Forget What You Thought
Sablepaw, a starling swinging from her jaws, heard the cry from her leafy perch. She paused, alabaster claws sinking into the knotted bark of the pine. The voice was familiar, but she did not recognize the pain that it conveyed. The black she-cat tried to smooth her pelt and quell her worry; Meadowmist waited meters below the tree for her apprentice's triumphant return. She'd probably heard the cry too. It had been exceptionally loud and agonized but she would be suspicious if Sablepaw appeared concerned in the least.
Neck straining under the weight of her prey, Sablepaw scrambled off her tree and landed with an undignified thump on the forest floor. Meadowmist looked on with cold and calculating green eyes. She didn't seem worried by shriek from camp. The white warrior only nodded her approval at Sablepaw's catch before setting off through the undergrowth. The apprentice followed at a cautious distance, lugging her bird awkwardly. It was a long few minutes to reach camp. The number of drastic scenarios flitting through her head increased with each.
When they reached the camp it was crowded. Even the elders had roused themselves from their musty old den for the occasion. She spotted Pepperpaw in the crush of cats that ringed a small, forlorn black shape. She saw her father, standing straight-backed and unflinching. She saw Morningstar staring contemptuously at the black corpse; Strongkit huddled beside her and peered at it with an expression of mingled curiosity and horror. She saw that every cat was gaping at her mother like she was a freakshow. She saw that everyone was there but her.
Sablepaw swallowed her shock. She pasted a blank façade over her features- she did it so often, it was second nature now, a habit- and walked stiffly over to the crowd. They glanced at her with wide, owl-like eyes, and parted like water to allow her through their midst. Without a word they shuffled back to close the gap, and left her standing in front of the slim, sprawling shape she had known once as Embertooth. Her lips were parted in a dying wail, and red juice stained her tongue. Her eyes were dazed and blank. She was, evidently, quite dead.
Sablepaw's heart sank. How had she missed the signs? Her mother's purposeful isolation? The way she never ate, never left her den, never spoke a word? How had she overlooked the way her skin clung to her thin, frail bones, how her glossy fur had grown dull and knotted? She exchanged a quick glance with her father. There was a faint shred of emotion that lingered beneath the ice in his eyes; he was guilty, grieving.
"It was such a tragedy," Morningstar murmured, disconcertingly close to Sablepaw's ear. She was simply, suddenly, sinuously there, where before she had been standing on the opposite side of Embertooth's prone body.
The black apprentice smoothed out her fur and carefully wiped her face of emotion. It wouldn't do to appear weak in the middle of the Clan. She waited for Morningstar's next comment, but she remained silent, her face impassive save for the disgust in her eyes as she stared at Embertooth. She didn't seem to think it a tragedy, only a grim promise of more to come.
Thornstreak was the next to speak. He walked past the body with a solitary blank glance before nudging his daughter towards the females' apprentice den.
"C'mon," he muttered under his breath. "You shouldn't have to see this." Pepperpaw trailed behind them like Thornstreak's dwindling shadow. He was staring at his paws, blinking hard.
The two paused at the entrance to the shady den. Thornstreak was looking at her quizzically.
"You look so much like her," he whispered, with a small half-smile. Then he was gone; Morningstar had called him with an impetuous shout. Sablepaw was left to stare at her brother, who was lingering behind. His eyes were dark and sullen. He was not the kit she had known, but a tom that masked his emotions and pretended to forget their sibling bond.
"I...got your message," he said, sneaking a furtive glance behind them. No one was watching, but he kept his voice low anyway. Caution was their primary instinct- it could not be forgotten for even a moment.
"Oh, yeah. That," Sablepaw replied uncomfortably. Their whole conversation felt wrong. They hadn't spoken to each other for moons. It was awkward, not to mention slightly forbidden.
Pepperpaw nodded slowly and began to back away as if he could flee the small conversation. He paused, to mumble, "Well, hi." That was apparently as much as he was willing to say; the tabby had begun to rush off even before he had finished his sentence. He left Sablepaw feeling perplexed and torn. She knew that to harbour the poison was wrong, but then why did it make her feel so warm?
Although it was only early afternoon, Sablepaw retreated to brood in her nest. Correctly, she guessed that she'd be overlooked in the aftermath of the shocking event. The other female apprentice's returned to the den after the night sky and a smattering of cold white stars had appeared. They all ignored Sablepaw, perhaps hoping she was asleep or not knowing what to say. Really, what could they tell her? There was no place in StarClan for cats who broke the rules. StarClan was for the good cats, the ones who obeyed the higher power and the commands of the Warrior Code. Embertooth was neither; she had probably earned herself a cold nest of dead leaves in a remote and starless eternal forest.
So they left her well alone. That suited Sablepaw. She drifted off to sleep thinking of her mother's glassy eyes, her final snarl stained with berry juice.
When she woke the limp black remains had been removed from the camp. Sablepaw did not ask what had happened to it- and it was an 'it'; Embertooth had not lingered in the body. She left the delicate issue without another word, and tried to forget. She culled her curiosity, As a result she never knew where her mother's bones lay.
There had been no funeral for the disgraced warrior, nor a vigil. Come morning she had been hauled off towards to river, quite likely to find her way to her daughter's watery grave.