A rat scurrying out from under the cover of a massive rusted monster caught Soot's attention. She instinctively dropped into a crouch, her belly nearly brushing the dirt ground as she stalked her prey. It was a stupid rat, as were the rest of the rodents living in Carrionplace: They knew nothing of predators, having only lived in this stinking place where only the most desperate of cats ever hunted. Soot was certain it could scent her, though it paid no attention.
She pounced, landing directly over it, but she was far from finished. Hardly any bigger than the rat, she felt it fight back and struggled to keep her grip on it. “Not eating crowfood tonight,” she promised herself through gritted teeth. Sharp claws grazed her leg, but with all her strength she kept it pinned down so she could bury her teeth in its neck. It squeaked and squirmed, but she clamped her jaw down as hard as she could until she felt the crunch of bones before the animal went limp.
Feeling beyond pleased with herself, the young she-cat ravenously tore at her fresh kill. She continued her small feast until her belly was full, then headed a short ways into the forest in search of shelter for the night.
The scents of unfamiliar cats unnerved her, but she assured herself they were stale and there was no risk. Besides, she lacked the energy to look elsewhere for a place to sleep and knew she wouldn’t have the strength to fight off any rat attacks at the Carrionplace.
A tall pine tree was the only shelter Soot could find, so she settled as well as she could at the base of the trunk and allowed her tired eyes to close.
Strong, foreign scents startled her into waking. Three grown toms with muscles rippling beneath their well groomed pelts were huddled over her, surveying her like a stupid piece of prey they weren’t sure whether to kill or let free out of pity.
An old battle-scarred tom stood in the center, and as she opened her eyes wider, she saw his lips curl into a snarl as he thrust his face toward hers. The other two stood slightly farther behind, eyes narrowed.
It was one of these cats who spoke, a pale silver tabby. “So what should we do with her” he asked, without a hint of the aggression the older cat showed.
“I say we chase her off,” the darker tabby meowed dismissively. “She’s small and injured, and there’s no sign of other companions. There’s no threat here.”
The silver tom nodded in silent agreement.
Soot had risen unsteadily to her paws, and now bared her teeth in response. She would have no choice but to flee, she knew. But she wasn’t going to leave the scene without a bit of a fight.
Practically spitting on her, the scarred cat hissed, “We should take her prisoner. Could use her as an expendable sparring partner for the apprentices.”
Her eyes widened in fright; any fight perhaps wasn’t the best option. Not for a weak and tired young she-cat in her first moon away from her mother. Not when the enemies were twice her size and outnumbered her three to one.
She let out the most menacing growl she could summon, then turned tail and bolted across the short stretch of forest toward the Carrionplace. No matter how far each stride took her, she could still feel another cat’s breath on her heels.
Without turning to look back, Soot knew it was one of the other two toms, chasing after them. “Clawface, it’s a kit! What are you doing?”
“She is on ShadowClan territory,” came the growl directly behind Soot. “Like any other intruder, she will be punished.”
She collapsed as a huge weight fell on her back. Sharp claws dug into her shoulders, and she could feel blood soak into her fur. The stinging pain only grew as she struggled beneath Clawface’s grip. Her own claws scratched across the earth in an attempt to regain her footing.
He released her only when she stopped struggling. Knowing he could easily outrun her again, the younger cat leapt to her feet with all the grace she could manage. She growled as she lifted a paw to swipe at the tom’s muzzle. Dwarfed in size by her attacker, and injured already from his claws, she knew she had no hope unless he let her go.
He was startled by the shallow scrape, but regained his composure with ease. Narrowing his eyes, he dropped into a crouch. Before she could react, the pale tabby flung himself at her attacker. They were now staring at each other, the kitten momentarily forgotten by Clawface whose teeth were bared instead at his own companion. The third tom moved to stand next to Soot, probably in case she tried to run, but also looking prepared to defend her.
The tabby snarled. “I won’t let you kill a kit,” he hissed. “She’s likely only just left her mother’s side. We should let her go; I’m sure she’s learned her lesson.”
Clawface didn’t make a move to fight back. “You’re still a new member to ShadowClan, Boulder,” he growled at his companion. “We’ll see who Brokenstar agrees with.” Turning to the third member of their party, he said with authority, “Stumpytail, see that the kit doesn’t run. If she makes any attempt at escape, you’re to hold her back. No need to be gently, it’s up to her whether we take her to Brokenstar alive or dead.” Soot bit back a frightened whimper as she was nudged to her feet by Stumpytail. It was no wonder how he earned his name; his tail was perhaps half the length she’d seen on any other cat.
The two other toms, Boulder and Clawface, walked ahead while Stumpytail kept up Soot's limping pace. Again, she noticed how well fed these toms were, and was frightened and awed by their powerful, deliberate strides. Although Clawface bore the wounds of old battles, his gait remained confident and strong as he took the lead.
Her injuries stung and slowed her down, but she remembered Clawface’s words and knew she couldn’t fall too far behind. However, when she stumbled, she found Stumpytail at her side, looking down with concern as opposed to impatience. He glanced ahead to where Clawface and Boulder were, both unnoticing of the increasing space between them.
It was with a twinge of resent that she realized why Boulder and Stumpytail had treated her with mixed concern and pity. They didn’t see a scrawny rogue when they looked at her, but a helpless kit.
“Move faster,” Clawface’s growl moved her from her thoughts and she saw the two other toms watching from their position far ahead.
By the time they stopped walking, Soot could feel every muscle in her body ache. She felt the throbbing of her wounds like a heartbeat. Clawface had left to find the cat they called “Brokenstar” and Stumpytail had left with another small party of cats while Boulder sat next to the she-cat, a silent guard. Some other cats making their way through the hollow hesitated when they saw the strange young cat.
“Never seen so many cats,” she mused to herself.
Boulder’s response came as a shock, as she hadn’t expected him to speak to her at all. “We’re a Clan,” he informed her, with a hint of reservation in his voice.
He replied, “This territory belongs to us. We hunt in it, and we fight for it.” There was an uneasy pause before he asked, “You didn’t come from BloodClan?”
Soot narrowed her eyes. “BloodClan?”
Before Boulder could respond—though something in his gaze told her he wouldn’t have if he could—Clawface reappeared, trailing behind a massive dark brown tabby.
“Brokenstar.” Boulder acknowledged the huge tom with a nod.
“This is our new prisoner?” the leader growled. “A kit!”
“We found her sleeping on ShadowClan territory,” Boulder explained, and with a light of defiance added, “Clawface refused to let her leave.”
“I won’t let a dirty rogue escape with their life,” the scarred tom snarled in response, thrusting his face forward so he was almost nose-to-nose with Boulder.
Soot caught glance of Boulder’s unsheathed claws digging into the ground. “I won’t let you kill an innocent kit.”
Brokenstar’s eyes flashed between the two quarreling toms. “Both suitable morals, but if she has learned her lesson—” He glanced down at the quivering young she-cat “—and it appears that has. Surely one as young as herself can be left with another chance.”
Clawface bared his teeth and hissed at Soot, startling her so that she leapt a short ways backward. She stumbled as her injured shoulders caught her own weight.
Brokenstar leaned in closer while she fought the urge to step back or look away.
“She walked all the way back here?” he asked, directing the question at Boulder, to Clawface’s obvious dismay.
“Yes, she kept the pace surprisingly well.”
“Her wounds look deep,” he commented. “She is considerable for her size. Perhaps simply driving this one off would not have been wise.”
An amused purr rumbled from Clawface’s chest as he watched Boulder’s confused expression. However, neither of them questioned their leader.
“Runningnose,” Brokenstar called to a small grey and white tom as he slipped into the hollow with a moutful of foliage. “Good time to be back; I have a kit for you to see to.”
He dropped the bundle as he approached, eyeing the stranger with caution. “Who is this?” he asked uneasily.
“A rogue we found on our border patrol,” Boulder reported.
“I—I’ll see to her.” Runningnose’s eyes flickered back and forth between Brokenstar and Soot. After a short silence he rested his gaze on the kit. “Right then. Boulder, could you carry her? More stress on those wounds won’t do any good.”
Boulder nodded, but Brokenstar spoke before he could move. “She can walk.” Then he turned away, dismissing the small gathering.
The den Runningnose led Soot to held piles of leaves, some similar to the ones he carried. Their sweet scents wafted toward her, soothing her senses. Runningnose gestured to a small bed of ferns, inviting Soot to rest. Though she wasn’t sure she should her her guard down so easily, her muscles thanked her as she felt the worst of the pain melt away.
“Why weren’t you with your mother?” the tom asked her as he began chewing leaves into a poultice. “Where is she?”
“Don’t know,” Soot mewed. “Can hardly remember her. What are you doing with that?”
“I guess you’re not familiar with medicine,” Runningnose mused. “I have some dock to put on your wounds. It’ll help them heal faster and keep them from becoming infected. Before I do that, you’ll need to clean them.”
She nodded and began to lick her injured shoulder.
“I thought rogue cats were still with their mothers at your age.”
“My littermates would tease me because I was too small. They all left,” she meowed.
“Of course,” Runningnose muttered. “Rogues have no concern for anyone but themselves.”
Soot knew her size was only a danger to her siblings and mother, but she didn’t say it. “Why am I still here?” she asked, earning a sympathetic blink.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Brokenstar should have made up his mind soon, though, and you’re safe right now.”