A/N: Er, I don't know if any of you readers have seen it yet, but there's a poll on my profile concerning a name for a cat named Eaglekit? It's been up there for a while now, but if you haven't voted yet, I'd really appreciate it if you did! Thanks, now I'll leave you to your reading :3
P.S. sorry for the late update! I was on spring vacation! And the Grand Canyon doesn't have internet...
"Is he awake yet?"
"No, Blackpaw, he isn't. For StarClan's sake, I'll tell you when he's awake! Just go away and leave us in peace!" Littlecloud, normally calm and friendly, was on his last nerve now; his ears were flattened, and he was practically snarling at Blackpaw. But she wouldn't back down.
"I want to see my brother! I don't care if he's sleeping, I want to know how he is!" she meowed angrily, lashing her tail.
"As medicine cat, I'm telling you that he isn't in any condition to -" Littlecloud stopped suddenly, cocking his head to the side as if listening. "Wait here."
He disappeared back into his den, but of course Blackpaw ignored his instructions and followed him in. The sky outside was dark, making the den even harder to make out, but Blackpaw used her whiskers to avoid walking into any walls, at least. She approached Bronzepaw just behind Littlecloud, careful not to step on any of the fresh bedding next to Bronzepaw's nest.
"How are you feeling?" Littlecloud asked softly, bending down to touch his nose to Bronzepaw's ear. "Your fever seems to be going down..."
"Thirsty," the sick cat rasped. "Water..."
"Blackpaw, hand me some of the moss. No, don't step on it-! Oh, never mind."
Blackpaw stumbled backwards awkwardly, accidentally stepping on the bedding. It turned out that it was water-soaked moss, ready in case Bronzepaw woke up. Littlecloud snatched up a wad and squeezed it over Bronzepaw's mouth, letting the water trickle into his throat. He sighed in relief as his parched throat was soothed. "Thanks."
"Better now?" Littlecloud asked kindly, tossing aside the now-useless moss. "Does your back still hurt?"
"A little." Bronzepaw's voice was stronger now, not as raspy. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Since yesterday," Blackpaw interrupted. "I tried to see you a bunch of times, but Littlecloud kept making me go away! This is the first time I got to visit!"
Littlecloud's tail swished through the air as he placed it over her muzzle. "She shouldn't be here now, either, but there's nothing I can really do about it," he meowed, sighing tiredly. "I'd asked Blackstar if he could take her to the Gathering, to get her mind off worrying about you, but -"
"The Gathering!" Bronzepaw shot up in his nest, his eyes glinting in the dim moonlight starting to filter through the den entrance. "I can't miss the Gathering! We need to see Snowpaw!"
Blackpaw winced, feeling a stab of guilt. She'd forgotten all about Snowpaw in her worrying over her brother, who had fallen ill a few days ago. His back had gotten infected from some thorn scratches, and he got a cold on top of that. At least it was too early for greencough, though Littlecloud had said one could never be too sure.
"I'm sorry, Bronzepaw, but you're in no condition to go. Maybe next time," Littlecloud meowed soothingly. "Besides, I think Blackpaw is going, and she'll be able to tell you -"
"No, I won't!" Blackpaw interrupted hotly. "I won't leave Bronzepaw! That would be so unfair! And Blackstar didn't say anything about me going, anyway!"
Bronzepaw mrrowed with laughter, though his voice still sounded hoarse and weak. "It's okay, Blackpaw. Go on without me."
"I won't, so there." Blackpaw curled up next to Bronzepaw and leveled her glare at Littlecloud, as if daring him to try and kick her out. The old medicine cat sighed, but decided not to argue.
"All the cats going to the Gathering, come to the clearing!" Blackstar yowled from somewhere outside. Littlecloud pricked his ears and glanced at Blackpaw uncertainly.
"I'm supposed to go, but I don't want to leave Bronzepaw alone..."
"It's fine, I'll take care of him until he gets back, and I'll ask Tawnypelt or Leopardstep for help if I need it," she mewed immediately.
He shrugged. "Well, in that case..." Without another word, he turned tail and left. Bronzepaw heaved a long sigh and looked at his sister.
"You sure are persistent..." He trailed off, as if lost in thought.
Blackpaw chuckled softly. "It's in my blood." She waited for Bronzepaw to answer, but his even breaths told her that he had fallen asleep. She sighed and closed her eyes too, feeling tired and exhausted with worry. Maybe she could doze for a bit until the Gathering patrol came back...
The next thing she knew, Blackpaw's throat was aching and someone was coughing into her ear. She blinked open her eyes and tried to remember where she was. The tangy scent of herbs wreathed around her, and she sat up suddenly, realising that she was in the medicine den and it was Bronzepaw who was coughing into her ear!
"Bronzepaw! Are you al-" Blackpaw stopped and coughed, her sore throat aching from using her voice. Had she caught Bronzepaw's cold? No, this wasn't the time to think about it. "Do you need water?"
"Y-yes," he meowed huskily, "please."
With some difficulty, Blackpaw uncurled herself, feeling her muscles twinge with every movement, and made her way to the moss that had been placed next to Bronzepaw's nest. She prodded it with her paw, but gasped when she realised that it was all dry. She'd have to go to the stream right outside camp to get moss... but in her current state, it would take her way too long.
As if on cue, Dawnpelt poked her nose into the medicine den. "Is everything alright in here?" she asked. "I heard coughing."
"Bronzepaw needs water," Blackpaw meowed, wincing as her throat burned. "And I guess I need it, too."
"I'll be right back." Dawnpelt's pink nose vanished from the entrance, and Blackpaw collapsed next to Bronzepaw again, feeling immensely relieved that she didn't have to walk anywhere. She felt absolutely horrible - it was a good thing she hadn't gone to the Gathering, or she might not have made it back.
The Gathering! Were the cats back yet?
No, there would be more of a commotion, and she would've woken from the noise. She sighed and relaxed a little; at least she wouldn't miss their report. Maybe Snarlpaw or Jewelpaw had seen Snowpaw, and she could ask them if she was doing okay.
A few moments later, Dawnpelt appeared, carrying a few wads of soaking wet moss. She dropped them next to Blackpaw and Bronzepaw, and both siblings eagerly started to drink. Blackpaw purred in contentment as the water soothed her aching throat. "Thanks, Dawnpelt."
"No problem," Dawnpelt replied cheerfully. "Are you okay, Bronzepaw? You're a bit quiet."
Bronzepaw was still licking the moss noisily - from the sound of it, he was desperately thirsty. "I think he's fine," Blackpaw answered for him. "Just a bit tired with being sick, I guess."
Dawnpelt sighed in pity. "I feel for you. Well, good luck recovering, and yowl if you need me again - the warriors den is right by here!" With a friendly lick to Blackpaw's ear, she disappeared again.
"Finally," Bronzepaw rasped. "I thought she'd never leave."
"Bronzepaw!" Blackpaw was torn between disapproval and amusement. "Dawnpelt was very nice to help us by getting some water in the middle of the night. And you didn't even thank her!"
She could imagine him rolling his eyes. "She's a pain sometimes, being all fussy and mothery. I just want to drink and sleep in peace."
"Are you feeling better now that you've slept some more?" Blackpaw inquired.
'A bit." He shuffled around a bit, trying to find a more comfortable sleeping spot. "My nose is runny, though."
"I -" She stopped, pricking her ears. Was that the sound of pawsteps thudding on the path to camp?
"Shhh! Listen!" The faint vibration was getting louder. Yes, that was the patrol from the Gathering! They seemed to be running really fast. Had something happened? Was there an attack? Why were they in such a rush? Blackpaw sniffed the air and almost coughed at the tangle of scents in the air. Alarm and confusion was mixed with an overwhelming fear-scent. What was going on?
"Rowanclaw!" was the first thing out of Blackstar's mouth as he pounded into camp, the rest of the patrol on his heels. "I need to speak with you, Blackpaw, and Bronzepaw immediately!"
"What's going on?" Blackpaw immediately forgot about her pain and bounded outside, coming to a halt beside her mentor in a few leaps. "Why do you need to talk to me?"
"Where's Bronzepaw?" Blackstar meowed urgently, ignoring her questions. "Something serious has happened."
"In the medicine den, of course! But what is it? Why are you all so freaked out?"
"Not here." Rowanclaw appeared at leader's side; with a flick of his tail, Blackstar directed all of them to the medicine den. "Quickly, inside. This is urgent."
Blackpaw ducked into the den before the senior warriors and rushed up to Bronzepaw. "Thanks for leaving me here," he mewed irritably. "What's happened?"
"Sorry - I don't know anything either. Blackstar said he would explain to us, and Rowanclaw."
"Rowanclaw, check for eavesdroppers. Don't let anyone in - except Littlecloud, I guess," Blackstar growled.
The deputy nodded and did as he was told. Blackpaw took the moment's respite to catch her breath and turn her accusing glare at Blackstar. "Will you please explain why you're all in such a fuss?"
Blackstar sighed tiredly, as Rowanclaw rejoined them; Littlecloud was nowhere to be seen. "Tonight's Gathering was a disaster. There were accusations everywhere, and Bramblestar almost clawed off my pelt. Onestar was pretty mad a Mistystar for randomly picking a fight out of nowhere, of course, but the main trouble was because of the strange cats that had appeared. Gossip spreads quickly through the Clans, and it's never been much of a problem - until now. Everyone knows about something that should have been kept a secret."
"At least twenty cats saw Heron and the rest," Bronzepaw pointed out. "You can't really expect for cats to not gossip."
"He's right, Blackstar," Rowanclaw mowed seriously. "But what happened that made the whole patrol that scared?"
"Well, because of that whole business, Onestar raised a giant outrage about how we let Heron and the painted cats go, and the precious, mighty ThunderClan -" Blackstar spat the words - "supported him. They were all talk and bluster, saying ridiculous things like 'we need to find them', 'we have to kill them all', 'drive them out', 'invaders', 'StarClan's end', whatever nonsense they said - I wasn't listening."
Blackpaw frowned at the mention of StarClan. She still thought that the notion of dead, oh-so-wise cats strutting around above them, watching all the Clans' movements was a bit creepy, but she didn't voice her doubts.
"That doesn't sound very scary," Rowanclaw observed. "If it was all talk and bluster."
"I'm getting to it!" Blackstar hissed. "So, to my point - Bramblestar suddenly brought up something that apparently hasn't been gossiped about to enemy ears. Until now, I suppose. He revealed Snowpaw's gift, curse, skill, whatever you want to call it, to all four Clans, the fool. Of course, half the cats immediately wanted to kick her out while the other half wanted to abuse her gifts in the name of 'all the Clans'. Those foxhearts nearly tore her apart, they were almost foaming at their mouths. The other leaders discussed, fought, squabbled, the usual foxdung, and finally Bramblestar revealed the other half of his revelation - he wanted to organise a trip to the Tribe, to send the apprentices home."
A stunned silence met his words.
Bronzepaw was the first to speak. "Why?" he whispered. Absently, Blackpaw noted that his voice sounded clearer, as if his throat had stopped hurting.
"Because he thinks that it's finally time to figure out why your mother - your real mother - left the Tribe to come here, and because he suspects that something's happened to Stoneteller and he needs to stick his nose in to find out what. The appearance of Heron and the Tribe cats only reinforced that suspicion. It's obvious something isn't right lately, and to him, getting to the bottom of the issue means sending three half-trained cats to the mountains when leaf-bare is almost on us, to check on a cat who's probably perfectly fine right now." Blackstar growled his displeasure at Bramblestar's idiocy. "And apparently, he means to force us to comply through pressure from the other three Clans. Everyone's scared right now, everyone wants answers, and no one outside ShadowClan is thinking clearly. Stupid mousebrains."
Blackpaw had to agree wholeheartedly. "Is he insane?" she snapped. "I want to find out about my past as much as he does, but I'm not going to go strutting into the mountains when it's probably freezing cold there, and the Tribe is dropping dead from starvation! How much food can there be up there, anyway? And are we going to go alone?"
"He's offered to send Lionblaze and Dovewing with you - two of the Three, coincidentally enough," Blackstar meowed. "What do you think of that, Rowanclaw?"
"I think he's out of his mind," the deputy replied calmly. "Even if we were to consider this journey - quest - there's no way we're sending two of our apprentices out there without at least two cats with them. There'll be one more ShadowClan cat that way, but, well, we have more Tribe apprentices than they do."
"The Tribe apprentices are sitting right here!" Blackpaw interjected angrily. "And whatever you say, we're not going!"
"Actually," Bronzepaw meowed calmly, "I like the idea quite a lot."
"What?" Everyone turned to stare at him. It was Blackpaw who had spoken.
He shrugged. "Well, I'd like to know what made my mother leave the Tribe, and besides, even if we don't actually find anything, it'll still be good experience. The worst that can happen is that we won't return to ShadowClan, and that's not so bad because there are still eight other apprentices, right?"
Blackstar snarled at him. "Of course we'd care if you didn't return! Even more so if you died! As your leader, I cannot allow you to go!"
Blackpaw frowned at both him and her brother. "I guess, when you put it that way, Bronzepaw... and we could take precautions so we don't get snowed in or something... but what if we never do return? What if the Tribe tries to make us stay and become their cats? We'll be pretty much taken from our home to a place we don't understand. Frankly, I don't want to do that. But I don't see a way to avoid something like that, if they decide to keep us prisoners."
"That won't happen. Those Tribe cats don't know how to fight. A few good battle moves, some sneakiness, and you're out of their cave."
The word "sneakiness" suddenly reminded Blackpaw of her power, but she quickly shoved the thought aside. With any luck, maybe she'd find answers to that mystery in the mountains, too, although it would be best to not mention it now, of course. The thought of finally getting to the bottom of her invisibility, shadow-sneaking, whatever it was, made her all the more eager to go.
Rowanclaw opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment, Littlecloud poked his nose it. "Am I intruding?" he asked.
"No, no, we were just waiting for you. I explained everything to them, and they're deciding whether they want to go or not," Blackstar mewed stiffly. "Personally, I'm all for them not -"
"If I may, Blackstar," Littlecloud interrupted thoughtfully, "I just wanted to say that it's their decision. You may be their leader, but it's their lives you're trying to control. I know what you're going to say, which is why I stopped you. The final choice whether to let them go is yours, of course, but I suspect that if you refuse, Blackpaw and Bronzepaw will just explode from sheer curiosity... or just sneak out one night and go by themselves. You wouldn't want that, would you?"
"Of course he wouldn't!" Blackpaw piped up, feeling happier than she had all night. Littlecloud's arguments were the tipping point, judging by Blackstar's doubtful expression. How had she gone from thinking this journey was stupid to wanting to run away for the chance to go to the mountains? Well, it didn't matter now. All that remained was to hear Blackstar's ruling...
"Alright," he sighed finally. "You leave tomorrow night."