A thrush's lucky escape
Morningstar shifted uncomfortably in her nest, a stray twig digging into her ribs. Strongkit mumbled a sleepy protest and rolled against her stomach to quickly close the gap. Swanpath's kits- there were, unfortunately, three- squeaked and mewled in their sleep. The pale she-cat herself was sprawled on her side, her fur ruffled and her bones jutting against her skin. The kitting had taken it out of her; she had been far too young for kits, and it was taking its toll on her once pretty and slim figure.
Wrinkling her nose, Morningstar pushed Strongkit to the edge of the nest. For such a large and boisterous tom-kit, he was so clingy, and that worried her. If her son grew up only to develop the poison, it would be the end of her reign and her reputation. At least she could stop worrying about one thing; her gamble in getting rid of Rainkit had worked. Every kit and apprentice could be nicely matched off to each other, all except Pinekit, Swanpath's unlucky third kit. He would be apprenticed off to Sorrelstorm, who was immensely relived.
Dappled splashes of weak, dawning sunlight filtered the green-and-brown canopy above her head. It had been four days since the apprentice ceremony, and a moon or two since Strongkit had been born. Sometimes it was hard to remember the exact date; she didn't really care. Mostly her time was concerned with running the Clan and pairing this cat to that cat. She really had no time for a kit. The sooner she could apprentice him, the better.
Charkit, Swanpath's pale grey she-kit, raised her head and blinked her owlish blue eyes. Morningstar hunched down in her nest. She didn't like kits, especially not with their sharp little claws and their insolent attitudes, but they were necessary to the Clan, to continue the generation and the fight to prevail against the disease.
The tiny she-kit lurched out of her nest and wobbled towards Strongkit. The thick ashen stripes that marred her pelt gleamed in the faint light. Her sister Streamkit began to stir, while Pinekit continued to snore in a rather obnoxious way.
Iceface, as if by divine intervention, popped his head into the nursery. His habitual grumpy expression was stoically fixed into place. Charkit paused in her intrepid journey to stare at the larger cat.
"Morningstar, we need to organize the patrols," he said, giving the kit a flinty glare. Relieved, the tawny queen rose to her paws and shook the tenacious remnants of moss from her pelt. After giving each of her numb legs a quick shake, she trotted from the den. She risked one more glance backwards. Charkit was dabbing at Strongkit's face with one small grey paw, and her sister was tottering towards the pair.
Outside, the air was nippy. Thick clouds hung low in the sky. Several warriors were stretching beside their den, and some were musing over the meager fresh-kill pile.
A small group of apprentices were sitting in the long grass beside the Speaking Hill. There was a clear line between the she-cats and the toms- that pleased Morningstar. Meadowmist was talking with Sablepaw. The pretty black she-cat was frowning, shaking her head, but Meadowmist only shrugged and began to stroll away. She appeared to be heading back to her nest. Sablepaw grimaced, muttered something to Nettlepaw, and began to stalk out of camp.
Sablepaw, fuming- an undesirable trait, in PureClan- pushed her way through the forest. Meadowmist, being the lazy she-cat she was, had insisted that she go out and try to catch a piece of prey alone. She'd also said that it would be a test of her skill, but her smug and content expression as she'd headed to her den had belied her true intentions.
It was highly doubtful that a young apprentice in the middle of Leafbare could manage to find prey, let alone catch it. Yet Meadowmist had not seemed to care. Quite frankly, she didn't seem to think that training an apprentice was too much to worry about.
The black-pelted she-cat paused, drinking in the forest scents with her mouth wide open. Beneath the reek of the dead and dying leaves, she could detect a faint, warm scent that could possibly be a bird. Sablepaw swiveled one ear around, listening, waiting. To her right, there was a small scuffle and the happy trill of a thrush. With the easy grace of practice, she slipped into a hunting crouch. During her few days as an apprentice, Meadowmist had drilled several similar crouches and pounces into her brain. She'd learn to fight when she deserved it, Meadowmist reasoned.
She prowled through the undergrowth with quick, careful steps. She stuck to the shadows, the phantom dark mirrors of the trees and sparsely furnished bushes. The only things that gave her guise away were her luminous green eyes. They were, hopefully, possibly, the last things the bird would ever see, above a yawning pink mouth outfitted with wicked white fangs.
But Sablepaw was not the only predator attracted by the bird's merry chirping.
From behind the gnarled trunk of an old and stooped tree, another bright pair of eyes watched the thrush. The eyes, on regular occasion, bobbled a small distance closer, and closer, and closer, every few seconds. Then they would stop, and wait, narrowed cautiously. They wouldn't hesitate for very long before repeating the motion, slinking ever closer to its intended prey. By the time Sablepaw spotted the thrush, the owner of the eyes was prepared to spring, claws gripping the dead and dry ground with anticipation. So too was the black-pelted she-cat. She pressed herself to the forest floor, muscles tense. She fought to keep her long winding tail still, while she waited for the moment.
When the moment occurred, both watchers seized the opportunity and leapt. The thrush took off in startled flight- somewhat relieved, having successfully avoided a messy end at the claws of not one but two hungry predators. It trilled a loud warning, both beautiful and ominous. Sablepaw found herself in a painful collision with her fellow apprentice Smokepaw. In a tangle of flying limbs and twining tails, they thudded into the ground. The breath left her lungs in a painful undignified gasp, but as soon as she regathered her wits, she scrambled away from the dazed grey tom. Just touching the opposite sex left her skin crawling; it was as if she could feel the invasion of the poison setting in.
"That was my bird!" Sablepaw spat, bristling, before she remembered she was not supposed to even talk to a male, let alone collide with one in mid-air.
Smokepaw took his time sitting up and brushing leaves from his pelt- a very feminine gesture, Sablepaw thought- before replying. Even so, it was only one word. He, for one, seemed mindful of the regulations.
"Sorry," Smokepaw muttered, shrugged. His nonchalance suggested that he didn't really care. The young tom was just turning to leave, perhaps pondering the possibility of more prey, or the possibility that it had all been scared off, when something occurred to Sablepaw.
Without really thinking, she blurted, "Can you tell Pepperpaw that I said hi? And that I hope he's still okay?"
Smokepaw paused, shrugged. His impossibly round and amber eyes met hers.
"I guess," he agreed, seeming to be a tom of few words. Sablepaw remembered playing with him and his litter, once or twice on occasion, before they had gone to live in the warrior's den. It was a hazy memory, but he seemed changed. PureClan did that to cats.
It was a very disgruntled, and prey-less, Sablepaw that made her way back to camp.
Tell Pepperpaw that I said hi? How juvenile does that sound, and just how poisoned?
All right, I hope this clears a few things up. And, also, I won't have internet/computer or even tv until maybe Wednesday or Thursday. Only two electrical plugs in my until-recently vacated house are working, so wish me luck! (You know how earthquake repairs and stuff are. They even left the gaping hole in our roof alone, and the piles while spinning some spiel about 'pre-existing damage'. Oh well, that's my life and I won't bore you with any more.)
Plus, thank you for all your lovely reviews and your support!