A Furball is Born

The moon that preceded the leader's kit was a quiet one. Nothing interesting, to say the least, happened during that moon. The deluge of prey was slowing down to a small, stately trickle, but that was nothing to remark upon; it happened every year. The leaves crisped, browned, and fell- another ordinary, boring annual event. Swanpath retired to the nursery amid rumours and wisps of gossip that it was far too late to be having kits, and she herself was far too young. With autumn's cold bite came the autumn rains, which gradually washed the blood from the grass below the Speaking Hill. They also made the camp, which was a nondescript grassy clearing in a nondescript, heavily wooded forest, a muddy mess. The shallow underground tunnel dug crudely underneath the hill, which served as Morningstar's den, was not saved from the disgrace, but by that time the elegant she-cat had taken her place in the large hollow stump-turned-thorn-bush known as the nursery. Iceface reigned from the warrior's den. Either Morningstar had forbidden him from using her den, or he simply did want not want to curl up in a nest of mud and sparse moss every night.

But the night- as if she were trying to be inconvenient, as the moon was high in the sky before the medicine cat was actually called- of the tawny queen's kitting was an exciting one. The whole Clan was on edge. Births always made them uncomfortable; prospective mothers sometimes developed an unnatural bond with their kits and that could lead to the weakness being spread among their litter. Weakness among the litter would quickly escalate to the weakness wrecking havoc throughout PureClan. That within itself would be a disaster. All that the noble warriors stood for would be ruined, and the last, the only crusaders against the poison would be crushed.

But their worry was irrational. Of all the she-cats, Morningstar was the least likely to induce poison. She had killed more Tainted than she could count. She mocked the ways of the outsiders, and deliberately matched the least compatible cats together to deduce the risks of the pair formulating the poison. The pairing between Embertooth and Thornstreak was a prime example. They could barely stand each other on a good day. They were always bickering, disagreeing on some various topic or another. Sablekit, who at first had been conflicted when her parents began to argue, quickly accepted it as a normal part of her day-to-day life. She was, at the moment, nothing more than an impressionable kit; she did what she was told to do, and feel what was expected of her. She had not yet developed the spark that would define her life. That was still to come.

The black she-kit was sleeping when Morningstar began to howl for Specklefrost. Grumpily, the young cat blinked open her eyes and struggled to overcome her hazy vision. Despite the dim light, she could she see the leader splayed in her nest, moss strewn around her paws and writhing tail. Embertooth mumbled sleepily and turned her face towards the nursery wall. The other queens were sitting up in their nests, blinking quizzically at Morningstar before realization lit their faces.

"What are you waiting for?" Morningstar hissed at Sablekit; her nest was, quite unfortunately, the closest in the proximity.

"Get that damned medicine cat!" she urged. Her command expected no answer but yes.

Without a word, Sablekit scrambled out of her nest and shook grass and moss from her inky pelt. The air was cold, and she shivered and fluffed out her fur as she hurried outside. For and instant she had forgotten the mud, and she plunged into the cold muck with a gasp. Stoically, she struggled onward, but the clammy caress of the mud was almost too gross to bear. The medicine cat's den was all the way on the other side of the camp. She'd been there a couple of times, once for a stomach ache, and it wasn't much. It was a mere, shallow dip in the ground, shaded by ferns and bare tree branches. There were two grassy tunnels. On her first go, she entered the wrong one and found Sorrelstorm's dark den. One one side, rather like the nursery, there was a thick bramble wall, but this one was more more thorny. It seemed that the tom had speared herbs and leaves on the small barbs. The medicine cat was hunched beside this wall, tail idly mussing the pile of tidy green leaves on his left. His eyes were narrowed. He seemed not to see her until she apologized for her intrusion.

"Sorry...I'll be going now," Sablekit muttered. Sorrelstorm grunted, and she backed away into the cool recess of the grass tunnel without any further exchange.

The next tunnel, of course, was the correct one. Sparkpaw lay in her nest, groaning as Specklefrost fluttered around her and demanded her to get to her paws and help.

"Err," Sablekit said, pausing in the entrance. "Morningstar sort of wants you..."

"I know!" Specklefrost hissed, giving Sparkpaw a shove while somehow managing to drag a bunch of shiny dark leaves down from their perch in a forked branch. Sparkpaw pitched forwards, and sprawled limply on the ground, shooting a reproachful look at her mentor.

"Here, carry this," Specklefrost commanded, pushing a packet of messily wrapped leaves toward the hesitating kit. "Take this to Morningstar, and be quick or else you'll get an earful from a certain cranky cat."

Quashing her inner grumbles- she was tired, all she wanted to do was sleep- she took the packet in her jaws and trotted away. It was slick and tasted foul in her mouth. Taking mind of the harried she-cat's words, she increased her pace until she was flying over the mud and back into the nursery.

"There you are!" Morningstar exclaimed, sounding exasperated. She was reclined elegantly in her nest, and despite her earlier shrieks, she appeared to be in no pain and was successfully maintaining a calm and collected expression. Sablekit spat out the herbs by her paws. The queen give them a cursory suspicious sniff.

"What are these, and where, pray StarClan tell, is my medicine cat? She should be here! I ordered it!" For a moment the she-cat's calm crumbled, and she snarled out her questions. Then she miraculously regained her serenity and beamed at Sablekit.

"I'm right here," Specklefrost said, ducking into the nursery entrance and wincing when the rough frame of brambles and thorns scraped her pelt. Sparkpaw shuffled in after. She looked half-asleep, and by no means fit to help deliver kits.

"And now-" Specklefrost tossed a flippant look around the nursery. "Sablekit, Rainkit, Nettlekit, out." The kits were unceremoniously dumped outside by their mothers.

Sedgewing sat outside. His fur was ruffled, but it was only against the cold. His eyes were a deep and untroubled blue, despite the yowls his pair was emitting on the other side of a thorny barrier.

Embertooth, like the other queens, remained inside the nursery. As experienced mothers, it was expected of them. She hated being witness to birth scenes; it was mainly because by the time the whole litter had been kitted, one or more had been cast aside to die. She was not sure why she felt such pity for the doomed kits. Compassion was a foreign word to her, and it implied, at least a hint, of love. And Embertooth could not afford show the slightest ounce of the poison's taint upon her heart; Thornstreak would be on her, quicker than a flash, probing with his demanding questions and lashing out with his demeaning retorts and standoffish comments. Then he would be reporting her to the leader, the deputy, spreading rumours and lies to anyone who would listen. She would be ruined; her very life would be forfeited.

So, of course, she kept her love for her kits a secret. She thought the other queens might have known. They all seemed to feel love for their children. Unnatural as it might be, Embertooth could not, and would not, squash her feelings. Her pair, however, did not seem to feel anything for his own kits other than a fraternal responsibility. He spent a lot of time with Pepperkit -and the black queen's heart still ached at the thought of her darling little tom- and occasionally visited Sablekit, who eagerly lapped up his attention. She span him little spiels against love and told him stories of cats punished for falling under the Taint's influence, which she had learned from the elders. She was praised on each occurrence by her father, but Embertooth felt sick when she heard her daughter preaching against love, and promising to continue the fight to stop the reach of its 'evil'. She surely did not know what her mother felt for her; she would be sickened if she did. And in her darkest moments, where she simply could fight her grief no longer, she thought of her lost kit. She thought of her tiny, limp grey body washing up on some distant shore. She had somehow managed to retain a feeble hope that her kit had survived, but as Leafbare sank its frozen fangs into the forest, the hope waned and grew dimmer.

Embertooth was shaken from her reverie as the leader let out a yowl. This seemed more for show as her eyes belied no hint of pain. Minutes later, the first and only kit was born. Specklefrost quickly checked it and announced that it was a healthy tom. The gathered cats waited for the next kit, but it did not come. Morningstar herself was shocked- she, as perfect and beautiful as she was, had only managed to produce one kit? But she would not let Sorrelstorm take him. He was a large white kit with a mixture of his father's brown patches and his mothers tawny pelt mottled over his fur. Morningstar insisted that the tom would live, and that was all the argument the medicine cat needed. He left without a further word, and there seemed to be a relieved slump to his shoulders.

Maybe, Embertooth thought, just maybe she hated him just a little bit less for that.

Long enough..?

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