Moon of the Red Leaves, 3rd Sun
In the season of Leaf-Fall
Year 52, Clan-Time
Nighthawk sneezed. "Great StarClan, what kind of weather is this?"
Rain beat down in steady sheets across the moor. Without any trees to absorb the excess water, gaps between the small hills had become miniature waterfalls, and several sections of brush had been washed away by the relentless torrent. The moorland drained well, so there was not much mud, but there was sand, and there were very few things that Nighthawk hated more than wet sand clinging to her pelt.
Still muttering crossly under her breath, the she-cat dug a shallow scrape into the side of a crest of land. It shielded her from the worst of the wind and the rain, and she began to gingerly lick the irritating grains from her smoke-black fur.
She remained on the alert while doing this. Though she highly doubted there would be a patrol in weather like this—LightningClan cats loathed all forms of water—she was too old and wise to trust her fate to luck. Luck had done nothing for her in all her six years of life.
Three years ago, Nighthawk had once been a proud DarkClan warrior, and her home had been in the broadleaf woodland. Her courage, intelligence, fighting skill, and sharp tongue had become almost legendary among the Clans and there had been talk that her leader planned on naming her deputy—almost unheard of for a cat of that age. Her dreams had been shattered, however, when she was accused of murder and exiled until the end of her days.
There had never been any real doubt that she'd killed her Clanmate, a warrior named Spiderwhisker. Her fur had been found in his claws, and her teeth fit into the marks in his neck. Not only that, she'd freely confessed to her crime when her leader had questioned her. She did not hold any grudges against her Clan for her banishment. They'd had no other choice.
It was only later, when the uproar over the murder had died down, that some cats began to wonder why Nighthawk had thrown away her future over a simple argument. They began to remember Spiderwhisker more personally—an ambitious braggart who believed that the leadership of DarkClan was his by right. He carried the blood of Darkstar, the first leader of DarkClan. Nighthawk was not pure Clan—her mother had had an affair with, and was later murdered by, a rogue—and believed firmly that where you came from was not as important as what you did. They were destined to dislike each other.
The observers' memories extended further, to the constant taunts and sly sabotage Spiderwhisker had directed towards Nighthawk. When she went on hunts, the prey she buried often went missing and turned up as part of Spiderwhisker's catch. Eventually, they came to the conclusion that Nighthawk must have been severely provoked by the tom.
Of course, this did not even come close to the real reason. Nighthawk found out that Spiderwhisker had murdered his own apprentice after he caught her sneaking out to meet a BrokenClan warrior. Evidently he had thought that her shame might be contagious and affect his chances of deputyship. Nighthawk had confronted him, and when she realised that she had no proof of his crime and never would, she'd killed him.
Nighthawk brooded over her past for a few more minutes. She'd never told anyone this; for all her hatred of Spiderwhisker, she was superstitious and believed firmly that it was bad luck to speak ill of the dead. Even her dead. What did it matter anymore? He would have faced StarClan's justice. So would she, in time.
A faint noise disturbed her thoughts. Initially she ignored it, but the sound returned again, more loudly. It seemed to be coming from the earth.
A mouse nest? she wondered. It was an unusual place to have one, but she'd never pass up fresh-kill if she had the chance. She quickly dug her paws into the sand, clicking her tongue in annoyance as her feet became fouled once again.
Her paws brushed against something warm and wet. She stuck her nose into the hole and pulled out the hapless animal.
Then she dropped it. It was no mouse.
It was a kit, a bedraggled, filthy scrap of a thing, wailing in hunger and fear. Sand encrusted her fur and the lines of her eyes, still clamped shut. The little cat cried out desperately, and pressed herself up against Nighthawk's belly, searching for milk.
"You're wasting your time, kit," sighed Nighthawk. "I'm barren. Never had children, never will."
The kit yowled.
Nighthawk jabbed her with a paw. "Shut up."
Amazingly enough, the kit did.
"Your mother tried to kill you, didn't she? I can tell. You still carry her scent, though the rain's washed most of it away." Nighthawk had been blessed with an extraordinary sense of smell. No other cat would be able to pick up the faint odour rising from the kit's pelt.
She drew it in through her scent glands, tasting it. "Hmm. A LightningClan cat. Well, that's to be expected. Young. Frightened." She caught another scent, and frowned. "I'll even tell you this for nothing—your medicine cat knows who you are, if she isn't your mother herself. Borage leaves, to help her milk come. Anyway, tell your mother that she's an idiot. Too cowardly to kill you with her own claws, so she tried to bury you alive. Except that she buried you in sand, and loose sand at that. Lots of air between the little grains. You'd have probably died of hunger before you suffocated. You might find this surprising, but babies are hard to kill. That's because they can slow their breathing and heart rate right down to almost nothing, so they can stay alive for a very long time."
The kit made a small noise and rubbed her head against Nighthawk's belly. The she-cat was strangely touched by the gesture, but try as she might, she couldn't feel any love for the kit. It didn't share her blood and it carried the scent of another Clan.
"So, then," Nighthawk mewed, "what to do with you?"
Perhaps the most merciful thing to do would be to kill the little cat. She was cold, exhausted, and did not look strong. Yet the black she-cat disliked the idea; she'd been responsible for more than enough death for one lifetime. It was not just that, though. Despite her mother's best attempts to murder her, the kit had survived, and kept enough spirit to call for help. She had a will to live that was as tough as Nighthawk's own.
A sense of mischief awoke inside Nighthawk. "You know what I'm going to do, kit?" she told the little one. "I'm going to take you back to your Clan. Rapidstar's a decent cat—he'll accept you. It's in the warrior code, after all. But I'm not doing this out of the goodness of my heart, oh, no, this is for my amusement. I'll be laughing until the end of my days. Can you imagine the look on your birth mother's face when she sees you alive and safe? Not only that, but she'll have to watch you grow up, fight and hunt by your side…oh, great StarClan! She might even become your mentor! Do you think she'll be able to cope with the guilt? I mean, it's pretty much the most awful thing a cat can do." Still chuckling, she scooped up the kit and trotted to the LightningClan camp.
A thought stopped her, and she flicked her ears against the rain and put the kit down again. "You know, this is a bad time for the Clans," she mewed, almost conversationally. "SnowClan's just been destroyed by HollowClan. Everyone in that Clan is dead except for a couple of the younger kits. Everyone's very serious and uptight about it, and they're worried it'll be the end of the warrior code. I doubt it. Clawstar just had a vendetta against Brightstar, that's all. But nobody listens to me anymore." She touched her nose to that of the kit's.
"Only StarClan can give cats extra lives, but I can give you a gift. I bestow upon you the gift of a sharp wit. It may not sound like much, but with it, it won't matter if you're weaker or less skilled than your Clanmates. You'll still run rings around them. You'll drive your enemies mad and you'll gain the best of friends. Be satirical, cunning and clever and mix it in with a good bit of bewildering nonsense just to keep everyone on their toes. Make your mother regret not killing you swiftly when she had the chance."
The kit was blind. There was no way she should have been able to see Nighthawk. Yet she resolutely reared up on her hind paws and let out an imperious meowww.
"Hmm," Nighthawk replied. "Not bad for a first try, I suppose. Just remember, you're better than everyone else, and make sure that they know it." Still chuckling, she picked the kit up again and continued her journey.
It wasn't very long before she approached the LightningClan camp on silent paws. She appeared at the entrance like a ghostly shadow. As she stopped, so did the rain.
"Intruder! Intruder!" yowled a sentry.
"You don't say?" muttered Nighthawk through a mouthful of fur.
"How many?" came Rapidstar's deep mew.
"One. No, two! One she-cat and a kit," the sentry amended hastily.
"All right, then. Send them in."
The sentry puffed up his fur importantly. "You can enter. But no funny stuff, all right? We're watching you."
"You look like a squirrel that's fallen out of a tree," Nighthawk informed him drily as she pushed past.
Rapidstar, a slender blue-gray tom, blinked his amber eyes at the loner. "It's Nighthawk, isn't it?"
"Who else?" she replied grumpily, setting the kit down. The kit seemed to recognize the camp; she became more animated and began to swing her head back and forth. Immediately she picked up the scent of milk from the nursery and started wailing.
Rapidstar watched the kit. "Is she yours, Nighthawk?"
"No. I found her on the moors, half-dead. Probably her mother was killed by something. A fox, or even a green Twoleg*. Anyway, I found that it wasn't in my generous heart to put her out of her misery, so I brought her here. You're fond of kits, aren't you, Rapidstar?"
Rapidstar, whose lack of fertility had become a common joke among other Clans, did not respond to the taunt, although several of his warriors let out hisses. "I am indeed," he replied instead. He turned around. "Moonpelt! Come here, please. There's a sickly kit."
A svelte brown tabby she-cat stuck her head out of a small den. Her pale grey eyes widened as she noticed the kit. She disappeared and emerged again, trotting to the kit's side with a mouthful of herbs. Dropping them, she efficiently cleaned the sand from the kit's pelt with her tongue.
The kit, a brown tabby, was not much more impressive clean than dirty, and it was clear to most cats that she would not grow into a great beauty. One of her toes on her front left paw had rotated and there was a small bend in the end of her tail. The tail might have been an injury caused by her burial but the twisted toe could only have been a birth defect. That alone might have been the reason for her abandonment, Nighthawk mused. Some mothers were not prepared to have imperfect kits, believing that they tainted bloodlines.
"The kit is ill, and deformed," Rapidstar observed mildly. "Does she have a good chance of survival?"
Moonpelt hesitated. "It's…hard to be sure at this point. She's very weak, but overall her health is good. Her tail is broken, but that will heal without affecting her balance. The foot defect is minor and might fix itself as she grows up and her paws get larger. Even if it doesn't, there are many cats born with such problems. Most lead normal lives."
"But not all," countered a powerfully built ginger she-cat. She had an air of authority about her that probably meant she was the deputy, but Nighthawk couldn't remember her name. The she-cat continued. "She may be a burden on the Clan. We'll struggle to feed ourselves throughout leaf-bare, let alone a sickly kit."
"One kit does not eat very much," Nighthawk mewed sharply. "She was strong enough to survive her mother's death—if that's what happened—and didn't freeze to death on the moors. I doubt she'll cause anyone to go hungry."
"The warrior code says we must help kits in trouble," urged Moonpelt.
Rapidstar blinked. "The warrior code says we must help Clan kits in trouble. It says nothing about the spawn of rogues. Still," he said, "I'm inclined to take the risk. A warrior's a warrior, and we don't have enough kits. If StarClan is against her staying, they'll find their own ways to tell us, I'm sure."
Nighthawk dipped her head. She would not thank them—she was doing them a favour, not the other way around—but she had stirred up enough hostility in the moorland Clan for one night. As she turned to take her leave, there was a split in the natural gray roof above them. The clouds parted to reveal the odd golden colour of the sky after dusk. A single star glinted in the gap.
"It's a message from StarClan," whispered Moonpelt. She did not elaborate on it, though her Clanmates watched her curiously. She tilted her head. "Our ancestors approve of this kit's adoption." She began to rub her herbs into the small cuts and bruises the kit had picked up.
"There we go," mewed Rapidstar, pleased. He touched his nose to the kit's. "Very well. From this day forwards, until you have earned your apprentice name, you shall be known as Twilightkit, after the time of day that you were remade by StarClan."
Nighthawk rolled her eyes. My work's done here, she thought, and without saying a word to any cat she quietly slipped away.
Rapidstar picked up the newly-named Twilightkit and carried her towards the nursery. Inside, two queens awaited; the black-and-white Fernleaf, with her two-moon-old Longkit, and the beautiful Silvertail and her much younger son, Valiantkit. Longkit was fully weaned and Fernleaf's milk had dried up, but Silvertail still had plenty.
The silver she-cat gave the newcomer a suspicious sniff. "What is that?"
"This is Twilightkit," Rapidstar informed her. "She is joining the Clan. Will you care for her?"
"She's deformed," Silvertail said, coldly. "And non-Clanborn."
"StarClan has approved of this kit, and so have I." Rapidstar replied. "Are you willing to let your prejudices oppose us both?"
Fernleaf watched the commotion with thoughtful eyes, Longkit with fascination. Valiantkit was too young to know anything but milk.
Silvertail twitched her tail. "And if she dies?"
"We will not hold you responsible." promised Rapidstar.
The pale-eyed queen nosed Twilightkit without much gentleness, but the little tabby was already nursing, tail twitching slightly in satisfaction.
Silvertail sighed. "Okay," she said finally. "I'll keep her."