River Running Red
Sparkpaw liked rivers. Maybe it was their beauty or their majesty that attracted her; their cold rippling grace. Maybe rivers were some kind of metaphor for life; always moving, never ceasing, never resting, its current irresistible. Whether you liked it or not, there was nothing you could to stop it sweeping you away. It probably wasn't healthy, this fascination over rivers. They could be pretty, they could sound so melodious, but in PureClan, rivers were something to be feared.
And although Sparkpaw liked rivers, she did not want to be submerged in its cold liquid embrace at some ridiculous hour of the extremely early morning. But when Specklefrost dragged her out of her warm, cosy nest and into a patch of moonlight, demanding that her apprentice follow her quietly out of camp, she complied. Her mentor had warned her: one more act of disobedience, one more session where she did not pay attention, and she would be out, gone- floating down the river she liked so much.
Specklefrost hadn't said another word as they slid out of camp; she only violently gestured for the younger she-cat to be quiet. She tapped her tail on Sparkpaw's chest as if the motion was supposed to convey some kind of message. It's important? Some herb for the heart? Requires exercise?
Sacred, was the real meaning, but Sparkpaw was not at her most intelligent without sixteen full hours of sleep, and Specklefrost was being especially cryptic.
When the medicine cat led her out to a small muddy clearing beside the currently-brown river, the first thing to strike her was panic. The second was a small thorny branch, whipping her nose crossly as it sprung back into place in Specklefrost's wake. She let out an involuntary yelp and stopped, rubbing her muzzle with one paw while trying to sort out her whirling thoughts.
There's only one reason why someone is taken to the river, and it's not for a drink. But Sparkpaw was certain she'd been the picture of a perfect apprentice- she didn't complain when it was time to get up, never nudged a herb out of line. Her nest was cleaned on a regular basis, her ginger pelt groomed twice a day. She didn't flinch at the sight of blood, and only needed small prompts to recall the names and functions of herbs. Hers was a mandatory position, but for a cat picked at birth, with no obvious skills, talent or passion, she wasn't a bad medicine cat. Her sister's kit Pinepaw had much less aptitude for herbs- as he aged he grew only more solemn and sombre, until became difficult to tell him and his mentor apart. He could be Sorrelstorm's exact miniature, if he only had brighter fur.
Specklefrost had observed her apprentice's short, panicked moments with amusement. "Feel like a moon-high swim?" she asked dryly, pushing a sodden fallen tree branch aside.
You can't try to push me in the river," Sparkpaw cried. "Anyway, I'm almost as big as you are."
Her mentor quirked her striped head. "Oh, yeah? What if I had poisoned your food? What if I have acquired some warriors, and hidden them in the shadows of the forest until I give them the signal to strike?"
Sparkpaw gulped. What is crueler, ripping a tiny kit away from its mother to be culled, or to let it have a chance, a taste of freedom and life, only to decide it has no place in your myriad of plans?
"Luckily for you I have no intention of killing you. You're important, now," Specklefrost commented.
Sparkpaw let out a sigh of immense relief. She'd die one day, but not today. Not by her mentor's paw.
"Then why are we here?" she asked, squinting suspiciously at the other cat.
"Not that there isn't a chance you could die," the brown she-cat continued. "That was actually how my last apprentice died. Shame. She was smarter than you are."
Specklefrost was callous, Sparkpaw supposed, but that didn't make the sting of indignation any less. Her mentor's flippant comments were all too common, her snorts and grunts of indifference as frequent as birdsong. The ginger apprentice had no doubt that if she somehow died, Specklefrost would share the same degree of affection with her replacement- a cold, biting degree with teeth and a snappish tongue.
"You haven't told me what's going on," Sparkpaw mumbled, uncertain, her voice uneven.
"Your ceremony," Specklefrost replied. "Finally."
Her ceremony appeared to involve total submersion in the freezing raging waters of the rivers.
"How will this make me a medicine cat?" she squeaked, as Specklefrost shoved her towards the soft, muddy ground of the river bank.
"Our Clan has traditions," her mentor said sternly. "If we do not follow these traditions then we do not deserve to be called part of this Clan. So say the ghosts of cats long dead."
"StarClan? What? What am I doing?"
"You will walk into the river. This is a test of faith, such as the warrior apprentices have their test of skill. Once you have proven your faith you may return to the bank, and you will no longer be Sparkpaw."
This only prompted a new saga of questions. The foremost of these was: if I'm not Sparkpaw, then who will I be? But she was silenced by the warning glare Specklefrost shot her.
The water licked against the riverbank, nearly black in the pale light. Its current, ragged and raw, stirred its surface into a white-capped frenzy. She gingerly dipped a paw in; the water wasn't so bad, if you were the type who didn't mind icicles freezing on your fur. Sparkpaw took a breath and plunged both paws down, until her claws sank into the silt and sand of the riverbed.
The water stripped the warmth from her bones, like needled teeth stripping flesh from prey.
Specklefrost gave a half-hearted hiss of disdain. "It's just water, 'paw."
"It's liquid ice," she complained. "I'll die of...of...cold!"
"Twelve whole moons of medicinal training," Specklefrost muttered, mock-mournful. "And for what?"
Sparkpaw gritted her teeth. "Twelve moons of training in exchange for a drowning." She took another step, the current tugging at her feet. It was numbingly cold and irresistible.
"All cats must meet the river. You've delayed it longer than some."
She doesn't mean...no. Of course she does. Sparkpaw didn't remember a thing from the night of her birth, only knew the scraps of information she'd gleaned from rare moments of charity from Specklefrost. The rest was standard Clan knowledge.
The second daughter in an exclusive litter of two, she was slated for death the moment she was born. Swanpath had been the lucky one, everyone knew, but Sparkpaw had a certain luck of her own. Mere moons before, Specklefrost's apprentice Whitepaw had disappeared- drowned. Because someone else died, Sparkpaw had gotten to live.
Something flashed by in front of her eyes: long, slick, slim. It took her a moment to realize it was only a branch, and a few moments longer to slow her pounding heart. She forced her paws forwards until water lapped at her belly. It was too hard to repress the racking shudders, not worth trying. The more she moved the warmer she would be, she knew dimly.
"On average," she asked, "how many survive this?"
Specklefrost mused over this. "You'd be my first."
"Then the river is greedy," Sparkpaw observed. The cold clatter of her teeth distorted her words, turned them into a stutter.
Her mentor's white whiskers twitched. "I wouldn't insult the river if I were standing right in it."
Now the water was up to her chest, persistently, achingly cold. Her lungs were frozen now, her heartbeat sluggish.
"When do I know? Know when to come back?"
"When you've convinced me the river doesn't want you. When you're at the point where it's return or die. I assume you'll want to return."
The ground beneath her paws was coated in a dense fungal slime, turning her next step into a large splash as she slipped. Water wet her chin, and she did not dare to taste it. Cats were drowned in this river, after all. Things decayed in this river, and the water carried the taint of rot wide and far.
Numbly, she registered water tugging at the fur of her throat as it whirled past.
Specklefrost called out one last time. "Oh, and dear apprentice? Don't dwell too long on what you see. Or don't see. This is your ceremony after all."
She surfaced wide-eyed, sodden, shuddering. Mud clung to her paws, stuck between her toes and claws. Rivulets of cold water ran from her shoulders, streaking across the soft ginger fur of her stomach to patter on the ground.
Her mentor looked surprised.
She wasn't frozen, or thawing, but rather, numb. It wasn't easy to force a laugh from her throat, but she did so anyway, out of spite; if Specklefrost had taught her anything at all, it was spite.
"Kit fat," she croaked. "Good as any blubber."
"Morningstar insisted you were ready," Specklefrost said, blinking. "I didn't believe her."
Sparkpaw felt a small flicker of indignation, the only warmth in her veins. "How exactly is anyone ready to plunge themselves into a freezing cold river? I wasn't."
"It's not the river itself, it's what the river represents, you-" she broke off, as if on the verge of an expletive. The tabby shook her head softly. "There's still so much more you need to learn."
"What's there to know beyond what herbs to use and what herbs to definitely not use?" Sparkpaw asked. To her, that was being a medicine cat; it wasn't easy, it was sometimes arduous, but there was nothing more to the job.
Specklefrost bit her lip. "That, my dear, is something you're going to have to figure out by yourself."
"But you're my mentor, you have to tell me these things-"
The young she-cat stopped talking when she spotted the tired glint in Specklefrost's eyes.
"Not anymore," she snapped. "Now stop pestering me, I need to remember the words…"
With a sickened kind of excitement, Sparkpaw realized what impending ceremony was hanging over her head. She'd always wondered what name she'd get, although she'd never imagined the means. She'd often wondered if it would be something stupid, like Sparksleep or Sparkstumble, because that was often what she did; when she wasn't sleeping she was continually tripping over her own paws. And she wasn't quite sure she wanted her vindictive mentor to give her her name- knowing Specklefrost it would possibly be embarrassing. She'd always wanted Morningstar to give her a name, because when the golden she-cat named someone, it was beautiful or formidable or unique.
Specklefrost bumped her head against a tree in frustration. "No one would mind if I just made the words up, would they?"
"Maybe throw in something about StarClan?" Sparkpaw suggested, then winced. She thought she'd finally meet her ancestors down there, in the torrent of black cascading water, but there had been no one, nothing to greet her. Only-
The brown tabby cleared her throat loudly. "Sparkpaw, come here," she instructed, pointing with her paw to the patch of drier ground in front of her. Sparkpaw obeyed, shaking water from her fur with every step.
"StarClan," Specklefrost began, "this apprentice has trained long and hard to see and understand your ways. She has undergone your test of faith and strength and has emerged un- well, relatively unscathed." She paused here and glanced at Sparkpaw's foreleg, which bore a scrape from a passing splinter-edged branch. She hadn't noticed its approach until it nearly knocked her feet out from under her.
"Therefore she has proved herself worthy to become a medicine cat of PureClan. StarClan, we ask you honour Sparkpaw's desire to help our humble crusade."
Sparkpaw hardly dared to breathe. This was what every apprentice longed for; the moment, the name, that would finally mark them the product of many moons of learning and toil, trained to torment and terrorize the rapid spread of the taint.
She hoped it would be something fierce, like Sparkstrike. But of course that was a warrior's name and she, the medicine cat's apprentice, was no warrior.
"I ask that you allow Sparkpaw to discard her old name in favour for something better. For from this moment onward, she will no longer be known as Sparkpaw. She has become Sparkpool."
Sparkpool bent her head for a moment. Specklefrost trailed off into silence, her eyes glassy. A bird shrieked, as if in pain. She didn't pause to consider how odd it was to hear a bird this late at night, but the sound grated on her ears.
"What, that's it?" Sparkpool asked, with a small measure of disappointment. "I thought there'd be more…"
"Rainbows and kits?" Specklefrost snapped, sarcastically. "Do you want me to organise a parade in your honour? Name an herb after you? Sorry, dear, but this is as festive as it's gonna get. Unless you like the colour red."
This perplexed the newly named she-cat, and she puzzled over it for a moment.
Specklefrost smirked, but it was lacking her usual fervour.
"Morningstar likes red," she said, sounding detached. "She likes it too much." There was something dreamlike and lilting about her tone, something eerie, soft.
Close by, something in the undergrowth crunched. The sound came again, alongside the rapid sound of paws pounding the earth. After another moment, two shapes barrelled into the clearing; Morningstar and Tornear, panting with exertion. Sparkpool took an involuntary step away from the newcomers and her old mentor, backing towards the river. Rationality told her that she had nothing to fear from the trio, but her instincts told her something else.
"Darling Specklefrost," Morningstar purred. Cats in PureClan revered their privacy and space, but the leader herself seemed to be an exception to this unspoken law. She prowled around the old medicine cat with a whisker-length of space between their bristling pelts. "This is a surprise, no? You seem practically immortal these days."
Specklefrost didn't answer, only bared her teeth in a feral snarl.
"No one's immortal," Morningstar hissed, her tail seething through the air.
"You'd know all too well!" Specklefrost gasped, flinching away from the golden queen as she unsheathed her claws.
Sparkpool made a small sound in the back of her throat, a kind of pathetic verbal protest. Tornear gave her a baleful glance over with his yellow eyes, and she shut her mouth with a snap. Nothing to fear, nothing to fear…
Those three small simple words repeated over and over in her head, as Specklefrost pressed herself to the ground, as Morningstar drew her paw up and prepared to strike, as blood flew bright and scarlet through the cold night air to land with small feeble patters on the ground. She stared at the droplets, mesmerized, as her former mentor slumped with a groan.
"Take her to the river," Morningstar commanded dismissively, shaking the blood from her forepaw with violent relish. "She's not getting lucky a third time. Come, Spark...what's-it, we have things to discuss."
Meekly, Sparkpool slunk after her leader. She only had one chance left, after all, and she didn't want to ruin it.
Sorry for the looong wait. History assessment DX Expect something Sable-orientated next time, we haven't seen her for a little while.