Some moons later
It was dark. The light was dim, the moon only a narrow crescent hanging in the sky. Stars glittered above the twisted tree tops. The boulder was cold and rough beneath her. She breathed in and out her chest rising and falling, the smell of pines wafting to her from her perch. She stared into the black and silver beyond, to the swathe of stars declaring Silverpelt. She could still remember the night the stars had fallen in silver and gold streaks and starry warriors fought among the trees. It had been an odd night, full of terror and death.
On the return from the Moonpool, she joined a small group in the center of the camp, which included her and her siblings, two apprentices, and some other warriors. She thought the Clan would be able to win, to fight back and chase the shadows from camp. Instead, the Dark Forest had regrouped after the initial surprise of reinforcements and pulled two cats from the center. The rest of the Dark Forest cats left the Large Stump and came for the disorganized group. Mallowstalk could see no way out but to run. She and the others left standing fled from camp and into the forest. She could hear the paws of the dead cats coming after her and felt a frozen fear run through her. Her sister and brother were on either side of her and she felt they might get away if they left Clan territory.
She was going to suggest it or hope they just followed her, but Honeybee had stopped.
"I'm not going to run," she'd said. "I'm fighting. I'm not a coward or kittypet." And she stopped and turned back. The action didn't even register in Mallowstalk's mind until she noticed the golden she-cat was no longer by her side. She turned back to see Honeybee snarling into the face of two large toms and one she-cat. The three who'd followed the fleeing Clan members. These three weren't scared and Honeybee was quickly pinned without much fight.
Mallowstalk realized the rest of the smaller group was nowhere in sight. They'd fled or been caught. She wasn't sure what happened after that. Why she abandoned her sister and didn't defend her. Perhaps she really hadn't seen Honeybee leave her. Perhaps she'd only imagined the words and the scene, later inventing some reason why when she finally returned to camp, Honeybee was dead.
Badgerface and Mallowstalk hid in the forest outside Clan territory, almost to the twoleg nest where the kittypets there took one look at them and disappeared. She and her brother panted and hid beside a fallen log. One curve was rotted out, flaking with large chunks to the ground. They huddled beside it, hidden in its shadow. It was cold and silent there, the rough bark poking into their bellies and paws, the very slight sounds of insects moving in the wood. They kept their eyes wide, back to back, just breathing and listening to the heavy silence in the forest. It felt as if the Dark Forest was hunting them. They didn't come out until Badgerface saw the streaks of light in the sky. They pulled away from the log's side and stared upward. Though the moon was slowly but surely casting off the dark shadow that had swallowed it, they weren't sure if it were safe to return to camp and waited until dawn.
Mallowstalk felt nervous when they returned. She was so afraid she and her brothers were the only ones left alive. That Lakefrost and Fallingstar and Acornpelt and the others were dead. That she and Badgerface would see their lifeless damaged bodies. She was scared she would have to bury them all. Her fear helped her discover something about herself.
"I'd never survive as a loner."
That had been a few moons ago. It was all over now. Mallowstalk sighed and looked down from the beautiful clear sky. She hopped off of the boulder and twitched her nose, searching for a scent.
She'd often contemplated leaving the Clan and living on her own. She was a very good hunter and could provide for herself. Her fighting skill was moderate and she knew she could defend herself adequately or else run. There was also the part of her that disliked large gatherings of cats and didn't like being with them. It was the same part of her that disliked enclosed places. But when the threat of having no Clan at all loomed as a possibility she felt fear. When she returned to camp and saw the bodies laid out before the Large Stump, she felt pain. These familiar cats were dead. She missed them, wondering what life would be like without their voices and advice or solid presence. She watched Acornpelt playing with his kits and mate, smiling. His eyes were tired, but he managed excitement to banish the worry from his kits. That was when Mallowstalk realized she needed and wanted others she could care for and know intimately. If she was a loner, there would be no one beside her in her darkest days, could be hurt
somewhere and die alone if she left the Clan. So she gave up any
thoughts of becoming a loner.
Pine-scent from the trees curled about her nose, blown in by the chill in the air that wafted off the lake. Beneath the strong usual scent, she could detect an earthy smell of mice. It squeaked and seemed to be clawing at something. Her ears twitched as she pin-pointed the direction. Step by step she approached the cedar tree, eyes on the twisted roots. She could see a little moving shape, digging up and clawing a small seed.
Body low, she stepped lightly and carefully. Closer, closer. The needles beneath her paws were a soft cushion. When she pounced, the mouse didn't know which way to go. It looked at her, to one side, and finally started clawing itself up a root to jump on the other side. But she was quicker and delivered a death bite before it could squeak.
She looked up, the mouse dangling from her jaws. Stoneheart, a gray tom approached. He had a limp and one ear (although healing) was freshly torn. It matched the old scar on the other side. Unusual for him, he had a relaxed expression on his face. He was different, she thought, tilting her head.
"I wanted to talk with you," he meowed, looking down for a moment. His yellow eyes hid from the moonlight.
"All right," she dropped the mouse. She wasn't surprised to see him out this late. A few of her Clanmates were nocturnal hunters. Everything seemed to go back to normal after the Dark Forest's attack. No need to fear the unknown any longer.
Stoneheart flicked an ear. "I've been talking with your brother. Badgerface. I'm going to teach him something. My sister, she, ah, taught me and Fernstripe a form of language with our bodies. So we could talk without words. We didn't need to talk to each other as long as we could see each other. I thought I could teach you and Lakefrost these gestures too."
"Why?" She couldn't think why he'd help or offer something like this. She didn't think he knew about such things. He rarely ever talked and seemed as scared of large crowds as she. She'd been terrified of too many cats, of stares, and what they might be thinking. But now he seemed immune somehow as if it no longer bothered him. Perhaps she could find the same security.
"I want to help," Stoneheart replied. "I can and I think he'd be miserable not knowing what you were saying."
She nodded, agreeing.
"So would you like to learn?"
"Yes. Will you teach us together?"
"Of course. In the morning."
She smiled. "Thank you for this."
He nodded and blinked softly. "You have any more prey? I'll help you take it back."
So she picked up the mouse and they made their way back to camp, stopping only once for her small cache. Things were back to normal, she thought, walking confidently into the darkness. Her black paws blended into the night and it appeared as if she were gliding.
Sunstorm raced through the reeds. They rocked and waved about her. She frequently closed her eyes, blinking furiously, nervous they might hit her. The green stalks parted around her as she splashed through the water toward the silver tabby. She'd heard the former RiverClan cat had come back.
"Sunstorm!" Feathertail heard the call and turned. A smile lit on her face. They leapt about each other like kits, taking playful swipes at each other.
"When did you get here?" Feathertail finally demanded as they panted.
"A long time ago," Sunstorm smiled. "Tell me, what happened?"
"Happened?" She seemed confused.
"The hawk, Cloud, Moss, Water, whoever, oh, and Star! What happened?" She leaned forward anxious to hear. Long ago, she'd fallen off the Tribe of Endless hunting's mountain as the giant golden hawk attacked. She just had to know if the others made it back all right. If Water that Softly Falls had ever been found, or the other stolen Tribe cats.
"Well," Feathertail thought. "Moss and Star and the others came back safely. They ambush was a success and they killed the hawk and dragged it down with them. It was huge!" Her eyes widened. "It was so strange hearing about the mountain peak and the tree and actually seeing a bird big enough to carry a cat. They said how you fell and I, well I admit, I never thought I'd see you again."
Sunstorm smiled. "Can't get rid of me that easily!"
Feathertail laughed and blinked. "No, I guess not. So what happened to you?"
"No, not yet," Sunstorm shook her head. "Did anything else happen there?"
Feathertail thought. "There were some more rogues, but the Tribe chased them away. And I stayed for a short time. I started coming back about a moon ago."
"But what about Water?"
Feathertail just shook her head. "Never saw her again. Star was sad, but killing the hawk seemed to satisfy him. No one else stolen ever came back either."
"I suppose not," Sunstorm sighed. "But I'm still alive--so to speak--so I have a feeling maybe the others are still around. They just don't know the way back home."
"Maybe," Feathertail conceded. "Now what have you been up to?"
Sunstorm grinned. "A lot. Did you hear about the Dark Forest War?"
Feathertail nodded. "Silverstream and Graystripe were telling me this morning."
"Well, I have a lot more than they know." So she told Feathertail everything she'd done that moon. Feathertail listened in rapt attention. All the time their paws and fur got wetter and wetter, but Sunstorm didn't mind. She was having too much fun. Eventually Redfur came and found them. She leaned into him and kept talking.
After the story, Feathertail looked at Sunstorm, respect in her eyes. "I had no idea. And you got a tom in the process." She looked at Redfur who just grinned. "You aren't prepared for another adventure are you?"
Redfur looked at Sunstorm in question.
"No. I've had enough adventure for now. I've been so many places. Right now I just want to stay here."
"She's waiting on her sister," Redfur explained, licking Sunstorm's forehead.
Feathertail sighed and nodded. "But you really can't expect her to change?" She'd heard what Sunstorm had to say on the subject. The ginger-brown she-cat had a feeling the silver tabby felt like Redfur: that Morningsong deserved to be in the Dark Forest.
"You're both wrong," she scowled at them. "My sister will come here. I count on it. You didn't hear that no one from the battle arrived here, how when the guides went to get the new spirits there weren't any? They're trapped in the Dark Forest. Slagwing found one and managed to bring her back here. They're all trapped there and we have to get them back before the Dark Forest captures them."
"And you think your sister is one of the lost spirits?" Feathertail asked in concern.
"Yes." Sunstorm nodded. "That she is. If I ever find her again, I'll try to get her back. But I think because the StarClan leaders made their decision, wrongfully, that she might have some trouble."
"She just needs time," Redfur meowed.
Her ear twitched and she wondered if he were talking about Morningsong or her. "Morningsong shouldn't stay there. She might have done what she did, but it was because of a mistake. She knows that. She deserves to be here," Sunstorm insisted.
Feathertail just shook her head. "I hope it works well for you."
"Do want to go hunting?" Redfur asked the two she-cats.
"Sure," Feathertail shrugged. "Where do we go?"
"We'll teach you how to hunt rabbits," Sunstorm grinned.
"Oh, no," Feathertail moaned playfully, lowering her head. "I'll pass. You two have fun."
Sunstorm giggled and stood. "If you're sure."
Feathertail nodded and smiled. "Good luck."
"Same to you," Redfur nodded.
Then the two walked away from the reeds and to the moorland. Feathertail watched them walk away, a smile lighting her silver face. There may have been sorrow, but there was still joy to be found in the world.