A/N: Thanks for reviews! I'm ashamed at how long it took me to write this. I really am. Sorry.
The forest flashed by in shades of white and brown, snow and trees blending into one. Ahead, Firestorm's pelt glowed bright against the dull forest, a flash of golden-red darting around bare bushes and bounding over the snow as he led the way to the unnamed trouble. Quick on his heels, Sunfire followed, blood pounding, claws extended. Behind her ran Jaywing, Quickriver, and Rustystripe, the only warriors who could be spared; she had left Badgerclaw and Softsteps at camp to guard it.
Ahead, she heard deep-throated snarls building, and the sour scent of fox crept into her nose. Firestorm put on an extra burst of speed, his paws a blur as he ran at full pelt towards the apparent fight. Pinefur's foxes, thought Sunfire, her pulse throbbing even harder in her throat. Running around a thick-trunked oak, Sunfire hissed.
Morningcloud crouched, trembling, her amber eyes stretched huge as a pair of foxes, scrawny but wiry-looking, circled her. The vixen and her mate had their fangs bared—Sunfire saw blood coating the vixen's fore-teeth—and were alternating snapping and jabbing with their paws. They were toying with her, Sunfire realized. Gathering her strength, Sunfire gave the battle cry and leaped for the foxes.
She landed on the vixen's back, sinking her claws in deep; she saw Jaywing and Quickriver fly at the dog-fox. The vixen began to buck beneath her, twisting and writhing as she barked. Drawing her head back, Sunfire bit the vixen at the nape of her neck and clung, refusing to let go even as the vixen screeched and struggled to break free. Firestorm slashed at the vixen's feet, making her dance from paw to paw as she tried to bite him.
Finally, after an especially fierce swipe from Firestorm, the vixen reared up on her hind legs, removing her paws from Firestorm's rage; seeing her chance, Sunfire dropped from the fox's back just as Firestorm launched himself at the vixen's exposed underside. Knocked flat, the vixen snarled, sending blood-tinged flecks of foam flying from her mouth. She scrambled to her feet, barked something at her mate in the guttural fox-tongue, and turned and fled. Tearing free of Jaywing and Quickriver, the dog-fox followed his mate, limping on one leg.
"They're heading for RiverClan land," Sunfire panted, heaving for breath.
"Shall we go and warn them?" rasped Jaywing, shaking blood from a cut on his cheek.
Sunfire shook her head. "I think the foxes have had enough fighting for today. I don't think they'll try anything for some time." I hope. Looking around the clearing, her heart jumped as she saw a bundle of gray-and-white fur laying at the base of a tree. Rustystripe stood over the bundle, guarding it.
"It's Hailpaw," he said, his voice low. Hurrying over, Sunfire bent over the gray-speckled apprentice; a bite wound, viciously deep, marred the young tom's pelt. Two deep puncture wounds glistened with free-flowing blood just below his shoulders, one tooth mark on either side of his spine. Hailpaw was unconscious, his breathing horribly rough; his body twitched with every breath.
Sunfire felt sick. Legs shaking, head swimming, she shook herself, tried to clear her mind. "Take him straight to Rootclaw. Be quick as you can—but be gentle with him." Rustystripe, who looked ill himself, nodded nonetheless, and, ever so gently, picked up Hailpaw in his jaws. The speckled tom was nearly too large for him to carry; since he was nearly nine moons old, Sunfire wondered that Rustystripe could even lift him.
"Wait!" said Firestorm, his voice sharp; looking over, Sunfire saw him looking at Morningcloud. "Where's Mudstar?" he demanded. Morningcloud just shook her head, still shaking.
"Mudstar was here?" said Sunfire, stepping over to her son.
Firestorm nodded. "He was leading the patrol. He sent me to get help, since Hailpaw had already been hurt." He scanned the area. "Mudstar?" he called, raising his voice. There was no reply. "Mudstar!"
"Wait!" hissed Sunfire; she had heard a low moan. "Mudstar?" she called quietly, heading towards the noise. The moan sounded again, and this time she pinpointed the noise; a dense bush behind the tree where Hailpaw had been. Her blood running cold, she padded over, bracing herself for another gruesome injury.
Her leader was stretched out beneath the bush; a bite wound showed clearly at his throat. A scarlet stain had spread around him. It's a wonder he's still alive, she thought. Mudstar's eyes flicked over to her, then went glassy. His shallow breathing stopped. Morningcloud, who had crept over, squeaked; taking a breath, Sunfire said, "It's okay. He's just losing a life. He'll wake up." Mudstar had only been leader for four seasons; he couldn't possibly be on his last life already.
Total silence fell upon the woods. Though Sunfire was confident that Mudstar would open his eyes again, she was unnerved; she had never seen a leader lose a life--Lightningstar had been on his last life when she had been born. As the moments passed quietly by, Sunfire's gaze became riveted on Mudstar's throat; the bloody wound was closing slowly, mending itself. Before long, it was just a scar, bright pink and fresh. At the same moment, Mudstar gasped, his eyes flying open. He coughed heavily, then quieted, pushing himself into a sitting position. Relief washed over Sunfire; though she sometimes disagreed with Mudstar, she had no desire to see him die for good.
"Welcome back," she said, bowing her head. Mudstar returned the gesture, then spoke. "Foxes?" hewas out of breath still.
"They're gone," Sunfire told him. "Rustystripe took Hailpaw back to camp—he's hurt badly."
Mudstar nodded. "I saw Hailpaw get bitten." His voice was grim. "I can only hope Rootclaw can save him. A bite at the spine is serious." He stood. "Come. Return to camp."
As they ran, Sunfire took her place at Mudstar's shoulder, her eyes trained on the clean scar at his throat. It was the first time she had seen a leader die and recover, and a strange feeling filled her as she imagined the same thing happening to her one day.
"The fox bit him deeply—even though I stopped the bleeding, there's fairly serious muscle damage in both of his shoulders. I don't think the bite is deep enough to have scraped or cracked bone, though, which is as much luck as we can hope for." Rootclaw sighed, her amber eyes dark, her muscles wound taut. "It's going to be difficult keeping infection out, and the muscle as well as his flesh needs to mend before he can even walk again."
"How long will that take?" croaked Softsteps, her eyes fixed on her son.
Rootclaw flicked her ears. "Walking? It depends on how well my herbs work, how quickly Hailpaw heals—every cat heals at a different pace—and how willing he is to just lay still and not put any weight on his leg. His training, obviously, will have to be postponed for a moon at the very least." Softsteps swallowed hard and nodded, her eyes cloudy; Sunfire stepped forward and gave her former apprentice a comforting lick. The pale tawny she-cat gave an extremely forced purr in return, then rose, headed for the warrior's den.
Still feeling nauseous at the sight of Hailpaw's wound, Sunfire asked Rootclaw, "Will he be crippled for life?"
"Again, it depends. If the muscle heals very well, he could be just as lively and quick as he was yesterday. If it doesn't…." she trailed off, cleared her throat, and started again. "If it doesn't, then he'll have difficulty running, and maybe walking, forever. I can't possibly say how efficient of a hunter he would be in that scenario, or if he could even be a warrior."
"But if he can't be a warrior, he could still serve the Clan," said Sunfire, her belly tight.
"Oh yes, I could take him on as my apprentice, if he was willing. It's been done before." Rootclaw stood and shook herself. "But let's wait and see how he does before we start ruling out the possibility of him becoming a warrior. He's a young, strong tom; he could easily heal perfectly and be on his paws before greenleaf."
Could, thought Sunfire, bowing her head in farewell and leaving Rootclaw to her patient. Could.
Icestorm padded over to her, and Sunfire welcomed his presence; it seemed like so long since she had been with him. Burying her face in his shoulder, she felt the rumble of his voice as he spoke. "I hope you're not blaming yourself for this."
She lifted her head. "Why would I? I wasn't even there when he got hurt; I know I couldn't possibly have done anything to prevent it."
Icestorm nodded. "Morningcloud feels terrible. She won't go near Softsteps, Fogdrift, or Dapplepaw; I think she's afraid that they hate her now."
"Has she been to see Hailpaw?" A mentor should check in on her wounded apprentice, at the very least.
"Yeah. She didn't stay long, though; she doesn't like seeing him so weak and hurt. And she blames herself."
"Where is she now?"
"In the den." Icestorm sighed softly, his breath stirring the fur on Sunfire's cheek as he did. "Come on," he said gently, "Let's have something to eat. You've had a rough day. Meet you by the ash?" Sunfire nodded, and walked to the young ash that grew by the warrior's den. Reaching it, she noticed that the moss from last greenleaf was visible; an area at least a couple of tail-lengths wide that was bare of all but the smallest clumps of snow surrounded the tree.
Icestorm joined her, two jays crammed in his jaws. Setting them down, he curled beside her and nudged one of the jays towards her. Accepting it with a short purr, Sunfire said, "The snow's melting."
"It's been melting for a few days now. Everyone's been so busy that they haven't really noticed," replied Icestorm, spitting out a mouthful of feathers. One stuck to his tongue, and he scraped it off with a forepaw, to Sunfire's amusement. "The forest is finally recovering from leaf-bare. It seems like so long since I've seen grass."
"Probably because of all the trouble in the forest," said Sunfire, picking off a piece of meat and swallowing it whole. She spotted Flickerpool and Bracken heading for the fresh-kill pile together, walking so close that their pelts brushed and their tails nearly intertwined. "I don't like this," she muttered, taking another bite of bird.
Following her gaze, Icestorm nudged her, looking irritated. "I don't mean to sound nasty, Sunfire, but I wish you'd stop painting Bracken to be such a vulture. He's very nice, he hunts for the Clan, he follows orders, he's respectful, he doesn't stir up any trouble—,"
"Seems too good to be true, doesn't it?" interrupted Sunfire, hoping Icestorm would catch the rhetorical tone.
"He cares very deeply for Flickerpool," her mate continued, with only the barest hint of irritation in his deep voice. "And StarClan approves of his being here, at least for now."
"Have StarClan always been right? Some cats have secrets so well-hidden not even StarClan can see them." Her gaze trained on Bracken's neck as he padded away with Flickerpool, she continued, "I just have a terrible feeling about him, and you know the connection I have with StarClan, Icestorm. I'm not trying to say that I'm absolutely right, because I've certainly been wrong before, but I know there's another side of him that's harmful."
Icestorm did not reply. Across the clearing, Bracken tenderly drew his tongue across Flickerpool's neck.
StarClan, what's going to happen? Sunfire received no reply—not that she had really expected one. She sighed softly, her mind now stuck on Bracken and secrets and wounded apprentices and the living shadows that roamed the forest….Finishing off the jay, Sunfire stood and shook herself. Droplets of muddy water spun off of her belly fur; the ground was heavily wet with melted snow. She turned to Icestorm and opened her mouth, but before she could speak, a thin, pained wail rose from the nursery.
Whipping around to face the tangle of brambles, bitter fear-scent blasted over Sunfire's scent glands. Before she could move, Badgerclaw blasted out of the nursery, his tail bushing out.
"Badgerclaw!" Rootclaw was running towards him, her eyes calm despite the warrior's panic. "What's wrong?" her voice was low and soothing.
Badgerclaw was panting, kneading the ground with his forepaws. "It's Nightwhisker," he gasped. A needle of fear pierced Sunfire, and she imagined Nightwhisker lying dead in the nursery—what else could scare Badgerclaw so much? She was fine this morning—
"Calm down, Badgerclaw. Breathe," said Rootclaw, authoritative yet gentle. "What's wrong with her?" A ring was forming around the pair of them, every cat wide-eyed and curious, some fearful.
"It's her kits. They're coming."
Rootclaw seemed slightly stunned. "She's not due for a half-moon at least—"
"They're coming now!" snapped Badgerclaw, his fear-scent overpowering now.
Rootclaw shook herself firmly, clearing away her disbelief. "I'm coming," she said crisply. "Tell her to keep calm, and then leave the nursery. I will be with her in a moment." She turned and disappeared into the nursery.
Sunfire, along with the rest of the Clan, stood still, stunned by the sudden commotion. Abruptly excited murmurs broke out, and some cats pretended to move on to their own business while settling beside the nursery in order to not miss a moment of the unexpected excitement. Rootclaw bounded across the camp, her jaws crammed with herbs. With a rattle of the thorns, she vanished into the nursery.
Sunfire noticed Dapplepaw standing near her, her amber eyes wide and fixed on the nursery. The tortoiseshell apprentice turned towards her, and Sunfire saw how haggard the usually bright apprentice looked. She realized how strongly Hailpaw's injury had affected his sister, and she groped for appropriate words. "I'm sorry, Dapplepaw."
She did not realize she had spoken at first. Dapplepaw flinched slightly, then nodded. "I know." After a beat, she added, "But he'll live. He's been saying for a moon now that he wants to be mentor to Nightwhisker's kit, and I keep saying that I'm going to mentor her kit." Her whiskers twitched in a ghost of a smile. "He won't give up his first chance of being a mentor so easily." With that, she padded away, looking a measure more cheerful.
Listening to the panting now coming form nursery, mingled with Rootclaw's gently murmured instructions, Sunfire caught the scent of birth-blood filling the air. Staring after Dapplepaw, she marveled at the optimism of the apprentice. Maybe I could learn from her.
She sighed, then remembered she still had to arrange the evening patrol. Life always goes on. Wounded things recover in time, and the dead live on in StarClan. Always life.