part four

The ShadowClan “medicine den”, as Runningnose called it, was a cave formed beneath two boulders. Ferns growing around it kept it shady and prevented any drafts from reaching the cats inside. It was both a place to store herbs with medicinal properties, Mischief soon learned, and a secluded but pleasantly warm place for injured or sick warriors and apprentices to remain while they recovered. In a corner, beneath a small rock shelf, was bedding of ferns and a few large white feathers where Runningnose slept every night, and very close by was a similar nest which Mischief found belonged to a senior medicine cat, Yellowfang.

Mischief herself had first slept in a small makeshift bed of ferns picked just outside the den, but on realizing she would spend days resting, recovering from her injuries, the tabby medicine cat had gone out to find her more comfortable bedding, returning also with the promise of swan feathers if any cat came back from a hunting patrol with one soon.

She saw Yellowfang daily, but rarely spoke to the old queen. The only communication exchanged between the two she-cats was on the occasion Runningnose wanted a second opinion of how the kit’s wounds and muscles were healing and what actions were best to be taken. Sometimes she recommended he take her out to stretch her legs; other times she would tell him rest would be preferable. It was clear at once how highly he respected her opinion, and if he ever disagreed it was with careful consideration and discussion. Mischief found it was because Yellowfang had been his mentor; all he knew was learned from the old cat.

In the cave, Mischief slept often, but when she was conscious she was wide awake. With nothing else to do, she watched intently as Runningnose and Yellowfang treated the injuries of warriors returning from battle or, as she learned was more common, fighting practice.

The most regular visitor was Blackfoot, a big white tom with black paws as dark as her own fur. He would watch her critically, but never spoke to her, only to Runningnose in a hushed voice she could not here for all her effort. Boulder also appeared often, always with a different reason—once because his apprentice, Wetpaw, had a thorn in his paw; once saying a nursing queen had sent him about a potentially ill kit (whom she later found through Runningnose was only having a small bout of coughing, but was in fact healthy)—and while he also never spoke to Mischief, he would survey her as she rested or watch with concern when she stretched her sore limbs as instructed by the medicine cat.

Brokenstar, despite once seeming the most interested in her strength and then in her recovery never came to check in.

One night, several days into her stay in the medicine den, neither medicine cat came to their warm nests to sleep. The camp outside was quiet and empty—curious about the unordinary silence, Mischief had left her nest to go see for herself what was going on, only to find a silver gray tom standing in the entrance, his back to her.

“Boulder,” she mewed.

His ears pricked back immediately, but otherwise he showed no sign of having been startled by the sudden noise. He turned slowly to face her.

She peered around him into the camp. It looked as deserted as it sounded. “Where is everyone?” she demanded. “Where’s Runningnose? He didn’t say anything today about leaving.”

Boulder seemed to stifle a purr before he responded, “They’re at a Gathering.”

Mischief narrowed her eyes. “What sort of gathering?”

His blue eyes flashed with what she thought looked nearly like fear, but only for an instant before he regained the stare he had held moments before as though he hadn’t for a second lost it.

“I’m sorry,” he said politely, “but that’s not information that is up to me to share.”

“Huh.” She sat down and wrapped her tail neatly around her paws. “Why did Brokenstar leave you here while he and everyone else left?”

“How do—what makes you think Brokenstar has left?”

When Runningnose and Yellowfang were asleep in the evening, Mischief often found herself restless having done nothing all day. She never left the den, not wanting to break Runningnose’s rule of not going out without him, but from the entrance she could watch the nighttime Clan activities. Brokenstar, Clawface and Blackfoot were often up at these times, and once she also saw Boulder.

She told him this.

“What do you talk about?” she added.

Boulder lowered himself to her height so their noses nearly touched, frightening Mischief so she felt the fur along her spine stand up. She held her ground, not knowing what he was going to do. But when he spoke, though his voice portrayed no sign of caring, his eyes held something like concern.

“The last thing I want is for a kit to get hurt because I told them too much,” he hissed. “I suggest you stop asking so many questions; when you need to know something, Runningnose will tell you.”

He lifted his head and turned his back to her again. She moved to sit beside him, gazing up at his eyes which glittered slightly in the moonlight. This cat saved her life, she was suddenly reminded. She hadn’t given it much thought, but now she realized she was safe where she was—she wouldn’t have made it here if Boulder hadn’t convinced Clawface to let her live.

She scanned the hollow, so void of life. Though she was sure it wasn’t going to stay that way. “Thank you.”

Her voice was barely audible even to herself, but this time Boulder’s fur stood on end, and he twitched slightly, startled by her comment. He looked down questioningly.

“He was going to kill me,” she said. “You wouldn’t let him.”

“I won’t see an innocent kit get killed,” he replied gruffly. “You were never a threat to ShadowClan.”

They stood together in the entrance to the medicine den, Boulder apparently on watch while Mischief listened to the cricket song. Eventually she couldn’t hear it any longer, too close to slumber. But she remained at her post until a soft mew woke her up.

Blinking open her eyes, she could make out a gray and white face in the darkness. Boulder was gone when she looked to where he had been sitting. She let Runningnose nudge her back to her nest before he curled up in his own nearby.

Only a miniscule amount of sunlight filtered in through the ferns into the medicine den. It was just light enough to see without being a strain on a cat’s eye, although not so light for another animal not adapted to the darkness.

Mischief stretched, and yet out a great yawn as she stepped out of her nest. Yellowfang was out as she often was, and Runningwind was checking the herb stocks—a daily activity before he would either bring Mischief or an apprentice out of the camp to gather anything they were running low on. Today was apparently the little she-cat’s turn to help out, for as soon as he noticed she was up, he mentioned a low supply of dock.

“We’ve been using it all on you,” he added jokingly. “Don’t run ahead this time; I don’t want you getting lost.”

She knew he really meant hurt. The last time he took her to the Toadstools to gather herbs, she’d run into a particularly aggressive hunting patrol. They didn’t attack her, but she felt as though it was only out of respect for Brokenstar’s decision to shelter her. Runningnose’s presence only a few foxlengths away, of course, helped.

Runningnose left the den first, but before Mischief could set paw outside in his footsteps, she heard a loud howl of distress. In the hollow sat a tom with thickly furred paws, a limp body hanging by the scruff from his jaw, a distinctive white mark across its face. A tortoiseshell followed them, and it was she who was crying. The gray and white medicine cat helped the warrior—whom Mischief heard him refer to as Flintfang—carry the body into the medicine den. He yelled at an apprentice to fetch Yellowfang, and the mottled brown cat disappeared through the thorn tunnel.

Mischief backed up to let the warrior into the medicine den. He gave no sign of noticing her. His gaze was fixed on the body from the moment he placed it gently on the ground.

It was a black and white tom, maybe only a moon older than Mischief.

“He’s not breathing.”

Flintfang looked up at Runningnose with wide eyes. “He has to be.”

The old gray she-cat rushed into the den, pushing her way in front of Runningnose. She sniffed and nudged at the lump of fur, and looked up at Flintfang sympathetically.

“I’m sorry,” she rasped.

“I named him Badgerfang,” the warrior muttered to her. “He deserved to be a warrior. But not yet.”

Mischief saw Yellowfang lick the mourning tom’s ear like a mother would her kit, but she was forced to look away as Runningnose guided her out of the den, his tail across her shoulders. He looked up and said something she couldn’t quite catch. It sounded like a prayer.

“What?” she asked.

“StarClan help us.”

What StarClan meant, she wasn’t sure, but she knew it must be a powerful force and the death of Badgerfang must have been from some terrible cause.

He sat down in a small patch of sunlight, and motioned with his tail for Mischief to join. They sat silently, Runningnose staring at the ground in front of him with feverish orange eyes. Mischief didn’t question him, but lay down, resting her head on her crossed front paws. A while later, a small patrol of Blackfoot, Boulder, and a dark ginger she-cat entered the camp and parted ways.

Boulder was carrying a large frog by the leg and a pigeon by its head as he approached Mischief and Runningnose. He left the pigeon between them before sitting next to the she-cat. Mischief quietly started her shared meal. 

A tabby queen joined them shortly. “Poor Fernshade,” she muttered, closing her eyes briefly as she sat beside Boulder, close enough so their sides touched. “I hope I never know her pain.”

Boulder pressed his nose to her muzzle before turning to Mischief. “This is Tallpoppy,” he told her. “I don’t believe you’ve met.”

She gazed gently at Mischief, who felt an odd prick of dislike for her.

However, she remained respectful, nodding her head in acknowledgement.

Beside her, Runningnose was still watching the ground, but not appearing to really see anything.

“We haven’t lost an apprentice in many moons,” Boulder explained quietly. “It always comes as a shock.”

The body was washed so no blood stained its pelt. It lay in the middle of the hollow, along with Fernshade who had her muzzled buried in the dark fur, whimpering. In the evening, Flintfang joined her. Other apprentices looked to be grieving, but they kept their distance.

In the medicine den, Yellowfang was distraught. “He was too young,” she growled at Runningnose. “How can Brokenstar be so blind? A kit! Slain by an enemy Clan in battle. Of course it wasn’t their fault, they could only assume he was small for his age.” She rambled on for a moment longer before she grew silent as she had been earlier. “I’m going to speak to Brokenstar,” she said suddenly, and left the den before her former apprentice could respond.

She returned to the hollow, with Runningnose’s permission, to sit with Boulder and a cat he introduced to her as Russetfur while they watched Badgerfang’s grieving mother and mentor. Runningnose had told her they would keep vigil with him all night, and they would bury him at dawn.

Fernshade had grown silent but she had not stopped trembling. Neither Boulder nor Russetfur showed any sign of sympathy but both watched with interest when Blackfoot slowly picked his way to the body.

Blackfoot, Boulder informed her in a near-whisper, was Flintfang’s and Fernshade’s littermate.

The muscular white tom, surprisingly gently, licked the apprentice’s forehead and sat on the opposite side of him, facing his siblings. “Fernshade,” she heard him mew in a voice thick with concern. “You’re tired; you need rest. Let me sit vigil in your place.”

She felt Russetfur flinch more than Blackfoot when the tortoiseshell stood up shakily. She bared her teeth and growled, “You have no right.” He backed away when she hissed, and quickly but without betraying anything of fear or hurt, started toward the trio of observing cats, finding his place between Boulder and Russetfur.

Boulder rested his tail on the deputy’s shoulder for a split moment, and Russetfur touched his ear with her nose. It was unlike anything Mischief had seen of these cats since her initial capture. She had almost been convinced they had no weakness.

When Brokenstar padded by on his way to his own den for the night, all three warriors stiffened up. But he stopped only to look at Mischief, his first time seeing her since sending her to the medicine den the first day. “It’s almost time to put you to the test,” he purred before continuing on his way.

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