Cats milled about a stony hollow, shades of white and grey and black, chatting idly over choice prey. Suddenly the thorn barrier shook violently, sending a flock of dark birds skyward. Agitated whispers and shuffled fur made the gathering crowd buzz.
Opposite the disturbance, two toms emerged from a recess of cliff and looked over the scene, one pale silver, the other black-and-white. Terse silence reigned until a haggard form burst from the tunnel.
The monotone crowd rippled backward. A wide circle opened round a small she-cat, eyes wide and breaths labored. Her fur was rich brown, zigzagged with stripes, and seemed to hang from her frame. Three vibrant ginger bundles swung from her flat muzzle.
With utmost care, she deposited her luggage at her paws. She swept her gaze over her spectators, then focused on the dark toms still on the ledge. "I beg you," she called hoarsely. "I beg you, help my kits. They die if not healed!" At that moment, her three kittens began to wail, and she ceased her begging to cover them in gentle licks. As their cries subsided, a path opened through the middle of the crowd.
Two she-cats padded elegantly through the bunched cats, all eyes fixed on the haggard mother and her litter. The brown stranger watched the duo closely, eyes flicking back and forth, and curled closer around her fiery bundles. "Who be you?" she croaked finally, stopping them at the inner edge of the crowd.
The older of the two, grey fur shadowed with tabby stripes, blinked, caught off guard by the peculiar vernacular. "My name is Leaf," she offered. "I am FireClan's senior healer. And this is Maple, my apprentice," she added, sweeping her tail over said she-cat's spotted muzzle.
"My kits will be of FireClan, then," the brown tabby mumbled to herself, then looked at Leaf. "They are afflicted each by what you call greencough. They be those with no call, and they are of three moon cycles. I beg you, let them heal and rear with your group."
She looked contemplative for a moment, then added, "Let them know not who their mother be. I be she who carries much shame." With that, she nosed her kits toward Leaf. Slowly the healer pulled them close, keeping her eye on their brown mother.
"They will be cared for," Leaf said, "but I would like to know your name." She watched as the ragged tabby flicked her tail against the ground in thought.
"I be she who is called Runa," the stranger admitted after a moment. Leaf nodded, committing the odd name to memory. Runa smiled faintly. Her striped head dropped to her paws and her eyelids collided, tense muscles relaxing. A brief phrase fell from her mouth, too breathy and faint to be heard, and then she fell silent.
In one movement, Leaf and Maple scooped up the ginger kits and rushed them to their den. The silver and black-and-white toms leaped down from their ledge and padded forward slowly. "Return to your dens," one ordered hoarsely. Within a few heartbeats, the clearing was deserted, the toms staring all the while at Runa's lifeless form.
"So her name is - was - Runa," the silver tabby said. His voice sounded distant, rumbling like oncoming thunder, and his eyes were glazed. "What a peculiar name."
"Peculiar indeed," his compatriot replied, equally detached.
For a beat, they were silent. "Brightstar, do you think..." the tabby began, his stormy eyes fixating on her slack face.
"Yes I do, Moonstar," Brightstar answered. "A grim prospect."
After another beat of stiff silence, Moonstar straightened imperceptibly, saying, "Well Runa, you seem to have brought great misfortune upon our Clan. Just as I would expect from a Shadowlander. In any case, I hope that you can forgive us for how we treat your sons."
The Clan leaders exchanged a dark, knowing look. Brightstar swallowed, then hunched forward to pay final respects. He touched his nose to the lifeless tabby's forehead, only to freeze when he heard an odd crack.
He watched with Moonstar, stunned, as she crumbled to ash before their eyes. Another glance passed between them. The tabby leader cleared his throat. "I think that's quite enough excitement for today," he said quickly, words falling over one another.
Brightstar nodded. The dual leaders started toward their den, then reconsidered. They changed course, heading instead for the healers' den, and conversed rapidly under their breath. Snow shivered as they passed into the shady enclosure.
Stillness settled over the clearing. Snow fell in errant swirls as a biting wind picked up, pushing the naked tree branches together in an eerie melody. The shadows lurking at the fringes of the hollow swelled as clouds choked away the sunlight. Distantly, a lone crow called to the wintry air.