Can a Cat Catch a Break?
She had been warned, but now it was too late.
Sorrelstorm had told her, repeatedly, as the chief medicine cat of the raiders, that the trip would be too dangerous, too taxing, too likely to induce labour. Sablefrost hadn't strictly disbelieved him; sure, a fast-paced trek through fields and forests alike was never going to be easy. Not in a state like hers. She discredited his words a little, perhaps, because she had a sense of typical PureClan confidence, a strength she couldn't self-fault.
She hadn't altogether cared too much when Pinepaw refused to give her the travelling herbs, on the basis of 'danger to the kits'. But that had been three hours ago, in the disillusion that this trip would be nearly as easy as her last.
But here in the now, she had paws that ached with every shuffling step, a stomach whose rumbling mimicked the dying groans of a gutted badger. Half a moon had only increased the bulge in her stomach; Sparkpool speculated that she might carry three kits. That, to Sablefrost, was nearly the epitome of irony- she was carrying on her mother's legacy.
The to-be queen was not certain that she trusted Sparkpool's prediction. The medicine cat was contending with her inexperience, and where she was clueless, Specklefrost had been wise. Sablefrost had almost been sad when she'd learned of the brown cat's ill-fated drowning. She understood now, that drowning was only an allegory for murder.
"How are you holding up?"
Sablefrost blinked turning her head to see Fleetstorm walking beside her. She'd expected to see her pair there, hear the concern in his voice, the anxiety that never truly left him. She had not thought she'd find Jayflight's brother sheltering her in his shadow.
"I'm hungry," she admitted. "But I'm fine." Wasn't this journey supposed to display her strength? Well then, Sablefrost, be strong.
"We're scheduled for a break soon, I think," the grey warrior told her. "The apprentice is coping worse than you are." He flicked an ear towards Charpaw, lagging behind as usual. She was slouching and blessedly silent without her sister. The terrain was relatively easy to traverse; soft green slopes and narrow gullies. There were puddles everywhere, and stagnant piles of mud. Sablefrost suspected the conditions would only deteriorate.
"Just think, you could be paired together one day," she muttered, rolling her eyes.
"If she and Streampaw fuss now, imagine how bad it'll get when they carry kits." Fleetstorm winced. "It'll be easy not to love them."
"I'm sure they have some redeeming qualities," Sablefrost commented, trying to think of some without success.
"Gossiping, are we? Strongclaw interrupted, trotting in between them.
"Speculation," Sablefrost corrected, quelling the flicker of annoyance in her crowded stomach. Strongclaw was like a second mother; overprotective; always snooping; sticking his head into places where he did not belong.
"Contemplating my horrible fate," Fleetstorm added cheerfully.
"Would you excuse us?" her pair asked abruptly, nosing Sablefrost to the side before the grey tom had a chance to answer.
"What?" she asked, irritated again.
"You're not supposed to be chatting up toms," Strongclaw hissed under his breath, watching as Fleetstorm began talking quietly with Slatethorn.
"I wasn't," Sablefrost snapped. "We were having a conversation."
"It's just safer if we only talk to each other," the calico muttered. "Just try to understand."
"You can't monitor every word I say."
His mouth twisted in a grimace. A small voice in her head told he was being sensible, that he had a voice, but a louder one told her that Strongclaw was being annoying.
"Everything all right?" a nearby voice asked. Sablefrost swung her head to see her father, several feet away, curiosity in his eyes. She hadn't shared words with her father for a long time. The first he'd known of her pregnancy was when she'd abruptly moved to the nursery. He had visited Morningstar several times, and she'd always made the effort to appear deep in sleep. Nettlecloud deflected him with icy glares whenever he tried to approach. The spotted queen never bothered to ask for the reason for Sablefrost's silence towards her father; like a good warrior she let private things remain private.
"We're fine, Thornstreak," Strongclaw replied curtly. Like Sablefrost, he hadn't been pleased that the tabby tom would once again accompany them on the raid. Maybe it was him trying to protect her again, or perhaps he had emotions of his own; he hadn't forgotten the night of her accident, the night where she had returned broken and his father had not returned at all.
Thornstreak? Is it done?
I did what you asked; of course it is.
Sedgewing! Sedgewing is dead! By the way, your daughter is dying.
Sablefrost never relayed the whispered conversation she'd heard to her pair. At first when they were younger, it was out of spite; the arrogant furball he'd been didn't deserve to know. Later, that hazy night and the pain it had wrought was difficult to recall, and by that time, she'd begun to feel a small semblance of pity for the tom. Her final reason was the animosity between her and her father, the fact that though she was grown, he was still trying to dictate her life. She wanted nothing to do with him; recalling old memories was a level of intimacy he didn't deserve.
Do you want to see your pretty boy die? Thornstreak had asked. The black queen was tempted to tell him that now the answer was yes, that particular activity was high among her priorities.
"Well, try to keep to keep it festive, hm? This is supposed to be fun."
"Of course, father," Sablefrost replied. She wondered if Morningstar had been putting words in his mouth once again. Or, more simply, her father probably enjoyed the sporadic outings, the malicious freedom he was granted.
A shrill shout echoed above the heads of the PureClan cats. With a collective hiss the raiding party bunched together, wide gazes scraping the canopy for signs of danger. The cry bounced of the soft dirt walls of the surrounding ravine. Trees lined the path; the shade which had been a relief now felt ominous. Sablefrost found herself bolstered between Strongclaw and Crookedflower. The small tortoiseshell's shoulder jostled briefly jostled against her stomach; the uncomfortable sensation soon disappeared when a pale shadow dropped itself on the older she-cat's back.
All around them cats were falling from the trees, launching themselves off gully walls that had only seconds ago been quiet and empty. Sharp sounds of battle tore at Sablefrost's tapered ears, cries of pain indistinguishable from shrieks of victory. Strongclaw was ripped from her side by a burly tabby tom. She watched her pair as he was flung on his side, as seams of red bloomed across his pelt, melding the white fur to splashes of cream. His jaws were stretched wide in fury. She knew that she should share this fury, should echo it, should help him, but all she felt was a pang in her belly; as if her children had stolen her anger.
A wild snarl was the first thing she heard before a set of blunt claws whipped across her side. Rather than pain she felt a primal sort of fear, a madness that promised to incite violence. She hit her assailant before she saw her, ripped away a pawful of pale brown fur before she even registered the colour. Sablefrost swung to face a she-cat of equal height, if not weight. Her pelt was the colour of dust, overlayed with grime and dirt and small dark speckles. The frayed yellow collar hugging her throat said that this creature should be soft and weak, but her lean muscles and venomous green eyes said, No, I am trained, and I will end you.
"Perica, no! She's carrying kittens!" The shout came as Perica sunk into a crouch; Sablefrost instantly mirrored her position, wondering how in StarClan she'd fight with a stomach as rotund as hers. The question fled her mind when a swift shape bowled her opponent over; grey and brindled, stranded on the wrong side of the fight.
"Asunder, what- get off!" The brown cat twisted, pinned in a grey tom's embrace. Asunder growled and Sablefrost took a deep breath, staring at her unlikely savior as PureClan crushed their ambushers beneath paws running with blood.
Perica bucked her shoulders and threw Asunder off as Morningstar shrieked, "Kill them all, kill them all!"
"No mercy!" someone cried in hoarse reply- it was difficult to tell from whose throat it had been uttered.
Sablefrost tried to duck as Perica launched herself at her, but once more, her stomach got in the way. The other she-cat's forelegs wrapped around her throat and the queen was thrust to the ground.
"I'll cut your bleeding kittens from your bloated guts," the Tainted snarled. "You monsters don't deserve more innocents for your army."
"Piece of crowfood!" Sablefrost gasped, flinging Perica away from her with a kick from her hindlegs. She managed to roll to her paws, eyes widely glancing from face to face; where was her father? Strongclaw? Morningstar? The black warrior had never been in such a brawl. The only time she'd fought something that wasn't starved and pathetic- or her badger-tempered mentor for that matter- was the monstrous tabby tom that had nearly gotten her killed. In some places, it was hard to tell Tainted from Clan cat, for they all wore the same shade of blood.
She saw a flash of white fur; it could've been Meadowmist as easily as it could've been a stranger.
Perica was persistent it seemed; it appeared as though the one thing she hated more than the warriors was a warrior carrying the next generation. In the space between one heartbeat and the next she was rushing back, claws extended, lashing the air with a feral snarl.
"I can't fault your doggedness," Sablefrost snapped, trying for a sidestep but stumbling instead. The other she-cat blundered past. "But your technique is somewhat flawed, dear." With a pretense of laziness, the black she-cat snared Perica's tail, yanked her to the ground. Perica was not quick enough enough to roll to her feet; she tried, with an exaggerated flailing motion that only left her pale stomach bared.
"Well, you don't need to give me an example of your poor skills," Sablefrost sighed. Perica's eyes were so wide, so vulnerable, but beneath it she had failed to erase her malice. "But if you insist…"
"We are the crusade!" Morningstar howled. "We-" Something cut her off, abruptly.
"Asunder!" Perica screamed. "Asunder, help me!"
And it was too much, all at once- the bruises, the scrapes, the sheer noise of battle, her flat attempts at mockery. So she drew a breath- kill them all, her leader had commanded. Maybe Sablefrost didn't always live to serve but this, this, she knew she would do.
Perica's gasp turned into a bloody gurgle, the skin of her stomach split where before it had been intact.
"No," the brown Tainted whimpered, then whimpered again. "It doesn't happen like this; good kills the bad, true love- true love, it doesn't...it's not...it survives…"
"Should've picked a fight you could win, pet," Sablefrost sneered. "I think I saw a mouse on the way here."
The screams were dying down, fading, as did the Tainted. The raiders had formed a ragged circle around the lone two survivors, roughly kicking the bodies aside. Whatever training they'd been given, it certainly had not been enough, and surprise was a weapon they could only wield for so long.
Sablefrost left Perica to babble; she was nearly dead, and nothing under Silverpelt could spare her now. Morningstar was scrutinizing the two Tainted. She'd already assessed her warriors; although all were injured, no wound was deadly nor lethal.
"Your names," the golden she-cat rasped. "Tell me your names."
The pair glanced at each other. Dimly, Sablefrost recognized the pelt of one; his name had been Perica's shriek.
"I am Asunder," he said. "And this...this is Drina." They hunched together, grey fur merging with yellow-white.
"Are you the leaders of this...failure?" Morningstar asked, tapping Drina's pink nose with a paw. The Tainted she-cat was more dead than alive; her stomach was mottled with red and faint pink, like snow smeared with blood. "This bloodshed?"
The grey tom bowed his head. "I'd be far from here if I were allowed. So, no. And Drina's just a kit, really, she's so young-"
"Age is no factor in tyranny," Morningstar snapped. "If you're asking for your lives then you've failed."
Asunder's blue eyes raked the crowd; they settled of Sablefrost and harboured an unspoken plea.
"I didn't ask for this. You've taken Perica, you've taken Rose, you took everyone and I didn't want this! I didn't hurt anyone!"
"Shame, isn't it." Morningstar idly examined her claws, while wiping one paw free of blood on a patch of clean grass. "However we still have a little matter of the Taint…"
Drina's small body shuddered; Asunder placed a foreleg over her shoulder, as if he could shield her from whatever was about to happen next.
He couldn't; nor could he shield himself.
Strongclaw found her as they started walking again. He had a limp that he fought to hide; long wounds glazing a deep slow red on his sides and haunches.
"Hey," he panted, out of breathing. She was at the head of the party, and before he'd caught up he had been at the rear. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," she muttered. She was dragging her feet along the ground as they walked, hoping to scrape Perica's blood from her fur. No such luck; she was only attracting dirt, little twigs and small dead leaves. "I'm alive, right? Not cut from stomach to throat. You?"
"I'm alive," he echoed. He snuck her a small glance, whiskers twitching. "When I was- when that tom attacked me," he started, "you just stood there. You didn't help me. Don't I warrant more than that?"
"I was surprised," Sablefrost snapped. "It was a shock. And then two seconds later this stinking Tainted attacked me and promised to cut my kits from my stomach. So my apologies, I was preoccupied. Not mention you didn't help me later either."
"We're not a team," the calico muttered. "And that bothers me."
Sablefrost swerved around a rock on the path. It was taller than her; for a moment she could neither see nor hear Strongclaw, and that was a respite. Her belly was aching and the annoyance that was her pair only threatened to make things worse. The next instant they merged back together, and she suppressed a sigh.
"Do you trust me?" Strongclaw asked lightly.
She grumbled below her breath. "Yes," Sablefrost mumbled.
"Can I trust you?"
"Yes," she repeated sullen.
"I hope so," Strongclaw said. "I hope so."
"If anything, I should be worried, not you."
"And are you?"
The black queen didn't reply for a while; she watched as the path ahead of them disappeared into a wide moor. Hills rippled across the landscape, and in dusk, an odd glow lit the horizon.
"No," she admitted at last. "Not about you, at least."
Their hushed conversation was interrupted by Sorrelstorm. The ginger tom had hurried to join the pair; not trotting really, but a melancholy rushing walk. His heavy stare made Sablefrost uncomfortable, though his eyes were on her stomach rather than her face.
"You feel all right?" the medicine cat asked, foregoing any form of greeting.
"Fine. Sore. Tired. Go away."
"We'll stop before we head out into the fields. I advise you rest; most cats will hunt, after I tend to them. I imagine you're hungry."
Strongclaw nodded for her. "I'll catch her something."
I'm fat, not inept. But okay, if everyone insists on doing everything for me… I'd like to nap.
She murmured an acquiescing 'okay' and brushed the ginger tom off, increasing her pace. It was a relief to settle down in the shade, to slump on her side. The scent of herbs filled her nose; sweet, sharp and bitter as Sorrelstorm set to work. She registered a faint touch on her shoulder, Strongclaw whispering something about looking for prey. It took too much energy to nod, so she just let her head loll.
The break from walking took far too long for Morningstar's taste; irritated, she made the raiders walk long into the night, until their pawpads were cracked and aching and the glow from the city's artificial lights hurt their eyes. She made them walk further still, ignoring the cats who fell behind. Sablefrost was glad to not be among them; she didn't feel refreshed, exactly, after dozing for an hour or so, but she was certainly more rested than the cats around her.
"We'll get there before dawn," Morningstar growled, between gritted teeth. "Those bloody Tainted will not have made us late." The golden leader fought to hide her limp, but Sablefrost, walking a fox-length behind her, saw the red pawprints she left on the path as she walked. In the ambush, Morningstar had lost clumps of sleek fur along her spine and several bite marks decorated her shoulders. Despite this she appeared to be the strongest of all of them.
"They're here," someone called, a long drawn-out wail that seemed to serve as some sort of battle cry.
Sablefrost stiffened; after a long day, was she hearing things? They'd passed the danger, killed their sudden attackers, quelled whatever little revolt they'd been trying to stage. Yet once again shapes came rushing at them, springing from behind rocks, and sharp catcalls rent the air. Morningstar dashed to Sablefrost's side, bowling over a black tom who reeked of something fetid.
"There's no word that can express my explicit rage," she snarled. Sablefrost tried to fend off a blow from a scrawny tortoiseshell, but Morningstar was in her way, ducking below the Tainted's foreleg to slash at her throat. The city cat fell back with a hiss.
Morningstar panted, "Two battles in one day. Can you cope?" as she whirled around to fling a tiny yellow tom away into the darkness.
Sablefrost didn't answer. She had a mouthful of dirty brown fur, trying to concentrate on shaking the life from her target. It was easy enough, as the mangy cat seemed to weigh as much as her moss nest back at camp. She dropped it on the ground- it barely made a thud as it landed roughly- and stamped on the back of its neck, hoping her strength was enough to kill it.
Ahead of her, she saw a fragment of white and cream, and froze. She felt her heart stutter; Strongclaw lay slumped against the ground, blood blooming across his chest. A slim white she-cat towered above him; the nearby city lights made her fur gleam, incandescent.
We're not a team. Can I trust you?
"I swear by StarClan," Sablefrost gasped, trying to close the distance between them with a languorous run, "if you die now Strongclaw…"
The Tainted was backing up, rising on her hind legs, claws extended. Sablefrost leapt. She fell as the white cat fell, as Strongclaw coughed and pawed himself away. She landed with a grunt on her side, the Tainted sprawled on her haunches. Too late she realized her mistake. When the pain filtered into her stomach, Sablefrost knew she'd been callous, reckless, and wondered if saving her pair's life had really been worth it.
Do you know how proud I am? This is the longest chapter in The Poisoned and The Pure history! Admittedly it is only 3200 words, but oh well, still xD
Thanks to everyone- especially the people who put detail and thought into their reviews- for getting us to 600 reviews! That's amazing :3 Who knew all I needed was a little rant to bump up the count? c;
Anyway, I hope the next chapter shouldn't be too far off. After all, I do have holidays and nothing to do...but you guys know me. (And yes, there will be a sequel! The Tainted and The True will hopefully be out soon after I wrap up this beast.)