Things were different, the Clan discovered when they woke up the following morning. Things had transpired in the night; things had changed.
For one, the rain was gone. The heavy dark clouds smothering the sky had disappeared. The cesspool of mud and muck and countless puddles remained, but the warmth of the rising sun threatened to eradicate that. Its heat, and the clear blue sky, promised to bake the ground dry, vaporise the water that had made a swamp of a forest.
There was another change they noticed- minor, miniscule, but a change all the same. Duskwhisker was nowhere to be found. The elderly she-cat had probably wandered off the darkness, Iceface explained. Age addled the mind, warped it beyond recognition. The retired warrior was no exception, and it seemed most likely she had shambled off searching for her deceased pair.
We can't do anything now, the deputy told the Clan, and they accepted it and moved on. The two remaining elders did not voice their huddled in their den and did not say a word; not to apprentices or kits, she-cats or toms, not even to the leader when she strode out of the nursery, perfectly groomed and haughty, her stomach no longer round and swollen.
Four kits had been born in the night, amidst the final rumbles of thunder. Morningstar was pleased with herself, and it showed with the smug expression on her muzzle as she stepped out into the sunshine.
When Sablefrost woke, she was cold and damp, covered with tiny drops of water; the roof of the den had sprung numerous leaks in the Greenleaf deluge. She uncurled with a small hiss, stretching out her stiff muscles. Beneath her, her moss was a combination of sodden and muddy. It had made for an unpleasant night's sleep. Her paw hit Strongclaw's shoulder and she winced, but her pair only snorted sleepily at her and rolled away from her touch.
The warriors began to stir, shaking moisture from their pelts with wide yawns.
A shape appeared at the entrance to the den, blotting out some of the sunlight. A golden shape, once more slim and sleek.
"Get up, you lazy lumps!" Morningstar ordered, prodding Shimmerleaf with her paw. "It's a beautiful morning! Get up, you have things to do. Apprentices to train, prey to kill, the normal duties." She backed away from the entrance and slowly, the more alert cats began to file out of the den.
Sablefrost rose to her paws, sneaking a glance at Smokefang. The grey tom was uncoiling, blinking blearily. Jayflight brushed past, and the black female warrior looked away. She could talk to him tonight, she decided. Their midnight meetings had become something of a regular occurrence, even with the storm to hinder them. For three nights, they had sheltered below the fallen branch of of large tree, and talked. Talked, gossiped, played, it didn't matter as long as they were together.
She left her two toms behind her, and stepped out into the clearing. The air was fresh, sharp with the clear scent of recent rain. The soft ground was beginning to dry out in the heat.
"Oh hello," Morningstar purred. She was perched daintily on the Speaking Hill, in an island of grass-strewn dirt in a brown mud sea. Sablefrost blinked at her, taking in the leader's shrunken stomach.
"You kitted," she said.
"Obvious, isn't it?"
To this, Sablefrost said nothing. Morningstar seemed to take her silence for agreement, and flicked an ear towards the warrior den.
"Where's my son? He must meet his siblings."
"He's sleeping," Sablefrost explained, lifting a paw into the air to shake the mud off it.
"Fetch him for me," the golden she-cat demanded.
Sighing, Sablefrost turned on her tail and stalked back to her den.
"Strongclaw!" she called. "Your mother wants you."
The calico tom stirred, frowning. "StarClan help me," he muttered, heaving himself to his paws and shaking scraps of moss from his pelt. "What's the matter now?"
It was the first question he'd asked her since the day the storm began. Since then, they had not talked, communicating in the smallest of nods and movements. The tiny mark on her throat had scabbed.
"She had her kits," she informed her pair. "She wants you to see 'your siblings'."
Something flickered in his blue eyes; a change so small she could barely see it. But she'd been watching him for days, warily fascinated. She had, unwittingly, trained herself to notice the slightest movement in his expression. Three days was not a long time, but cooped up in a den with nothing else to do, stalking the facial motions of her pair had become a hobby. Smokefang's face was too familiar, too open and unguarded- with her, at least.
"Now," she added firmly, and stepped aside to allow Strongclaw to clamber out of the den.
"Darling," Morningstar crooned. "Good of you to join us."
"How many did you have to knock off? With your record, I'm betting at least one." Strongclaw smirked at his mother and sidestepped to the side of the clearing, finding a solid patch of grass to stand on.
Morningstar hissed at him, lashing her dappled tail. "You're lucky I didn't knock you off. But just so you know, none. None at all."
"That's supposed to impress me?" the calico asked nonchalantly. "Now, do you want to show me these hallowed kits or can I go?"
The leader sniffed and began to to scramble down the hill, eyes scanning for a relatively safe path through the mud. "My Clan, my camp, my rules. I say you're going to see the kits. Come along too, Sablefrost. See what kind of results you're expected to live up to in the nursery." Morningstar's paw slipped in the mud and she grimaced. Sablefrost grimaced too, but inwardly. A visit to the stuffy nursery to see her 'expectations' in the flesh was not an ideal prospect.
The trio made their way across the camp; Sablefrost and Strongclaw skirted around the cleaner, dryer edges while the leader forged a path through the middle of the clearing. Cats nodded their greetings, murmuring congratulations on a successful litter.
When they reached the queens' den, Morningstar ushered them in impatiently, claiming she had work to do after. Redsong was snoring in her nest, four balls of fluff tucked against her white stomach. Nightkit lifted his head to blink at them as they passed, a yawn splitting his lips. Nettlecloud slept, too, sprawled on her side with her swollen belly in full view.
"This is the main level," Morningstar purred. "But I had a special den dug out just for me." She pointed with her tail to the tunnel at the end of the den. It was shadowed and dark, emanating a faint ripple of heat. Small soft sounds echoed off the tunnel's walls, noises that brought memories of kit-hood flooding back. Sablefrost inhaled sharply, but that only made the scent of milk seem all the more poignant.
"Maybe I'll let you use it, Sablefrost," Morningstar mused. "It is rather efficient."
"Thank you," she managed, and as a group they moved forwards.
When they reached the end of the sloping tunnel, they emerged in a cosy burrow reminiscent of a fox's den. A large moss-and-grass nest stretched from wall to wall, sparsely framed by feathers of various sorts. Four small shapes huddled in the dry moss. Their ears were tiny, wrinkled and flattened against their heads. Their eyes were clenched closed, and their small, round heads trembled as they blindly searched for the scent of their mother.
I was never that small, Sablefrost decided with disdain. I was never that helpless.
"I've only decided on one name so far," Morningstar announced. She rolled the smallest kit, a pale tabby, away from his littermates. "Littlekit," she said, as the tiny tom began to squall. "Appropriate, no?"
"Very apt, mother," Strongclaw agreed dryly. "I must say you're extremely talented at naming kits."
Morningstar flicked her tail, tapping Strongclaw's nose reprimandingly. "Don't make me wish I'd named you Strongskull, because nothing gets through your thick head."
Morningstar returned Littlekit to the kit cluster.
"You promised you'd let me name at least one," Thornstreak rasped. Sablefrost spun around to see her father limp from the shadows, the cobwebs around his throat dry and rusted with old, brown blood. He pushed past her, heading for the rim of the large nest where he halted.
His pair pulled a pained face. "Kit naming is a delicate duty!" she protested. "You can't just barge in and demand such privileges- oh, fine. Name the other tom. He looks too much like you."
Thornstreak stared down at the kits, a look of concentration narrowing his eyes. Morningstar pawed away Littlekit's brother; he was identical, save for his much larger size, darker brown fur and odd gold patch over one eye.
"Brownkit," Strongclaw suggested. "Stick-kit. Mudkit. Wormkit! Ohh, Dirtkit? No? Beetlekit?" This continued until his mother shushed him angrily, nudging him roughly away from the newborn litter.
Sablefrost remained silent, but felt inclined to agree with her pair on some of his names. They suited the stocky, pudgy kit. Why not Lumpkit?
"Willowkit," the injured tabby tom said decisively. "After my father."
"Original," the leader grumbled, but pushed Willowkit away with no further objections.
Two she-kits remained nameless, mewing in hunger-provoked distress. The dappled queen did not seem to notice. They both had golden pelts, but in drastically different hues. The bigger of them was dark, burnished, with small brown dapples dotting her fur. The other was a bright, pure gold, too pretty to be yellow.
Morningstar pointed the to darker one, muttering, "Goldkit? No, that's taken. Golden- no, no. Dawnkit?"
"Dawnkit works," Sablefrost agreed, taking a small step back, her tail winding through the dirt on the floor. Did she have to stay to watch the last name be presented, or could she go? Lingering much longer would only provoke memories of her mother, and the times when she younger, happier-not innocent, as such, but a similar semblance of it.
"The last one could be Eyesorekit. Or Peekit, I'm fine with either," Strongclaw offered.
"No," Morningstar growled.
"Sablefrost, what about you?" Thornstreak asked. "Do you want to suggest anything for your half-sister?" At this, the kit's mother did not look pleased.
That's right, the black warrior realized. My sister. We're related. The den was shrinking, contracting with each shallow breath she took. She needed out, she needed to see the-
"Sun," she blurted. "Sunkit."
Morningstar began to reluctantly nod. "It's better than Peekit, I'll grant you."
"It's fine," Thornstreak snapped gruffly. "Now can we leave you to your mothering duties? It's stuffy in here."
"Mmm...you two leave," the golden cat agreed, indicating at the two toms with one flourished paw. "But I want to talk to Sablefrost for a minute."
The two male warriors shuffled out of the dim den, not bothering to cast a final look over their shoulders. Neither of them saw the delighted glow in Morningstar's eyes, as she converged on the smaller she-cat, pushing her into a corner where they could whisper unheard.
"When are you planning to tell them?" she asked, her voice hushed.
"Tell them what?" Sablefrost replied, narrowing her eyes, bemused.
Morningstar twitched an ear impatiently. "That you're planning to move into the nursery, that you're expectin-"
"I'm not!" she protested, pressing her back against the burrow's dirt wall.
"You are too!" Morningstar insisted, sitting back on her haunches. "Nettlecloud told me herself. She said you'd move in within the next moon. She promised me!"
"I don't know what Nettlecloud was thinking," Sablefrost hissed. "But I'm not having kits."
The other she-cat quailed, disappointment dulling the light in her eyes. "Not now?"
"Not ever!" she snapped. She pushed past the queen and darted through the tunnel, colliding with a soft wall in her haste to get out of the nursery. She tore past Flutterkit and Goldkit, who were delicately playing with moss, and Nettlecloud; the fawny she-cat had just begun to stir. Scarkit batted at her tail as she made her escape, into the cold clean air that tasted like dew instead of milk.
Smokefang...need to ask...where has he...gone?
The grey tom's pelt was missing from the groups of cats huddled at the edges of the camp. So was Jayflight's, but she decided not to dwell heavily on that small aggravating fact. Instead, her eyes fell upon the white and-cream tabby pelt of her pair. He sat beside the warrior den, on a rotten tree branch, swiping pawfuls of mud from what might have been a water vole. When Sablefrost made a beeline for him, he flicked a final scoop of brown muck off the prey and pushed it aside. He looked mildly surprised- after all, they had not spoken in three days. Four faint parallel lines still marked his cheek from where she had scratched him.
"Hey," she panted, reaching him after traversing the pitted ground. The mud was drying in odd formations, with scars and holes in its surface where cats had sloughed through. "Do I look fat to you?"
Strongclaw rolled his blue eyes. "Look, if Mother's telling you you've been eating too much fresh-kill, don't listen to her."
"Do I look fat to you?" she repeated, unable to keep the urgence out of her voice. She turned sideways, curving her spine to show him her stomach. "Is it distended? Bloated, a little?"
"If you're sick, go to Specklefrost," he told her, looking disinterested. "Do I look like a medicine cat to you, Frozenface?"
The new nickname made her eyes widen. Frozen..? Then it hit her, like a flood, like a torrent she could not escape, could never outrun. The storm, three days ago, how her pair had wondered if she really was all ice.
Are you as icy as your frozen eyes suggest, or are you a normal, living, breathing, feeling cat? You're not as perfect as the Clan likes to think, are you? You have secrets. Your heart isn't made of ice, and just like the rest of us, you bleed.
"You don't look smart enough," she retorted, pulling an immature face at him. He only laughed and she turned away, desperately searching for an equally scathing name she could call him. Foxdung just didn't cut it.
"See you later, Dirtbreath, but not if I can help it," she called over her shoulder. Dirtbreath...what I am, six moons old?
She shook the thought away, because the words 'six moons old' only brought images of kits to her mind, images she could deal without. She'd left the nursery and she didn't intend to go back- kits would be her frail mind's undoing, she could be sure of that. But the thought persisted, planted stubbornly in the forefront of her imagination, leaving her wondering...what if?
Yay, another update has rolled around! This wasn't much of a chapter-no blood and guts- but it's relevant.
Who's hoping we can make it to chapter 40/500 reviews?