THIRTEEN//ARTIC

Cause now I'm a warrior

The sound of someone sobbing wakes me. I lift my head quietly and focus on the lone figure sitting in the back of the den, her shoulders shaking from grief. I stand and weave my way around the cats and sit next to Ravenflight.

She glances at me and she buries her head into my shoulder. I curl my tail around her and embrace her silently, letting her tears fall onto my pelt without a word. Ravenflight shakes and I tighten my embrace on her and lick the top of her head. Her sobs quiet down and she sighs.

“Sorry for waking you,” she wipes away her tears.

I shake my head but don’t speak. To be honest, there’s nothing to say. I already know why she’s crying and nothing I say will ever make her feel better.

“This pain…” she chokes out, “how did you bear with it?”

I tense. Ravenflight’s eyes are broken and I take a breath before mewing. “I don’t,” I admit, “it aches but...being here with you always tames the flames.”

The black she-cat nods understandingly. “I know what you mean.”

“I’m sorry about Aspenpelt.”

Ravenflight tilts her head up to gaze into my eyes. She shakes her head. “It’s not your fault,” she whispers, “and to be honest, it’s not really Gwyn’s fault either. We should have trusted both of you.”

I feel a stab of grief when I think about Gwyn. “I shouldn’t have asked her to come,” I close my eyes, “she was happy back with the Raiders.”

Ravenflight hesitates before she mews tentatively. “Is being a Raider all that...good?”

I open my eyes to meet hers. “It’s like being an IceClan,” I think back to how I felt before I found out about my mother’s death, “you belonged to them and all we knew was that IceClan was the enemy. They’re cats, Ravenflight, not monsters. Some of them mean terrible harm but others are just like you, they think they’re fighting for their group.”

The black she-cat leans in and touches her nose to mine. I freeze. Some sort of warmth flows over me and when Ravenflight finally pulls away, she leans against me. I savor her weight and the warmth that comes with it.

We don’t speak as we head back to our nests and this time, when I fall asleep, it’s dreamless and the best sleep I’ve ever had.

~

“I want you to practice a real battle,” Blackthorn paces in front of us, “but not like those rounds you’ve been doing.”

Ravenflight frowns. Before she can ask what the general means, he turns and pads towards a hidden part of camp that I hadn’t noticed. All the fly warriors hesitate before padding inside. Ravenflight looks fairly queasy and I lean in. “Where are we going?”

“This is where the prisons are located,” she tells me, “not the ones you were in, the ones that hold all the real danger. And the Ring…”

I can tell that the Ring isn’t exactly the best memory for the black she-cat. Ashshadow, who looks slightly plump, speaks up. “General,” she flicks her tail, “why are we here?”

The huge black tom sighs. “You must have practice against Raiders. Among you is only one tom who knows the Raiders’ tactics. He’s not enough for you all the practice sparring against. Today we will practice in the Ring. Tomorrow will be a six on six match against the prisoners we select.”

My mouth dries. Both Ashshadow and Sootflight look sick while Mintsplash sways. Whiteflame tenses and I try not to look at the red scar that runs down the white tom’s pelt. Ravenflight looks hesitant and I instinctively curl my tail around her.

“Who wants to go first?”

Ashshadow glances at Ravenflight, who stares at her paws. When none of the fly warriors volunteer, I step forward. “I’ll go.” I say stiffly.

I can tell by their glares that they think I won’t do it. That I’m still loyal to the Raiders. Blackthorn nods and I untangle my tail from Ravenflight’s and pad unsteadily towards the Ring. I enter it and I can see the guards restraining a small but lean tom. The moment I enter the den, they release the prisoner. His eyes are sharp with intelligence and with a cold, sinking feeling in my heart, I realize I know this Raider.

He isn’t overcome by desperation. There’s a spark in his eyes and he frowns when he sees me. “Artic,” he says, matter-of-factly, “I see you’ve joined IceClan?”

“You worked alongside Enero,” I respond, “to train Gwyn and I.”

I know that Blackthorn and the fly warriors can hear us. The tom - who I know as Arder - bares his teeth. “This will be an interesting fight. I know all your moves.”

His eyes flick to the rest of the fly warriors. “I know all their moves.”

I tense and while I’m hesitant to attack, Arder is not. He lunges for me with the frightening speed that I have yet to master. I fall backwards to lesson to the blow and use my hindlegs to kick him forward. He rolls and stands with grace. I push myself to my paws and hold them out just as Arder slams into me. My claws dig into his shoulders but his jaws are much, much closer to my neck.

I jerk the side and he bites down on my paw, causing me to hiss in pain. I struggle to pin him down but Arder just smirks. “You’ve never had the courage to kill, Artic. Death always made you queasy whereas Gwyn…”

Taking a deep breath, I flip him onto his back and close my eyes as I dig my claws deep into his neck. Arder gasps but I ignore him and the feeling of his warm blood flowing over my paws. I stagger off him and shake as the guards comes in and takes him away. The crowd screams their joy.

I stand there, trembling. I don’t know when Ravenflight comes over but she finds me and guides me out of the Ring.

“Look at me,” she orders and I obey. Her eyes are firm and they erase everything around me. “We’re going to have to do that over and over if we want to win. If you want cats to stop losing their parents in a bloody war. If you want to see Gwyn again.”

For a moment, I just stand there. Ravenflight doesn’t move and she locks her gaze with mine. “If you don’t want to do this for yourself, do it for me,” she adds quietly.

Finally, I nod.

The black she-cat lets go and then she pads into the Ring herself. The other fly warriors glance away when I pad back over to them. I sit and I force myself to watch as Ravenflight spars against another one of the prisoners. I know her name, what she did. But I ignore all that as Ravenflight finally twists away from the prisoner and her claws find the Raider’s stomach. I gaze on as the blood spurts out, and as the pain is etched on the prisoner’s face as she falls to the ground, silent.

I do it over and over as each of the fly warriors take a turn. I ignore all the blood the stains the ground and the cheers of the mad crowd that looks eagerly on. I ignore the screams of pain that comes from the prisoners as the fly warriors tear deep wounds into their pelts, allowing them to live, but forcing them to suffer.

With each fight that goes on, I let the lives lost slip by. I force myself to accept that the Raiders are my enemy and I must be prepared to slaughter them all. Just like how I had been willing to sacrifice IceClan cats for my own causes.

If I am not willing to kill them, they will kill me instead.

When Blackthorn tells us to go back to our dens and rest, I have not shed a single tear for any of the Raiders that were killed.

It isn’t until I’m in nest with Ravenflight next to me that I let the pain come back. The black she-cat whispers reassurance but I do not hear her.

I cry until my heart aches and when I’m done, Ravenflight is there as always, telling me she’s here for me.

I rest my head on her shoulder and thank the stars she’s here with me.

Now I've got thicker skin

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