Whitewing wasn't the only cat sick. Not moments after Jayfeather, Skypaw and Ferndust returned and moved the sickly, frail elder to the medicine den—where Lionblaze was still recuperating from his attack beside the lake—Briarlight suddenly appeared at the cavern mouth.
"What is it?" Jayfeather demanded irritably.
Briarlight's eyes were round.
"It's Leafpool, Jayfeather. She's ill, too."
Alarm flashed from Jayfeather's pelt. He was away from the elder at once, snapping at Briarlight in passing to help Whitewing, before he raced across the clearing towards the elders' den.
"Ferndust," Briarlight meowed, "go and assess the other cats in the Clan. We have to make sure that the whitecough doesn't spread."
As Ferndust nodded and slipped out of the medicine den, Skypaw glanced at Briarlight and asked, "What can I do to help?"
"Stay here. I'll need a set of fast paws." Briarlight dragged herself over to where Whitewing lay amidst a bed of moss. Skypaw's heart wrenched in pity as she stared at her grandmother. She was so old...
Briarlight jolted Skypaw out of her trance as the young tabby placed her paws on Whitewing's chest, listening intently for her breathing. Then she mewed sharply to Skypaw, "Go and find some borage, quickly. In the store. Go! It should have a tangy scent. Lionblaze, you can help too; go and soak some water in that pool with some moss."
Skypaw wove around Lionblaze, who pushed himself stiffly to his paws and padded towards the pool. She raced into the store, and the strong tang of musty odours slammed into her scent glands almost at once, making her backtrack a few steps, coughing at the many, mingled scents. Borage, borage...She looked around quickly, only to feel despair nag at her. StarClan help me, I don't even know what borage is...She smelt many tangy scents, but not one of them seemed to stand out in any way.
Then she paused. Earlier that day, she had been taught to use her abilities. Should she try to use them now, to try and find out what borage was? Skypaw hesitantly closed her eyes, but before she could even hope to try, she felt a gentle touch at her side, and opened her eyes to find that Aura was beside her.
"I knew you needed some help," said the kit.
She turned and gazed firmly at Skypaw, seeing the apprentice about to protest. "Teaching you to look into absolute nothingness to find a certain element will have to wait for another day of learning," Aura insisted. "In the meantime, I can sense an outbreak is soon to begin."
She suddenly lashed past Skypaw, and the apprentice watched as the kit snatched up a mouthful of strange green leaves with small blue flowers. Then Aura placed the borage at Skypaw's paws and said, "Give this to Briarlight. Be vigilant, Skypaw; there is danger coming soon, and fast, and we have to be prepared for it. The most trialing times for all the Clans has come."
"What about you, Aura?" Skypaw bent her head and collected the borage.
"I'll stay in the herb store and help out with gathering supplies," said Aura crisply. She turned around and began to claw out pawfuls of tansy. "Quickly, don't wait around, Skypaw."
Skypaw remembered that she was still standing in the herb den. Quickly she backed out, the borage clamped firmly in her jaws, and emerged into the medicine den, where Whitewing was beginning to cough.
Briarlight looked up where she was pressing damp moss to Whitewing's lips, and she said, "Good, you've got that borage? Let's just hope it's potent enough..."
"You'll be able to save Whitewing, right?" Lionblaze asked, his eyes bright with anxiety.
"I...to be honest, I can't be sure," Briarlight admitted nervously as she worked chewing up the borage. "The whitecough is getting pretty bad, and in an old cat like Whitewing..." Her voice faded away.
Then the bracken rustled suddenly and Jayfeather returned, leading Leafpool.
"Make a nest for her," he snapped at no cat in particular.
Skypaw prepared herself to grab some moss, but it was Lionblaze who moved first, despite being injured, and he vanished like the wind into the herb store to gather some bedding supplies. Skypaw remembered that Leafpool was also Lionblaze's mother. Leafpool gave a harsh, rattling cough, and her thin flanks heaved.
"Lionblaze!" Jayfeather yowled, more urgently.
"I'm coming..." Lionblaze emerged a moment later, dragging some moss and other bedding material with him. He dropped them across the den from Whitewing, and he and Skypaw worked together to swiftly make a nest. Jayfeather guided Leafpool over to it, and she collapsed gratefully into the bed.
"Get her some soaked moss," Jayfeather instructed. He felt her chest and called, "Tansy!"
Aura suddenly appeared from in the store, tansy clamped in her jaws. Skypaw stared at Aura in admiration. Does she know what Jayfeather will need, every time? she thought. Because that would be most efficient...
Jayfeather stared in surprise at Aura only for a moment, before he nodded his thanks, gathered the tansy, and rapidly worked to soften them.
The brambles rustled to the entrance of the den, and Skypaw turned around to see Ferndust enter.
"Jayfeather..." Her voice faltered. "Spottedheart's coughing."
"What?" Alarm flashed from Lionblaze's pelt, sharp as thorns. He leapt to his paws and roughly pushed past Skypaw in his desperation to get to his daughter.
Jayfeather spun around with a frustrated hiss. "How many others?"
"Mapleleaf's feverish." Ferndust looked anxious. "She thinks that Ravenkit's caught whatever she's got, too. And Lilyflower's cut paw's infected, and she has to use the dirtplace a little more than she normally should..."
"Great StarClan!" Jayfeather hissed in frustration, lashing his tail. He looked (to some extent) around the den. "Ferndust, wait outside." The tabby warrior obeyed, slipping back from the medicine den and into the sunshine beyond. "Briarlight, can you stay behind and—?"
"Of course," Briarlight meowed at once, seemingly glad at the prospect of being useful again. "Aura and I can stay to deal with delivering the medicine. But we'll have to be careful how much we give out, and what we use."
"I can monitor that," Aura interrupted, her head emerging suddenly from the herb store. "My insight will prove useful for now."
"Right. Thanks, Aura." Jayfeather accepted the kit's assistance without question, and then leapt to his paws. "I see you've already brought out some plants. You're very useful." He bent his head and snatched up some of the plants, and gestured urgently for Skypaw to do the same.
Getting the hint, Skypaw snatched up the rest of the different tangy, pungent plants in her mouth, and her tongue curled at the many sharp, spicy tastes. But she felt fear shimmering in her belly as she remembered how many cats had died. So many...
We have a chance to stop the deaths! Skypaw remembered furiously. Swiftly she followed Jayfeather out from the den.
For a moment, Skypaw's eyes frantically searched the clearing. Where was Ferndust? She could see Cherrypelt meowing quickly to her mate about something near the thorn barrier. Lionblaze stood near the base of Highledge, where Spottedheart was slouched, coughing, and surrounded anxiously by her littermates.
Then she heard Jayfeather spit irritably beside her.
Mouse-brains! She heard his frustrated thoughts ring clearly in her mind. They'll only get themselves sick if they hang around the infected!
Jayfeather turned around and growled around his mouthful of plants, "Go to the nursery and see what you can do for Mapleleaf and Ravenkit. Get them as far away from the healthy as you can. We have to stop the whitecough from spreading, and worse, intensifying."
Skypaw nodded and bounded across the clearing towards the nursery. Jayfeather hurried towards Spottedheart.
As Skypaw slipped into the den, she saw Hollythorn frantically licking Ravenkit's sleek black fur. Beside her, her littermates wailed piteously. Owlkit stared at her sister with wide, frightened eyes. Mapleleaf was coughing roughly, and Frostkit and Jaggedkit watched their mother apprehensively.
"Out of the way," Skypaw mewed around her mouthful of herbs, almost tripping over the kits in her haste to get to the sick cats' sides. She spat out the plants and hesitated. What was she to do?
Suddenly a brief image played before her eyes, almost in answer to her unspoken question. Find the feverfew, crush them, and coax Ravenkit to eat them. Escort Mapleleaf to the medicine den; you can do nothing for her here.
The words settled into her heart and as the vision ended, Skypaw realized no time had passed. But she knew what she had to do, and inwardly she thanked what the Tigermark had revealed to her.
"It hurts..." moaned Ravenkit.
"Don't worry," Skypaw soothed. "I'll just give you a little bit of feverfew and then it'll all be better."
She found the feverfew amongst the other plants with some kind of careless ease, her paws naturally guided towards the budding flower, and she quickly crushed it into bite-sized pieces for Ravenkit. But when she tried to get her to eat them, the black she-cat pushed the plant away and croaked, "Don't like...don't like..."
"Come on, Ravenkit," said Hollythorn gently, tensely, urgently, as she rubbed her daughter's flank. "It'll make the pains go away."
"You don't want to feel even more horrid, do you?" asked Skypaw softly.
"There's...more horridness?" squeaked Ravenkit.
"Oh, lots more, but only if you don't eat your medicine."
"I'll eat it, I'll eat it!" Ravenkit mewed quickly. She bent her head and obediently licked up the feverfew, almost immediately to make a face. "Yuck! Tastes like crow-food!"
"You've never eaten crow-food; it'd be a lot, lot worse than feverfew," Skypaw said quickly, knowing that she didn't have time to spend with a fussy kit. She glanced pleadingly at Hollythorn.
"Don't worry," the brown-and-gray tabby queen assured her. "I'll get Ravenkit to finish her medicine." Anxiety flashed in Hollythorn's eyes. "Worry about Mapleleaf. She's in a bad way, I think."
A harsh, hacking noise sounded suddenly from behind Skypaw, and she whipped around to see Mapleleaf coughing hard in her nest, her body jerking rapidly, and waves of a foul odour rolling from her flecked orange pelt. Frostkit and Jaggedkit let out a frightened whimper.
"Mother...!" Jaggedkit mewled.
"Mapleleaf, you need to come to the medicine den," Skypaw meowed firmly, approaching the wheezing queen and placing a tail on her flanks.
Her eyes widened. "But...but I can't!" she gasped. "I've got..."
"Frostkit and Jaggedkit are over four moons old; they can survive without you for a few days until you get better," Skypaw told the queen firmly. "You're on the brink of catching greencough and we need to treat it, before your illness spreads to other cats in the Clan."
Mapleleaf found the sense in this and stiffly pushed herself to her paws. Skypaw darted forward and snatched up the rest of the straggled herbs she had carried in, and then gestured for Mapleleaf to follow.
"Mother! Don't leave us!" wailed Frostkit.
"Don't worry, little ones, I'll be back soon," wheezed Mapleleaf, as she followed Skypaw out from the nursery.
Skypaw's heart twisted as she heard the frantic mewling of the two kits as they watched their mother leave them. But she led Mapleleaf without looking back to the medicine den.
When they entered, Skypaw felt dismay tug at her. Spottedheart lay curled in a third nest, and a fourth had been prepared for Mapleleaf, most likely informed by Aura to Briarlight before. Briarlight was already looking drained, and Aura paced amongst the sickly cats, gently massaging their chests. She wordlessly guided Mapleleaf to her nest, and helped the ill queen settle in.
"Four cats unwell already," Aura mewed in an undertone to Skypaw. "Perhaps we were too late in foretelling the future." She pressed one paw to Mapleleaf's shuddering flank and hissed, "Greencough."
Alarm flashed in Skypaw's eyes. "Should we give her catmint, then?"
"No, not yet," Aura mewed. "We have to make it last. However, we can cool Mapleleaf down. I'll find some more borage and a bit of feverfew." She slipped away from Skypaw's side, vanishing back into the herb store.
"Skypaw!" Briarlight meowed, looking up from where she was pulling a little more bracken over Spottedheart's shivering form. "Get some water for Spottedheart, quickly!"
Her eyes were already strained and tired, and Skypaw felt weariness tug at the edges of her senses as well. She had run right across ThunderClan territory today, not to mention her training period with Aura earlier that day. It was only late-afternoon outside, but it felt like much more time had passed.
StarClan, help us, if you can!
Summoning all the remaining scraps of her energy, and praying that Spottedheart, Mapleleaf, Whitewing and Leafpool would recover, Skypaw headed towards the nearest moss source to get some water for Spottedheart.
Skypaw's eyes flew open as the cool tang of frost slammed into her scent glands. She stiffly pushed herself to her paws at the same time she heard Larkpaw let out a rasping hack, and Stormpaw mew anxiously, "Are you okay?"
Oh, StarClan, not another one. Drowsiness pulled at her eyelids. She felt she had hardly lain down to sleep when she had awoken from her restless dreams. She looked over Whitepaw's slumbering form to see Larkpaw bent over in the gloom, coughing again, and Stormpaw nervously running a tail down the length of his back.
"Hang in there, brother," she soothed.
"Go to the medicine den," Skypaw ordered, making both apprentices turn around with surprise. "I'll...I'll go and inform Jayfeather." She nearly tripped over Whitepaw on her way out of the apprentices' den.
The dawn air slapped her face as she emerged into the open. The clearing was alive with activity. Lionblaze, it seemed, had decided to go back to his deputy duties, and he was in deep discussion with Bramblestar.
"I need to work up my fitness if I'm to resist this new outbreak of illness," Lionblaze said heatedly to the ThunderClan leader. "I've been off duties for three weeks. I'm more than ready to go back to my chores."
Bramblestar let out a sigh. "All right, all right, Lionblaze, I can see the sense in this. We've many warriors down already. Now we need to arrange the dawn patrol, and quickly. This sudden drop in temperature will have surely increased the chances of sickness amongst the Clan."
Lionblaze nodded. "I'll send Poppyfrost and Dustpaw, Bumblestripe and Seednose on the dawn patrol, and Berrynose, Moleclaw, Whitepaw, Thrushsong, Cherrypelt, Skypaw, Amberheart and Flamefur on a hunting patrol."
Skypaw's heart leapt at the prospect of going hunting. But she was still very tired.
"We'll let them rest for a little while longer," Bramblestar decided. "No need to go exhausting our warriors out too early."
"No," agreed Lionblaze. "Dovewing, Ivypool, Stormpaw, Foxleap and Yellownose can go on another hunting patrol after sunhigh, and..." He frowned as he tried to remember which cats were left to assign. "Toadstep, Rosepetal, Larkpaw and Mousewhisker will make up the last patrol."
Skypaw found herself moving towards them already.
"Larkpaw's ill," she informed the leader and deputy quickly. "He's on his way to the medicine den now."
Bramblestar looked grave. "That makes eleven ThunderClan cats unwell."
Skypaw's eyes widened. "Eleven?"
"Many cats went to the den in the night," Lionblaze said wearily. "Dewclaw, Snowfoot, Patchwhisker, Cinderheart, Icecloud and Lilyflower knew that they needed internal treatment and at varied times in the night, they came to Jayfeather. It was so serious that halfway through the night Jayfeather and I moved Birchfall and Squirrelflight to the nursery, and the elders' den became another sick cat treatment place."
Guilt tugged at Skypaw. "You should have woken me."
"No. You needed your rest. Cherrypelt needs to take you hunting today; your day off from hunting yesterday meant that there was less fresh-kill to go around, and particularly in leaf-fall, and a fast-approaching leaf-bare," said Lionblaze firmly. "And we need cats to look for herbs, too. You'll have to do that happy task when you're out there as well. Jayfeather's running dangerously low on several plants—thyme, borage, tansy, feverfew, juniper berries, watermint, and a list of other herbs—that are essential for ThunderClan's survival. Now Mapleleaf has greencough, and so do Whitewing, Leafpool and Spottedheart."
"The first cats to become unwell..." Skypaw realized anxiously. "You sound as if you've been up the whole night, Lionblaze. You can't do that to yourself."
"Well, I did, and I'll do it again if I have to," Lionblaze growled.
"Should Jayfeather have a 'paw to help him out in the medicine den?" asked Bramblestar quickly.
"No, he already has Aura to help him. She's been dead useful, so I hear, not once pausing to rest, always checking the herbs, making sure that she's at the patients' sides at the right time." Lionblaze shook his head. "I still don't understand how she manages to use her power so well."
"And here is not the time to wonder," Bramblestar decided swiftly. "I will make sure that all the dens are secure, without any drafts. The cats who aren't on the morning patrols will help me patch up the dens and make them warmer and snug to their inhabitants. In the meantime, Skypaw, Lionblaze, get something to eat from the fresh-kill pile, if the animals there aren't too stale. We must act fast to overtake this sickness and break its hold on the Clan."
Skypaw raced through the forest. Her muscles screamed but she refused to stop. The scenery flashed past her, in an endless whirl. Her tail streamed out behind her. The fallen leaves flew under her touch.
Behind her she heard thundering pawsteps, and knew that the patrol was following her.
She cleared a fallen, half-rotted branch, landing with a thud on its other side, and abruptly veered to the left as the group leader did. Their frosty breaths billowed out into the cool morning air.
Then the wild race stopped and the patrol came to stop amidst the leaves. Skypaw's blood was racing now, and she wasn't cold.
Berrynose half turned and meowed, "Any of you scent prey?"
Whitepaw lifted his nose and sniffed the air, then shook his head. "Nothing," he reported.
"The prey must all be hiding in their burrows from this sudden chill," Cherrypelt agreed as she came to stand beside her apprentice. She too sniffed the air, and lowered her nose disappointed.
"At least the run through the woods did us good," Thrushsong noted, looking a little drowsy still, but nonetheless awake and alert. She pricked her ears and listened intently, and then flattened her ears and sighed. "What I really could be doing is tracking birds."
"So why don't you?" Skypaw suggested quietly. It was common knowledge in ThunderClan that Thrushsong was the best tree-climber, and tree-hunter. Nobody could match her grace or balance in the tree branches.
"I...I don't know," Thrushsong admitted, half-shaking her head. "I guess...just concern for Spottedheart, that's all."
"Spottedheart's unwell with greencough; she'll recover," Flamefur meowed soothingly, running his dark ginger tail soothingly over Thrushsong's speckled back. He padded quietly away from Thrushsong's sides, overtaking Berrynose and Whitepaw, and lowered his head to the ground, gently nuzzling over leaf litter. Skypaw and the others remained silent, and she purred inwardly. Flamefur's sense of smell and tracking abilities rivaled those of his brother Yellownose's, whose oddly white nose looked strange in contrast to his face, but was as sharp as Lionblaze's claws.
Flamefur suddenly straightened and announced, "Mouse!"
"Where?" Berrynose demanded.
"Heading towards the shore, by the smell," Flamefur analyzed, his nose twitching.
Moleclaw leapt past Thrushsong and Whitepaw. "I'll grab it!"
Whitepaw leapt backwards from the overenthusiastic hunter.
"Fine," Berrynose conceded. "We'll head towards the WindClan border and try our luck there. Flamefur, you're our best tracker here; you'd best go with him."
Flamefur nodded proudly at having been singled out, and trotted swiftly behind Moleclaw. Skypaw watched them go, a warm feeling glowing in her heart. ThunderClan has so many talents, she thought. So many cats specialized in certain areas. We're an unstoppable Clan. And we'll get through this outbreak of greencough and whitecough.
Berrynose led the patrol towards the WindClan border. Along the way, Skypaw pricked her ears. She detected a sudden commotion of wings in the branches, and the shrill shriek of a blackbird as it hopped from branch to branch pursuing a sparrow, which was holding a strange round wriggling beetle in its beak and was struggling to crack the shell.
Skypaw glanced instinctively at Thrushsong. Her body had gone rigid, and her eyes were focused intently on the prey above, her tailtip twitching to show her eagerness.
"Off you go, then," whispered Berrynose.
Thrushsong twitched her ears once in response, and then slunk over to a distant tree. As swiftly and as quietly as she could, she scrabbled up the bark, landing upon a high branch, and crossed the intertwining branches with the skill and grace of a squirrel, her eyes never once leaving the quarreling birds.
As she drew nearer, she ran faster until she was sprinting along the branches as fast as she was running along the ground. Skypaw watched with great respect. Then suddenly the two birds spun around, finally noticing Thrushsong's approach, and let out shrill calls of alarm. Their wings unfolded, about to take flight straight upwards. Thrushsong pounded closer, and leapt, her claws outstretched.
Suddenly a cough marred her body.
Skypaw had a sudden vision of Thrushsong plummeting from the tree.
"No!" she yowled, and sprinted across the ground as fast as her legs allowed her to travel, as Thrushsong missed the birds, failed to scrabble back onto a branch in time, and began to fall wildly.
Yowls of alarm went up around the patrol but they were already too late. Skypaw was right beneath Thrushsong now. She pushed herself off the ground, and as Thrushsong fell, twisting wildly past her, Skypaw shoved Thrushsong as hard as she could through the air. The she-cat abruptly veered off course from what would have been her crash site, instead falling into a pile of fallen leaves, softening her descent to the ground.
"Thrushsong!" Whitepaw meowed with alarm.
The patrol swiftly approached, as the leaves shivered and Thrushsong, with a small, dazed groan, emerged from the leaf litter, shaking scraps of fallen foliage from her face. Skypaw meowed quickly, "Are you all right? I wasn't too late, was I?"
"No, you...you were all right..." Thrushsong turned her gaze to Skypaw, breathing heavily, and meowed, "How...? How did you know I was going to fall?"
"I...um..." Skypaw looked awkwardly around at the rest of the patrol, who were staring at her with amazed eyes...except for Cherrypelt, who was regarding Skypaw slightly suspiciously, and Amberheart, who had understood at once. "I...just saw that her landing was going to be a bit off...and...er...I wanted to make sure she...fell into the leaves...so she didn't hurt herself...er..."
"That makes sense," Amberheart pointed out as reasonably as she could. "Thrushsong looked as though she was going to miss. Skypaw was lucky that she got to her in time before she fell onto the harder ground."
Cherrypelt stared at Skypaw. "Just in time," she added thoughtfully.
Skypaw shied her gaze away from her mentor. I will tell her, she vowed silently.
Thrushsong opened her mouth to express her gratitude, but suddenly she hunched over and coughed, hard. Skypaw and the others instinctively backed away from her. Thrushsong coughed some more, and some evil-looking sludge came out from her mouth and splattered onto the fallen leaves in front of her.
"Ew," Whitepaw softly breathed.
"Eurgh..." Thrushsong straightened up and kicked a few leaves over what...substance...she had just coughed from her lungs. "Sorry about that. I think I'm—" She broke off, abruptly jerking her head to the side and coughing harder.
Skypaw felt alarm shoot through her.
"You've got greencough," said Berrynose, worry written all over his face. "This day is getting better and better..."
He curled his tail over Thrushsong's flank and growled, "Cherrypelt, you're in charge of the patrol until I get back from getting Thrushsong back to camp."
Cherrypelt nodded. "You can count on me, Berrynose."
Skypaw felt her heart twist as she watched Thrushsong struggle back to the camp with Berrynose at her side. She remembered her vision in a flash. How many cats had died.
My own mother had died...
"Come on," instructed Cherrypelt crisply. "We can try and find more prey to take back to camp before we all drop dead."
Her words were light-hearted, but there was a grimness to her words that made Skypaw suspect that she had lost hope.
As Skypaw fell into step beside her mentor, and Amberheart and Whitepaw walked quietly and somberly just behind them, she felt that she had lost hope as well. What does it matter if we got the catmint if ThunderClan all gets greencough and dies first?
The morning of the third day of the outbreak dawned. As Skypaw opened her eyes, she heard a rasping rattling breath echo from where Whitepaw lay. She stood up, that same exhaustion even heavier on her shoulders now, and moved towards where the handsome white tom with the tiny black patches lay curled in his nest. He twitched restlessly in his sleep, and as Skypaw leaned over to gently smooth his pelt with her tail, she caught a foul odour in his breath.
Whitecough, she realized with dismay.
"Wake up," she murmured drowsily in Whitepaw's ear. "We need to get you to Jayfeather."
The apprentice opened his eyes blearily and rasped, "Wha...what? I don't have whitecough..."
"You do, trust me." By now Skypaw had memorized the ghastly stench. "Come on. Jayfeather can help you."
As Whitepaw heaved himself to his paws, he coughed for a moment and rasped, "Can...can he really, though? The whole Clan knows that he's almost out of herbs now."
Skypaw planted a tail firmly on his shoulder and led him out from the den. They passed by Larkpaw on the way out, and Skypaw felt a small glimmer of hope rise inside of her. Larkpaw had been unwell with whitecough yesterday, and needed a rest from his apprentice duties, but he had responded very well to treatment, and wasn't coughing or wheezing anymore.
"Larkpaw was ill yesterday and he's strong again," Skypaw murmured soothingly to Whitepaw. "You can get better, and you can get well."
"I hope so." Whitepaw coughed as he struggled out from the apprentices' den. "Our...our assessments are coming up soon. I want to become a warrior. I want to be Whitestorm, great warrior of ThunderClan."
Skypaw let out a soft mrrow. "Still intent on that being your warrior name?"
"There isn't a better name than Whitestorm," wheezed Whitepaw. "And I greatly respect Whitestorm, too. I'd be honoured if I could be named after him."
"But you already are."
"Named completely after him," Whitepaw corrected.
"Wouldn't that be confusing in StarClan?" asked Skypaw. But before she could answer, she saw the brambles rustle and Jayfeather suddenly emerged.
"Oh, great StarClan," he whimpered, and Skypaw was alarmed to hear such terror in his voice. Then he hardened. "Out of the way," he snapped impatiently at Skypaw. He approached Whitepaw and quickly assessed him. "Yes, yes, whitecough, fortunately minor, may be able to shake it off as did your brother, if we can get you to a den fast enough."
"There isn't enough room in the medicine den?" asked Skypaw quickly.
"Or the elders' den, for that matter," hissed Jayfeather. "I don't want to move any other cats from their dens, but we must have more room for the sick cats!"
His voice sounded strained and tired, and Skypaw realized with alarm that the medicine cat mustn't have slept in days.
"What about the apprentices' cave?" Skypaw offered. "We can move Larkpaw, Stormpaw and Dustpaw out and we can sleep in...in the, uh..."
"Leader's den," Jayfeather decided. "I'll persuade Bramblestar. Very well, Skypaw. Go and tell your denmates to get out. I'll move the kits to the apprentices' den, and...and Spottedheart and Thrushsong, if they can make it, and Runningleap. That ought to clear up a bit of space in the medicine den." He closed his blind eyes with utter exhaustion, and meowed, "Maybe it's time we evacuated the sick cats back to the old Twoleg den. Like what we did the last time."
Skypaw shook her head. "Some cats are too unwell to move," she reasoned with Jayfeather, that odd certainty returning in a flash. "Perhaps you should move the healthy cats to the Twoleg den, and leave a few warriors, the strongest, behind to hunt for the sickly."
Jayfeather considered this option, and then he nodded. "Very well. I'll...suggest this to Bramblestar as well. Just...in the meantime, just go and get the apprentices out. I'll move some of the unwell cats to the apprentices' cave."
Skypaw nodded and headed back the way she had come, despair crashing over her pelt. I thought that I had warned the Clan in time, she thought despairingly. But my vision can't have helped very much...except foretold the destruction of the Clans.
All throughout the third day, Skypaw worked to the point of collapse, bringing clumps of fresh moss, hunting hard with Cherrypelt, Foxleap and her father, clearing out soiled moss and bringing water and food to the unwell cats. Fortunately, the hunting patrol went well, and the group returned with a dead thrush, a small pigeon and two mice. There were no more border patrols; Bramblestar had demanded that all cats, when they had the energy and not a moment earlier, to hunt for food.
"The feeding of a Clan is more important than proving to the other Clans that we're strong and fit when currently, we are struggling," Bramblestar had meowed. Lionblaze had reluctantly agreed.
Herb-searches went out regularly. One time, they came back successful, carrying much feverfew that they had discovered growing by the stream that divided WindClan territory from ThunderClan—upon questioning, Rosepetal, who had led the patrol, had assured Lionblaze that the feverfew had been growing on their side, and not WindClan's.
"I'd rather die than accept medicine from WindClan," she had added, before instructing her apprentice, Larkpaw, to deliver the feverfew to Jayfeather.
Skypaw managed to get some sleep in the leader's den that night. It felt odd, to be curled up on the soft, sandy floor against Stormpaw's flanks, when just a few pawsteps away, the old ThunderClan leader rested on his bed of bracken. When she awoke the next morning, Skypaw was starting to feel alarmed that she didn't feel nearly as rested as she should. Why am I always so exhausted? I'm one of the lucky cats, the ones who are able to get some rest!
She emerged from the leader's den and stood on Highledge, looking over the eerily quiet den below. Skypaw felt despair tug at her. Hollythorn and Mapleleaf both had greencough, and their tiny kits, except for Owlkit, Clawkit and Jaggedkit, were all ill with fever and belly pains. The elders all had greencough—even Briarlight had finally succumbed—and the first cats to contract the disease, Whitewing, Leafpool, Lilyflower and Spottedheart, were all close to joining StarClan.
Lightheaded with hunger and exhaustion, Skypaw jumped down the rockfall, stifling a tickling cough as she did so. I must have swallowed a bit of bracken in my sleep, she thought as she wearily crossed the clearing towards the fresh-kill pile.
She passed the medicine den and heard the gasps and hacking of cats badly ill within. She heard Aura's voice ring clearly out from within. "We need to send a runner to WindClan at once, Jayfeather. We are close to running out of yarrow."
"Fine. Go and find the fastest warrior that you can and tell them to go to WindClan, now. I'm not letting any cat die, not while I live!"
The brambles rustled and Aura slid out. Skypaw stared in horror at the kit. She had changed, drastically; her dappled pelt was ungroomed and matted and Aura's usually clear eyes were dull with tiredness.
"You haven't slept, either," Skypaw mewed.
Aura shook her head. "Two more cats came in sick in the night," she rasped, her voice quite unlike her own. "Ferndust, and another kit. Jaggedkit."
Skypaw closed her eyes. "StarClan help us."
"They can't help all the cats." Aura sounded tired. "But were it not for your warning to the Clan, many would have died long ago. By the seventh day, it will become clear if we are to die, or to survive."
She gave Skypaw a friendly lick on the shoulder, and then stumbled towards the warriors' den.
Aura sounds as if she has lost hope, too, Skypaw thought, cold fear creeping down her spine. She headed towards the fresh-kill pile, grabbed the first item that came to paw, and wolfed it down without really caring what it was. A stale taste flickered over her tongue but she ate it all, and quickly buried the remains.
Lionblaze emerged from the warriors' den, and Skypaw's heart lightened when she saw Dovewing at his side.
"Run as fast as you can to WindClan, and don't come back here without some yarrow, and any other herbs Kestrelflight can spare," instructed Lionblaze.
"Don't worry," Dovewing promised. "I'll come back with some herbs."
She turned and bounded towards the thorn barrier.
"Wait!" Skypaw quickly intercepted her mother before she could leave.
"Skypaw!" Dovewing whipped around, and there was relief flashing in her mother's pale gold eyes. "Thank goodness you're all right. I thought that you had gone down with greencough, I barely saw you yesterday..."
"Mother...be careful," Skypaw whispered, and pushed her muzzle into her mother's fur.
Dovewing curled her tail soothingly around Skypaw's flanks. "I promise that I won't become sick," she whispered, her voice trembling. "I swear by StarClan and all who watch over us that I will not succumb."
Skypaw looked up. Her vision...Dovewing had died. Her very mother had died.
But now is the time for deaths to change, for ThunderClan to survive, she realized.
As she watched Dovewing race out from the camp as though a hundred foxes were on her tail, Skypaw prayed that StarClan would keep her mother safe. Let WindClan help her, please, she thought desperately.
Aura emerged from the warriors' den, and Runningleap was beside her.
"Go to the apprentices' den," she told him. "I'll be with you very soon."
Runningleap wearily nodded and stumbled towards the apprentices' cave, where Skypaw knew he would want to be with his sisters.
An image of the three littermates, curled around each other in death, Jayfeather rubbing rosemary into Runningleap's cold, unmoving body, flashed in Skypaw's mind.
We need more herbs, she thought. Not just catmint. More herbs. Feverfew, yarrow, borage, tansy, thyme, poppy seed, marigold...
She closed her eyes.
Death is coming.
And almost in response to her thoughts, she heard a thin wail of grief echo from the medicine den.
"No!" shrieked Seednose. "No!"
"She's gone," whispered Cinderheart huskily, curling her tail soothingly over Seednose's flanks. "She's...she's gone."
Lilyflower lay in the centre of the clearing, surrounded by her Clanmates.
Jayfeather numbly rubbed mints and rosemary into Lilyflower's creamy fur, his eyes pools of horror and disbelief. Wails of misery rang up around the hollow, and Skypaw felt despair crash over her. She burrowed her muzzle into Bumblestripe's shoulder and tried hard not to weep.
Bumblestripe curled his tail protectively around his daughter. Beside him, Blossomfall stared at Lilyflower, hoarsely whispering her friend's name over and over again. Nobody could believe that Lilyflower had died. Her infected wound had never healed, and the sickness had come swiftly, overpowering the dark tabby, herbs and poultices of horsetail and marigold and doses of catmint doing nothing to ease her.
"May StarClan light your path, Lilyflower," rasped Bramblestar, from his place leaning against Lionblaze's shoulder. He was too frail with shock to stand. "May you find good hunting, swift running, and shelter where you sleep."
He raised his voice. "Those closest to Lilyflower may now hold vigil with her until sunrise," he said. "And pray to StarClan that we survive. We will survive, without the losses of any more beloved Clanmates."
Skypaw respectfully drew away from Lilyflower, as did many other Clanmates. Those who had been closest to Lilyflower—her sister, Seednose, her friend, Blossomfall, and her kin, Cinderheart, and Amberheart, who had been Lilyflower's denmate since they were kits—moved in around the unmoving tabby she-cat. Seednose curled close to her sister's dead body, pushed her muzzle into her mint-smelling fur and didn't move, breathing in her sister's scents one last time.
Jayfeather's thoughts rang out in Skypaw's mind as their gazes briefly connected. That mouse-brain is going to get sick if she does that. But he was exhausted and numb with shock that he had failed to save Lilyflower, and Skypaw knew that for once he would make an exception. He had lost a sister also, and knew the grief that it brought.
Skypaw looked at Lilyflower's cold body and knew that she would be the first of many others. Dovewing had returned with only a few straggly plants from Kestrelflight, saying that was all that he could spare; an unexpected attack of greencough had struck WindClan as well, and ShadowClan and RiverClan were suffering too.
The Gathering is in a few days, Skypaw thought numbly. But nobody is going to be able to go to the Island, at this rate.
She looked up at the sky, cloudy and overcast, but snippets of the moon could be seen. Dark spots flashed at the edge of Skypaw's vision and she knew that she had to rest before she collapsed with exhaustion. Oh, StarClan, she thought. Why couldn't you have tried to warn us before?
The stars winked back at her, as though to say, We could not have hoped to.
A cough brought Skypaw juddering back into reality.
She glanced back over her shoulder to see Bramblestar just straightening.
"Bramblestar!" Lionblaze gasped.
"No, I'm fine, I'm fine," Bramblestar assured the suddenly horrified cats who had gathered around him in an anxious knot. "It was just something tickling my throat. It's gone now."
But as he tried to move back towards Highledge, he had to break off again in a cough.
Jayfeather was already running when Hazeltail let out a horrified shriek.
Skypaw could hardly lift her head on the fifth day. A pounding headache throbbed in her skull and odd black specks were flickering at the edges of her sight. She let out a soft groan as she shakily pushed herself to her paws.
"Skypaw?" Larkpaw was beside her in a flash. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine...just tired."
"You look horrible." Larkpaw concernedly began to groom Skypaw's dusky gray fur. "Are you sure you don't need any more rest? You've been working really hard to look after the Clan these past few days."
"I'm fine," Skypaw assured Larkpaw, gently pulling herself away from his frantic tongue. "I need to go and check on how—"
She broke off with a slight cough, and Larkpaw's eyes widened. But before he could say anything, Skypaw looked up sharply and mewed, "I'm fine. It was just a light tickle. It's gone, okay? Besides, I'm too busy to fall sick. Half the Clan's unwell and they need me to hunt."
She heard a shrill, terrified mewl suddenly echo nearby, and she looked around as Clawkit jerked awake, his round blue eyes bright with horror from a nightmare. "Mother!" he shrieked.
Then Owlkit stirred and pushed herself into his side, and though she couldn't speak, she soothed her frightened brother. The two kits had been moved up to the leader's den as well, as Jayfeather demanded the nursery was evacuated of healthy cats, and used as yet another medicine den for the unwell. Stormpaw blinked awake and then moved over to where the kits lay. She wrapped her warm dark gray presence around the pair of them, nuzzling them into her side.
"Hush, little one," she soothed. "It'll all be over soon enough. This is just the bad bit. But it'll get better, you'll see."
"Mother..." whimpered Clawkit, nuzzling into Stormpaw's long underbelly fur. Owlkit curled contentedly up beside him, closing her luminous golden eyes.
"Stay here and look after the kits," instructed Skypaw. "I have to go and see how Bramblestar is doing."
She turned and left the leader's den without another word, bounding and scrabbling down the rockfall. As her paws touched the ground, she swayed. The world spun dizzily before her eyes. Black spots danced more insistently over her vision.
She lifted her head determinedly, even though her whole body felt like a wet leaf. As she approached the medicine den, Aura suddenly emerged, herbs clutched in her jaws. She turned her eyes to Skypaw and mewed around the plants, "Greetings."
Skypaw wearily nodded her head, too tired to talk.
"Another one isn't sick, is there?" asked Aura quickly, her voice shrill with alarm.
"How...how is Bramblestar?" mewed Skypaw quietly.
"He's...not looking good." Aura's eyes were shadowed with sadness. "Jayfeather's with him right now. In fact...a lot of cats aren't looking good."
"But some are getting better, right?" Skypaw asked urgently.
"Oh, yes," Aura nodded. "Ferndust is coping well. So are most of the kits. Hollythorn's fighting off her fever and Mapleleaf's broke an hour or two ago. She's just a little shaky. Snowfoot and Dewclaw are growing stronger, too. The catmint that you, Ferndust and Jayfeather collected barely a few moments before Whitewing caught whitecough is going to save the lives of many cats."
The black spots danced more quickly over Skypaw's vision.
"Skypaw?" Aura dropped her herbs. "Skypaw!"
What? Skypaw wanted to ask. But she didn't, or couldn't, because suddenly she felt her legs give way beneath her, and everything was lost in a rush of swirling darkness.