Nettlecloud's betrayal was not a worrying thing. It was sad, of course, because Sablefrost had just lost the only cat she dared to call her friend. It hurt her, and it was maddening to know that so many moons of camaraderie meant nothing to the pretty fawn queen. But the time they'd spent knowing each other was not in vain. Sablefrost knew nothing would stem from Nettlecloud's threats, but thinking back, Sablefrost knew it wasn't true in the strictest sense. There was a lot of to be history to be unearthed, times and talks with a certain grey tom she'd once treasured. The conversation Nettlecloud had witnessed was obsolete, and the feelings she'd guessed at had dissipated entirely. Or rather, resolved themselves into a different form.
There is nothing to find out, she'd said, where Thornstreak had rightly urged her not to be a hapless fool, was a clue. Nettlecloud had it now- for a while, really, although she'd never bothered to say a word until now- but as for the rest, she was in the dark.
Maybe she was making things up. Of course. Nettlecloud, desperate to taunt and trouble her, had thrown at her friend-turned-foe words designed to unease her.
That didn't stop her fleeing back to camp, after removing herself in a stately yet smirking fashion from Nettelcloud's presence. She was far enough from the meadow, she was sure, that the other queen would not hear her trampling through undergrowth, nor her blundering breath. She flashed past a shadowy figure she'd later realize was her brother, without bothering with a generic greeting. His intrigued expression didn't catch her attention.
Sablefrost slowed her pace before she reached camp. How mad would she look, hurtling into camp with wild eyes and leaves in her fur? And heading for the nursery, no less. Her slow speed only gave her more time to curse herself, her ignorance, how she'd failed to notice her own children… It was Smokefang's fault, of course, the stupid tom; he'd started the conversation that sparked the confrontation with Nettlecloud. He'd distracted her- made her angry, all over again.
The camp, when she arrived back, was suitably calm and quiet. The horde of new apprentices and their mentors were out in the forest. Those with no one to teach were out too, or else napped in patches of fading sunlight.
It was with no small amount of trepidation that Sablefrost approached the nursery. The squeals from within, noticeably fewer than usual, confirmed that it contained kits. Inside it was dark and stuffy; the norm for the enclosed space. The perpetual scent of milk clung to the air, the odour that persistently coated Sablefrost, head to tail. Oakkit was not in their nest, although Emberkit sat chatting with Mosskit and Fawnkit in theirs.
The remaining tom-kits were making use of Morningstar's abandoned tunnel extension. Their cries bounced off one soft dirt wall and onto the other; as though using some small form of sonar Sablefrost located them by raucous sound rather than sight. Oakkit was apparently winning their small skirmish. Sitting on Mallowkit's back, he fended off feeble blows from his victim's brother Burrkit. It was hard to take their battling seriously when none of the trio could so much as bat their paws without giggling.
"I hate to interrupt," Sablefrost said, "but I need to borrow my son for a moment." Surprised by her sudden proximity, Oakkit tumbled from the spotted brown tom, squeaking as he hit the floor. Within a heartbeat he was back on his paws, a look of innocent objection already on his face.
"Sablefrost," he whined. "I was having fun."
"Who says time with your mother can't be fun?" she mumbled, stooping to grasp Oakkit's scruff between her teeth. He was getting a little big for this, but Sablefrost was resolutely insistent she'd carried voles bigger than him. However, none of them had been quite so alive, or quite so enthralled in their protests. She took him further into Morningstar's den's, opting for privacy. Without the golden queen's occupation, the den had grown a little cold, although her wall-to-wall nest still covered the floor.
She barely heard his reply of "Strongclaw's the fun one" and decided to ignore it. It was, after all, true. Sablefrost set the big kit on the floor, as he struggled to scrape her spittle from the back of his ruffled neck.
She beamed at Oakkit, who looked less than enthused with her company. "Had a nice day?" she asked, conversationally.
Oakkit snorted and scuffed his paws against the dirt. "Fine, 'til you interrupted me." He wouldn't meet her eyes, although she persistently stared into his.
"That's nice. Talk to the big new apprentices?"
"Yeah," he boasted. "Mallowkit was too shy to even say hi but they promised to teach me some stuff. Cool stuff." With these words he raised his little head, bouncing on his paws, and Sablefrost was finally able to see that Nettlecloud was right. His eyes were changing, into a familiar burnished gold she'd once loved. The smile froze on her face.
Oakkit didn't notice. He made his escape.
It was a steely will that lead her from the nursery; the will and desire not to rot in the place that reeked so strongly of Morningstar, she could no longer distinguish her own scent. The black queen found her paws on a path leading from camp. She didn't bother looking for Strongclaw. The 'fun one' would either find her or leave her to wander, lost with eyes that saw only amber.
She found a shrew, and debated killing it, just so something other than her would feel panic. It heard her clumsy footfalls and scrambled for safety. She wondered if she should do the same.
Strongclaw did find her. She hadn't made it hard; she'd found her way back to that rotting hollow log, the unlikely place she'd first come to realize the strength of Strongclaw's feelings for her.
"My kits are growing up," she whispered, knowing his ears would catch her words. She could whisper the Warrior Code, and he'd listen.
There was no need for pretences now. Or perhaps, pretences were exactly the thing she needed, and that was why she was dropping them.
"That's generally what kits do," the calico agreed. He was standing so close it made her uncomfortable, uneasy, although for a long time now Strongclaw's immediate presence had not bothered her.
"It's their eyes."
"And they're not green?"
She hadn't checked Emberkit's eyes, had she? And Sablefrost had seen her that very morning. In a heartbeat, all fears she was a horrible mother seemed consolidated and concrete. How long would it be before she disappeared from their lives, like Embertooth had gone from hers?
"Oakkit's eyes...they're his," she muttered. Her pair's sigh resounded in her ears. "And," she continued, resolutely staring at the tenacious lichen climbing the side of the log, "Nettlecloud has threatened to turn me in. She knows. I could die."
Strongclaw's disconcerting presence withdrew, and his frustration was audible. "I thought we'd left this behind. In the city."
"I guess Smokefang always ruins everything," Sablefrost hissed, lip curling at the thought of the scarred warrior. She'd been fine, until the cursed son of a snake had bumbled into her life.
She turned to face Strongclaw. The calculating expression on his face struck her; it felt altogether too familiar.
"I have an idea," the tom said, crinkling his nose knowingly. "But you won't like it."
"It can't be any worse than this mess," Sablefrost grumbled.
His blue eyes bored into hers. "Run away with me, Sablefrost. Come with me somewhere we won't have to hide."
Already she was shaking her head. She had an old habit of discrediting everything he had to say, and now, it was raising its ugly dubious head again. "That wouldn't work. They'd track us down and kill us ten times over for abandoning the Clan. And what about the kits? And...it just wouldn't work, Strongclaw, not if you don't want to die too."
"Hey," he snapped," "no one is dying in this equation. The kits would be fine- you're not the only queen in PureClan. They wouldn't catch us, not where we're going." He was much more serious than he'd been the time he concocted the plan to get her to the city. Strongclaw's eyes were graver than they had been when two of her kits crept from her life, when a third's lungs refused to taste the acrid city air.
Sablefrost sighed. "I guess. Who cares if I desert my remaining kits?" She did; felt an imposing pain at the very thought. They trusted her to be there for them. Who would give Emberkit advice? Who would congratulate them at their warrior ceremony with more enthusiasm than her?
Strongclaw threw his head back. His cream-and-tabby fur was ruffled. His struggle to convince her was proving fruitless.
"I don't know what I can say," Strongclaw growled. He retreated a step, cold air rushing to fill the void between them.
"Nothing. I shouldn't drag you into this and down with me, so please, do not try." She enunciated every word; now, she needed to convince him, felt as though her every word to him may be her last. Something was brewing beyond the dim dark horizon, and it would rent them apart.
For one moment, they were standing, staring, convinced in what they knew to be solid. The next, Strongclaw was bowling into her, crushing her to the ground, burying his soft pink nose in the raven fur of her throat. A fleeting thought raced behind her eyes: was Strongclaw going to kill her, so Morningstar could not? But in his embrace, wreathed with the heat of him, Sablefrost would not have cared. His heartbeat thundered against hers, parallel echoes. The leaves and twigs of the forest chafed against her back; her pair's tail twined with her own.
She found that the small things made it perfect.
"Sablefrost," he rumbled, "I think I love you. I do love you." And in that moment what she'd thought was solid was shattered. Her breath caught, the tempo of their heartbeats abruptly erratic.
The calico warrior raised his head, grinning, staring up at the patchily veiled sky. "Lo and behold. StarClan has not seen fit to smite me down."
"I can't believe you said that-"
Pawsteps interrupted her. Sablefrost fell silent as Strongclaw unwound their tails and slid the smile from his muzzle. Seconds later an imperial golden figure strode out of the trees. A grimace twisted her pretty face.
"Get off her," she commanded, flicking her tail at her son. Awkwardly, Strongclaw rolled away, frowning at the leader. Sablefrost climbed to her paws, suddenly the subject of Morningstar's indomitable stare.
"Sablefrost," she greeted coolly. "I've been hearing some things about you. Strongclaw, darling, if you'd excuse us." She began to bodily guide Sablefrost away, ignoring the third warrior's quiet protests. Their paws found a path leading somewhere back towards the meadow.
"Nettlecloud's proved to be most informative," Morningstar said, eyes on the track ahead of them. She seemed disappointed with the little black queen, and Sablefrost knew why. Scanning the bushes around them, she searched for the inevitable warriors waiting in ambush. She saw none.
"Her information's outdated," Sablefrost supplied. She wasn't lying to the leader. It couldn't have been truer, but Morningstar's snort was harsh and cynical.
"Quite," the older she-cat grunted. She no longer seemed interested in their conversation, but reaching their destination at a swift pace. Step by step the meadow was drawing closer, dusk light brightening the grassy expanse. The ominous sensation she'd felt earlier returned in full strength. Yet she couldn't turn and run from the leader now, unless she desired a shredded and bloody pelt.
Red clouds scudded across the sky above the forest. It was a far brighter hue than the one to grace Smokefang's chest and spine. He crouched on the verge between lush grasses and shadowy woods, cocooned between two senior warriors. Sablefrost faintly recognised them as Gorsespots and Tornear, before her eyes returned to the cowed grey tom. New wounds glinted among his scars.
Morningstar strolled towards him, placing an unsheathed claw delicately under his chin. "Your dear boy here has told me everything. What Nettlecloud told me was sketchy at best, but she led me to her brother, and he gave me answers. How sweet, young love. I find myself horribly disgusted."
"Nothing that wretch has told you is true," Sablefrost spat. It was easy to summon her old anger, even with his polished gold eyes looking so wide and hurt. Coward.
"Your sweetheart knows how to tell a story, dear. He's adept. Descriptive. Would've made a good elder, if you hadn't led him astray."
"I did nothing to him," she swore vehemently. "He was the one that ruined me."
That was a step too far, she knew, immediately. The other cats' interests were roused, and instantly, it seemed she'd confirmed what Morningstar knew.
Elaborate, elaborate! Tell them a tale Smokefang deserves.
"I never wanted anything to do with the oaf. I certainly never wanted his kits...but...what could I do? I was too small, too helpless…"
She let the implications hang in the air as she trailed off, but there was no pity in the tawny eyes of PureClan's leader.
"I might believe that," she snapped, "if it weren't for Strongclaw. You, my dear, have Tainted him, and that's a crime that must not go unpunished."
"And it won't," Sablefrost snarled back. "You'll make sure of that. I dare say the river's too tame for me." A fourth warrior was at her shoulder, restraining her; Nettlecloud. How fitting, how apt. No expression on her face, no growl adorning her muzzle. She was emotionless, as she was expected to be. And she was keeping Sablefrost from tearing the throat out of the creature fully determined to end her in a very public way.
"I'll sleep on it," Morningstar promised, before nodding at Nettlecloud and the toms. "Take them to the cave with the rest of the rabble they belong to."
Smokefang and Sablefrost were ungraciously hauled across the veldt. The rock façade that hid the Tainted's cave provided a cold, unwelcoming greeting. There was a cat on guard at its mouth, one who stoically avoided the disgraced warriors. Slatethorn stared past them as they were thrown into the dank cave, ignoring his brother's squawk of pain as he landed on a bitterly protesting wound.
"And stay there," Gorsespots snorted, grinning at his own joke as Tornear guffawed behind him.
"Because you asked so nicely," Sablefrost sneered, sparing a glance for her dark surroundings. A few captives lined the dripping walls, with gaunt faces and haggard pelts. They'd all seen better days, but Sablefrost feared she wouldn't live long enough to earn the dull glaze that painted their eyes, or melt the meat from her bones to mimic their lean shapes. The warriors above them, her last link to the world outside, turned to leave. There was no goodbye.
But Sablefrost knew that words she wanted to say were not for them; not for Nettlecloud or even Morningstar. She would've liked to talk to Strongclaw one last time. She wanted to return his sentiments in kind.
Another early update, or what. It's even a late-night one for you guys.
Good news/possibly bad news: this could be the second to last chapter ever for The Poisoned and The Pure. Sorry if it's moving too fast. If I feel like it is I might wrap things up even further with an epilogue, who knows. And how about that for fluff? It's entirely innocent, I assure you, unless you don't want it to be.
Other things I can think of right now are 1) New poll is up concerning the sequel 2) I made a new cover for TPappy, just because 3) it will be my birthday nest week, but I'll try to get in another update soon.
Any guesses as to what will happen next? Please tell me, you might give me some idea what to write ;3 Also please forgive any mistakes, I'll try to fix them if you point them out.
Reviews are love, reviews are life.