go without a fight she’d never be in shape for. Yet it had never crossed her mind she might not leave at all.
The dark leader bared his teeth in response. “Do not question my orders. And to continue by questioning the loyalty of two of my finest warriors?”
So Boulder was not the only former rogue in ShadowClan, she noted. She pondered who the second was, but her thoughts were interrupted by Runningnose as they reached the camp entrance: "Boulder," he greeted the tabby tom. "We weren't expecting you."
Boulder nodded politely but spoke to Brokenstar instead. She watched his eyes occasionally flicker away from the leader's and knew he was nervous about something. About standing here in the requested warrior's place, she assumed. He was with two apprentices, she noted. One must be Wolfstep's.
"Wolfstep hasn't left Fernshade's side since last night," he informed the larger tabby. "He was willing to come out training today, but I offered to take his place."
Brokenstar narrowed his eyes, but he responded, "Very well," and instructed Runningnose to lead the group to the Fern Hollow where he might keep an eye out for the young rogue.
"I have other duties to attend to, but I expect a full report of how the session goes," he growled before turning away, back toward his den.
When they left the camp, Runningnose in the lead with Soot at his side, one of the apprentices bounded to her side. "Hi!" he meowed. His pelt was solid black like Soot's but broken up by a white chest and white furred feet. Unlike the other two apprentices, both small and scrawny, he was near her size, perhaps a bit bigger. His voice oozed with friendliness that immediately annoyed the rogue she-cat.
"I'm Whitepaw," he told her, following as she tried to step out of his vicinity to Runningnose's opposite flank.
She sighed, realizing she really had no way of avoiding him today. "Soot," she replied.
He tilted his head. "Funny name." Gesturing to the smaller two apprentices with his tail he mewed, "That's Littlepaw and Wetpaw. They're brothers. And they're sort of shy. Especially Littlepaw, but he's okay when you get to know him."
Soot nodded absently. The dark tom prattled on, but she ignored him to the best of her ability. She heard a high pitched yelp from behind them before Littlepaw scurried forward to keep the pace between them. Unlike his companion, he didn't speak much, and to Soot he said nothing more than a nervous "Hello."
To her relief, Whitepaw grew silent as they approached the hollow. The ground here was flat and bare aside from small scattered patches of grass. It was also soft and damp, but not muddy like the area surrounding the marsh where the herbs Runningnose took her to gather grew.
"Let's begin with a short assessment," Clawface grunted. "Littlepaw, you—"
"Soot has had no training," Boulder interjected. "We should give her a bit of training before we let her spar."
Runningnose made no comment in her defense, but disappeared into the thick ferns surrounding the hollow.
"Not neccessary," the senior warrior argued. "We've seen the rogue fight. Or rather flee," he added in a sneer.
Soot, with bared teeth and extended claws, crouched closer to the cold ground as though was going to throw herself at the tom. He made no reaction except for a distorted purr rising from his chest.
"Littlepaw, are you up to try your luck against a rogue?"
The little tabby trembled at the sound of his mentor's voice while Soot looked on curiously. He had no muscle built up, his body was light and slender. What was Clawface thinking? Such a small, inexperienced fighter had nothing to gain from the unfair battle she knew this would be. She could tell from Clawface's expression that although he mocked her, he shared this knowledge.
Boulder, who had been watching in dismay, looked away to speak to Wetpaw and Whitepaw who sat near him. When he stopped, they stood to face each other.
Before she saw any exchange between the two, Soot was thrown off balance by a sudden weight on her flank. Her partially healed wounds, particularly the ones on her shoulders began to sting as though they were fresh and as she regained her center, she saw drops of blood where she had landed.
She growled as she turned to her attacker. Littlepaw's teeth were bared, his claws unsheathed, but in his eyes there was no defiance or confidence, only fear.
Convenient, she remarked to herself, swiping her paw across his face before he could make another move. His eyes watered as blood welled up in the shallow slit across his cheek. This opponent was weak, she recognized. Delicate and slight. She had more weight and stronger muscles.
It wasn't a move she ever thought she would use, but she never expected to have to fight a cat so pathetic who would obviously rather flee.
She ducked under his chest and pushed upward, lifting him first so he was forced to stand on his hind legs, then used the blunt force of her head to push him onto his back where he lay, stunned.
On instinct she leaped forward, landing with her front paws on his shoulders, her claws digging into his fur. When he struggled, she dug deeper until she saw the gleam of red fluid. He squealed in pain as she loosened her grip and stepped back so he could stand.
Clawface barely blinked at his apprentice who stood shaking in pain until the tabby let out another pained cry. Now he cuffed the apprentice as Soot had at the beginning of their fight, and hissed angrily. "Hardly a scratch on you, and you've given up," he muttered.
Soot surveyed the smaller tom from his ears to his feet, looking for any serious injury she may have inflicted. She was relieved to find nothing even near the wounds she herself was still recovering from.
Nearby, she heard Wetpaw and Whitepaw as they scuffled on the ground, each struggling to pin the other down while Boulder looked on. "No claws," he scolded as Whitepaw threw a swipe at Wetpaw's throat. "This is a mock battle, and I'm only looking for strength."
While Whitepaw was distracted by the warrior's criticism, Wetpaw lunged forward and pushed the bigger apprentice to the ground.
Whitepaw rolled with the momentum and climbed back to his feet, but Boulder stopped him by stepping between them before he could continue the fight.
"Littlepaw, come over here and I'll help you work on your technique with Wetpaw," he called.
Littlepaw dashed over to his brother and his brother's mentor.
Clawface summoned Whitepaw with a flick of his tail. He approached more slowly. None of the apprentices seemed fond of Clawface, Soot observed. They were wary around him, and if he was normally so cold and empty of any advice, she couldn't blame them.
The dark apprentice was kneading the ground impatiently when Clawface finally told them to start their fight. Again, Soot was startled by the first move against her. He hadn't thrown his entire weight at her, only cuffed her cheek, and then her ear when she ducked the second time, but she could already sense the huge difference in strength between him and Littlepaw.
They continued to exchange swipes, each of Whitepaw's seeming more powerful than the last, though Soot thought perhaps it may have been that she was growing weak and tired from her old wounds and the sparring. Suddenly she felt a piercing pain shoot through her eye as Whitepaw wedged a claw just beneath it.
Screeching in pain, she reared up to balance on her hind legs, dislodging Whitepaw's claw from her eye socket as she did so. Blood dripped from the cut left by it on her right cheek near the eye; she could feel it soak her fur though for the moment she was partly blind.
Through her uninjured eye, she saw Whitepaw shrink backward, shouting "I'm sorry," repeatedly. She let out a deep, guttural growl as she dropped down. As soon as she hit the ground, Whitepaw was on her back, and she felt her other shoulder wound reopen. His weight and her loss of blood proved too much as she collapsed beneath him.
Immediately, he jumped off and let her free.
"Good fight," she grumbled. Despite all the pain of listening to his voice, he had turned out to be a decent opponent.
"Are you okay?" he asked, looking closely at her eye which stung like no injury ever had.
"Yeah," she muttered in reply.
Boulder appeared almost instantaneously with Wetpaw and Littlepaw following, and shortly after Runningnose reappeared in the ferns. "Let's get back to camp," Boulder said, then looked to Clawface.
He made no reply, but started back toward the camp.
"Wetpaw, could you fetch some celandine for us?" she overheard the medicine cat mutter.
Her vision began its return as they approached the bramble barrier surrounding the camp, but it was blurred still and no help as she walked into Whitepaw by mistake.
"I really didn't mean to," he mewed.
"Just don't do it again," she snapped. She knew it was an accident, and it had been a fair fight. A learning experience, she told herself: She wasn't likely to lose her vision and she'd already survived worse. She was going to be just fine.
But for the moment, the pain was excruciating.
Whitepaw winced at her words and hurried ahead through the bramble entrance. When Soot, too, was back in the camp, Runningnose asked her to sit down. Wetpaw arrived next to the two cats with two yellow flowers in his mouth which he dropped in front of Runningnose.
"Sit still and look up," he told her before he lifted a stalk over her head and squeezed it in his jaws until the juice trickled down into her injured eye.
It only stung momentarily before the pain began to fade into a weak pulse which was easy enough to distract herself from.
She turned to the noise, where Whitepaw stood with two frogs dangling by their feet from between his teeth. Next to him stood Littlepaw, silent as usual and carrying a mouse.
"I uhh"—he shuffled his paws as he spoke through the mouthful—"was wondering if you wanted to eat with us?"
He was certainly determined, the rogue mused. "I guess."
Whitepaw purred loudly in response as he made himself comfortable in the sunlight next to her. "Wolfstep—he's my mentor—went hunting and brought plenty of fresh kill back." He nudged one of the muddy brown frogs toward her. "This one is for you."
Soot had never eaten frog before. Her diet had always been rats and pigeons, and the odd mouse. Although she knew rats were dirty and often carried disease, this strange slimy amphibion seemed even less appetizing.
"It's good," Whitepaw assured her through a mouthful of his own fresh kill.
She sniffed and prodded it suspiciously, but before she could take an experimental bite a voice of anger rang out across the hollow. Unable to make out what it was saying, but knowing it was horrified and outraged, she searched for the source only for Boulder to block her still blurred field of vision.
"Get back to the medicine den," he growled at her.
"No," said another voice as Clawface shoved him aside with a powerful shoulder. "Do you want to see real Clan business?" he asked the she-cat.
Next to her, Whitepaw was staring wide eyed at something behind the warrior, and Littlepaw was shaking with fear.
Without waiting for her response, he stepped away and followed, or pushed it rather looked like, Boulder away from the apprentices.
Now she could see what shocked her two companions. Brokenstar was standing on smooth boulder overlooking the camp, and Yellowfang sat directly beneath him with pain and exhaustion in her eyes. To her right stood Blackfoot, Russetfur to her left, and both looked dire.
"What's going on?" she whispered to Whitepaw, but he ignored her in favour of watching the leader as he spoke.
"Yellowfang," he growled in a voice low but loud enough to be heard around the camp, "has commited a terrible crime."
An orange tabby sitting near the rock let out a terrible wail which was cut off as he continued.
"There can be no other explanation. Two kits barely old enough to leave the nursery have been murdered by our own medicine cat." The last words he spat directly at Yellowfang herself.
Soot scanned the Clan cats' faces as the meeting unfolded. Each wore similar expressions of shock, disgust or anguish. All except Runningnose who, from where he sat less than a fox length from his former mentor, was gazing straight ahead at nothing, his face empty of any emotion. It was the same way he had looked the previous day when Badgerfang's body was dragged into the medicine den for him to examine.
"But what other evidence do we have?" called out a slightly wavering voice. "I don't believe a medicine cat could ever commit such a heinous crime."
"She was the only one with them, Newtspeck," Brokenstar hissed. "I found her alone with the bodies of the two kits Brightflower reported missing just earlier today."
Newtspeck remained silent but Soot saw she still didn't appear convinced.
"I can think of no better punishment for one so despicable but exile."
Whitepaw gasped. "There's no way she did that," he breathed in a voice barely audible even to Soot who sat right next to him.
"Cast aside by her Clan with no others to take her in. Or perhaps execution would be more suitable," he threatened.
In her peripheral vision, Soot saw Runningnose's tail disappear behind a thorn bush. Around her, cats flashed each other looks of fear or concern.
"Exile," he decided. "Blackfoot, Russetfur, take her away."