ƬΉΣ PӨIƧӨПΣD ΛПD ƬΉΣ PЦЯΣ

By Swyfte

Romance / Adventure

Hide-and-Seek for Crazy Cats

The day of her first assessment dawned cold and clear.

Just like my heart, Sablepaw told herself firmly. Just like my heart. She knew she was lying to herself, but it didn't hurt to pretend. She told herself her feelings for Smokepaw were mere scabs on her heart; eventually they'd flake away and leave her healed and strong.

That morning, it was Nettlepaw who woke her.

"Hey, cripple, get up," she whispered, poking Sablepaw's muzzle with her paw. 'Cripple' had quickly become her nickname after her accident, to accompany her splinted leg.

Sablepaw blinked blearily. "What?"

It took one hushed word to wake the black she-cat up entirely: assessment. She scrambled to her paws with a groan.

"Fox dung, that's today?" she asked, scraping the moss of her nest into an untidy heap. Nettlepaw nodded solemnly.

"Just think. We're less than a moon away from being warriors and finally seeing who our pairs will be. Well, some of us. I guess a few of the toms will have to be paired to current kits or apprentices and stuff. That'd be annoying having to w-"

Nettlepaw's prattling became little more than a wordless drone in Sablepaw's tufted ears. They were words she'd heard over and over, only molded into a new pattern and taking a new shape.

Instead she thought about being matched, the final assessment that would shackle her to a tom for the rest of her life- and probably even into StarClan. Mentally, she ran through the eligible list of toms:

Fleetstorm, Smokepaw, Slatepaw...Strongpaw. Unfortunately, Pinepaw would never be a pair option; he was the male medicine cat apprentice now. The previously open position was the only thing that had saved his life. Slatepaw, although reserved from what she had noted, wouldn't be a bad choice. After all, he shared Smokepaw's blood. Neither would Fleetstorm, she guessed, but she didn't really know the young warrior- at least his sister was nice enough. Smokepaw would be perfect. All she knew about Strongpaw was that he was not.

They squabbled over who had caught the squirrel on the fresh-kill pile; about whose turn it was to pick ticks off the elders- the old cats didn't count as either female or male, really, because they had to interact with kits; who's back kick was better; who was going to kill the most Tainted in their lifetime. And Sablepaw was afraid that it was that that Morningstar had noticed.

"-obviously Slatepaw or Smokepaw will never be my pair- I mean eww, siblings- but I'm hoping Fleetstorm's gonna be my pair. He's already a warrior...no offence to your brother or anything. Sablepaw, are you listening?"

Sablepaw nodded and pasted a faintly irritated expression on her face, the hint of emotion that was expected of her.

"Of course I was," she replied.

"Are you nervous?" Nettlepaw asked, her eyes wide and understanding. The green depths were almost warm.

"So nervous," Sablepaw admitted. "But who isn't?"

Streampaw's content snore answered her question, and the older apprentices glanced at her and smirked.

"Let's go outside and eat something," the fawn she-cat whispered, rising to her paws. "We'll feel better."

Sablepaw followed her friend out into the crisp early morning fog that blanketed the exposed camp. The small pile of prey was sodden but Nettlepaw somehow managed to fish out a vole whose fur wasn't too damp. They retreated to the edge of the camp and wedged themselves between the female apprentice den and the nursery, where Meadowmist's kits were squeaking softly through the rotted wood walls and brambles. Redsong was snoring raspily in her sleep; apparently her kits were due any day now.

Slowly, they took small bites. As soon as their meal was finished, they knew, they'd be sent off into the forest to do StarClan-knew-what for their assessment.

"Before you know it, our kits will be warriors," a smooth voice purred in her ear.

The black she-cat hissed and jerked her head back to see Strongpaw standing, tall and confident, at her shoulder.

"You're talking about your kits," Sablepaw growled, leaning backwards another few inches until she could feel Nettlepaw's dappled fur brushing her own.

"Our kits, Sablepaw. I do mean, our kits," the calico tom said simply. He winked. "I know things, you see. The position of Morningstar's son has its perks. Who knew?"

"Morningstar would never tell you anything important," Sablepaw spat. Under her breath she added, "Arrogant mousebrain."

Strongpaw winked again. If he'd heard her muttered comment he chose not to show it. "Who says she told me?" he asked innocently, sauntering away into the fog with a final flourish of his brown-and-white tail.

"Creep," Sablepaw muttered, sinking her jaws into the vole.

Nettlepaw's eyes widened. "He's not in love with you, is he?" she whispered, remembering to close her mouth. "Then you could tell Morningstar and she could exile him or something!"

"Likely," Sablepaw snorted. "And no, I don't think he's in love with me. He's far too...annoying. But I mean, I don't know what classifies the poison. He just wants a reaction."

Nettlepaw giggled. "And he got one."

Sablepaw tugged a piece of flesh from the vole's ribcage and chewed loudly. She deliberately chose not to reply; her friend had been right (she nearly always was).

The dappled fawn she-cat pricked her ears, before flattening them to the back her head.

"StarClan save me," she hissed. "That's Fallenfeather. I'd better go, 'cos I guess my assessment's about to begin. Wish me luck!" Without hesitating to hear Sablepaw's reply she heaved herself to her paws and scurried away. She left the rest of the vole for Sablepaw, which she ate in small, slow bites.

She was content to sit by herself, listening to the soft and peaceful sounds of the nursery until a haughty golden shape appeared in front of her nose. In a flash of flecked claws she snagged the remains of the apprentice's meal and flung them carelessly away.

"Sablepaw!" Morningstar growled. "What are you doing? The more you sit here doing nothing the less time you have to complete the first stage of your assessment."

Sablepaw shrugged, averting her eyes from the peeling scab on the leader's foreleg. Instead her eyes fell on Morningstar's plump belly, right in front of her eyes.

"I was just eating," Sablepaw complained, swiping her jaws with a red-stained tongue.

Morningstar narrowed her eyes. "I have plans for you," she warned, the ice in her eyes thin. "Don't ruin them." And then, as if she'd said nothing, as if she'd given her pair's daughter- and practically her own apprentice besides- a small word of encouragement, she smiled, benign, and backed up.

"Your first task will be hunting," Morningstar called.

Sablepaw felt relieved enough to let out a small purr. On a good day, she brought in lots of prey. Today, it was the middle of Greenleaf. Suddenly the first task did not seem so difficult.

Until the golden she-cat whisked around. "But not any hunting, darling. You're hunting for a Tainted." She waved Tallstorm and Tornear over.

"You, brute," Morningstar commanded, poking Tornear with a claw. "Give her the scent."

Wordlessly the tabby tom pawed a clump of ginger fur toward her and gestured for her to take it. Sablepaw crouched to smell it, memorizing the bright shade, the pigment of the drying blood at one end.

"You have until sunhigh to track and 'capture' the Tainted whose scent matches this. Don't interfere with the other apprentices; we'll be watching you. You understand?"

Sablepaw nodded. She knew she could do this. How hard would it be, to find one tiny cat in a forest of scents? But she had her tricks.

"Okay then. Go," Morningstar barked, flicking her tail roughly across the two tom's faces to signal their dismissal.

It was Sablepaw's time to be wordless; wordless, ruthless and efficient. She got to her paws, gave her crooked leg a small shake and trotted out of camp, pushing down the urge to glance longingly at her abandoned prey.

There was no fog in the forest; the thick leafy canopy had repelled the thick blanket that covered camp. The Tainted's scent was fresh in her memory, but before she'd left, she made sure she remembered the two tom's scents. For a while she tracked those in a straight path toward the meadow. Underneath the tall shadow of a pine, Tornear's scent disappeared and left only Tallstorm's. Sablepaw followed the faint trail, tasting the air occasionally to make sure her direction was correct.

She couldn't shake the feeling of being watched. Of course Morningstar had told her that someone would follow her, and check her progress, but it was uncomfortable having her every move judged by a pair of unknown, calculating eyes. Her breath hitched in her chest- Sablepaw couldn't stand the thought of being stalked like a mouse.

Calm, she told herself firmly, for fear would do her no good in an assessment. In one of Morningstar's many lectures she'd explained how fear ruined concentration and impaired the ability to think and strategize. In panicked moments, instincts had priority, but instincts were a coward's escape; their only care was self-preservation.

Her thinking was interrupted when she realized she could no longer track Tallstorm. The black tom's scent was simply gone. Sablepaw sat down, stunned. Tallstorm was her lifeline to track the Tainted. How had he..?

It was more by luck than any amount of skill that she caught it again. It came to her drifting on the wind, brushing against her nose and lightly demanding that she return to the chase. With a grin twisting her muzzle now, she glanced at the towering tree beside her. Of course. Nothing could be simple for the soon-to-be warriors, could it?

Sablepaw rose from her seat and backed up a few paces. She sank into a crouch, calculated, and burst into a sprint. A fox-length from the tree she flung herself into the air and landed on the gnarled trunk the tree, her obsidian claws sinking into the bark to keep her grip. In a series of small frog-like vertical hops and clawed her way up the tree until she reached a thick and twisted bough where Tallstorm had evidently been; broken branches and twigs lay in his wake.

With delicate steps, she picked her way onto the branch, hissing as it groaned under her weight. From there she stepped gingerly onto the branch of another tree, pausing quickly to touch her nose to a tuft of dark fur caught on a leaf.

She pushed on with a growl. It died in her throat as the wood beneath her creaked. She tottered, digging her claws into the timber, glancing at pine-needle-strewn forest floor. Using her tail to regain her balance, she straightened up and took a careful shuffle forward. If she fell it wouldn't be an incident like the cliff; there was no strong tom to save her, no ledge to save her from her flailing descent.

With relief she reached a tree where Tallstorm's scent lead down. In an awkward scramble of legs and a tail, she half-climbed half-slid down the trunk. She handed in a heap at its roots before leaping to her paws. She was being assessed; she had to look good and professional. Shaking her head to clear it, she saw she was in a small glen- the pine trees had disappeared. There were more scents now, clogging her nose, and it took time to untangle one from the other.

Tallstorm.

The reek of faeces, urine and fear.

The Tainted.

And now she heard him too- tiny whimpers, muffled as if blocked by a paw. Heavy, shallow breaths. And so, it was easier to locate him by sound rather than smell. She sank into a crouch, ears pricked, and stalked to the other side of the small clearing where the noises were loudest. With a hiss, she ripped away a curtain of lichen with her paw to reveal a cat-sized hole in a warped, sun-bleached tree.

Lo and behold, Sablepaw thought smugly. There is my Tainted. The small ginger tom huddled against the mouldering wood wall behind him, his green eyes wide and plaintive. Blood matted his shoulder, his stomach and the lower half of a hind leg that was clearly broken. Shattered would be the better term.

She wondered if she was supposed to rip out his throat, or announce her victory to the whole forest in a triumphant yowl. She did neither- she only sat down on a patch of flattened grass to wait, casually trying to groom her mussed pelt and keep an eye on the twitching ginger tom.

Yet it was clear the injured Tainted was going no where; he only buried his muzzle beneath his scabbed paws.

Eventually Morningstar trotted into the clearing, a pleased smirk twisting her mouth. The hairless patch of fur on her leg gleamed in the sunshine.

"Sablepaw," she greeted, inclining her head slightly. "That was impressive. Granted, you were supposed to wander around the forest for several hours until you caught the scent but tracking Tallstorm's path was much more efficient."

Thornstreak stalked in after her, pausing to briefly nod at his daughter. He had a surly frown planted on his face- it had become perpetual in the moons after Embertooth's death- because, after all, what else could be expected from Morningstar's thug and pair? (The golden she-cat's moods were never as bright as her pelt.)

"Congratulations," Morningstar purred, sinuously winding her her tail around the tuft of Thornstreak's. "You passed."

As they left the clearing, leaving Thornstreak to dispatch the Tainted, Sablepaw wondered if she should have an inkling of achievement, instead of the disgust coiled in her heart.

Yay! New chapter! (I received your message loud and clear, Kittystar ;3.) And little Sablepaw is growing up. I think she'll only have two more assessments to go, but the details are still a little foggy.

So, over 230 reviews, eh?

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