Chapter 23: Fresh Wounds

"And so, we must be on constant alert, all of us. Strongstar is still out there somewhere with a considerable amount of warriors loyal to him. Keep your eyes and ears open."

Silverstar silky gray coat glimmered in the moonlight as she addressed the clearing full of cats. Icepool sat curled up next to Rainwhisker and Seapaw. The majority of the Gathering had been devoted to discussing the events of the battle between Strongstar's followers and RiverClan. The meeting was drawing to a close and Icepool couldn't help but notice how out-of-sync the Clan leaders and the cats in the clearing looked.

Redstar was on Silverstar's left, resolutely staring at his paws. Tearstar had somehow managed to attend the Gathering but she was incredibly underfed, visibly shaking, and still obviously weak from her time under Strongstar's control. Spottedmask was sitting far away from the other leaders, her splotchy tail wrapped tightly around her paws, her eyes darting nervously. Icepool still was unsure of WindClan's new leader's loyalties but she didn't blame her for looking anxious. When Silverstar had announced that Spottedmask would be traveling at moon-fall the next night to receive her name and nine lives from StarClan, there had been mutters and low hisses in the clearing; it was known that Spottedmask had been close to Strongstar.

Icepool sighed quietly and stared around at the other cats around her, their heads tilted towards the great tree as Silverstar spoke. The clearing had never looked so empty. ShadowClan and WindClan were both in ruins, half of their Clans gone.

Strongstar did more damage than any cat could foresee, Icepool thought sadly.

So many dead. So many weak and injured. It would take moons for ShadowClan to rebuild and WindClan's predicament was precarious at best, their new leader unexperienced and their medicine cat barely out of kithood.

"Look, Spottedmask wants to say something," Rainwhisker whispered in Icepool's ear, jolting her away from her somber thoughts.

Sure enough, the black and white she-cat was on her paws, her tail lashing back and forth in agitation. The clearing fell silent as expectant eyes turned to the WindClan leader. Icepool wondered how many of them were viewing Spottedmask with suspicion and fear.

"I know I am not officially WindClan's leader yet," Spottedmask started, "But I feel I must address you all with that authority. I know many of you do not trust me. But I can assure you that my loyalty is to WindClan, and to WindClan alone. And my Clan needs time to rebuild after this travesty. However, do not think for one moment that we are weak. If I catch any cat on our territory without invitation, we will show you how strong we really are."

Yowls of support rose from the group of WindClan cats clustered in the middle of the clearing. Icepool saw Acornpaw standing tall, her head thrust into the air as she stared at Spottedmask with admiration.

"RiverClan has been much too comfortable on our territory as of late," Spottedmask continued, her voice tinged with a growl, "That ends now. WindClan can take care of itself. If I scent or see one more RiverClan cat on our territory, I'm afraid our two Clans are going to have another problem."

The RiverClan cats hissed.

"We were trying to help you, furball!" Fernfoot spat, glaring at Spottedmask.

"Enough," Silverstar mewed, silencing the growls of dissent among her Clan, "Spottedmask, I understand. Of course we will not cross into your territory. We only did so before because of the dire circumstances at play. We want no quarrel with WindClan, especially at such a critical time of rebuilding."

Icepool narrowed her eyes. Silverstar's words were soothing but her tone was cold. And her final remark seemed to be meant to remind Spottedmask that her Clan was not in a position to make threats.

"Good," Spottedmask grumbled, suddenly not meeting Silverstar's eyes.

"If that's all then, I think we should get going," Redstar interrupted, finally raising his green eyes from his paws, "It's late and this Gathering has gone nearly twice as long as usual."

"That's because there was a murderous traitor ruling half the forest a few days ago," Seapaw muttered under her breath.

Icepool twitched her whiskers in amusement. Clearly Seapaw, like herself, had not forgotten ThunderClan's apathy during Strongstar's rule.

"Yes, ShadowClan must be returning now," Tearstar croaked, her voice harsh and raspy, "Once again we thank RiverClan for their help during our plight. It's now time for us to go home and begin again and try to repair what has been lost."

The starved ShadowClan leader slithered down from her perch and landed on the ground with a soft thud. Tosstree was immediately at her side, supporting her through the clearing. The sad, small group of ShadowClan cats left followed their leader and medicine cat out of the clearing. Irisclaw looked over her shoulder as she left and caught Icepool's eye. She flicked her tail in farewell, a pained look on her face. Icepool wondered how long it would take her to recover from the trauma of losing her Clanmates. Tearstar had made Irisclaw her new deputy to replace Lilyshine but right now Irisclaw just looked defeated.

The other cats started to leave the clearing as well. Icepool and her companions rose to their paws. Rainwhisker nudged her shoulder gently, leading her towards where Silverstar was now standing with Pinetail.

"Icepool?"

Recognizing the voice instantly, Icepool whirled around to see Cloudspot standing a few tail-lengths away. His eyes were warm and his tail curled in happiness to see her. Behind her, Rainwhisker drew a sharp breath in and hissed quietly.

"Cloudspot I-" Icepool began.

"Did you hear me?" Another voice cut through Icepool's, "Cloudspot, I said we were done with RiverClan."

Spottedmask had stalked over and was glowering at Cloudspot.

"I was just saying goodbye to my friend," Cloudspot protested angrily.

"No. Icepool cannot be your friend. You belong with your Clan, now more than ever. You must cut your ties with this she-cat. WindClan comes first," Spottedmask insisted, glancing at Icepool for only a brief moment.

Cloudspot hissed in surprise and unhappiness and opened his mouth, his white teeth glinting in the moonlight as he started to respond.

"No, Cloudspot, she's right," Icepool interjected.

The white tom stared at her incredulously. Even Spottedmask looked bemused, as if she expected a fight from Icepool.

"We can't...we can't do this...anymore," Icepool stuttered, her ears going hot with embarrassment, "We're in two different Clans and we need to be loyal to them to follow the code. We had to work together to drive out Strongstar and that's done for now. You should focus on rebuilding your Clan."

Cloudspot's eyes widened and Icepool saw the hurt register in them. Then it slowly changed to resentment and her friend's tail lashed once before he lowered his head.

"I see," Cloudspot intoned softly, "You're choosing him."

Spottedmask's look of confusion transformed into a sly understanding. She twitched her whiskers, almost in derision, and then blinked at Icepool, who felt a pit of despair open up in her stomach.

"No, Cloudspot, I'm just being realistic, we're not in the same Clan, I'm not picking any cat, I'm-"

"Save it," Cloudspot growled.

He turned around and shot off, disappearing into the darkness enfolding the trees. Icepool felt terrible, she wanted to run after him, to apologize and press her face against his. But she couldn't. Rainwhisker was standing next to her now, his fur standing up in anticipation. She wasn't choosing him. She wasn't choosing anyone. Why couldn't they both understand that? She was concerned with Strongstar and the very real threat that he might come back any day. She didn't have time for two jealous toms!

"Stay away from WindClan," Spottedmask warned, her eyes burning into Icepool's fur, "The less contact you have with him the easier this will be. For every cat."

At that the new Clan leader spun around and trotted off after her Clanmate, leading the rest of her cats off into the dark. Icepool felt like she couldn't breath. Was Spottedmask threatening her or trying to offer advice? She shook her head as if to dislodge water from her ears. She was too tired to think about this now.

"Come on, let's go home," she muttered to Rainwhisker, ignoring the pleading look in his eyes. She didn't want to talk about what had just happened even though he clearly did.

The two cats joined the rest of RiverClan and fell into line behind Crabclaw and Tinystripe, whose tails were intertwined together as they walked. Icepool watched them pensively. Maybe it'd be nice to be like that with Rainwhisker. It would be uncomplicated and simple. Every cat would be supportive. They'd known each other forever, and they were a great team. And they'd gone through so much together. But Cloudspot...she'd gone through a lot with Cloudspot too. And he'd always put her first, even above his Clan. But he lived in WindClan and she lived in RiverClan. Icepool didn't think that could ever work out. She suppressed a sigh.

I wish StarClan could send me a prophecy about this, Icepool thought bitterly, It'd be nice to get some help.

The stars sparkled overhead as the RiverClan cats crossed the fallen tree and ran swiftly through the woods towards their camp. The chill in the air was palpable now as leaf-bare fell upon them. Icepool knew it'd be a difficult few moons. The Clans were unstable and Strongstar would know that. He'd be watching, she was sure of it. And she couldn't shake off a feeling of foreboding that followed her everywhere. Until Strongstar was dead, Icepool knew she'd never feel totally safe. And she realized he probably felt the same way about her. They would meet again. And there was a chance one of them wouldn't come out alive.

StarClan help us, Icepool sent up a silent prayer, Help all of us.

RiverClan was better off than WindClan or ShadowClan but Icepool knew they would need all the help they could get to survive the coming moons. But she was ready and determined. She had too much to lose now. Rainwhisker, Seapaw, her mother. She cared about too many cats to see them suffer and die.

I will protect them, Icepool thought fiercely, I am the blue-eyed cat and I will seal the fate of the river and save my Clan! Just let Strongstar try and stop me.

Far away, an owl hooted solemnly. Icepool's eyes gleamed with resolve as she flew through the forest, her Clanmates all around her, drinking in the sights and smells of her home. This was her life, her love, her Clan. And she would protect them.

Or die trying.

xxx

End of Book