Warning: this chapter contains traces of a cray-cray Morningstar. You have been warned.
Specklefrost's estimations were proved correct before the end of the moon. Sablepaw's leg wasn't exactly straight; the medicine cat had warned her previously that it would be slightly crooked. She understood that the accident had changed her; she was never going to be the same again.
Sparkpaw was the one to remove the splint. An experience, her mentor called it. Sablepaw sat in her nest, awkwardly splaying her leg as the ginger she-cat slowly unwound strands of vines and dried grass.
"I'm sorry," she kept muttering, pulling away grass with her claws. "Does it hurt?"
"No," Sablepaw insisted; because it really didn't. It was just a leg again, unbroken, slightly crooked. She was perfectly healed, and itching to get back into training.
Sparkpaw pulled away the splint-branches, revealing clumped fur, matted with dirt.
"You should groom that-" Sparkpaw began. Sablepaw interrupted her, jumping to her paws.
"It'll be fine," she replied dismissively. "I can do it later." With that, she trotted out of the den, purring at the freedom with which she could use her leg. For the past moon she could only hobble.
"Be careful!" Specklefrost called after her. "I don't want to have to reset that leg again!"
The day outside was bright and sunny; it was newleaf, after all. The harsh season was past them, disappearing over the horizon with a final frozen glare. It would be back- the ever faithful follower of the season cycle- but to Sablepaw, it was the now that mattered.
By the time Sablepaw emerged, unfettered, it was already past sun-high. A few stray cats were scattered across the clearing. Morningstar sat on her hill, fussily grooming a paw. With a pang, of something like guilt or shame, the black apprentice remembered her dirt-encrusted hindleg. She ignored it and trotted over to her reclining mentor.
"Hi Meadowmist," Sablepaw greeted, sitting down beside the white she-cat.
"It's you," grunted the warrior, looking unsurprised. "What do you want?"
"Well, I got my splint off, and I thought we could do some training," she offered.
"Me? Train?" Meadowmist gave a snort of dry laughter. "Hardly. If you can't tell-" she paused and licked her plump stomach suggestively- "-then I'm a queen now. I won't be training you anymore."
Then, quieter, angrier, "Gorsespots has done it again."
Sablepaw didn't ask what it was supposed to mean; she had to suppress a giggle, pretending she hadn't heard her mentor's last sentence.
"So, who will train me?" Sablepaw asked, stifling her humour. She ached to get back into the forest; longed to run and stretch and tumble with a primal, feral, wild heart. She'd spent a moon in the medicine den, counting tiny black seeds and sorting glossy leaves into piles of glossy leaves, brown roots into piles of browns.
There was a sudden voice in her ear; low, smooth, ringing with an audible authority. She recognized that voice. It had led her to the fight that had almost cost her her life.
"I will," Morningstar purred, disconcertingly close. Sablepaw leaned away from the leader, trying to look enthused.
"Can you go away now?" Meadowmist murmured, raising her face to the sky. "You're blocking my sunlight, Sablepaw." She didn't dare tell relay the same message to Morningstar, but all the same, it was implied.
"Follow me," Morningstar instructed curtly, turning and loping away. Her pelt gleamed a ridiculous shade of dark gold in the sunlight, and for a moment Sablepaw felt a flicker of envy. Why was Morningstar so beautiful, when she was stuck with her plain black fur and dull green eyes?
The pair trotted into the forest as Sablepaw quashed her pointless jealousy. It wasn't like she needed to be beautiful, anyway. Like all apprentices, she'd be matched by Morningstar to a tom who wouldn't care what she looked like. She'd have a bunch of kits, die in a raid or be felled by greencough or retire to the Elders' den. After that, she'd live in StarClan happily ever after. No need to be pretty.
The she-cat lead her to the bank of a small river, a little distance away from the Training Area. Faintly, the black apprentice thought she could hear challenging howls and cries of encouragement and advice.
I wonder if Smokepaw is there, she mused distractedly. I didn't see him at camp. Not that I was looking, or anything.
"I thought we shouldn't do anything too strenuous on your first day back," Morningstar explained, taking a seat on the sandy shore. She gestured with her tail for Sablepaw to do the same.
"I trust that Meadowmist taught you to fish?" she asked, tapping the glinting surface of the creek with one unsheathed claw. She lifted it away and small ripples spread over the formerly tranquil surface.
"Yes, a while ago," Sablepaw replied, a little awkwardly. She was alone with the most respected and feared she-cat in the whole of PureClan; her emotions were a muddle of awe, terror, anticipation and smugness.
Morningstar tssked briskly. "A while ago isn't good enough. Catch me a fish; I'll observe your techniques and see what needs...fixing."
Sablepaw was too busy getting into her position and scanning the water to hear the deliberate implications behind the sly leader's words.
"It's nice and warm today. Good currents," Morningstar murmured behind her, watching as the apprentice slipped into a slightly lopsided crouch.
"Angle your paw more to the right," she instructed. "The shadow will appear thinner that way; less for the fish to notice. Sablepaw only nodded, altering her position.
In the distance, there was an angry yowl. Sablepaw stiffened; it sounded like Strongpaw.
"-stupid mousebrain! What did you do that for? It hurt!"
Sablepaw almost smiled, struggling to keep her concentration on the rippling water. With relief, she spotted the silver-and-brown gleam of a fish. Without hesitation, she reached down to scoop it out of the water with one curved paw. It flew through the air, thrashing, leave an arc of suspended glittering droplets in its wake. Morningstar rose up on her hindlegs, batting it out of the air. She landed, crashing her paws down on the fish's white belly before ripping her claws across its gills.
Sablepaw retracted her paw, wobbling on her unsteady hindleg.
"It's good so far," Morningstar said grudgingly. "But you need to watch your balance. One day you might find yourself...toppling."
"Falling, even?" Sablepaw asked. She'd caught the enhanced word this time. In a sudden rush of bravado, she'd begun to play Morningstar's own game. But the she-cat was looking pleased, not insulted or even vaguely dangerous.
"Yes. Falling, you could say. And that wouldn't be good at all. You could be swept away...lost."
"Or return to camp dripping wet with a mouthful of weeds," Sablepaw muttered, hooking a long, slimy strand of waterweed around her paw.
Morningstar didn't reply to that, but looked vaguely disappointed when she realized the brief word game had reached its conclusion.
Morningstar kicked the fish behind her and crouched on the bank.
"Copy my position," she commanded. Sablepaw settled down beside the golden she-cat, steeling herself in for another wait.
Morningstar finally agreed they could begin to head back to camp shortly before sunset. The golden she-cat was sitting on the bank, licking her wet paws. She paused suddenly, staring down at her foreleg with such venom Sablepaw was surprised.
"You can't just pluck at the root of the problem," she growled, scratching at a tawny dapple with her claws lightly.
Sablepaw only stared.
What is this about? she asked inwardly, sure she hadn't done anything wrong. Her pelt began to prickle. Is this about Arrah and me? Smokepaw and me?
"You have to…dig it out by the roots," Morningstar grunted, holding up one flecked brown claw to the fading light. With precision, she sliced downwards, through fur and flesh. She bared her teeth, hissing, dragging her claws in a rough circle around the dapple.
With a final snarl, she ripped the tawny spot away, and flung it at Sablepaw's feet.
"You see?" she panted. "Works every time. Now get your fish and let's go."
Wordlessly, the apprentice stooped to pick up the dead fish, deliberately avoided the scrap of fur. Morningstar had disappeared without her, so she followed the trail of crimson spots home.
Chapter twenty, huh? We're something like 17 reviews away from 200, and it doesn't seem like all that long ago we hit 100. Who knew such a creepy story would be so popular?