Predictably, nothing was going to plan. Sorrelstorm was brutally denying that he'd ever had a plan for this- this bloodshed and mutiny. Strongclaw laughed at it all; his smile was as wide as the gash on his stomach. She herself snapped at both of them, and glared at the exasperation on their faces. She told them to find somewhere dry, and warm, and they'd failed miserably.
So here Sablefrost lay, cocooned between two wedges of rounded hollow metal, some kind of musty Twoleg nest curled around her. The material was thick and rough; the Twolegs must have been truly idiots if they were willing to use such abrasive bedding in their nests. The tiny space reeked, of rot and now blood. Her pair had draped himself against the brick wall opposite, and had a tiny dribble of herbs splashed across his stomach. It was all Sorrelstorm was willing to spare, and he was adamant that the calico was in no hurry to die. He didn't have anything for Sablefrost, save for a few muttered words of advice. She was left to contend with the fire in her belly alone; the medicine cat had left to guard the other end of the grime-streaked alley, and Strongclaw appeared to be snoring.
The mouse-brained apprentice, Pinepaw, was apparently still roaming the streets, along with the rest of PureClan. This was stupid, burdened with risks, but Sablefrost found she had very little concentration for anything other than the pain, and the attempted suppression of said affliction.
Am I supposed to do this alone? Sorrelstorm was no help at all and at this point the black queen would've welcomed any help at all from Sparkpool, who had at least a little experience with kitting. Any female warrior at all would be welcome (for a while, at least), but she was stuck with a grumpy ball of ginger fluff and a calico who appeared to be trying to see just how obnoxious his gargling snores could become.
Sablefrost swore, and no one heard.
So she thought, until a wry voice on the wall behind her proved her most vehemently wrong.
"Such bad language from a pretty little mouth," a tom drawled. "I ought to be surprised." It was a voice she did not recognize, so she unsheathed her claws with a hiss. Was it time to make Morningstar proud? The other option was tripping over her own stomach to land on her face, and being the only slightly able-bodied warrior in the immediate radius, that was not a good prospect.
"Who are you?" the queen growled, spared the effort of turning around as the amused stranger leapt into her view.
"I ought to be offended," he purred.
"You ought to be leaving." She took a moment to study his reddy fur, the appraising look in his eyes. He was a Tainted and already, he disgusted her. He was also not her sister, the only city cat she was really interested in seeing. To judge from his fear-free expression, he was completely unaware of her heritage- although underlying this bravado, perhaps she caught a hint, a lick, of something with a copper-like tang that he was not willing to show.
"But I found him, Sablefrost!"
Sablefrost groaned and looked up to see Pinepaw balanced precariously on the brick fence. He harboured an expression of utmost triumph, despite the fact that he did not look entirely comfortable with the safety of his position.
"Pinepaw," she ground out, a pang in her stomach fuelling fire to her annoyance, "this is not my sister."
The little apprentice blinked. He looked, for a moment, shocked; as if he found her lapsing in her judgement if she truly thought he hadn't known that. Then he tumbled from the wall to land among a clatter of discarded Twoleg junk. From his end of the alley, Sorrelstorm turned to hiss at the noise.
"Well, um, I know that," the medicine cat pointed out, trying to sound diplomatic, not wounded, and failing, as he jumped from his unlikely safety net of food scraps. He was blinking at her owlishly. "I might not have ever really talked to a she-cat or anything but I can, um, you know, still tell." His ears flattened against his head, embarrassed, and despite her pain Sablefrost found herself enjoying this.
"But that's not the point," the stranger interrupted smoothly. He flicked an eye over the disgruntled ginger tom, as if checking for an injury.
"Well, he says he knows your sister," Pinepaw squeaked, his tiny chest swelling. "He knows Arrah."
"Most intimately," the bigger cat drawled. He wore a look that instinctively gave Sablefrost the urge to shudder. She ignored it, for PureClan did nothing if not repress urges.
"So it's true, then? You know Arrah?" she demanded. It didn't matter how disgusting she found this tom. If he could only lead her sister to her, to the kits she could save…
"I just said, didn't I?" he asked waspishly. "Name's Rhydderch."
"Well, self-proclaimed Rhydderch-"
"No," the rusty-pelted cat interrupted. "It's more of a therch at the end you know, and that's Ru, not Ro. Well, I can say your name correctly, just returning the favour, really, but just call me Ru if your little tongue can't manage the whole thing- blame my father, not me, I was made this way."
"Do you always ramble when you're nervous?" Sablefrost snapped. "Because it's irritating me. And generally I don't tolerate any irritance once it's reached the end of its usefulness." She still had her claws unsheathed, she realized, so she drew them down the metal at a side. It made a noise that pleasantly accommodated the pain her lower body had begun to sustain. He flinched, and her laugh was musical.
"Much prefer your sister, have to say," Rhydderch muttered.
"As I was saying, can you get my sister here? I need her see, but you're dispensable."
"Ahh," the Tainted replied grandly. "Can't. Bust her pretty legs it would, and it's not policy, either. She's in much a similar state as yours, understand. I can carry a message, however. These ears of mine a finely attuned to anything a pretty lady might have to say-"
"StarClan," Strongclaw groaned, eyes fluttering from his spot against the wall, "can we kill him now? He's worse than I am."
"You're awake," Sablefrost sighed. "That's good. Maybe?"
"Hang on." Rhydderch was looking alarmed. "There will be no killing of anyone."
Sablefrost was saved the trouble of replying by a contraction that made her gasp. It was here that the city cat began to look confident.
"You can't afford to kill me now, you know. I have practical experience in the delicate matters of kitting. I know it's icky, but you get used to it."
"I know what I'm doing," Sorrelstorm growled, approaching characteristically quiet and swift.
Rhydderch surveyed him with an aloft expression. "You don't have a whisker of experience, do you?" he asked confidently.
No, Sablefrost thought heavily. He only knows how to dispose of the ones that are not needed, afterwards.
"I, however…" Rhydderch continued. "Well, you already know. I've said."
Sablefrost exhaled noisily. "I'm never having kits again," she muttered, deterred by both the pain and lack of adequate care. It was a hassle, and if she could help it, she planned to endure it no time soon in the future.
"But...what are we doing...about the Arrah problem?" Strongclaw coughed. The medicine cats were somewhat aware of the situation- the fact that Sablefrost had not been entirely faithful to her one true pair, and that the need for a distant third-party figure to step in had arose. Under the threat of undisclosed pain, they'd sworn on StarClan and their lives that they would not breathe a word of it to anyone. With no formal fighting training at all, they'd been easy to bully. They hadn't had a choice, because neither Sablefrost nor Strongclaw were up to this task of scandal themselves.
"Rhydderch can take them back to Arrah," Pinepaw piped up, waving his thick ginger tail under his mentor's nose. Sorrelstorm looked suitably disgruntled.
Sablefrost blinked, and admitted to herself that this what not Pinepaw's best idea ever. There were so many unknowns, so many factors and so much room for a margin of chaos. There was also the matter of Rhydderch's trustability; or rather, the lack of it.
Rhydderch's amber gaze flicked between the assortment of cats. "If that's what's wanted of me," he said smoothly. Perhaps he was hoping to avoid any argument with his acquiescence. Perhaps he was seeking to affirm the continuation of his life. Being a typical Tainted, she didn't doubt. It slightly disgusted her, his lack of backbone and the fact that it appeared he'd do anything to not die.
"No," Strongclaw countered, immediately. Sablefrost flicked a glance at her pair; who was he to care? Whose kits were they anyway? Yet, this entire event was something he'd orchestrated. It was his plotting, his planning, his wheedling and firm insistence.
"What are you going to do, crawl over to her with the kits on your back?" Sorrelstorm snorted. "Pinepaw can go with him and check everything over. The lump's hardly going to be useful here, now or later, anyway." Sablefrost wondered if it was the fumes of the herbs the triggered the medicine cats' perpetual cantankerous and abrasive moods, or if they had special lessons which taught them how to not sympathise with their patients. Specklefrost had been much the same- before her abrupt death that shocked few and saddened none.
"I think it's appropriate," Rhydderch added, sliding the lone female of the group a sly smile. "Considering the family policy."
She was tempted to inquire, but had a stronger urge to cuff his cheeks with her paws repeatedly. He just gave off that vibe.
"It'll be fine," Sablefrost agreed. Nothing worse could happen to her kits than what she'd previously been planning. She'd thought smothering would be an easy to dispose of them. That was before Strongclaw's plan, but it was a backup, nonetheless, however suspicious. Perhaps a life in the city was better than nothing at all, but then again...when PureClan hovered around around sharp metal corners on slick pavements, there was no place more dangerous to be.
Sometimes she felt like Strongclaw had more of a heart than she did.
Gritting her teeth, Sablefrost lay back against the cool ridged metal of Twoleg invention. It still emitted a faint reek, of rot and something foul. This was not her ideal nest, but it was too late to move now.
"Ahh, not long now," Rhydderch proclaimed, a knowing glint in his eyes.
"I can tell that for myself, thanks," Sablefrost growled, slapping the pebbled ground with her thin tail. "And really, I don't want an audience."
The others seemed to receive the message in her pointed glare; Pinepaw backed down the alleyway, mumbling something about finding food; Sorrelstorm turned his back on them and went to ruefully poke at Strongclaw's stomach. Rhydderch, however, shuffled a step closer- still too confident to really be called hesitant.
"Who's the lucky tom?" he asked loudly, staring around the darkness as if expecting him to strut out of the shadows.
"Safely at home, where I can't kill him," she answered, serenely swiping her tongue over her paw. She regretted it, immediately, for now all she could taste was the odd sooty reek from the Thunderpath. She made a face.
"I get that, all the time," Rhydderch drawled. "You would not believe…" The look in his eyes was oddly amused and nostalgic, for a cat that appeared so vapid.
There was a sudden damp touch at her shoulder; she jumped, eyes going wide, before turning to see that it was only Strongclaw. He'd crawled over from his spot against the wall, gathering grit and dirt through his belly fur and the thin scabbing of his wound. The calico seemed determined to witness the grisly affair from as close as possible- no matter how much he bled. This was stupid, and she told him as much, but he only shrugged and reminded her there were more important things to worry about.
Such as her pulsating pain, and the little lives in her belly too eager to escape and taste the world. She could do without remembering that; at least for a few minutes.
"How much longer?" she asked snappily. Well, if he was such an expert…
Rhydderch twitched his whiskers. "Hard to say. Whenever you feel like it, sweets. Why don't you tell me about PureClan, while we wait?"
She nearly appreciated his attempt to distract her, but felt a flicker of suspicion that was stronger.
"Wouldn't you like to know," she mumbled, but Strongclaw made a go-ahead movement with his tail, the only part of him it didn't hurt to move. He whispered assent under his breath- one of them, apparently, had no qualms with spilling Clan secrets to random Tainted they picked up off the streets. What was more, they did not even plan to kill him.
"It''s one big happy family," she said sarcastically. "Well, not so happy, but one big family all the same. We don't get much new blood in PureClan. We're all siblings, aunts, cousins...like a big web that no one ever escapes. What do you want to know, anyway?" Talking was doing something other than focusing on the pains, the ripples of her muscles. She held on to that.
"We here some rumours, out here in the little city. Is it true that you kill us for fun? That you line your nests with alley-cat fur and you munch on our bones for snacks? Is it really true that where you live, it's just you, the Clan? No one, nothing else? You live in this big barren land and you play in rivers of blood? Because that's what I've heard-"
"You're being ridiculous," Sablefrost interrupted. "The Tainted all die to train our younger generations. Some of it's fun, sure, but it serves a higher purpose than that. Secondly, have you smelled your lot's fur? Disgusting. Worst stink I've ever had the misfortunate to gag on. Your bones, also, not so tasty. No marrow. Of course it's just us- it's our territory and the only things we let live on it is our prey, of course. You wouldn't understand. I couldn't describe our home. I don't think you've ever even seen a forest."
"What's it like?" He was playing along at least, despite looking slightly queasy.
"Well, there are trees, lots of them. It's very green."
Strongclaw snorted at this, and watched a contraction seize at her muscles. Fascinated, for some undisclosed reason.
"I've heard...about….the things...how you, you know, don't like…"
"Love? Freedom of will and independence? You heard right. She-kits and toms are raised separately, are trained separately, sleep separately. Once they become warriors, the leader tests them with a series of questions before pairing them with the worst match possible. Like us," Sablefrost explained, nodding towards her pair. "This wasn't choice. We used to argue lots. He called me Frozenface. I called him...him…"
"Dirtbreath," Strongclaw supplied. "Dirtface. Dirt-for-brains. You did always like making dirty insinuations about me." He rolled his eyes, and the following wink was more than a little suggestive.
A smirk twisted the corners of their companion's mouth. "But you two just seem so perfect together."
"She's grown on me," Strongclaw replied airily. "And outwards, too…" He frowned when she did not reply, because silence was not her typical forte.
"Is she supposed to be this quiet?" he hissed at Rhydderch, the self-professed 'Ru'. "I thought there was a lot of screaming, you know- she-cat stuff."
"Well, normally there is, but you get the oddball here and there, the 'brave' ones. Think they'll look weak if they scream."
It hurts to talk it hurts to move it hurts to breath so shut up, the pair of you.
"Not much longer," the strange tom murmured. "Not much longer at- oh, look at that, would? Predict anything, I can, honestly."
Because it was true; the wait was over, that moon-and-a-bit of tedious waiting, and she had barely noticed through her haze of pain. The thump of her heartbeat was rushed, frantic, and so loud in her ears. The darkness was a loud presence too, closing over her eyes, faintly numbing the biting claws of pain. Was Strongclaw right- should she humour him with a shriek that would be so hard to dredge up?
A blur of ginger cut across her narrowed vision as Sorrelstorm darted past.
"She-kit. Not breathing- lick it, would you?" he asked Pinepaw, beckoning the apprentice over. Sablefrost saw him grimace, stoop, and clean that kit that was a pale fawn smear on the filthy ground. Perhaps those were perfect little rosary spots covering her tiny body, or maybe Sablefrost was losing her sight, too quick, too soon.
"It's breathing," Pinepaw said, relieved. His words were punctured with a tiny wail, signalling that indeed, her daughter was alive and indeed, she possessed a very good pair of lungs.
There was another sharp pain, another stabbing muscular wave. Another kit, another body that did not breathe.
"Male. Not breathing. That's it, rub his fur the wrong way, that's what I've heard."
He joined his sister, dark where she was pale, against the soft fleece of her broiling stomach.
The next one did not open its mouth, didn't utter a mewl or a sound. Its grey body was tiny, twisted, and it did not live for a second. Battling, she thought dimly, isn't conducive to carrying kits...
But the one after that-he cried, and struggled and thrashed at Pinepaw's hesitant touch. A dark tabby, like her father, like her rather estranged brother. The last one, it appeared, had too much dignity to utter so much as a cough; crying was beneath her pudgy black paws.
"That's it," she heard Rhydderch mumble, assessing her, placing a paw on her stomach to be sure. All done, and four out of five, not bad."
She felt so empty now, so faint, and now a part of her had not had the strength to live. This was odd, because in her world, kits did not die- they disappeared. But she never saw them, before they were gone. She'd never seen a cat so young so lifeless, so she rested her head on her paws and finally, she shut her eyes.
But they- their voices- would not let her sleep.
"The Clan needs kits. We keep them."
"They're incriminating- look at that one, see those spots? We may be inbred but there's only two cats in the Clan with those spots. And I have serious doubts that she's that closely related to Littlefern and Nettlecloud."
"Fine, we'll send her off with Rhydderch, a token of our appreciation. Oh, don't look so- wait...the father...really? She likes the strong and silent type, hmm? Explains why she couldn't stand you."
There was a snarl. She did not open her eyes.
"Don't ask and I won't tell. Well, ask, and I won't tell you anyway. She trusts me, I think, so I'll leave that up to your own deductions. But we're not risking their lives by carting them over the countryside. We won't risk her life by letting someone make the same guesses you have- and you're not the most perceptive cat, you know. There are some in the Clan that are much smarter than you, and much more dedicated to the Clan ideals. We have a home for these kits and we have the means to get them there."
"Morningstar will be suspicious. She will suspect, and she isn't a leader who requires proof to act on her musings."
"We have a dead kit."
"Sparkpool predicated three."
"Lousy, isn't she? Yet...those two...they look like her, her family. Wouldn't she at least want to have them? Some kits rather than none."
Don't presume to make assumptions about me. Even if they're right. Her thoughts were groggy and disjointed, and now she was overwhelmed with fatigue, instead of pain.
"To split siblings-"
"They'd never know." Strongclaw, so beautifully stubborn. "Despite being apart, at least those two would be together, and those two would be together. They would never be alone."
"The biggest one, the black tom, and the fawn one, then? Pinepaw, take them."
The warmth at her stomach was suddenly, achingly less, and she felt the cold air where her children had been like a blow. She wanted to cry out, to shiver and fall apart, to demand they return her kits to her side. She hadn't known, until she'd seen them, how much she wanted them. How much capacity her twisted heart had to love them. Their siblings found their voices and bawled at the intrusion, but Sablefrost found she had quite lost the strength.
"Rhydderch, yes, take that one. Do I need to tell you to be careful? Precious burden, city tom. Make sure you get them to her sister."
"You don't want to name them? They would like that, in future, to have that one gift from their parents-"
"I'm not their father, and Sablefrost is horribly uncreative. Arrah will give them names, I'm sure."
Sablefrost wanted to stir, as the mild insult passed her ears- but she was so weak and cripplingly tired. Trying to get even one last glimpse of her children took more effort than she was able to give. Maybe she was sleeping, and only dreaming…
"So this is bye, I guess. Don't take it the wrong way when I say I never want to see your ugly PureClan face again."
Strongclaw, quiet now. "Take her and get out of here. Don't let the others catch you, because then I may just have to sharpen my claws. You'd never escape me, understand? These kits are not mine but I will treat them as such. If they ever ask, there is no Smokefang, only me. Understand?"
Evidently, Rhydderch nodded, and there was the sudden sound of pawsteps on stone as the Tainted tom walked out of her life with her daughter in his jaws. Pinepaw scrambled after him. She managed to crack open her eyes, and blink blearily, watching as the four cats rounded the corner and disappeared. Her kits were tiny, swinging against the toms' chests, blind and feeble and crying at her loss.
And then Strongclaw slouched in front of her, blocking her vision.
"I'm assuming you heard that," he said. "But it had to be done. They could forfeit not only their lives but your own. You know what Morningstar's like."
He's talking, Sablefrost thought, as observational as ever, but I'm not really listening to what he's got to say.
"Do you remember I told you that I would name your kits, in exchange for my silence?"
Sablefrost blinked at him. She did remember that day- hazily. She'd been so certain he'd run to his mother. She'd been so certain he'd prove he was the same egotistical badger he'd always been when they were younger.
"It was our deal," he persisted. He was staring at her, as if he could break her from this heavy tired fog with just his wide blue eyes.
"Yeah," she mumbled, and it was more of an onerous breath than a word.
"I've been thinking- and no, it didn't hurt- about names. I've picked some out."
"Sure. We had a deal." He wasn't very good with names, she recalled. He'd tried to call his own sister Peekit.
"I've already suggested one," he reminded her, softly nudging the little black she-kit. "She'll be Emberkit. Looks like she's sharing her name with a corpse."
"Oh." So eloquent, a word with none of her old fire.
"The tom was more trouble. I thought about everything brown I knew. Decided he didn't suit Mudkit. Tabbykit makes him sound like a girl. I thought Oakkit."
That's not so bad. "Wasn't the-the…"
"The old leader called Oakstar? Yeah, he was. Guess your son's got some expectations then."
"I still don't like Emberkit," she mumbled. "But your silence- that's what...what counts." She found her gaze drawn to her two remaining kits. They were sleeping, she thought, or maybe they were just resting; it was hard to tell, with their eyes clenched so tightly shut, with their faces so devoid of an expression she recognized. Already she doubted her skills as a mother, and if she could not tell what they were even doing…
"As if I could turn you in," he whispered, so quiet she could barely hear him. He moved his chin, and rested it softly between her ears. "But your silence, it scares me. So get some sleep."
Sablefrost mumbled something that sounded like agreement. Maybe, finally, she could claim that blank darkness as her own. Maybe, at last, she could rid herself of the feeling that it had all been too easy.
I did it. 4000 words. Not sure what to do with my life now.
This maybe could've been up sooner, but I had these terrible things called mock exams and I also had a flu-ish thing. My mum said it was more of a cold because, y'know, I always throw up when I get colds.
I'd love to see all of your reviews c: What did you think of the biggest TPATP chapter yet? You'll find out what Ru's 'family business' is in the sequel. Probably. I think I've missed a lot of things I wanted to say to you guys. Oh well. Hey, my English teacher of nearly two years is having a baby :3 I remember that.