Nettlecloud used to be a nice cat. She'd be genuine, if not a little ambiguous at times. She had no ambitions nor suspicions. Up until the day she grew up, she'd been innocent. Maybe that was the day five tiny lives began to swell her stomach; maybe it was the day her claws finally kissed the throat of a Tainted. Maybe it was even the day, moons ago, when she'd overheard the midnight conversation between Sablefrost and her father.
Her niceties were gone now; wasted back in the haze of her apprenticeship. Flutterpaw was swiftly discovering that, as she hit the dirt four times in rapid succession. It was likely the petite she-cat would've wanted to start off her lessons easy. A tour of the territory here, a bit of hunting there. Nettlecloud's days as a 'paw had started much the same way. Flutterpaw was getting an altogether different experience; but what could she say? She was a crabby young she-cat with a nest full of kits and pair who hardly bothered to give her the time of day. Peppermask never gave her an excuse for his absences. She guessed he was off crafting his aspirations and ambitions in some suitably dark hollow.
The mentor and her new apprentice were only grappling- no defined moves, play-fighting turned skewed and aggressive. It was adamantly clear the pale brown tabby had no skills when it came to fighting. She was timid, hesitant, bemused when it came to deciphering Nettlecloud's instructions. The dust on her pelt only served in turning her a more unappealing shade of beige.
"I give up," Nettlecloud snapped, when Flutterpaw was too slow to rise to her paws. "Come and find me when you're ready to learn." With her words, she ushered the little cat from the clearing. Even with her departure, Nettlecloud was not alone. Charpaw and Streampaw were practising for their looming final tests; as far as the fawn queen had heard, they'd already passed their tracking assessments, albeit with murky colours. One of them would eventually bear her nieces and nephews, she supposed, although that realization wasn't thrilling. To be frank neither would ever hold a coveted rank in the Clan.
Iceface was also in the occupied arena, have much more success with his own new apprentice Cloudpaw. It wasn't surprising considering his badger of a mother was Meadowmist; either that, or the deputy just wasn't as immersed in training as Nettlecloud had been. After staring at the pair for a few moments, she began wishing her apprentice would show even a fraction of Cloudpaw's agility or enthusiasm. Did she have a dud?
Shaking her head and vowing to slap some skills into Flutterpaw, she left the grounds, smirking as Charpaw was tossed on her back. Several metres from the dry riverbed, she tripped over a tiny dark shape, barely managing to avoid an undignified tumble onto the sunbaked path.
"Sorry, Nettlecloud!" the small shape shrilled.
"Apology unaccepted," the fawn she-cat snapped, planting a paw on its tail as it made to dart off. For the first time she got a good glimpse of the source of her chagrin; incredibly short, it was a black she-cat with paws so white, they very nearly hurt Nettlecloud's eyes. She recognised the squirming kit in a heartbeat, although it was not her own.
"Emberkit? Why are you not in camp?"
The little she-kit set her jaw stubbornly and refused to answer for a moment. She relented; Nettlecloud had developed a piercing, intimidating stare in motherhood, which had the misfortune to no longer work on her own litter. However, it still very clearly held reign over Emberkit, who gulped and shifted her paws.
"Was talking to Morningstar," she muttered, not meeting the queen's eyes. "Told her some things."
Nettlecloud widened her eyes and she quirked an ear at the small kit huddled at her paws. "Really. I'm sure a kit has lots of things to tell the extremely important and influential Clan leader. I'm not sure what you ate for breakfast, Emberkit, is what Morningstar wants to hear about."
She grumbled under breath, blue-green eyes indignant. "Told her a story. Helped her."
The queen snorted; she highly doubted anything Emberkit had to say could be considered helpful in any way. She lifted her paw from the kit's tail and waved her on. Emberkit scrambled away in relief, bounding off down the path with her little paws pounding the dirt beneath her.
Over her shoulder she called," It was important! I helped! It was about Sablefrost!"
In the process of getting up, Nettlecloud paused. She hadn't thought about anything with important and Sablefrost in the same sentence for a long time. Even last night, when she'd heard Smokefang usher her outside for a hissed conversation, she'd blocked it out. She was trying to be a good friend, even if that meant ignoring a few choice rules.
But now Morningstar was interested too?
It took Sablefrost two hours to return to camp. Two hours, which had seen Nettlecloud lounge in several sunny spots around the clearing, pretending to watch her kits tussle and tumble. They were thrilled with her 'attention'. Their excitement persisted long after Mallowkit was carted off to the medicine cat dens with a sizeable chunk of fur missing from his tail.
Two hours, for an impatient cat, was a long time. Nettlecloud had spent moons waiting; waiting for her damned kits to climb out of her stomach, and then waiting for the wretches to grow up. Was it understandable, her impatience? Sometimes she'd felt that she had known nothing else.
Sablefrost arrived with a sparrow in her mouth. Behind her blank eyes and drawn mouth, the black queen looked tired, harrowed. Nettlecloud approached her as she placed the prey in the center of camp, plastering a smile on her muzzle.
"Hey," she called, brushing aside Fawnkit. "Can we go for a walk? I need to get out of this clearing." Sure, she'd been out in the morning, but that was only to throw her lazy apprentice in the dust a few times. At least it felt good to beat something up, after moons of no fighting at all.
Her friend considered for a moment, as she blew a feather from the corner of her mouth. "Yeah, sure. A walk in the meadow sounds nice," she said, glancing at her son as he pestered the older toms. There had been a dearth of male apprentices for some time, and Oakkit was making up for it now, it seemed.
Together, the two she-cats turned and meandered out of camp. After several moons of inactivity, neither were as fit as they would've liked to be. They didn't talk for a while, because truth be told, Nettlecloud was still figuring out what to say. They were at the edge of the meadow before she opened her mouth, and tasted the fresh and fragrant air before she could taste the guilt her words would bring.
"Have any illicit conversations lately?" Nettlecloud asked, as they pushed aside tall sweet-smelling strands of grass to forge a path. Sablefrost stumbled at her words, but there was no surprise on her face; no room for anything else than her weariness.
When she spoke, her words were measured. "Well, Strongclaw is rather fond of discussing odd topics." The amusement she displayed was forced.
"I'm not talking about your idiot of a pair," Nettlecloud snapped. "What were you doing with my brother last night?"
"Telling him to leave me alone so I can get some sleep," she replied, tone equally frosty. "I don't know what he wanted. I don't mean to offend you, Nettlecloud, but I don't think your brother's been the same since his accident. A few too many knocks to the brute's head."
Nettlecloud shook her head, coughed out a disbelieving laugh. "Nonsense. You're lying to me. We've been friends since forever, Sablefrost; you really thought I wouldn't find out?"
The black she-cat gritted her teeth, her tail stirring the grass behind them with slow, angry lashes. They had both stopped, and shivering grasses framed their faces, their narrowed and glaring eyes.
Insisting now, desperate to convince her, Sablefrost said,"There is nothing to find out."
"You were talking to your father about...what then, exactly?" Nettlecloud asked. "Please explain it to me. It looked like a very heated to discussion, to be about nothing."
Sablefrost winced at the old recollection, her father's misguided attempt at a warning. "That was a long time ago," she reminded the other queen. "I've made my mistakes and I've wholeheartedly learned my lesson. Trust me when I say I do not love Smokefang."
"All that tension between you...it doesn't spring from nowhere. You told your father you loved him. You've already broken the rules. I could just...you don't...I could turn you in to Morningstar."
"For what? A foolish mistake I made when I was an apprentice? That doesn't stand, Nettlecloud, and you have no evidence."
Nettlecloud stared into the sky for a moment. Such a calm, cerulean blue, such a contrast to the tumult below it. The sun was a round, glaring white orb, an eye transfixed.
Indeed, they were making a scene, but they were they only ones there to see it.
"Love," she admonished in a quiet voice, the softest she'd used so far, "is not hereditary."
"You think I feel obligated to fall in love because my mother was weak?" Apparently, this was a ridiculous notion; the sneer that proudly displayed Sablefrost's bared teeth was entirely unbecoming. She was already backing away, shaking her head, internally clarifying that she'd probably just lost her best and only friend for good.
"My proof is back at camp, Sablefrost. He's starting to get such beautiful amber eyes; haven't you noticed?"
It was a further two hours before Nettlecloud returned to camp. She had wandered about the forest, stringing sentences together in her head, until she'd taken an abrupt nap at the base of an oak tree. But the paths back to the central clearing were not unoccupied, she discovered. There was a familiar tabby pelt submerged in the shadows ahead of her.
"Are you plotting your mutiny or just waiting for me?" Nettlecloud drawled, drawing a few steps closer. Peppermask blinked slowly at her voice, turning his head to stare at her, rather owlish in a way that Nettlecloud found entirely creepy.
"Neither," her pair replied coolly, but he left his spot in the undergrowth to join her as she walked. Their fur brushed, tabby against spotted fawn, and she fought to urge to cringe from the touch.
"Enjoy your conversation with my sister?" She couldn't help but wonder what he knew, with a tone like that.
"Not particularly, but it was enlightening," she replied, vague in a way she knew would aggravate him- who was she, to deny him answers? "Your day was nice, I presume," she continued, sneaking a glance at him with narrowed yellow eyes only to find he was doing the same to her.
"I also received an apprentice today," Peppermask remarked. 'He's much better than what you've got, might I add."
"Everyone's better than Flutterpaw," Nettlecloud snorted. "Her stupid name has probably given her insecurities."
They reached a fork in the path and hesitated. Neither was willing to return to the bustle of camp yet, the place such things as privacy had never ventured into. Nettlecloud wasn't willing to remain secluded with her pair for very long either. She had few recollections of time spent with the aloof tabby tom, but some were unnerving to remember.
She cleared her throat, interrupting the silence that had fallen over them both. "I take it your plots are coming along nicely?" He hadn't strictly told her what he spent all his time thinking about, but she thought she had a fair idea. He was so busy all the time being a damn perfect warrior and it didn't take much to make a guess.
Peppermask smiled. He was still staring at her; they locked gazes as they loitered on the path. "Only as well as yours, dear pair. Care to give me a few tips?" Had a more lecherous smirk ever graced his lips? He saw her shudder, and it widened. Nettlecloud found herself staring at the sharp teeth behind the crooked grin, feigning distant fascination. The tom shifted an inch closer.
"I'll tell you now," Peppermask said, stirring the pale hair of her ears with his breath, "to give up your plans. It would be so unfortunate to lose you, pretty thing, when you are still so young and beautiful."
"And I'll tell you now to give up your badger-brained plains before Morningstar chews you up and spits you out. I fear I might enjoy myself far too much."
She was the one to draw away, to continue down the path and back to camp, where the fetters motherhood had given her were waiting to claim her once again. Beneath all of her disgust, she was proud of herself- this time her breath was not ragged and her paws did not shake each time she took a step.
Once again she began pairing words in her head.
Morningstar. I hear a kit's been telling you some interesting things. You see, she isn't the only one with information...
After all, she had a much more important meeting to orchestrate.
And Sablefrost's secret one-time stalker is revealed.
While writing this chapter I've been editing the rest of the story, getting rid of my terrible typos and adding in a bit of writing here and there. And changing some chapter titles. If you do however notice a mistake in the previous chapters that I seem to have missed, please point it out to me.