The trip through the Twolegplace was uneventful, though a bit frightening. I remembered how Snowpaw couldn't seem to leave Bronzepaw's side, and felt bitterness welled up inside of me, as it had every time I thought about it. What happened to being inseparable? And how had our friendship been split so deeply?
Once, a stray dog nearly attacked us, but Dovewing gave us enough warning so that we could climb onto a roof of a Twoleg den before it even appeared. I briefly envied her powers, but quickly realised that she must be in a lot of pain, with the amount of noise and activity her extended senses must be giving her. I could tell by the way Lionblaze gave her anxious looks, and how her ears were often flat against her skull. Shrewfoot and Toadfoot seemed to pay no notice, as they were probably used to her power, but Snowpaw glanced at Dovewing a lot more than was necessary.
Not that I was watching her, or anything. I was just bore.
Now, our little group had reached the foothills of the mountain range where the Tribe made its home. I thought that I should be feeling scared, maybe, of the coming leaf-bare, and perhaps excited at finally seeing my true home - but all I felt was apprehension. For some reason, all my instincts were telling me that we should turn back to the lake and go to my real home, as something was not quite right here.
Something was definitely missing.
Toadfoot, Lionblaze, and Dovewing were staring up at the steep cliffs, mixed emotions shining in their eyes. I thought I could see regret, longing, and happiness - an odd combination. Shrewfoot, however, was watching me.
"Are you alright, Blackpaw?" she asked, padding over to me.
"Fine." I shrugged.
"Do you want to go hunting while we're taking a rest?" she persisted. "Or why don't you join your siblings?"
I looked at Bronzepaw and Snowpaw, sharing tongues all cozily a dozen cat-lengths away. "No, thanks," I meowed frostily. "I'll just wait here."
She peered closer at my face. "What's wrong between all of you? You used to be so close..."
"I said, I'm fine!" I didn't realise I had yowled until everyone looked over at me, including my brother and sister. My pelt bristling with embarrassment, I flattened my ears slightly and walked away from all their curious stares, not quite sure where I was going, but not really caring either. Maybe I would hunt after all.
We had come to a rest not far from a copse of trees, so I turned toward those. With any luck, there would be a mouse or two for me to eat before we moved on. And I wouldn't have to look at Snowpaw being all sisterly with Bronzepaw.
The cold breeze rustled the grass softly, making it tickle my fur. I tried to ignore the sensation, but that only made it feel worse; to top it off, droplets of water started landing on me. One splashed on my nose, and I sneezed, growling irritably. Of course the weather would be against me! And with the rain, most of the prey would probably be hiding it its burrows and dens. I might have to go back hungry.
Thankfully, the trees provided some shelter from the increasing rain. I ducked under a holly bush and sniffed the air, not really expecting to find any scents. To my surprise, though, I smelled a fresh rabbit scent. It was tinged with warm milk, and I realised that a rabbit's burrow must be nearby. But what was a rabbit doing, having babies this close to leaf-bare? Surely they'd all die in the cold.
I carefully followed the scent, treading lightly to avoid excessive noise. I was led under a bramble bush, around a large oak tree, and into a small clearing where a tiny hole was dug out in the roots of a... a deathberry bush.
I stopped immediately, eyeing the berries warily. They were glossy and red, interspersed within the needles of the bush, and I could see a tiny black seed through the holes in their centres. I noticed a bird pecking at the red part of one of the berries, too high up for me to reach it. The seed must contain the poison, I concluded. So as long as they don't get anywhere near my mouth, I'm safe.
Well, the rabbits were waiting. I padded softly to the hole and prodded the soft fluff inside with my paw, expecting to encounter some juicy morsels.
I heard a muffled thump and a gentle snuffling. Very, very cautiously, I hooked the fluff with a claw and tossed it aside, revealing three baby rabbits curled up on each other. One of them was twitching, causing the thumping sound when its leg hit the side of the little burrow.
A sudden burst of compassion washed through me. I looked down on the adorable little fuzzballs, watching their fur rise and fall as they breathed. The thought of eating them didn't even cross my mind anymore. One opened an eye and blinked at me. I purred, despite its little squeak of terror once it realised I wasn't its mother.
I peered closer, looking at the babies. They were each a different colour, I noticed. One was covered with thick white fluff, its ears and nose the only spots of colour on its pelt. Another was a strange dark ginger colour. I didn't know that rabbits could have anything but grey fur, but I shrugged and moved on to the third one.
It had jet-black fur.
"This has got to be a coincidence," I muttered, forgetting what I was leaning over. The first two rabbits erupted into a cacophony of squealing, and I hastily gave them a few licks, forgetting that they weren't kittens, used to their mother grooming them. They became even more terrified. Frantic, I grabbed the discarded grey fluff and practically shoved it into the hole, concealing the babies from view and thus muffling their high-pitched little voices.
I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that they'd probably be safe until their mother came back. Speaking of coming back... I looked up at the sky, surprised to find that it had turned a darker grey. Was the sun setting already? I quickly bounded back the way I'd come, hoping and praying (to no one in particular) that the others had at least waited for me to come back from my fruitless hunting trip.
I'm sure those baby rabbits were just a coincidence. Their mother wasn't dead, unlike mine. Right?
"Where were you?" I asked Blackpaw impatiently as she came trotting back to our little hill, soaked to the skin. "We were waiting for -"
"I don't care, alright?" she snarled, glaring at me. I stared, taken aback at her angry tone. Sure, I was a bit annoyed with her, but I had a reason, didn't I?
"Look, that's enough arguing! We've wasted enough time already!" Dovewing interrupted. "Let's just get moving, okay? We're all pretty well rested, so I think we can all travel around half the night, can't we?"
"No we can't!" Toadfoot protested. "I remember the Great Journey pretty well, and those cliffs are treacherous even in the daylight! Travelling through the night, one of us could easily fall off and die."
Shrewfoot spoke up. "I think Toadfoot's right, Dovewing. We're all well-rested, it's true, but thanks to Blackpaw we can't safely continue. We'll just have to sleep here for the night, and get to the Tribe cave by sundown tomorrow." Her voice was even, but I noticed Lionblaze giving Blackpaw a dirty look. I was tempted to agree with him, but I kept my gaze neutral. She was my sister, after all.
In the end, we agreed with Shrewfoot, of course, though there was still a lot of grumbling from Lionblaze before everyone finally settled down. To my irritation, Blackpaw didn't look at all remorseful; she had a thoughtful frown on her face, as if she was contemplating something important. I was torn between anger that she didn't care how annoying she was being and curiosity as to what was occupying her mind.
The next morning dawned cool, fresh, and crisp; there was a cloud front advancing steadily towards us from the lake's direction, and I noticed Dovewing murmuring nervously to Lionblaze about a storm. I got up the latest, but thankfully Snowpaw had caught a vole for both of us to share. She wasn't the greatest hunter, I'd learned, but she was decent. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Blackpaw was eating a thrush, separate from the rest. Snowpaw was absently tearing off the vole's fur and arranging it into some design, not taking her eyes off her estranged sister.
There was a cautious, yet calculating look on her face. I'd never expected to see that mixture on the face of such a sweet, caring cat.
"Be careful of loose stones and crumbled rock ledges," Lionblaze told everyone. "I don't want anyone falling to their deaths and possibly getting injured."
Dovewing rolled her eyes and swatted him with her paw. I heard Shrewfoot chuckle.
The line was set up like this: Dovewing led the way, followed by Toadfoot, then Blackpaw, then Shrewfoot, then me and Snowpaw, and finally Lionblaze. That way, Dovewing could scout ahead with her senses (which I still found rather creepy) and Lionblaze would watch for anyone following us, although that was unlikely.
In the first part of the day, we managed to ascend halfway up the first mountain. By that time, my feet were feeling very sore, and I noticed that Snowpaw's pawsteps left blood smeared on the rocks. I pointed this out to Shrewfoot, and she agreed that we should take a break.
"The hunting methods are very different here than they are back at the lake," Dovewing explained to us apprentices a little later. "Here, cats mask their pelts and their scent under mud, and they use smaller prey like mice to attract larger prey, such as eagles. There just aren't enough small animals to feed two cats, let alone an entire Tribe. Also, it usually takes a group of cats working together to bring down large birds of prey, so teamwork and cooperation are very important skills here in the mountains."
I nodded my understanding, and Snowpaw looked at her fluffy white coat sadly, as though imagining it already coated with mud. Blackpaw gave her an almost sympathetic look, which immediately turned bitter when Snowpaw pointedly ignored her.
Dovewing scouted ahead and discovered a small trickle of water in a neighboring gully. Lionblaze, Snowpaw, and I were sent to cover our pelts with mud - we had the most noticeable fur, because we were golden, white, and bronze, respectively. To tell the truth, I wasn't even sure what colour bronze was supposed to be until a moon ago, when I had hesitantly asked Toadfoot. He'd explained that it was a sort of light brown, shiny material that could be found in the Twoleg den that used to house two vicious kittypets. How my mother had known that my fur was exactly that colour, remained a mystery.
That is, another mystery to add to the ever-growing collection, along with my parentage, the berry-cats, Blackpaw's powers, and the reason why my back hadn't stopped itching for the quarter moon. Sure, the irritation ebbed and flowed, but it was always there, and it nearly drove me insane when I thought about it for too long. Snowpaw hadn't been able to help me, either.
"Here we are," Lionblaze mewed gruffly as we entered the narrow gully. Sure enough, there was a tiny trickle wetting the dirt at the bottom, and I could see that despite the small size, the mud would be perfect. A few stunted bushes and a bit of grass lined the edge. I sighed and descended after Lionblaze, who had gone first, sending a few rocks skittering down as I slid neatly to the edge of the little stream.
"Do I have to do this?" I asked flatly. "I mean, my fur's pretty camouflaged -"
"No it's not," Lionblaze snapped. "Now do as you're told, or you won't be getting any fresh-kill!"
I shrugged in defeat and gingerly sank down into the mud. The water was surprisingly cold, but even more of a surprise was how good it felt when I rolled over onto my back, letting the mud rub against my itchy scratches. It was pure bliss.
To my right, I could hear Snowpaw sighing mournfully as her fur made squelching noises in the silt. I winced in sympathy as I turned over and got a good luck at her normally pristine fur. It was now a soaking, matted mess, and she looked completely unrecognisable except for her green eyes.
"How do I look?" she asked me awkwardly once we'd all climbed out of the mud again.
"Passable," Lionblaze meowed curtly. "Come on, we need to get back before they all die of the cold up there."
I glared at him for interrupting, but did as I was told. We clambered up the rocky slope again, and I winced every time one of my claws snagged a stone. My paws would probably be unrecognisable when I got home... if I ever did.
When we rejoined the group, they almost didn't recognise us for a second. I saw Blackpaw unsheathe her claws before she recognised me and relaxed. She even sniggered a little when she saw Snowpaw's miserable expression.
"Stop being mean!" Snowpaw snapped, seeing Blackpaw's look. I opened my mouth to reprimand her, then snapped it shut again, shaking my head slightly. What had happened to being inseparable siblings? Had we really let a stupid prophecy drive us so far apart?
I saw Shrewfoot sigh, but she didn't meddle between us, for which I was thankful. Instead, she called us all together, so that we could continue the journey into the gathering twilight.
"We're almost there," Lionblaze informed Toadfoot.
"I know," he replied with a hint of a growl. "I've been here before!"
"When you were a kit.'
"My memory isn't that bad!"
It took me a moment to realise that this wasn't an argument; it was just friendly banter. Almost without meaning to, I looked at Blackpaw, thinking of our own playful quarrels, and I saw her staring back at me with a wistful expression. However, as soon as our eyes locked, she frowned, and a thoughtful expression returned to her face when she turned away again.
"Bronzepaw -" Snowpaw started to say something, but before she could finish, Dovewing interrupted.
"Does everyone hear that?" she asked the whole group.
I stopped and listened, pricking my ears, and even closing my eyes to concentrate. As I tried to focus on the sounds around me, the itching on my back returned with persistence, but I pushed it to the back of my mind and listened.
After a few seconds, I began to pick out a faint roaring. I opened my eyes again and saw Dovewing watching everyone else concentrating. I seemed to have been the first to hear it.
"It's a waterfall," I meowed into the near-silence. "That's where the Tribe lives, right? Behind a waterfall."
Dovewing nodded, and smiled at me. "That's right."
A/N: I thought this chapter wasn't too good, but the words wouldn't come so I gave it my best shot. Please review?