It was in early Greenleaf when Embertooth kitted. For two moons, her stomach had swollen increasingly larger and larger. Specklefrost, with almost imperceptible worry in her eyes, had declared in the first bountiful days of the new season that there was a possibility of three kits. The small audience- family and the like- winced and muttered to themselves. Thornstreak outright glared at his pair, as if it were her fault she carried an odd number of kits. That was five days before the wiry black she-cat kitted.
Four days before, Specklefrost, bound by duty and honor, informed Morningstar about the number of kits, an unfortunate travesty. Morningstar nodded sagely and bent her head to discuss the problem with Iceface. Her casually flicking tail signalled the female medicine cat's dismissal.
Three days before, Smokekit, Nettlekit, Slatekit and Rainkit were born. The rest of the Clan were once more introduced to late-night squalling and sleepless nights.
Two days before, the Clan waited with baited breath for the delivery of Embertooth's kits. Word had gotten out; rumours circulated she did not carry two or four kits, but three. It made for good gossip, without any personal investment.
One day before, Sorrelstorm placed a plea with the leader and deputy.
If the kit is male, he asked, let him become my apprentice. Morningstar agreed, and Iceface nodded grudgingly. It was tradition, really, and the ginger tom's question was only formality.
On the day, everyone was sick of waiting. A storm was brewing, too; the air hung thick and humid around the camp. Heavy purple-and-grey clouds crept across the sky. The cats were irritable, but Morningstar was pleased. A storm was the perfect cover, if the rumours were true and Specklefrost had been right. If Embertooth kitted soon, everything would be perfect.
When the first fragrant drops of spring rain hurtled into the dusty ground, the kitting began. Specklefrost hurried to and fro from her den, bundles of herbs clutched in her jaws. Sparkpaw trotted at her heels. Sorrelstorm paced inside his den, turning short, tight circles in the cramped space until he was dizzy. He always hated when the she-cats kitted. Even though he never delivered them- that was the female's job- he was always there to clean up the...leftovers. Sometimes he was lucky. Sometimes there were even amounts of kits, half toms and half she-kits. But more often than not, the litters were uneven and he need to dispose of the unwanted kits. When he was especially unlucky, the whole litter needed to be culled.
A wail drifted across the camp, amid the flurry of raindrops. Sorrelstorm groaned, pushing his muzzle under his paws.
Please StarClan, he thought, let it be a tom. Let it be a tom and it will have life.
Embertooth's first kit was a dark tabby. Specklefrost proclaimed it to be a tom and passed it over to Sparkpaw. The young apprentice wrinkled her nose, but ran her paws over his back and carefully groomed and cleaned his fur. The next was a strikingly black she-kit. Despite her short, churning chubby legs and her tiny ears, flattened against her head, it was undeniable she possessed her mother's beauty. To Sorrelstorm's later horror, the last kit, the unlucky third, was also female. Her fur was a lovely, soft grey shot through barely distinguishable streaks and specks of a colour like ash.
Specklefrost tssked and drew it away. It squealed and struggled blindly forwards until the the medicine cat planted a firm paw on its tail. Embertooth, half-conscious and exhausted, stared hollowly at her doomed child. Thornstreak had eyes only for the other two, and did not pay it a single glance.
"Pop out and fetch Sorrelstorm," Specklefrost asked nonchalantly, as if asking for another packet of herbs. Sparkpaw grimaced- she was awkward and nervous around males- but ran out into the thundering rain anyway. Embertooth glanced wildly after the apprentice, trembling, one dark paw stretched towards the grey kit as if trying to breach the impossible barrier. When Sorrelstorm's dark head, plastered to his body with rain, ducked into the nursery, the black she-cat hissed and lashed out with thorn-sharp claws. Thornstreak held her down, with his massive paws, but she flailed and almost escaped.
"Kit-killer!" she cried, baring her white teeth.
Sorrelstorm paused, head-down, water dripping off his soaking pelt, unflinching. It was not the first time such accusations had been hurled at him. He feared it would not be the last. The ginger tom steeled himself, took and deep breath and raised his head. He gave a sympathetic nod to the grieving mother and her pair. Specklefrost did not look at him, but shoved the squirming kit through the dust on the ground towards him. Sorrelstorm stooped and picked up the soft grey bundle, and despite his looming task, he was careful not to hold her too tightly. Then, with a heavy heart, he ventured back out into the rain. It pounded his body mercilessly. Rivulets of icy water ran down his spine, dripped off his quivering whiskers. The kit thrashed in his jaws.
No one saw the medicine cat hurry across the camp and into the forest with, strangely, a small kit dangling from his jaws. They were curled in their nests, waiting out the storm. None knew of the tom's dark burden, the deed his leader commanded him to do. Only Embertooth, lying in the nursery, poppy seeds being shoved down her throat, actually cared.
Sorrelstorm took his time navigating the forest. He knew the paths well, had been walking them his whole life; he only walked slowly to prolong the kit's short, and ultimately miserable life. Yet despite his slow pace, he reached the river all too soon. Rain had swollen it, and the water churned with a frenzy. No cat- kit or warrior- could survive a swim in such deadly, chilling waters.
The tom felt sick; he always did, when he had a kit to 'dispose of'. (Morningstar's words, the term she used to describe it.) He opened his mouth to retch, forgetting for one precious moment the kit that he held in his mouth. Like a stone, she plummeted into the rushing grey waters. Panicked and squealing, she disappeared under the surface, and left Sorrelstorm standing open-mouthed on the bank.
As he returned to camp, paws dragging over the muddy ground, all he could hear was an endless accusatory chant in his ears:
Kit-killer, kit-killer, kit-killer.
He returned to his den, faintly registering the fact that sweet summer rain was gliding from his fur to kiss the dust on the floor. Moons ago there had once been grass in its place, soft and shadowed, but he'd worn it away with his pacing. It hadn't been convenient; grass hid bugs, beetles, all manners of unsanitary insects. That didn't mean he couldn't miss its feathery coolness underfoot, or the fragrance it always seemed to exude.
But StarClan, he was cold, and it was a chilling porous ache that seemed to reach from his very bones. Sorrelstorm knew there wasn't a herb in the world that could warm him again, because the cold always came back.